Stephen King’s Carrie: Blood(y) Atonement and the Human Psyche Unbridled

“The anger. The terror. The feeling of entrapment. the profound distrust of people.The wistful, plaintive conviction that a window, a thing, was more important than she. These feelings and attitudes, expressed in the course of this hour, were symptoms of some profound disturbance.” 
― Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil: The Classic True Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen Personalities

I finished reading Carrie, Stephen King’s debut novel, in three days. Then I immediately watched the movie, which can be found on Netflix. In classic King style, Carrie is gory, diverse and ambiguous about its fascinating subject matters and incredibly fun.

Main Themes in Carrie

Carrie is a novel that moves quickly, yet manages to cover quite a bit of ground. It is a story fascinated with the origins and developments of the human psyche and the boundaries this psyche challenges when pushed to the limit. Religion is a major factor in Carrie: it is the origin and reason for many occurrences in the story. In particular, atonement and sin play huge roles as driving motivators for many of the characters.

Carrie Synopsis

Carrie is a gory horror story about an adolescent girl named Carrie. She is raised by her fundamentalist, hyper-religious, fanatical mother whose doctrines and restrictions result in Carrie being the butt of jokes and cruel bullying in school. What makes Carrie different than the usual class scapegoat is that she has a dormant telekinesis power. It emerges once when she is three in a frightful incident: her mother catches her staring at her bikini clad neighbour and in a rage, goes overboard punishing Carrie. Carrie responds by unleashing a rain of hail and rocks over the property. This is the first indication of Carrie as God, hailing down a plague of judgement upon her mother, an abusive captor. Carrie’s telekinetic power lies dormant until she has her period for the first time at sixteen in the shower room in front of the girls who ridicule her for it. Carrie’s mother has never explained this natural phenomenon to Carrie; she thinks she is dying. They pelt her with sanitary napkins and tampons; this traumatic event unleashes her dormant telekinesis. It grows so strong over the next week that she is able to lift whole beds and cars with her mind and even control and read minds. The story culminates in a horrific tragedy: one of the girls, Chris, who wants to get back at Carrie after a teacher punishes her for the incident, plays a cruel trick on Carrie, dumping a bucket of pig’s blood over her in front of everyone at prom night, whom Carrie attends with Sue Snell’s boyfriend (Snell insists he take Carrie to prom to make up for her participation in the shower scene). In retaliation, Carrie not only burns the school down with nearly every one in it, she burns the whole town down as well.

The novel alternates between storytelling what happens and ‘excerpts’ from other sources written years after the incident about the incident, including novels , newspaper articles and interview transcripts. Carrie is not only the novel’s subject, she is turned into a case study, examined and turned over again and again. In her death, as in her life, she is objectified and scrutinised.

Some of these excerpts are from Snell’s personal memoir, My Name is Susan Snell. In it, as in the story, Snell is clearly complicit in the crime against Carrie. Yet, leading up to prom night, as in her memoir, she never stops trying to clear her name, pleading with both her own consciousness, Carrie and readers to absolve her of her sins. Her memoir reveals that many years later, her guilt plagues her still: like Lady Macbeth, she continues to wash her hands of her crime. Like Lady Macbeth, the stains refuse to come off.

The Blood of The Lamb: Atonement and Judgement in Carrie

“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood” — Romans 3: 25

In Carrie’s house hangs a plaster crucifix, an altar in front of which Carrie’s mother makes her pray for forgiveness. Atonement, making amends for one’s sins and subsequent reconciliation, plays a major role in Carrie. In prom night, Carrie is led like a lamb to slaughter to the stage, standing on a marked X, making her an easy target for Chris’s bucket of blood. The bucket then falls, hitting her date Tommy and killing him instantly. Carrie loses it then, using her powers to lock her schoolmates in the hall, electrocuting, burning and killing nearly everyone.

“Blood was always at the root of it, and only blood could expiate it” (King 176). The beginning of Carrie’s menstruation catalyses the final tragedy, and in the end, Carrie bleeds to death, stabbed by her mother, a knife sticking out of her shoulder. The tragedy is bloodstained through and through.

Before she dies, Carrie staggers through the town, burning and exploding it telekinetically, destroying everything in her wake. Like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, she subconsciously, desperately tries to clean her hands of her sin, as she continues to engage in it: “And she kept looking at her hands and rubbing them on her dress, trying to get the blood off and thinking she’d never get it off and how she was going to pour blood on the whole town and make them pay” (King 213).

