Consider: You’re an adolescent girl teetering on the cusp of womanhood, and you have an uncanny ability that allows you to move objects with your mind. You hide your powers away, scared of what you may do with them, scared of what others may do to you if they discover your secret. Then, one day, someone sees something wonderful in you and your ability, something beautiful in your red hair and bright smile that you’ve only ever seen as ordinary. And they take you in and surround you with a loving family, and they teach you how to embrace your ability and how to use it for good and soon, you are driving back the nightmares that haunt everything around you. And though the world may fear and despise you, you continue to fight for the good that you still manage to see through the hate. You are Jean Grey, and you are an X-Man.
Consider: You’re an adolescent girl teetering on the cusp of womanhood, and you have an uncanny ability that allows you to move objects with your mind. You hide your powers away, scared of what you may do with them, scared of what others may do to you if they discover your secret. Then one day, someone sees something wicked in you and your ability, something ugly in your red hair and bright smile that you’ve only ever seen as ordinary. They shun you and admonish your ability, warning that others will only ostracize you if your powers are revealed. And despite your hopes, that prediction comes true and in the instant of your greatest rejection and humiliation, you lash out, using your abilities to strike down your adversaries, orchestrating a nightmare of death and destruction the likes of which has never been seen in your tiny corner of the world. You are Carrie White, and you are all alone.
Stephen King credits some of his peculiar high school classmates as the inspiration for Carrie (his fourth novel, but the first to actually see publication)—that and an article in Time magazine about telekinesis. Whatever its origin, Carrie is the perfect horror twist on the classic superhero stereotype. It hit just the right audience at just the right time and launched King’s almost 50-year career. And the film adaptation has become nothing short of legendary, consistently named as one of the scariest movies ever. It even garnered two Oscar nominations for lead actress Sissy Spacek and supporting actress Piper Laurie.
It is a tortured, masterful tale that repulses and endears. It’s the ultimate revenge movie for anyone who’s ever been picked on or pushed around. But its ending is so difficult to swallow that it can literally leave you depressed for days (don’t you judge us).
But man is it ever good, on so many levels—even on a theological one.
Join us as we dance through the horror and heartache that is Carrie.
And just a suggestion: you might want to wear red.
Has there ever been so common an event so romanticized, anticipated, dreaded, endeared and despised by so many on an annual basis for so long? Chances are, you still have photos of your own magical night tucked in an album somewhere. Maybe there’s a withered corsage pressed between the pages. Or at the very least, you remember the name of that certain someone that walked in on your arm that night. Maybe they’re still beside you to this day, decades later.
Nowadays, proms can be elaborate affairs, often held in off-campus banquet facilities with extravagant themes and budgets. But way back in 1976, most proms looked pretty much the same: push back the bleachers in the gymnasium, hang some art-class-made decorations from the rafters, hire a cheap cover band and rent a ruffle tux (or buy a gown with something called “chiffon”) and get your boogie woogie oogie on.
But there was one prom that defied the norm that year.
It all went down at the fictitious Bates High in Carrie, the feature film based upon Stephen King’s novel of the same name. And it made generations rethink the way they thought about that magical night.
The film begins a few days before the prom. Late blooming, mousy and naïeve Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) panics in the shower after gym class, when she gets her first menstrual period. Thanks to her strict religious upbringing, Carrie is clueless as to what is going on, fearing that she is going to bleed to death.
Her classmates, who have enjoyed a long tenure of tormenting Carrie, pelt her with tampons as they laugh and taunt her. Carrie begins to panic and suddenly all the lights in the locker room begin to explode. Turns out Carrie is telekinetic—able to move objects with her mind—and the sudden trauma coupled with her emergence into womanhood triggers her latent powers. As the rest of the girls recoil from the supposed electrical surge, fiery gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) breaks things up and consoles Carrie.
