“They’re All Gonna Laugh at You”: The Cynicism of Adolescence in ‘Carrie’

Carrie feature image
Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976), dir. Brian De Palma. United Artists.

By Samantha Vargas | May 10, 2021

Coming-of-age films often adorn rose-colored glasses onto our memories; romanticizing the 6 a.m. commute, early-morning swim period in gym class, and the trauma of trigonometry. Sure, most coming-of-age films may delve into the ideas of bullying, isolation, and the insecurities of puberty, but rarely do they go beyond the precipice of teenage angst. These films need to introduce conflict that can be overcome by regular teenagers, through regular means. Anything beyond the realm of an after-school special crosses the line of achievable conflict resolution without adult interference. All teenagers want to feel empowered; they don’t want to watch their parent’s solve their problems. But when conflict surpasses what teenager’s can control, the result can be deadly.

There’s an unspoken tonal dissonance felt while watching Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the titular teenage anti-hero of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), reapply mascara in the broken mirror of her dimly lit bedroom before leaving for prom. The audience watches as she allows herself to be overcome with confidence — if just for a fleeting second — as the camera zooms out to reveal her domineering, abusive mother lingering just out of sight. As quickly as we’ve been eased by the prospect of a classic coming-of-age film makeover, Margret White (Piper Laurie) violently pulls us from our teenage fantasies. 

As an audience, we experience the realities of Carrie’s torment alongside her. We know better than to find relief in her childlike excitement. When Margret White proclaims, “They’re all gonna laugh at you,” we know that Carrie is about to experience one of the worst realities of adolescence: finding out your mother was right.

Carrie exists as a horror film, allowing the apex of violence to overtake the entirety of the plot. While everyone may remember the prom scene for its visceral lighting and soundtrack, in this film, there are complex emotional layers stemming from years of abuse that all culminate into Carrie’s sudden, violent outburst. Our glimpse into Carrie’s high school experience acts as a microcosm of all the anxieties teenagers face. Not only was she blindsided by the emotional turmoil of puberty, but she’s also subjected to blatant hatred and isolation from everyone in her life. Unlike horror icons like Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street) or Jason Voorhees (Halloween), Carrie wasn’t initially framed as a monster. 

Still, there’s something to be said about the film’s ability to evoke a sense of unyielding cynicism in regards to its characters. Carrie sets out to explore far more than a complicated mother-daughter relationship. It’s not often that coming-of-age films intersect with the horror genre, but Carrie has maintained its place on the throne of cultural relevance for the last five decades. The film presents a unique take on the story of girlhood, centered around a social lightning rod that’s slowly building in power. Carrie, a social outcast with telekinetic abilities, has been transformed into a symbol of the horror genre, condemned to be seen as a monster. But the actual framing of the film presents Carrie as a victim of a cruel, cynical world. 

Our introduction to Carrie begins as a zoom-in shot of a volleyball game during gym class. At first, there aren’t any visual indicators that single out Carrie from the rest of her peers. But when she misses the ball we witness the relentless bullying she faces from all the girls in her class. She’s subjected to physical violence, comments berating her abilities, blatant insults, and of course, the memorable request to “eat s–t.” Then, De Palma intentionally creates tension by sandwiching frames of violence with scenes of idealization, as the scene cuts to the notoriously sensual locker room scene, accompanied by hazy pink lights and a flute solo. The scene plays out like the textbook definition of the male gaze as it pans through rows of naked teenage girls. The camera moves slowly enough for the young women’s bodies to fully envelope the scene, yet quickly enough to prevent the audience from associating the bodies with the actual characters. As the girl’s are objectified by the camera, captured in their most vulnerable, disembodied state, there’s a contentious undertone to the pornographic imagery on screen. We watch as the girls laugh and joke around with each other, fully disconnected from the realities of insecurity and the perception of their own cruel actions. Then suddenly, we’re ripped away from our brief moments of ease when confronted by Carrie’s first period.

Carrie’s first period is the catalyst for the massacre that overtakes the cultural identity of the film. Her period, a long-standing symbol for womanhood and female sexuality, is the breaking point for Carrie’s sense of control and stability. The arrival of her period cuts through the softness of the locker room scene, turning the softcore 70s exploitation into an anxiety-ridden nightmare scenario. The camera slowly pans around Carrie’s nude body as she washes herself in the shower until it reaches her hips. When Carrie finally notices the blood, she reacts as if she earnestly believes she is in danger. When she runs to the other girls for help, she is in her rawest, most vulnerable state. Yet, the other girls choose to respond with overwhelming violence and abuse. This scene parallels the violent prom scene, but the tables turn on the perpetrators of Carrie’s initial torment.

Carrie body image
Carrie is the victim of her high school’s cruelty.

