Horror connoisseurs may well be familiar with Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie (1974). As the story goes, the eponymous Carrie, our anti-heroine, is a loser teenage girl who develops kinaesthetic powers and uses them to terrorize the population of her all-American hometown of Chamberlain. It’s a classic revenge plot, but with a feminist twist, because Carrie is fundamentally the story of a young girl turning into a woman.
In the first chapter, Carrie gets bullied because she freaks out when her first period arrives in the middle of the high school showers. While washing her naked body, blood starts gushing down her legs. Carrie, who is unversed in the ways of Mother Nature, rushes to the conclusion that she’s bleeding to death — her Christian fundamentalist mother thinks periods are too sinful to talk about so she never forewarned her daughter. On seeing Carrie’s melodramatic reaction, her peers proceed to cruelly mock her, repeatedly chanting “Plug it up! Plug it up!” In this way, Carrie becomes a scapegoat for society’s collective effort to repress and deny the menstrual cycle.
Blood features prominently throughout the rest of the narrative. This culminates when school bullies tip a bucket of pig’s blood over Carrie’s head at the high school prom, ritualistically shaming her in front of her entire school. The use of blood serves to remind us of Carrie’s initial bleed in the showers, the aforementioned shame that society associates with menstruation and, ultimately, female sexual maturation.
When the novel was first adapted to a film by Brian de Palma in 1976, this theme of female sexual maturation was dealt with from a masculine perspective, due to the gender of the director and most of the film crew, as well as the cultural climate at the time. To give a few examples, in de Palma’s film, the period scene in the high school showers is overtly sexualised, Carrie’s relationship with her mother is somewhat underdeveloped, there’s less bitchiness amongst Carrie’s peers, blood appears more contained, and the link between Carrie’s powers and her sexuality was downplayed – more on this later.
In contrast, when female director Kimberley Peirce did her epic remake of Carrie starring Chloë Grace Moretz in 2013, she didn’t shy away from the feminist potency of the original story. Suddenly, the horrorverse just got more interesting, all thanks to the injection of a female point of view.
Peirce’s Carrie begins with a graphic birthing scene chronicling Carrie’s first moments. Amniotic fluid links mother to daughter and foregrounds further iconic scenes in the high school swimming pool and the showers. In general, bodily fluids are less contained in this film. And the fluids seem to flow through the filmic texture to establish a continuum of feminine experience.
Blood is certainly more copious in the modern remake. Granted, this could have something to do with our increased appetite for vivid and violent visual stimuli. So when Carrie is dunked in pig blood at the end, the moment is replayed three times over for emphasis.
What’s more, in the shower scene, Peirce shuns the masculine gaze that de Palma conventionally adopted in his camerawork. Where de Palma used sensual close-ups in the shower scene, intercut with spurting shower heads to evoke ejaculation, the female director is less objectifying, unsurprisingly. She encourages us to empathise with Carrie via camera angles from the protagonist’s point of view; we share the shock she experiences.
Interestingly, it is this horrific revelation of getting her period that seems to trigger the onset of Carrie’s supernatural powers – cue light bulbs mysteriously flickering and random objects levitating. The burgeoning presence of these powers creates a sense of suspense which ruptures when Carrie avenges the pig blood prank at the prom by decimating her school. She then goes after the teenage couple responsible for humiliating her, ambushing them as they attempt to flee the scene in a getaway car.
In de Palma’s adaptation of this revenge scene, Carrie uses her mind tricks to cause the bullies’ car to veer off course and crash. Reliant on analogue filmmaking techniques, de Palma uses camera tricks to show the cause and effect of Carrie’s powers by cutting between action shots of the crash and close-ups of the protagonist’s face. Peirce, on the other hand, was able to use modern computer-generated imagery to show Carrie’s body in the same frame as the destruction going on around her. She is the epicentre of turmoil, her body appears powerful and her distorted expression reveals unbridled carnal pleasure.
The new Carrie is a young woman who finds power in her sexual body – what a terrifying notion! (Do excuse the sarcasm.) Drawing on her own experience of womanhood, Peirce’s Carrie highlights the point where female biology disturbs social order.
By “social order”, I’m referring to the patriarchal systems (i.e. mainstream ideas of male dominance) that tend to objectify and conceal the truth behind the female sexual body in order to disempower. This is achieved by presenting sexualised females as either consumer objects or shameful nobodies and nothing in-between.
Peirce refreshingly breaks this taboo surrounding female sexuality, while other female directors in the horror industry are making similar inroads. Think Jennifer Kent, director of The Babadook (2014), and Lynne Ramsay, the woman behind We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). By including the female point of view, these horror connoisseuses are paving the way for an exciting new era in what has long been a male-dominated genre.