By Corinna ESP Tomrley
I just found out that The ICA are having a 40th anniversary screening of Carrie on 24th September. I squealed and bought a ticket (I’m going to the prom, mama, and you can’t stop me). It’s being presented by feminist film collective The Final Girls and there is going to be a panel discussion. The blurb said something about De Palma’s films being problematic and I get that, when you consider his oeuvre and how women are often helpless victims etc. But – Carrie? Really? They call her a ‘divisive female protagonist’. I can’t wait to hear about that. Divisive how? Surely everyone loves her, roots for her, cheers on her revenge. No?
For me, Carrie is one of the most powerful women ever to have graced the screen. And, actually, when I was just thinking about it, the character doesn’t even have to be a woman. I’d love to see a version where it is a queer kid (of any gender) who is our hero. Maybe I’ll write that.
Because Carrie is my hero. She has been since I was a kid and first read the novel by Stephen King. And read it over and over and over and over and over. I think I read the novel before I saw the film but can’t swear by that. The experiences probably wouldn’t have been far apart; both incredibly formative. I became a massive Sissy Spacek fan and would watch whatever she was in (they showed loads of great films on tv back then) and can’t remember her ever being in a dud. She has made some amazing films and should be hailed as one of the screen’s greatest ever actresses.
I was also obsessed with ESP, the supernatural, anything like that. ESP was so much a part of our popular culture when I was a kid that, for me, it was totally feasible, totally real. I was terrified by, but enraptured by, films such as Carrie, The Fury (another De Palma), Amityville Horror (I also read the terrifying book of this). I got books and magazines that showed poltergeists at work, spontaneous human combustion, stigmata. This was the world. I believed everything. And, to be honest, even though I’m an ex-sociologist who thinks that everything is social construction and myth is about control, power and self-delusion, I still kind of believe some of this stuff could be true. I still really, really want to be able to move things with my mind. I frequently dream that I can. Oh the crushing disappointment when I wake up and I can’t…
For anyone who has been bullied – at home, at school, at work, wherever – the revenge film can be an incredible catharsis. Carrie is that. The ultimate revenge movie.
Carrie is a hero and a positive character because she has to find her power. It’s all about the powerless becoming the most powerful and that being her triumph over the adversity she faces. Her power is metaphorical of the power we find when we dig inside ourselves, finding the power within to survive. And the brutal truth of Carrie is that the power we find is often destructive and self-destructive.
Carrie is the bully-victim’s hero. She is tortured. And doesn’t want to destroy but she has no choice in the face of such day-to-day horror. Because that’s what being bullied is. It’s day-to-day suffering, stress, torture, horror. A day that ends is a day survived but you know you’re going to have to face it all again when you wake up. I didn’t go to school for ages at a time. I got away with it. I missed huge parts of my 4th and 5th years. I have no idea how I passed any GCSEs. (Yes, I’m incredibly intelligent and that must have helped, but I could be awful at exams, especially when I hadn’t been there for half the syllabus)
When you have that torture at home too, you have nowhere physical to run away to. So you run away to the inside of your mind. We somehow find tools to help us escape and survive. Mine was Hollywood, old Hollywood, all films really. And books. Tons and tons of books. And music, singing. I’d sing all fucking day. And I’d fantasize about being a star. And there are other tools too, tools that are destructive but you use them anyway. Like romanticizing thoughts of suicide as the ultimate escape. Marilyn Monroe was another of my heroes. It’s horrific, but I’ve realized through therapy that the shit things are just as much a part of survival as the positive, healthy survival techniques.
I had a handful of books that I would read as a kid over and over. Valley Of The Dolls (still my favourite novel), Love Story (I can recite the first page and a half by heart, I’ve read that thing so much), a 50s pulp novel called Tomboy, and Carrie. No wonder I grew up to be a camp, queer, weirdo… and have a romantic view of tragic love.
I remember that each time I would re-read Carrie I would be surprised by her description. She’s fat and spotty in the book and that’s part of the reason why she’s bullied. I wasn’t spotty but I was fat. But I wasn’t actually bullied because of that. And, actually, there not being a ‘reason’ why screen Carrie is bullied (the girls never mention her looks) apart from the fact that she has a ‘wacko’ mom and is shy, is more poignant. Yes, if you’re in one of the bullied-victim prime food groups – fat, queer, spotty, nerdy – you’re more likely perhaps to be a target for the lazy bullies, but if you’re not and you’re attacked anyway… it is somehow scarier. Anyone can become a target at any time. Hell, I was bullied by my ‘friends’ when they decided one day they didn’t like me anymore. Talk about bewildering ‘reasons’. And when your home life almost simultaneously shifts to become unsafe… you’re gonna be fucked up and have to find ways to survive. God, if only my hours of trying to move stuff with my mind had paid off and I could do that shit. How much fun would it be to be able to make something fly at someone’s head? Or just to freak them the fuck out? Oh… sigh…
I’ve watched film Carrie countless times too, including going to see it in the cinema a few years ago. Oh god, it’s a perfect film. The whole cast is sublime. I always get confused because I know I should hate Chris as the prime bully in the film but I fancy Nancy Allen so much. I believe Tommy Ross actually likes Carrie and is glad he gets to squire her to the prom. Amy Irving is wonderful as the bully who has a sudden awakening to how awful her actions are and tries to right her wrongs. This film and these characters are so nuanced. So complex. So real. We know about Sissy. She’s glorious. And Piper Laurie, oh my god. Again, has there ever been more perfect acting? Did the woman win any awards for that? She bloody should have done.
Amy went on to do The Fury, De Palma’s other ESP film. I saw it again a year ago and it was far more magnificent than I remembered. I knew there was a film I’d seen with a scene where they are testing ESP powers in a lab and when I realized it was The Fury, my kid-fascination with the whole supernatural genre came hurtling back like a thing that Carrie is chucking at someone. It’s kind of silly, kind of terrifying, all wonderful. Amy is the one with powers in that one and she is wonderful as the bewildered teen trying to cope with her ‘gift’. Someone should put on a double bill of Carrie and The Fury. And invite me to come and talk about them. And maybe one day I’ll start a band called Carrie & The Furies and do songs all about ESP and bullied-victims revenge.
On a side note I recently saw Carrie 2: The Rage and I was surprised that I actually really liked it. The telekinetic heroine was stronger than Carrie, but she had that slightly ‘odd’ look that really worked as to why she was picked on. I liked the revenge apocalypse ending. The tattoo thing was rubbish, though. Telekinesis is real. That tattoo thing would never happen.