illustration by Brianna Ashby When I was in high school, there was a hazing ceremony that was in the final stages of its existence. In it, some senior girls would choose girls from the junior class, lead them down to the beach, blindfold them, and torture/humiliate them (mildly, like making them fellate a banana). Later, I heard of this same stuff going on in my friend’s sororities in college. The worst thing anyone I knew ever had to do—and the thought of it still makes me want to wash my hands over and over and over—was to reach into a toilet that had been filled up with various garbage (mashed-up bananas, muffins, etc) and then smear it all over themselves.
I did not join a sorority. I want to make this really clear. At Brown, sororities weren’t really goin’ on; I do know, however, that at many schools they are goin’ on. I also know how it feels to want to feel confidently part of a group of people—after all, it’s the antithesis of the loneliest depths of human existence. When you’re a part of the herd, you’re protected. You can hide in its center. A family does the same thing: a family can swallow you, cushion the beating the world can sometimes deliver. The scariest horror movies, for me, are always the ones about feeling isolated from your allies, alone except for your enemies (Open Water, Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Blair Witch Project, Poltergeist (go with me, Carol Ann is away from her family and the only company she has is THE DEVIL)). Being constantly rejected, or deceived, is to be stripped of any protective barrier. It’s a terrifying thing.
The best scary movies match their violence with malice. Violence is too commonplace to be “scary” — not just modern violence, but the violence of the food chain, of traffic accidents, of war; what is truly scary is sadism, insanity, abject loneliness, and the kind of stubbornness of will that afflicts religious nuts and people like Hitler. For me, ghosts and monsters aren’t as scary as the guy inSaw or the sharks in Open Water (it’s okay if you were bored by Open Water, I understand that too). We’re talking fear that comes from the strongest desire to hurt other people.
There is a Lord of the Flies element to high school, obviously; I might go so far as to say that this cruelty, this pecking order, becomes most pronounced in the ladies’ cliques that form between junior high and early college. There’s something called “relational aggression” that forms in groups of girls; having a scapegoat creates the opportunity for girls to bond while bullying or making fun of their target. This is how cliques form. The seriousness of relational aggression undulates—the severity of name-calling, taunting, and even physical violence that’s too minor to be called abuse (outright, that is)—and makes it hard to understand where poor manners become sadism.
I used to totally partake in this crap. I think many of us did. Most of it was routine, but some of it crossed an invisible line. Looking back, it’s easy to say “Man, I was an asshole,” when you think of one example; think of another, slightly more severe, and you just skip past it. I wonder if the sorority girls who made their pledges reach into toilets think of that episode, ever. It can fill you with shame, but at the time, you were probably laughing. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a perfect scapegoat. She’s naive, she’s uncool, she lets her period get all over the place. She’s also spooky, because she’s got telekinesis; I like to think that Carrie’s ability to, say, make a lightbulb explode with the force of her anxiety is a metaphor for both the shame of adolescence (i.e. wondering if you’re “normal”) and the incredible potency of teenage emotion. It also doesn’t help her relationship with her mother, who’s super-bananas. Margaret White had big enough problems with her daughter as a child—because Carrie was born from SUPER SINFUL SEX TIME— but when she discovers that Carrie wants to go to the prom, which is always a bonerfest, she starts getting really abusive, driven by a blind need to protect her. Margaret is the scariest kind of insane person: she really thinks that it’s her duty as a mother to keep Carrie pure (a kind of purity, surely, that is impossible — she calls Carrie’s breasts “dirtypillows”) and would clearly go to any extreme to protect her daughter. There is something infinitely scary, too, about a person who considers life to be inconsequential, especially when compared with the glory of the afterlife. Watching the film, you begin to understand that Carrie’s mother might actually kill her in an attempt to save her.
Carrie’s mom is a creep, but at least she’s a nutty crusader, and not a sadistic high-schooler. Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) is a popular girl, and we all know that popular girls in horror movies are up to some crazy-ass shit in terms of plotting to torment the outcasts. She and her friends make fun of Carrie in the infamous shower scene, and a well-meaning, sympathetic gym teacher named Miss Collins punishes them by giving them army-drill-nightmare-style detention, suspending them from school, and banning them from the prom (the chorus of Halloweenie zombies goes NOOOO! NOT OUR PROOOOOMMMM!).
I’d like to take a moment to say that this is an interesting comment on what happens when adults intervene in the lives of teenagers. I feel as though it almost always makes things infinitely worse. I’m not sure how to get around it, really—when your kid is being bullied, or you, as an adult, see cruelty to another human being, especially a child, you really feel as though it’s up to you to stop it (silence being consent, and all that). But the turning point in Carrie is surely when Miss Collins tries to remedy the situation by, essentially, using her power/authority to punish Chris, Sue (the more sympathetic popular girl, who urges her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom) and friends. It disrupts something, some natural order. In many true stories about high school bullying (the case of Lori Drew, for instance), things turn sinister when an adult steps in. Maybe this is because the whole point of bullying is to gain power, and when it comes down to it, adults still have more power than high school bullies. Adults can take away important things, like prom, or a car, or money. And this makes a power-hungry 17-year-old girl very, very mad. Where before she might have been enjoying an admittedly delusional bit of fun, she is now out for blood.
As the prom gets underway, we reach a crescendo of teenage horrors: first, of course, that something you want very badly will be presented to you, everything will seem perfect, and then it will all be revealed to be a horrible prank which makes you look like a fool in front of everybody; second, that you will get pig’s blood all over your cute gown; third, that your batshit-crazy mother will be right (AGAIN). Oh, and then there’s also the fear of being trapped in school auditoriums — can’t forget that one!
The carnage is too awesome to describe. What’s scary about the auditorium/prom queen scene in Carrie is that you find yourself, after having spent so much time with poor Carrie White, actually enjoying her revenge. You want her to get back at all the assholes who have been so horrible to her (but not, of course, some of the innocent and halfway-innocent people who just happen to be enjoying their prom until —!); it’s a glimpse into what it’s like to exact revenge on bullies. It’s horrible, but you understand. Twenty-five years before Columbine, it’s an interesting comment at what slow, simmering rage can do (and the shitty sequel to Carrie is, of course, sub-titled “The Rage”; Brian de Palma’s absence is W.S. Merwinian in this film. Skip it). But it’s not over! After the prom, you still have to face your mom!
Carrie comes home to see that her house has been filled with lit candles. Her mother is hiding in the shadows. After Carrie bathes, her mother insists that they pray together, and tells Carrie about how she was conceived (marital rape—no wonder Margaret White is bonkers about coitus). Following this, Ol’ Marg stabs Carrie in the back—either believing Carrie to be possessed by the devil because of how she came into being, or because of her own pent-up rage and jealousy at Carrie’s ability to live her life without the same oppressive fear of eternal judgment. Either way, Carrie unleashes her powers once again, bringing down the whole house on top of her mother, and herself.
What if the things we wished for when we were desperate, vulnerable, and helpless—that we’d be avenged somehow, or that those who caused us suffering would suffer even worse—could happen? Willed into being by our thoughts? Mean girls find safety and power in numbers; there is a bond in a clique, and those groups make their own rules. They can cause change, they can alter the course of someone’s life, they can wreak havoc on another person’s psychology; however, they fail when their target is desperate, with nothing left to lose. This is true horror: alienating someone until they are somewhere between human and animal, fighting to survive, un-buffered by the comforts of others. He or she becomes a stranger, almost unrecognizable.
Tess Lynch is one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Grantland, Salon, The Morning News, The Awl, Granta Online, and n+1.