De Palma chose to use a definitive narrative technique through sandwiching scenes with opposite tones to visually and audibly distinguish the conflict between a romanticized teenage fantasy and a grim, cynical reality. Whether it’s the sexualized softness of the girls’ locker room scene or the lighthearted shopping montage, the audience knows to be wary of anything bathed in soft light and accompanied by an upbeat soundtrack. From the very beginning of the film, De Palma blatantly juxtaposes the idealization that audiences expect to see from a coming-of-age film and capitalizes on developing distrust in response to every positive, cinematic moment. These scenes are often paired directly in conversation with each other; seen when Carrie accepts Tommy’s invite to the prom, followed directly by the scene of Chris and Billy slaughtering a pig. The romanticization of positive adolescent experiences create a further divide from the painful, grim realities of high school girlhood.

Carrie acts as a commentary on the representation of teenagers through a male gaze, working under the same general visual cues as American Beauty sans Kevin Spacey. Teenage mean girls like Regina George or Blair Waldorf might lay into someone’s insecurities or even enact cruel pranks around a doe-eyed protagonist’s love-life, but rarely do these mean-spirited acts lead to actual violence. But Carrie sets out to create the kind of reality that most high school students can’t even fathom. Characters like Chris Hargensen, who gleefully smiles while watching her boyfriend beat a pig to death in order to carry out her cruel prank, don’t exist on the same level as girls that run cliques. Even Sue Snell, the kindest of the mean girls, still joined in the ruthless locker room torment.

Still, Carrie’s characterization doesn’t follow the typical, relatable teen-girl mold that audiences have come to expect. She isn’t written to be the shy, quirky girl who fills her free time making art or studying extra hard to get into her dream college. In fact, her interests, aspirations, and long-term goals are never actually explored at all. We know Carrie wants to fit in, but other than gain social acceptance, she doesn’t exist outside of the confines of her high school torment. In the realm of this film, Carrie simply exists to suffer, react, and then eventually burn out. 

Carrie is a lesson in empathy in the fight against high school cynicism. As an audience, we watched as the world labeled Carrie as a monster. Yet, while watching the film, we don’t fear her until it’s too late. We want to believe that she’s in control of her powers, but that means we sacrifice remembering that she’s still a teenage girl. Carrie isn’t the ruthless, bloodthirsty monster that she inevitably becomes, but the rest of the world is. 

Samantha Vargas is a writer, critic, and content creator based out of New York City. She devotes her free time to photographing her cat, pretentiously bringing up her film degree in casual conversation, and yelling about the gender politics of slasher films from the ’70s. She can be found everywhere @_SamVargas_.

Raw feature image Garance

Plug It Up: Menstruation As A Teen Horror Movie Monster

Raw feature image Garance
Justine (Garance Marillier) in the French cannibal horror film, Raw (2016) dir. Julia Ducournau. Focus World.

by Eliza Janssen | October 29, 2020

‘Never piss off a woman; they know how to get blood stains out of everything’. – A Proverb

These days we’re lucky enough to enjoy a growing canon of feminist horror movies, with ass-kicking final girls, and monsters that are believably complex and systemic. But what about when the final girl and the monster are one and the same?

In Julia Ducournau’s 2016 horror film Raw, animal loving med student Justine learns that one of the side effects of her coming of age is an insatiable hunger for flesh. There’s also De Palma’s blood-drenched classic Carrie (1976); Ginger Snaps (2002), the still-rad story of gothic werewolf sisterhood; and all those scenes in It (2017) and It: Chapter 2 (2019) where the sole female member of the Losers Club cowers in a women’s bathroom cubicle. There’s something so distinctly gynaecological about the body horror of these movies; maybe even gynophobic, if you’re feeling particularly unforgiving. At the very least, though, most of the films in the unofficial canon of Menstrual Horror seem to take adolescence and coming of age seriously, more seriously than the horror genre’s tendency to see teens as disposable, undeveloped adults.

And at best? These films seem to have an empowering angle, turning gendered stigma into its own grand gothic force. I forget who said it, but one nice oversimplification is that the Gothic genre occurs whenever a woman is trapped inside a house; these bloody teenage horror films merely replace that haunted domestic space with the equally repressive confines of a changing body. It’s worth noting that each of the entries to my little canon are focused on cis womanhood, but the ghoulish policing of gender, and the body horror opportunities of adolescence, unfortunately extend to every gender identity and expression. In her essay “Sweet Sick Teens: Gothic narratives of American adolescent sexuality,” Kara Koehler singles out “uncontrollable transformation” and “sexual maturation” of any kind as hallmarks of the Gothic genre, making room for anyone victimized by the systemic stigmatization of puberty’s physical symptoms. 

Beverly in the bathroom in It Chapter 2.
Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) featured in It (2017) Andrés Muschietti. Warner Bros Pictures.

