Retro Review: Carrie (1976): Were Carrie’s Actions Justified?

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for many years, but it was only recently that I read his first novel, Carrie (1974). Despite being his first published novel, I actually thought it aged very well, and is even better than some of his more recent stuff. King has a tendency to write bloated novels: he gets so absorbed in the minutia of his characters’ lives that he forgets about the overall plot arc, and usually ends his novels in some quick and cheating way.

Carrie, though, was short, sweet, and to the point. The premise of the novel made a perfectly fine horror movie, albeit some small changes to the story.

With the release of the new Carrie, I thought it time to watch the original myself. In this review, I don’t want to focus on the merits of the movie: that ground has been tread before. Instead, I want to focus on one specific question: were Carrie’s actions at the prom justified?

(Full spoilers below)

Retribution on the bullies

For those of you who haven’t seen or read Carrie, but are continuing to read despite knowing there are spoilers–here’s what we’re talking about. Carrie is a quiet, shy high school senior who has her first period while in the gym locker room. Carrie freaks out because, astoundingly, she has never heard of a period before. The other girls make fun of her, throwing tampons at her, yelling “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie’s gym teacher stands up for her and punishes the girls. The focus of the story, though, is prom night. The girls want revenge on Carrie, so they set her up with a prom date and rig the voting so that she gets crowned prom queen.

Carrie's asked out by Tommy Ross

Carrie’s asked out by Tommy Ross.

Unbeknownst to Carrie, some of the kids slaughtered a pig, collected its blood, and stored the blood in a bucket above the prom stage. As Carrie is crowned queen, amidst applause and cheers from her entire school, the bucket of blood is dumped on her.

Ever since Carrie was first humiliated in the shower, she has developed telekinetic powers. Upset that she was so publicly humiliated on her senior prom, she exacts revenge on her classmates. She closes the gym doors telekinetically, electrocutes a couple students, which then starts a fire. She escapes the gym and keeps the doors closed while her classmates burn up inside.

Carrie closes the gym doors.

A white-eyed Carrie closes the gym doors.

After leaving the school, Carrie kills two more students who try to run her over. This is where the rampage ends in the movie, but in the book, Carrie takes it several steps farther. She wanders around, blowing up gas stations. She also breaks all the fire hydrants, releasing all the stored water into the streets, so that the fire trucks don’t have any water to use. The book mentions that over 400 people died during her rampage, including half her high school class.

Neither the book nor the movie make any suggestion that the bullying of Carrie is justified. She is innocent in that regard and has done nothing to earn the ridicule, other than being a quiet, slightly distant girl. There are a few in every school.

I return, then, to the central question: was Carrie, an innocent victim of bullying, justified in killing hundreds of people?

The sin of bullying: Treating people as objects

On the surface, it appears the answer is, “no.” While bullying is bad, the crime doesn’t fit Carrie’s retribution. Even if we found a way to justify Carrie’s punishment of those few students directly involved in the incident, do the hundreds of other people, who merely laughed at her, deserve death?

The nature of punishment, though, depends upon our foundation for justice. Who determines right and wrong, and who determines punishment? Before discussing Carrie’s actions, it’s important to understand why bullying is a sin.

Bullying can take many forms: physical, verbal, sexual, mental. A person can be bullied by an individual or a group, in private or in public, by a peer, by a superior, or even by somebody with less status, as in the case when students bully a teacher, for instance. Bullying is multifaceted, and the permutations of how the bullying happens can be thousands. But what is the essence of bullying? What is it really about?

Bullying appears to be about power, about one person having power–and using that power–over another. While there is an element of power to bullying, I don’t think power is the root. Power might be the root of war, assault, domestic violence, but bullying is a bit different. Bullying is more about pride. The bully thinks s/he is superior to the victim, and the bully objectivizes the victim by treating them as an object of humor. The bully takes pride in himself, and uses the victim for his own satisfaction. The bully dehumanizes the victim.

In a way, bullying is akin to idolatry. The bully puts herself in a position of dominance, one she actually does not possess, and she recreates the victim, turning the victim from a person into an object, an object to be used, enjoyed, and discarded. It’s similar to how an idolator fashions a god out of stone: the idolator does not possess this power to refashion and recreate objects in their own image, yet the idolator attempts the immoral recreation anyway.

The students at Carrie’s school think they are superior to her. They know something about a woman’s anatomy that she does not, and they use their knowledge and supposed dominance to recreate Carrie into an object of laughter and scorn.

In the second instance of bullying, the students are mad at Carrie for getting them in trouble. They cover her in pig’s blood, making her humiliation complete. What’s so devastating about this second instance of bullying is how fast Carrie fell: she was on top of the world, suspicious but appreciative to be going to prom, to be asked out by a cute guy, to be crowned prom queen: none of these things she expected. She’s never felt this good about herself in her life, and moments later, feels the worst she’s ever felt.

Carrie's school cheers

The masses cheer for Carrie the prom queen.

That immediate change from an object of admiration to an object of ridicule made something in her snap.

Carrie the prom queen.

Carrie’s perch at the top of the high school social order was short-lived.