As soon as Carrie starts believing that people aren’t so bad after all, she is proved wrong in the most horrific and humiliating ways. The prom tragedy is so traumatic, it awakens another aspect of her telekinesis: mind reading and control. In a grotesque mockery of her mother’s religion, Carrie acts as Christ and God at once. The bucket of blood, far from being an atonement, is a physical, humiliating demarcation of Carrie being the ultimate scapegoat, much like Christ, whom some hail as the biggest scapegoat in history. But unlike Christ, whose blood releases God’s forgiveness, the blood in Carrie unleashes judgement and doom. It is Sodom and Gomorrah. There is the shedding of blood, death, and fire.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me” — Psalm 139: 23-24

Just as Carrie is about to die, Snell finds her. “(look carrie look inside me)/ And Carrie looked… no ill will for Carrie personally, no plan to get her in front of everyone and undo her. The feverish feeling of being raped in her own secret corridors…” (King 274-5). Snell, like a sinner at the altar where Carrie is God, asks Carrie to search her heart. Carrie finds Snell’s conscience clean, yet as one final act of punishment, Sue is forced to feel the sensation of Carrie’s premature, tortured dying, a memory that haunts her for the rest of her life.

Intertextuality in Carrie: Stranger Things, Sybil and More!

Carrie’s inter texts are multifold and fascinating, both for the novel and the movie. Carrie’s mother’s fanatic fundamentalism, abuse and its effects on her daughter echoes Flora Rheta Schriber’s Sybil. But unlike Sybil, who internalises the damage and splits her personality into 16 separate ones to survive, Carrie’s abuse makes her explode and hurt everyone around her. Snell’s lifelong attempt at atonement is much like Ian McEwan’s Atonement’s Briony, who spends her life and memoir trying to make up for her sins towards those whom she feels personally responsible for hurting. And, as stated above, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth’s obsession with sin and absolving herself of it is also clear intertext in Carrie.

Carrie the Movie: My Thoughts

Carrie the movie is really fun. The sudden ‘possession’ of Carrie with supernatural powers is quite like Regan in The Exorcist. The way Carrie develops her powers in the movie and learns to deploy them, both harmlessly and for destruction is highly reminiscent of Eleven in Stranger Things (my favourite tv series ever!!). Not to mention, the parental figure locking both Carrie and Eleven in the closet and isolating them till they one day explode. Indeed, The Duffer brothers reveal in interviews that one of their series’ many inspirations is Stephen King.

Carrie the movie is also more blatant on issues which are implicit in the book. The novel is ambiguous about Tommy’s role in Carrie’s destruction; the movie clearly absolves him by having him publicly stand up for Carrie before he dies. The Christ/God symbology is blatant in the movie. Carrie kills her mother by crucifying her against the wooden door, behind which is the crucifix; the knives and scissors Carrie sends flying pierces her mother’s hands and body.

The Natural in the Supernatural: Sue Snell’s Role

Snell’s persistent voice in the novel hinders an easy conclusion as to the religious prototypes otherwise easy to assign to the different characters: Carrie as the Holy Trinity, her schoolmates (and mother) as sinners. Sue brings the normal into the paranormal. She complicates easy religious symbolic attribution by playing the devil’s advocate for normalcy. She pleads in her memoir: “In the wake of two hundred deaths and the destruction of an entire town, it is so easy to forget one thing: We were kids. We were kids. We were kids trying to do our best. . . .” (King 95).

The novel posits that telekinesis is a recessive gene, yet in Carrie’s case, trauma and rejection is what unleashes it and makes it dangerous. In the novel, the origin of her powers is unclear. It seems like the distressing onset of her menstrual cycle and her classmates’ abuse is what unlocks this new part of her brain, amplifying the role of blood and sin.

Of course, Snell’s insistence that they were “trying to do [their] best” seems ludicrous and satirical when applied to the enormous lengths Chris, her boyfriend and friends go to ensure Carrie ends up on the stage, perfectly positioned beneath the bucket of pigs blood, ready to receive her final blow. Yet, Snell reminds us of the normalcy of adolescent bullying and its growing pains. Snell’s voice makes the story a whole lot more real, reminding us that beneath the gore, horror and telekinesis, Carrie is about a lonely girl bullied by her school mates. It is a story that happens in every school, everywhere.

The Human Psyche Unbridled

The normalcy beneath all the horror in Carrie is what makes the story so fascinating. It begs the question: what if everyday human sin meets a power which can retaliate? What is the human psyche is pushed to its limits, and breaks them? What then? Ultimately, Carrie also a didactic on kindness; we never know a person’s backstory, and cruelty to those around us is never okay on any level.

Carrie is a book that will delight fans of the shows and books mentioned above: Atonement, Sybil, Stranger Things, and those who simply love a good horror story.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, do check out my other Stephen King book review on Finders Keepers— Stephen King’s Finder’s Keepers: The Failure or Salvation of the American Dream? And Is the Author Dead? Finders Keepers looks at the American Dream taken literarily and literally, and questions the dangers of doing so. A great read for literature lovers! I also put the text in conversation with Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author (click for pdf) just to spice things up a bit!

Currently, I’m on a Stephen King roll, so do let me know in the comments below what’s your favourite Stephen King novel! I’d love to check it out.

As always, happy reading!

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