A perennial favorite for the forty-five years since it first came out in theatres, Brian DePalma’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Carrie is one of those films that confronted its problematic impulses early on and has reigned in the hearts of weirdos, outcasts, the downtrodden, and everyone who’s been stuck on the business end of established power structures. But what, specifically, makes Carrie speak to the LGBTQIA community?
It’s not just PJ Soles inventing the Lisbeth Salander look, or Edie McClurg’s glasses. And it can’t just be the idea of telekinetic revenge, though society would be in a much better place if the patriarchy, bullies, and religious fundamentalists conducted themselves knowing that there was a potential queer TK reckoning around every corner.
Carrie is a symphony of the target, both in the nefarious endeavors of the villainous and for the clumsy, noble intentions of assorted do-gooders (oh, if only would-be allies could learn the lessons of this film as well). Sissy Spacek is gawky and charming, and there is literally no reason why the kids at Bates High School should hate her, except in mistransferred frustration at her religious tendencies and ineptitude at P.E.
There is a certain degree of ridiculousness present in the film, and DePalma understands camp better than the vast majority of straight people. But here’s the magical thing about Carrie—yes, there are parts of it that are very, very funny. But you don’t get to laugh at it unless you understand the pain at its foundation. The campy aspects of Carrie bite at the viewer from the inside. The split diopter, one of DePalma’s extensive bag of stylistic tricks, is the perfect visual representation of high school queerness. Everyone is there, no one is omitted, and yet there is an unspannable gulf between us that can only be defined by the absence of bridgeable space.
After the volleyball humiliation of the opening credits, the tracking shot through the girls’ locker room is a burlesque of sorts—it is the expected parade of nubile bodies, of blossoming youth fulfilling the expectations of the establishment—whether ‘70s audiences or the institution of high school. And then we are introduced to Spacek, isolated, in the shower, momentarily taking a degree of sensual pleasure in water and cleanliness. It’s the only time in the film that we get to see Carrie take physical pleasure in anything, and as the universe is prone to doing whenever Carrie White experiences any sort of pleasure, it intervenes with her first period.
The girls pelting Carrie with sanitary products are the exact equivalent of the people who aim to exclude the very existence of queer people from educational texts (this means you, Tennessee legislature). They delight in weaponizing the ignorance that they have created, propping themselves up in the process. We exist, but we are only allowed to live at the whims of our parents and our peers. The thing that recurs in the mind is the late, great Jessica Walter on the short-lived 90210 reboot, trying to get the young students she’s directing in a production of Spring Awakening to understand, eventually declaiming “this is about your mother. She’s been lying to you about sex, and it pisses you off.”
Because Margaret White has been lying to her daughter about sex—using physical violence and a betrayal of the actual tenets of Christ. Piper Laurie, in this role, is an unholy fusion of an Avon Lady and a Mack truck, a battering ram of evangelical certainty that is sowing the seeds of destruction for everything around her.
The sad center of the myth of Carrie White, though, is that Margaret was right about humanity. The universe was aiming to hoist Carrie on her own pride, and they were all going to laugh at her. She could have stayed home instead, and nobody would have died. Despite some recent victories for the community, you only have to look at our legislators to see that that malignant, psychotic fundamentalism (that misses the point of actual Christian principles) drives the nation. That delusional religion is tolerated, and its transgressions and crimes are forgiven. What kind of insanity makes a parent hate their children?
And then, to complete this triangle of personae, there’s Miss Collins, as played by national treasure/gay icon/Broadway legend Betty Buckley—the kind of complicated figure that ‘70s cinema excelled in depicting. As a gym teacher, she is a sadist, but she finds a way to channel that sadism into moral righteousness in a way that wins the audience over. She confesses to the principal (over a cigarette in the office) that she understood the other girls’ frustration and disgust, but she fought against it for the cause of empathy and kindness.
Miss Collins will later help with an impromptu makeover and slap the smug off queen bee Chris Hargenson’s face (which would absolutely get her fired today, regardless of how evil Nancy Allen’s Chris was being). But she ultimately dies in the conflagration on prom night because she’s a gym teacher, and no one can completely accept that any gym teacher isn’t a tool of the established power structure.
What's the point of Carrie?
The moment that just practically shines a giant neon sign on the queer experience (putting aside the musical, which is magical) is when Carrie arrives at the prom and everyone is bowled over. “Oh wow,” the crowd responds, “you’re pretty and worthy of the dignity we denied you because we were lazy and didn’t feel like going against the powerful people who decided we should hate you.” Because as queer people, we get tone policed—thought down of for being quiet, then mocked for speaking. The system is designed to be impossible to surmount.
The lesson of Carrie is not that they’ll get theirs, but that you have to suppress the instinct that tells you to trust others. You have to look out for yourself. And the people you should be able to depend on are just as flawed and messed up as you may be.This film still plays like gangbusters in a theatre. For some it’s a tragedy, for others pitch black comedy. But everyone feels it. Everyone responds. And like Heathers, everyone the film was telling about themselves, who were part of the crowd, now they see themselves on the opposite side of the situation. And doesn’t that just say it all?