by Stephen King
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set mainly in the late 1970s in the fictional town of Chamberlain, Maine; published in 1974.
Subjected to the torment of her mother and her peers, a female adolescent, Carrie, uses her telekinetic powers to exact revenge.
Born in 1947, Stephen King came of age during an era in which many praised the achievements of science but also feared its potential for destruction. The author himself has noted that the tenor of American life at the time lent itself to horror fiction. Between the wonders of technology and the fears raised by the Cold War, potential terrors seemed to lurk around every corner. King has utilized these subconscious fears in his creation of a phenomenally successful body of horror fiction, of which Carrie was his first commercial triumph.
Modern American horror
Although it arose out of a long literary tradition, the modern American horror novel only emerged in the years following World War II. At this time, writers began to break from the gothic elements that had dominated horror writing in the past. Rather than focusing on the menacing individual, novelists started to associate horror with modernization, American society, and the threat of aliens to human existence. Moreover, the potential destruction affected not just a fictional individual or family, but was global in scope. This shift resulted from the cultural and social conditions of the times.
After the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression that followed, many argued that the capitalist system required economic and political management. They bolstered their argument by pointing to the apparent success of Fordism, a way of organizing labor that extended beyond the business environment to management of other areas of employees’ lives. Many of Fordism’s tenets were based on the principles of automotive pioneer Henry Ford, whose company employed a Sociological Department that made inspections into workers’ homes to ensure that cleanliness and sobriety were being practiced and that the workers were saving their money. Investigators reviewed the personal bankbooks of employees. Although some people applauded these principles of Fordism and general attempts to legislate social behavior, others feared the potential for social domination by a powerful elite. Books such as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1954) reflected a fear of the loss of American individualism.
By the next decade, the horror writer’s criticism of American society had reached even further. Many critics identify the release of Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho in 1959 as a major shift in the direction of horror fiction. Rather than expressing the “monster” as an invader from another planet or country, Psycho pointed toward American institutions as instigators of evil. In Psycho, this threat is traced back to the most basic of all institutions, the family. A “normal” teenager, Norman Bates, takes on a murderous personality when he becomes sexually excited. Raised in a matriarchal household, Norman blames his family for his disturbed mental state, and refers to his alternate persona as “mother.” Psycho did not stand alone in its critique of the American family. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), for example, the main character, Eleanor, spends her life caring for her domineering mother. Eventually she takes her own life, frustrated with her conflicting desire for individuality and her fear of vulnerability. This concern with the family and the instability of the individual became a prevailing theme in horror fiction of the 1950s and 1960s.
By the late 1960s, however, horror writing had taken on apocalyptic dimensions. Novels such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain explored the potential for destruction contained inside the human mind itself. In this book, a satellite sent from earth returns, bringing with it a pestilence that threatens human existence. Originally sent into orbit by the U.S. military, the explicit purpose of the satellite had been to discover a plague that the military could use as a weapon. The real-life fear of nuclear and biological weaponry at the time, as well as the contemporary mistrust of the military, are clear factors in this work and others like it. King’s novel falls in line with the popular horror tales of the day. Like its predecessors, Carrie explores the complications that can result from a dominating, matriarchal household. The resulting destruction, moreover, not only affects its title character and her mother but also encompasses the entire town. With its psychological and apocalyptic elements, King’s novel combines the most significant components of modern horror fiction.
The late 1960s saw a boom in the public’s general interest in parapsychology. This field includes two general categories. The first, extrasensory perception (ESP), incorporates such phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. Persons possessing such powers can transmit, sense, or foretell knowledge of a general state of affairs independent of the known senses. The second category, called psychokinesis (PK), literally translates as “motion produced by the mind” (Braude, p. 26). Also known as telekinesis, this ability enables a person to move objects without the use of physical force. The novel’s Carrie White demonstrates this talent.
Studies of paranormal behavior have taken place throughout the course of modern history. Between the late 1800s and 1930, exploratory efforts attempted to establish scientifically the existence of such powers. Because most researchers linked the paranormal and spiritual worlds, experiments assumed that persons with PK acted as mediums between the earthly and metaphysical realms. Most PK phenomena cited at this time occurred during seances. At these sessions, a medium and several attendees would sit around a table in a dimly lit room. Entering a trancelike state, the medium would call on the spirits to offer signs of their presence. There were reports of such spectacular events as the levitation of furniture, the feeling of hot or cold sensations, or the manipulation of musical instruments. While many fraudulent mediums were exposed as charlatans, other experiments gave the public cause for wonder. In one series of studies, for instance, Harry Price recorded the actions of the medium Stella C. Situated in his laboratory, Price maneuvered all controls of the room. Despite the use of “foolproof devices, Stella still managed to significantly manipulate the temperature of the room as registered on a wall thermometer. On one occasion, she flipped a light switch located in a cup sealed by a soap bubble covering. Without disturbing the cup or breaking the seal, Stella turned the light on and off.
