Brant Lewis discusses Brian De Palma's adaptation of Carrie and its prevalent and abundant queer elements.
As a freshman in high school, I discovered Stephen King's Carrie (1974) while browsing books at the library, which led to my becoming a fan of the book and Brian De Palma's 1976 film adaptation of the same name. I became enamored with Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) and her plight with her high school peers due to her social ostracization and telekinetic powers. Although viewed as an outsider or a monster by others, including her mother, Carrie stands as one of King's more sympathetic protagonists who exists under the queer and trans lens. Although not written as a queer character, Carrie's experiences and difficulties as an alienated teenager who doesn't fit in ring true in that aspect. When I first met her on the page, I had little idea how much I deeply related to and understood her.
Bullied teenager Carrie White experiences her first period in the shower and is heavily tormented by mean girl Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), where she and other girls yell “Plug it up!” and throw tampons her way. The school bans Chris from the prom because of the fear that she will humiliate Carrie further, and Chris begins angrily plotting her revenge. Carrie returns home to her overbearing and fanatic mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), who believes her menstruation must result from sin and commands her to pray it away in the prayer closet while banning her from attending the dance. Outside of being ostracized due to her mother’s religious beliefs and socially by her classmates, her secret telekinetic powers further her feelings about being an outcast.
Carrie's status as a high school outsider holds queer connotations. Simply put, the teenager does not fit among her peers no matter how hard she tries. Her existence promotes endless mockery and bullying for mainly existing and being different. She prefers to disappear among the crowd of youths and ride out the days without being noticed. Ultimately, Carrie's initial goal is to remain a nameless face while avoiding Chris' and the other girls' bullying. Beyond her peers, others view her as weird, using the moniker "Creepy Carrie" to refer to her. Those feelings of isolation and ostracization contribute to viewing her as an outcast from society. She lives on the fringes, not by choice, and wants to be seen as "normal" by her peers.
Along those lines, Carrie’s telekinesis and desire to hide it add to the queer context. Margaret White views her powers as a sin against God and forces her to pray for forgiveness and hide them from the world. Despite what her mother wants, Carrie cannot be anything but who she is. Hidden from the other students, Carrie secretly studies telekinesis at the school’s library while nestled between the shelves. During this moment, she finds peace with her powers after figuring out what was “wrong” with her. This idea of something internally wrong rings true to the queer experience — we are not taught about queerness but have to seek it out.
Younger queer people often have to research information about their sexuality and gender while avoiding the prying eyes of those around them. Those little details comfort her and provide a refute to her mother’s poisoned words in a similar way to queer kids finding the terms to describe their identity. Her telekinesis also furthers her nature as an outcast since it further divides her from her classmates. Like many teens discovering their queerness, she believes she is the only one with telekinesis and has no one to confide in. Although she learns the terminology and what to call her powers, she lacks a community and thinks she exists on an island.
Laurie's portrayal of the fanatical mother has garnered much acclaim — there still lies a kernel of truth in how Margaret approaches and preaches to her daughter. Margaret often views Carrie as a sinful stain plaguing her existence. Whether her maturation as a woman or discovering her powers, Margaret enforces a strict binary of saints and sinners. In one of the more famous scenes, she commands her daughter to spend the night in the closet and beg for God's forgiveness after having her first menstruation. She can only view Carrie's maturation as sinful, believing that she needs to repress herself, and she decides Carrie's soul is damned.
Similarly, she decries her to be a witch when she first witnesses Carrie's telekinesis. Suppression lies at the character’s heart, she urges Carrie to follow her doctrine and bottle up her emotions and powers. Margaret utilizes religion, like a pair of chains, to imprison her daughter. Worse, though, she believes she is helping Carrie by forcing her to follow her dogma — saving her soul in any way possible. Certain groups of people have often utilized religion as a means of condemning queerness and villainizing it. Much like Margaret's view of Carrie’s telekinesis, Christian fundamentalism regards queerness as a parasite that needs to be removed. Margaret fears what she does not understand and retaliates against Carrie when she explores her powers. Her penchant for abuse, preaching, and spitting out Bible verses to support her views resembles how people will pick and choose scripture to support their homophobia. Instead of caring about Carrie, she protects the projected image she has of her daughter and forces her back into a literal closet when she gets out of line.
