Carrie’s always been the school freak, and her story opens on what could easily go down as the worst day of a normal person’s school career. She gets her belated first period at the age of sixteen in the school shower, thinks she’s hemorrhaging to death, calls out for help, gets laughed at and pelted with tampons by a mob of better-informed classmates, and is sent to wait for her abusive and fanatically religious mother in the office of a faculty member who can’t be bothered to remember her name. She then reproaches said abusive and fanatical mother for not warning her about periods, and is told that if she had been absolutely sinless, the period would never have come.
Not an easy day to bounce back from under the best of circumstances. It doesn’t help that the girls who ganged up on her in the shower actually got in trouble for it, so as well as new mockery material, they now have a shiny new vendetta.
Of course, no story can be truly soul-crushing without a little bit of hope sprinkled in. There’s one girl, Sue, who feels genuinely bad about what happened in the shower and tries to atone with the well-intentioned, if not entirely well-thought-out, gesture of having her similarly good-hearted boyfriend, Tommy, take Carrie to the prom.
And then there’s the telekinesis. Carrie notices it developing as a defense mechanism, getting stronger the more she practices, until she’s powerful enough to lift all the furniture in her room up and down with minimal effort, more than powerful enough to override her mother’s prom veto.
Tommy coaxes Carrie out of her shell, and they have a great time (a lot better than even Sue intended), and most of the prom-goers are happy to let bygones be bygones.
Most. Oh, the shower vendetta’s not over yet. Carrie and Tommy are voted prom queen and king thanks to a stuffed ballot box and dragged onstage. And that’s when this happens:
The appeal for a YA horror geek is pretty obvious. No, Carrie isn’t technically YA, but it is horror, and it certainly strikes strong YA chords. The magic and carnage all feed into a coming of age story gone horribly awry. Carrie is a teen girl so lifelike that it’s mind-boggling to realize that she was created by an author who’s never been one (sorry, Steve), and her telekinetic powers surface as such a perfect allegory for puberty that if she’d survived, this could have been a superhero origin story. She discovers a new part of herself, more dramatic and godlike that the ordinary physical strength, sexual awareness, and social responsibilities we get in real life, but it forces the same exciting, terrifying question, “Can I handle it, or will it blow up in my face?” And in Carrie’s case, it’s the latter.
That sounds harsh, but the normality of her struggle and fall only makes them sadder. Her concerns are not lofty and epic. They’re universal, unavoidable, unforgettable teen angst. “What’s happening to me?” “Is it wrong?” “Why can’t I be normal?” She doesn’t start off looking for divine purpose or even revenge. She just wants to be allowed to grow up like everyone else. By the prom scene, all she wants is for one night, one part of the process, to go right, and it almost does. It just takes one act of supreme pettiness that wasn’t even meant to be lethal to ruin everything.
If Sissy Spacek’s face in the 1976 movie doesn’t make you want to cry:
“This is the girl they keep calling a monster. I want you to keep that firmly in mind. The girl who could be satisfied with a hamburger and a dime root beer after her only school dance so her momma wouldn’t be worried.”