The hand of the Lord

In Christian and Jewish theology, any sin is deserving of punishment. The Old Testament emphasizes justice for the downtrodden, and the New Testament confirms that any sin is punishable by death. Maybe not immediately: people are given second chances. But every sin earns a penalty, and that penalty must be paid before a person’s life expires. Because people cannot pay the penalty themselves–the debt is too high–Jesus steps in to cover the penalty. All He asks is for acceptance and obedience in return.

By this theology, then, the students at Carrie’s school, from the student who slaughtered the pig and set up the blood down to the masses who merely laughed at her, all deserve punishment.

The Old Testament is filled with examples of the Lord using rival nations to punish Israel for her sin. Israel is invaded over and over again. The Lord uses the armies of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Canaan, and more to punish the Israelites for their sin.

When Carrie tells her mother about her powers, Mama says the powers are from Satan. Carrie disagrees, saying the powers are her own. It’s certainly possible that in this worldview, the students are deserving of some kind of punishment, and the Lord is using Carrie to carry out that punishment.

Carrie covered in blood

A shocked and humiliated Carrie, covered in pig’s blood.

It should be noted that Stephen King is a Christian. While he says he’s not interested in “organized” religion, he does include a lot of Christian themes in his writings. I once heard somebody say that horror stories are modern day morality plays: the immoral masses (kids who drink, fornicate, bully, rob, rape, or commit any number of other sins) are killed off one by one by whatever monster is the star of that film. Usually the only people to survive horror stories are the “righteous,” those teens or adults who have a strong moral compass and don’t comprise like other characters.

Carrie in the burning gym

Carrie calmly walks through the burning gym.

In this worldview, then, Carrie’s actions may be justified, even if they seem harsh at first glance. Carrie’s story is a justice fantasy for anybody who’s ever been bullied: the bullies, from the greatest to the least, get the punishment they deserve. But our analysis doesn’t end here: we still must discuss the overt religious themes present in Carrie, most notably in her religious mother.

Mama: the religious “fanatic”

Carrie’s mother, called by Carrie “Mama,” is what many people term a “religious fanatic.” She prays a lot, quotes Scripture, preaches fire and brimstone, and evangelizes door to door. All of the reviews refer to Mama as a fanatic.

But what exactly does this mean? Just because somebody is devoted to their religion doesn’t necessarily make them a fanatic. Just because somebody spends a lot of time thinking about spiritual matters doesn’t make them a fanatic either. This term is meant as a diminishing term: it’s something reviewers use to look down upon Mama. Mama is the bad guy, the ultimate bad guy, even more so than Carrie’s bullies. Mama is not a character we are supposed to relate to.

What exactly is it about Mama, then, that makes her so hated? It’s not so much that she’s a devoted Christian: Carrie is also a devoted Christian, but nobody terms her a religious fanatic. Mama’s religion, though, seems to get in the way of common sense. Mama says that Carrie’s period is punishment for sin, the sin visited upon all women by Eve’s original sin, intercourse (in Mama’s theology: she quotes from some book that’s not in the Bible to back up this theology).

Carrie and Mama pray.

Mama prays with Carrie.

Mama also seems abusive to Carrie: Carrie receives not only verbal abuse from Mama, but is frequently locked in the “prayer closet” until she repents of her sins.

Carrie's prayer closet

Mama drags Carrie into the prayer closet.

While Mama’s sins against Carrie appear unforgivable, everybody has sin. At some point every family member sins against another. What’s most troubling about Mama, then, is not that she spends a lot of time thinking about God, teaching (her) Christian principles to Carrie, or even that she sins against Carrie from time to time. Mama’s sin is this: she’s missed the boat completely when it comes to Christianity.

Christianity is about forgiveness. Christianity acknowledges that sin is real, and certainly nobody is justified in their sin: all need repentance. But Mama does not know the word forgiveness. She only acknowledges sin, then seeks punishment. True Christianity is about acknowledging sin, acknowledging the punishment that we all deserve, and then acknowledging that Jesus took that punishment for us.

Mama seems only to have read the Old Testament, not the New Testament.

Carrie still believes in Mama

When Carrie returns from the prom, she washes the pig’s blood off then finds Mama. She cries before Mama, saying, “You were right: the people did laugh at me, just like you said they would.” At first, it appears that Mama is sympathetic to Carrie: she even hugs her daughter briefly. But then she lets go, and starts in with her theology again. Carrie requests over and over for Mama to hold her, to comfort her. And Mama does, but only until she can grab a knife and literally stab Carrie in the back.

Mama stabs Carrie in the back.

Carrie’s life is now in danger. She attacks Mama, defending herself and ultimately killing Mama. Carrie’s house implodes, and Carrie seeks refuge in the prayer closet, dragging Mama in with her. Carrie presumably kills herself, perhaps in recognition that she, too, is now a sinner deserving of death.

Carrie realizes that she’s become her mother. Mama could only see sin and punishment, not forgiveness. When Carrie snapped, she could only see the sin of her classmates. She knew they deserved some sort of punishment, but she took it too far. She also forgot about forgiveness. At the end, she decided the wipe the earth of her and her mother.

Bullying is a sin. That much we know. And all sin has some consequence, deserves some punishment. That we also know. But Carrie’s punishment went too far. Not because death was inappropriate for the crime, but because there was always a better option, a more difficult option, but a better option: forgiveness.

Movie rating:

4/5 (movie is worth owning and seeing again)

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