Inspired by these and other such claims, the focus of PK research underwent a shift in 1930. That year the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University, under the helm of J. B. Rhine, initiated a series of groundbreaking experiments. These studies used more scientific approaches than had been attempted in the past. Rhine and his co-workers standardized the apparatus used to determine PK ability, and they employed rigorous statistical standards of research. With the use of dice, Rhine asked his subjects to attempt to mentally manipulate the numbers that would come up in a series of rolls. He began by letting the subjects throw the dice from their hands, then moved to a cup, and finally on to a mechanical apparatus. Since each of the six faces of a given die should turn up, on average, in one-sixth of the throws, Rhine looked for runs of twenty-four where a target number turned up greater than four times. While his studies did little to conclusively determine the presence or absence of PK, in his research he nevertheless managed to pioneer a scientific approach toward parapsychological research.
Although experimentation with PK declined during the early 1960s, a series of PK “stars” excited the public’s interest in the phenomenon. Psychokinetic individuals such as Ted Series, Nina Kulagina, Felicia Parise, and Uri Geller grabbed headlines with tales of their powers. Geller, arguably the most famous of the telekinetics, astounded researchers with his ability to bend keys and platinum rings with the influence of his mind. Unfortunately for the field of parapsychology, however, Geller preferred the role of showman over that of subject. As such, he submitted himself to few controlled experiments. Given the climate of the era, it is little wonder that in the novel, Carrie White emerges as a star of infamous proportions. Indeed, compared with the bending of keys, the depth of Carrie’s alleged psychokinetic abilities far outreaches those of her real-life contemporaries.
Religion and parapsychology
In the novel Carrie’s mother, Margaret White, violently opposes her daughter’s use of telekinesis. Although Margaret herself does not possess any such power, her familial line carries a history of it. Nonetheless she refuses to allow Carrie to exercise her talents. When Carrie first evidenced telekinetic ability at the age of three, Margaret White physically beat her daughter into suppression. Only when Carrie begins to mature into womanhood does she gain the self-awareness that allows her to explore her psychokinetic powers. Much of Margaret White’s fear and abhorrence stems from her fanatical involvement with religion. She views her daughter as an incarnation of the devil, and thus seeks to destroy her own offspring. Unfortunately for Carrie, her mother does not subscribe to a line of reasoning in real life at the time; this reasoning acknowledged a connection between religion and parapsychology.
Virtually all religions assume the existence of a realm beyond that which we physically perceive. Through ceremonies involving prayer, song, or dance, most religions of the world attempt to bridge the gap between earthly existence and the spiritual realm. Parapsychology likewise attempts such connections. Because the presence or absence of God cannot physically be confirmed, religion relies on faith. While the wonders of parapsychology certainly cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, they do shore up the argument for forces beyond human recognition for people of the mid- to late twentieth century. One sees this especially in the case of miracles. The Christian Bible recounts the tale of the woman of Samaria to whom Jesus spoke. With no knowledge of her personal history, Jesus tells the woman that she has five husbands, and that she currently resides with a man who is not one of these husbands. Taken aback by his powers of perception, the woman declares Jesus a prophet. In the language of parapsychology, his ESP powers have led her to this claim of faith. Such miracles are furthermore not limited to Western religion. In Buddhism, there is a tale that upon meeting a disbelieving hermit, Buddha exercised his powers of the mind to convince the doubting man to have faith. In fact, the pages of religious texts tell countless tales of healings, prophecies, and telekinesis.
While connections between parapsychology and religion certainly do not appear in mainstream discussions of faith, interest in them did begin to develop during the latter half of the twentieth century. Michael Perry’s The Easter Enigma (1959) suggests that parapsychology’s experimentation with apparitions lends credence to the belief in the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ. Other works, such as J. D. Pearce-Higgins and G. S. Whitby’s Life, Death, and Physical Research (1973), sought to educate religious students on parapsy-chological findings. The early 1970s also saw the emergence of several groups whose purpose was to outline the implications of parapsychology for religious teachings. Organizations such as the Churches’ Fellowship for Physical and Spiritual Studies, and the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship began to meet to discuss these themes. In fact, in 1969, Sir Alister Hardy founded the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University with the express purpose of studying religion and parapsychology from a biological standpoint. Hardy suggests that the mind’s ability to communicate with another mind relates to the belief in contact with an entirely alternate plane of consciousness. While humans have yet to unequivocally prove the validity of parapsychology, the interest that has sprung up over the last fifty years suggests that a sizable number of people are willing to entertain the possibility of its validity. This popular interest provides a ready audience for stories like King’s Carrie.