In mining such biological processes for gendered terror, these bloody movies about cis teen girlhood often take place in locations that could be considered strictly gendered, such as public showers and locker rooms, high school parties and teen bedrooms. In each film, public humiliation on the basis of one’s gender and lack of control over the pubescent body is treated as a serious and even mortal threat — Carrie’s infamous climax sees the titular character drenched in pig’s blood by her classmates, who earlier had mocked her for her ignorance and fear of her own menstruation. In Raw, first-year students are hazed by being drenched in animal blood as a rite of passage; after this scene, Justine’s personality is noticeably less demure and reserved, as if the blood has had a baptismal, deflowering quality.

Susan Sontag reckons that the illnesses we are most terrified of are “the de-humanizing ones, which act immediately and disfigure,” and so it shouldn’t go unmentioned that the teen girls that terrorise in Ginger Snaps, Carrie, and Raw are the same teen bodies that get objectified, glamorised, and ripped apart in countless other horror movies. Ducournau seems to make a point of this in Raw, resorting to explicit, close-up visuals of Justine’s latest scabs and wounds instead of any tactful suspense; here, every shot is a gory money shot. The intimacy and frankness in Ducournau’s imagery rejects what audiences hope to see in a film about nubile partying teens and instead shows only the most repulsive aspects of their typically attractive bodies; In her book, Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Affection, Elena del Río calls this: “an actively dislocating or deforming force.”

None of this is done with much subtlety in Raw, and Ginger Snaps peddles some of those same visual and narrative ideas with a near comedic quality, playfully depicting the symptoms of puberty and of becoming a werewolf in parallel (new hungers, transformation according to a monthly calendar, uncontrollable growth of hair). But both films show an unmistakable empathy for misunderstood teenage bodies. Fortunately for the protagonists of Ginger Snaps and Raw, both films also depict complicated yet strong relationships between two young sisters. That bond is presented as a blessing and a curse, with Alexia and Ginger both serving as sources of sisterly guidance and seductive bad influences. While Alexia does goad her younger sister into indulging her supernatural hunger, the pair are also shown to basically be each other’s sole support systems, and their primal, loving relationship is best depicted in the film’s third-act shower scene. There, the girls affectionately wash the blood off one another after a violent scuffle, suggesting a ritual, familial protectiveness that mirrors the real habits of people who menstruate; the managing of menstruation as a learned, inherited practice. Ever asked if anyone has a spare tampon in a crowded nightclub bathroom? There ya go. Same thing. 

But in other places, Raw elicits a nasty sense of dread by drawing on societal fear of toxic sisterhoods, and the mysterious goings-on of women in intimate groups. It’s exemplified in Justine’s father warning her against having daughters when she is older; “Honey, it’s too hard.” Or, when a fellow student sees Justine vomiting an impossible amount of blood and hair, and benignly says, “It’ll come up faster if you use two fingers.” These secondary characters’ normalisation of “female troubles” like symptoms of puberty or eating disorders (be they supernatural or garden variety) suggests a depressing and ironic conclusion: A teenager’s “transformation” is unnatural and monstrous, but the pain and anxiety that come with it are totally expected and acceptable. 

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) on the street, covered in blood.
Carrie (Sissy Spacek) featured in Carrie (1976) dir. Brian De Palma. United Artists.

So despite all of Raw’s explicit gore imagery, its greatest moment of horror comes in the concluding reveal that Justine and Alexia’s mother has the same cannibal urges as they do. Their father unbuttons his shirt to reveal a torso scarred with decades of bite marks, nonchalantly promising Justine; “I’m sure you’ll find a solution, honey.” The terrifying realisation that these urges are not part of an adolescent phase, but may go on to characterise her sexuality and gender identity for her whole adult life, makes Justine gasp. We see finally that when innate human desires are repressed, they do not disappear; they merely fester and cause long-term damage. That blend of a looming patriarchal threat and its depressing permanence is experienced by Beverly Marsh in It, played first by Sophia Lillis as a teen haunted by her abusive, hair-sniffing father. Policing her growth into a woman, he makes her promise to “stay his little girl forever;” a promise fulfilled in It: Chapter 2, where Jessica Chastain’s grown version of the same character must face off against Pennywise’s ghoulish facsimile of her father, while also struggling to stay afloat in that aforementioned blood flood (cool). 

Maybe it means something that this moment in particular, glibly described as Carrie on steroids’ by Chastain, was chosen to be the bloodiest scene in cinema history. As in Carrie, some large part of the sequence’s horror comes from Beverley’s humiliation, the impossible sense that her adolescence and its resulting “impurity” have caused this comical rain of 4,500 gallons of fake blood. In terrifying teen movies that capitalise on both the systemic shaming of menstruation and menstruation’s gloriously gory opportunities for body horror, it is the former that should really make viewer’s blood run cold — because that monster is undeniably real. Period.

Eliza Janssen loves and writes horror movies, as well as screenplays and criticism about other stuff. She is a co-host of the movie podcast Twin Picks and a founding editor at Rough Cut. Come say hi at elizajanssen.com or @eliza_janssen on Twitter.