Another critical element of the queer lens within Carrie lies in the fear of one’s body changing and not having the knowledge to address it. Carrie does not understand why she begins to bleed and erupts in panic. She begs for guidance and support as her body betrays her but only receives shame, anger, and hatred in return. Her telekinetic powers begin to amplify around this time. She views her changing body and awakening as something alien that others do not experience. Through the transgender lens, Carrie’s response to her changing body adds a deeper layer to the narrative. She doesn’t know how to respond to puberty and wishes she could stop her body from changing. Although it may not entirely be a one-to-one comparison to the trans experience, her struggle still rings true — the notion of one’s body going through extreme changes without consent ties into that idea. Carrie lacks any support system and isn't taught about her body, causing the changes to become more monstrous. She never wanted her body to change and views it as frightful because it divides her further from others. Puberty exists as a monster within Carrie, specifically with regard to queerness.
The horror lies in Carrie’s disconnect between her unpreparedness for her bodily changes. Menstruation is a betrayal of what she understands. The awakening of telekinesis mirrors her first experiences with puberty and significantly separates her from the normalcy of high school. The appearance of her telekinetic abilities emerging with puberty more importantly mirrors when individuals often discover their queerness. In addition to the usual pressures and anxieties of high school and being a teenager, queerness adds an extra weight one must carry. In order to survive, Carrie cannot disclose her telekinesis, similar to a queer youth utilizing the closet to protect themselves from bullying and abuse. She understands how cruel her peers are and does not want to give them more to weaponize against her.
Finally comes Carrie embracing her telekinetic powers and her monstrous identity. When she learns more about telekinesis, she changes her appearance to fit in more with the popular crowd, eventually achieving a date with Tommy Ross (William Katt). Carrie finally believes she fits in at the prom, wearing her iconic prom dress and winning Prom Queen at the event. Sadly, this facade gets stripped away when Chris and her boyfriend, Billy Nolan (John Travolta), douse her in pig's blood and make her a laughing stock. Carrie realizes that no matter how hard she attempts to fit in with her peers, she will always be an outsider.
As a result, she decides to embrace her nature, becoming the ultimate outsider, and uses her telekinesis to kill most of her classmates at the prom. Carrie’s outsider status and desire to appear normal advance the queer nature of her character. Specifically, she weaponizes her identity as an act of cathartic retribution against them. Because of her queer nature, the climax can be seen as an act of oppressed rage in response to being ostracized by others. While in the real world, queer and trans people do not have this option and have to find other forms of survival to combat homophobia and transphobia, the fictional prom scene allows for that catharsis. More importantly, the feelings of frustration and anger due to being viewed as the other are all too real.
In addition, Carrie’s public display of her telekinetic powers at the dance makes her not only a horror icon but a queer one as well. She no longer fears how others may view her and instead utilizes their monstrous fears as a form of empowerment. Carrie didn't deserve to be viewed as a monster but turned into one after being mistreated out of fear of her queer nature.
I classify Carrie as one of the best King adaptations. The queer and trans aspects have deepened my appreciation and fascination with the work. Carrie White not only stands as one of the most iconic female characters in the horror genre but also as one of the queerest. The images of her eyes darting around the prom room as the doors slam shut will forever be burnt within my memory. Although I do not have telekinetic powers, I still profoundly relate to the character and her struggles. Maybe we're all a little like "Creepy Carrie."
Brant Lewis is a Mississipi-based horror filmmaker with a Master in Fine Arts in Film and Television from SCAD Atlanta and a writer with a strong passion for ghosts, the gothic, and vampires with bylines in Fangoria and Dread Central.