Carrie opens in Chamberlain, Maine, during the 1980s, but quickly flashes back to detail the horrific story of Carrie White, which transpired a decade earlier. Carrie, a senior at Chamberlain’s public high school, had suffered throughout her life as the butt of her peers’ jokes. Ostracized from the company of her contemporaries, she endures the rigors of school only out of necessity. Carrie’s home life is equally abysmal. A religious fanatic, Carrie’s mother takes Christian
worship to dangerous extremes. She rejects most social behavior as the temptation of the devil, and both physically and emotionally abuses her daughter into following this same belief system. Without a father or sibling, Carrie has no allies at either home or at school. Despite this unusual upbringing, however, Carrie leads a fairly normal existence until one fateful afternoon in gym class.
While showering with her peers in the locker room, Carrie begins to menstruate. Her mother has always viewed the menses as outward evidence of female impurity, and thus has never educated Carrie regarding puberty. Seeing the blood running down her leg, Carrie assumes that she has suffered a hemorrhage and flies into a state of panic. Her classmates, giddy with the opportunity to deride their favorite victim, encircle her and throw sanitary napkins while taunting her. In her confusion and humiliation, Carrie experiences a unique sensation. She serendipitously discovers that by focusing her rage, she can manipulate objects. In the locker room, she causes doors to slam and makes light bulbs burst, all without the use of physical force. After this introduction to her telekinetic powers, Carrie begins to exercise and thus improve her mind’s control.
Carrie leaves school that afternoon and does not return for the rest of the week. The other girls involved in the incident receive reprimands for their behavior. Forced to either endure detention or to miss their senior prom, most of the young women choose to stay after school in detention hall. However, one of the more popular girls, Chris Hargensen, refuses to suffer from a trick played on such an inconsequential person as Carrie White. She opts out of detention, and although she can no longer attend the prom, she intends to exact her own revenge. Meanwhile, another of Carrie’s tormenters, Sue Snell, undergoes a change of heart. Embarrassed by her actions, Sue tries to right her wrong by befriending the ostracized Carrie. The separate plots of Sue and Chris coalesce in disaster on prom night.
Knowing that no boy is likely to ask Carrie to the prom, Sue talks her boyfriend, the popular Tommy Ross, into inviting Carrie. He hesitantly agrees, and though she is initially suspicious, Carrie accepts. Meanwhile, Chris, busy with plans of her own, convinces her boyfriend to obtain a bucket of pig’s blood that she intends to dump onto Carrie’s head at the dance. Carrie, by now elated at the prospect of going to the dance with Tommy, begins preparations for the big night, oblivious to the events transpiring. When she informs her mother of her plans to attend the prom, Margaret White shudders in rage. Although she pleads, threatens, and even attempts to force her daughter into submission, Carrie no longer suffers under the control of her mother. With the use of her telekinetic powers, Carrie makes it clear to her mother that she will be making her own decisions from now on.
On the night of the dance, Carrie emerges as a young woman transformed. She has sewn a fashionable dress for herself, a far cry from the nondescript clothing that she usually wears. Both outwardly and inwardly, Carrie appears more beautiful than she has ever looked. In fact, when Tommy picks her up, he is taken aback by the makeover that has occurred. The prom begins as a magical evening, with Carrie finding acceptance from classmates who had always teased her. The stars of the event, Carrie and Tommy even win the votes of their peers as queen and king of the prom. When they take the stage, however, disaster ensues. Having previously rigged the set of the prom, Chris and her boyfriend release the pig’s blood during the ceremonial crowning. Covered in blood, humiliated before the entire school, Carrie flies into a blind rage. As her classmates laugh, Carrie telekinetically locks the doors of the gym and opens the emergency sprinkler systems. When water comes into contact with the band’s electrical equipment, the sparks set off a fire. Mayhem ensues as the high school seniors find themselves trapped in a burning building. Carrie calmly walks away from the school, but her reign of terror has only just begun. As she walks through the town, she causes electrical lines to fall, and sparks the explosion of the local gas station. Her wake of destruction follows the same path that leads from her high school back to her home. When she arrives, Carrie kills her mother and then dies herself from the strain of the event. In total, 444 residents of Chamberlain die on the fateful prom night. Although investigations into the incident found no conclusive evidence of telekinetic powers at play, the remaining residents of Chamberlain feared for the day when another Carrie would release the same unchecked fury.
Carrie and women’s rights
Perhaps the most memorable scene from Carrie occurs during the prom’s crowning ceremony. At last the recipient of her peers’ admiration, Carrie finds herself on stage, accepting her school’s nomination as prom queen. So frequently the target of cruel jokes, Carrie can hardly believe her newfound popularity. Unfortunately, the moment of bliss does not last long. Like a Cinderella story gone awry, Carrie’s coronation ends in tragedy when the bucket of pig’s blood is dumped over her head. The subsequent mayhem suggests just how important the prom had been to Carrie.