Miss Collins hands out the ultimate punishment on the bullies: revocation of their prom tickets if they don’t spend one week’s detention doing every gut-busting calisthenic she can throw at them. The ring leader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), refuses and loses all prom privileges. Immediately, she begins plotting revenge against Carrie (who, ironically, had nothing to do with the punishment in the first place).
Another classmate, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), feels guilty about her apathy during the attack on Carrie, and decides to be a bystander no more. She resolves to stay home from prom, deciding to set Carrie up with her football-team-captain-boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Wiliam Katt) as the ultimate prom date.
Meanwhile, we get a glimpse into Carrie’s homelife and it’s soon easy to understand why she is such a shrinking violet. Her insanely fanatical mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), belittles and berates Carrie at every turn, using a constant, belligerent recitation of scripture to shame her for her uncontrollable metamorphosis into womanhood. “They’re all going to laugh at you,” she warns Carrie time and again, when she learns that Tommy has asked her to prom. After years of ridicule and closet-penance for doing nothing wrong, Carrie finally strikes back, using her powers to put the smackdown on her mother long enough to enjoy that one magical night, that first dance and maybe the kiss every girl dreams of.
But Chris hasn’t exactly been sitting around on her hands in the meantime. While Carrie was making her own prom dress, Chris was having her boyfriend, Billy Nolan (John Travolta), sneak onto a farm and kill and bleed a pig. Then she made sure to have her friends on the prom committee take the bucket of recovered pig blood and perch it, out of sight, in the rafters above the gymnasium stage. Finally, ever the schemer, Chris has her friends include Tommy and Carrie on the Royal Court voting ballot and rig the results so they will be crowned King and Queen.
Carrie’s prom begins wonderfully. She gets that dance. And that kiss.
And then, almost unbelievably, she and Tommy are crowned King and Queen. Sue sneaks in to see the beautiful moment, all her hopes finally culminating with Carrie’s smile. But then she spies the bucket and before she can stop it, Miss Collins spots her and thwarts her, believing she is the villain. Just then, the bucket drops, dousing Carrie in a crimson cascade reminiscent of her horrible shower trauma. Tommy crumples as the bucket crashes into his head. Carrie turns to face her dumbfounded classmates but all she can see is their laughter, certain that her mother’s prophecy has come true.
She turns on the crowd, friends and foes alike, unleashing a lifetime of rage and the full measure of her power. She brings down the house in a fury of flame—her own private hell— before chasing down a fleeing Chris and Tommy. And once she’s done with them, it’s time to return home to momma…
Carrie’s message of bullying and the bullied resonates just as strong as it did when Brian de Palma brought it to the big screen forty years ago. Sadly, for Carrie (as for some today), home is never a refuge. The hurtful assaults of her classmates at least come from relative strangers; how much more painful must it be to be tormented by someone who supposedly loves her? Jesus warns against just such mistreatment in the Gospel of Mark. “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea,” Christ says. Carrie’s mother, though perhaps well-intentioned, bruises her daughter’s perception of what Christ-centered love should be. Mrs. White perverts Christ’s message to keep Carrie under thumb. And Carrie, who has turned her cheek so many other times, finally can see only through her mother’s eyes, embracing her hate in a violent, hellish tirade.
Sue Snell is the only character who survives, testament to the consequences of sins of omission. Sue is haunted by the memory of Carrie and lives with regret for not stepping up to defend her earlier. Her story calls to mind more words from Jesus found in Mark.
“I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’… (Mark 23: 43-45).
When we fail to reach out or stand up, not only to or for the stranger but for those we choose to ostracize, we too will be judged harshly. But unlike Sue, our punishment may extend far beyond earthly anguish. We could be facing much, much more everlasting repercussions. It is not only our mission but our responsibility to take Christ’s love into the world to those who need it the most, whether in solitary confinement behind iron bars or the stone walls of their own internal, perhaps self-made, prisons. Everyone hurts, everyone struggles. It’s up to us to seek them out, to find them and to share the Gospel with them.
And as Carrie teaches us, waiting until the last dance is not an option.