Carrie is an adolescent who rarely finds acceptance among her own peer group, and prom night gives her the opportunity to finally belong at school. Despite her unique abilities, she seeks approval just like any other teenager. In the microcosm of high school, a victory in a popularity contest such as the one for prom queen symbolizes the quintessential achievement of such approval. The cruel way in which Carrie is stripped of this moment devastates her beyond emotional repair.
In terms of the historical context of the novel, the emphasis on the prom crown is particularly revealing. Most women remember the early 1970s as a time of activism for the women’s liberation movement and a quest for equal rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had guaranteed that employers could not discriminate on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or religion. Seven years later, the Supreme Court determined that unequal treatment based solely on sex violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Through these legal victories, women began to realize their long-sought goals of equal treatment in the eyes of the law. They struggled to break through social and legal gender barriers, to be regarded less as simply homemakers or ornamental objects. The early 1970s ushered in the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, which, had it passed into law, would have outlawed any and all legal definitions based solely on sex. Discontented with such limitations, women began acting to change old barriers and notions. They organized feminist theater groups and set up day-care centers for infants so mothers could join the work force. In New York City women picketed the offices of Ladies’ Home Journal and demonstrated in Atlantic City against the Miss America pageant for reinforcing notions that beauty and wifely and motherly duties should take top priority in a woman’s life. In 1973 the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the country regardless of restrictive state laws, sanctioning the notion that an adult woman possessed absolute control over her body. Female activists seemed to be fighting tooth and nail to lose the “delicate sex” label that modern history had long placed upon them. Yet in Carrie’s self-focused teenage world, traditional desires and values—being sought after by boys, looking pretty, and being crowned as queen of an event—still reign supreme.
Clearly much of the novel’s origin comes from Stephen King’s imagination, but elements of Carrie are rooted in the author’s own past. Like Carrie White, King grew up without a father figure, and the small New England town where he lived provides much of the setting for his novel. The author attended Lisbon High School in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Because the district could not afford a bus for the few students that required transportation, it hired a local limousine service to drive students to school. King, one of the passengers, found inspiration for the title character of Carrie in one of his fellow riders. A classmate of King’s remembers, “When the limo arrived, there was a rush to get the best seat. You didn’t want to ride all the way to Lisbon with Carrie on your lap” (Hall in Beahm, p. 29). King often pondered what might have happened if the real-life Carrie had sought revenge.
Carrie, the novel, began as a short story. The author noted that the publishing world seemed taken with supernatural fiction, so he wanted to craft a novel that would capitalize on the popularity of this genre. Intending to write a Cinderella tale with a twist, King seemed disappointed with his initial attempt. In fact, the novel might not have come to fruition had King’s wife, Tabitha, not fished some discarded papers from the garbage can. At his wife’s urging, King persisted with his efforts and ended up with a 25,000-word tale. With a piece of fiction too long for a story and too short for a novel, King reworked his plot structure. He inserted bogus historical documentation—news articles, for example, on the destruction of the town—that added to the authentic feel of the text as well as to its length. Although he considered his attempt a failure, his publisher at Doubleday did not. Doubleday offered the author a $2,500 advance and published the book in 1974.
Reception of the novel
While Carrie drew some rave reviews, it did not reach the bestseller chart when it hit the bookstores in April of 1974. School Library Journal called it “a terrifying treat for both horror and parapsychology fans,” while Publishers Weekly referred to the book as a “fine, eerie, haunting tale” (Beahm, p. 66). Other critics commended the work as a superb attempt by the young writer, since King was only twenty-five when he created the novel. On the other hand, King himself commented that “as far as Playboy, The New Yorker, The Saturday Review, Time, and Newsweek were concerned, it didn’t exist at all. Ditto book clubs” (King in Beahm, p. 67). In fact, King was not pleased with his effort. Of the novel he stated, “Oh yes, it’s just some old trash I put together” (King in Beahm, p. 236). Nevertheless, Carrie did eventually achieve commercial success, and it was made into a well-received film in 1976.
Banner, Lois W. Women in Modern American History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Beahm, George W. The Stephen King Story. Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1992.
Braude, Stephen E. ESP and Psychokinesis. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979.
French, Warren. Stephen King. Boston: Twayne, 1988
Jancovich, Mark. American Horror from 1951. Staffordshire, England: Keele University Press, 1994.
King, Stephen. Carrie. 1974. Reprint. New York: Dutton Signet, 1975.
Krippner, Stanley. Advances in Parapsychological Research. New York: Plenum, 1977.
"Carrie." Literature and Its Times. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carrie
"Carrie." Literature and Its Times. . Retrieved November 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carrie
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