Carrie White: Horror’s Most Relatable Anti-Heroine

Sissy Spacek as Carrie White post-prom scene (1976).
Sissy Spacek as Carrie White post-prom scene (1976).

Sometimes it’s weird to imagine that we almost didn’t know her. She was almost thrown out with the trash, before the wife of Stephen King retrieved the incomplete manuscript and convinced him to finish it. His first published novel lead to the first of many movie adaptations of his work, but Carrie doesn’t always immediately pop into the minds of fans when they think of him. Perhaps it’s because when we think of horror, we tend to think about monsters, psychotic killers, and demonic spirits. We think about the things that make us scream, not the people who make us laugh and cry. Maybe that’s why she’s often overlooked. We feel for her, we believe in her, and we cheer for her. The audience never sees her as a monster. When it comes to Carrie White, we see ourselves.

It’s no wonder that Carrie keeps resurfacing again and again, having had three movie adaptations, one sequel, a musical, and several parodies. Carrie White is someone the audience can’t help but feel empathy for. She’s a social outcast at her high school and is constantly bullied by her peers. As if that weren’t enough, she’s forced to live with her obsessively religious mother, Margaret White, who constantly abuses and controls Carrie when she wrongly believes that she has sinned. Her life is heartbreaking. One can’t help but relate Carrie to their own experiences. Her story hurts to watch, and yet, the audience keeps willingly bringing her back into their lives.

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) being asked to prom by Tommy Ross (William Katt) [1976].
Carrie (Sissy Spacek) being asked to prom by Tommy Ross (William Katt) [1976].

The Advantage of Background Information

The reason for this is not because people enjoy watching characters suffer time after time again, but it’s because Carrie achieves the one thing that most social outcasts and abused children never get: bloody vengeance. In what is perhaps her most humiliating moment, she uses her telekinetic powers to slaughter her entire class at the prom. She’s had a bucket of pig’s blood dropped on her, and as punishment she unleashes bloody havoc on the entire student body, whom she blames for the prank set up by bully Kris Hargensen and her boyfriend Billy Nolan.

If something like this were to happen in the real world, we would be on the same side as the townsfolk in Carrie, who label her a monster and mourn the loss of her peers. However, we’ve been given the full picture. We see the way she sobbed in the shower after believing she was dying once her period started. We see the way she looked down at her feet when talking to her principal and her teachers. Most importantly, we see the glimmer of hope in her eyes when Tommy Ross takes her to prom, and just how naïve she becomes when she has faith that night will change her life for the better. We want her to have a happy ending, and our dreams are just as crushed as her when the blood pours down on her from up above. We’re humiliated with her, and we’re angry for her. Then we see it happen: her revenge. At this moment, the audience can’t help but feel joy combined with shock as she unleashes her power on everyone.

Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie White in the infamous shower scene (2013).
Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie White in the infamous shower scene (2013).

Seeing the Nerd Get Revenge

When the third film arrived in 2013, a lot of people couldn’t help but ask, “Why keep bringing it back?” Yet, the question we should really ask is “Why not?” It’s not just the most relatable story. It’s the most powerful story; a nerd-gets-revenge story unlike any other. The thing is, the world hasn’t changed much since 1976. People still get bullied. People are still abused. People still wish they had some way of getting even with those that have hurt them. It makes sense that there are many forms of media that continue to focus on these themes, including multiple episodes of television shows like Criminal Minds and the 2010 film The Final. Yet, Carrie has always been the most shocking portrayal of these themes. It’s a horror story that’s not simply about things that scare us to death. It touches on realistic issues, and it gives viewers a strange sense of hope in the most brutal of ways. There’s more and more people growing up in the world that need an outlet like this, which is why Carrie has been given not one, but two chances at a comeback.

Is Carrie White a murderer? Yes. Did she mean to do what she did? Hell yes. Is she a monster? Definitely not.

There’s a reason why she stands strong against many other iconic anti-heroes throughout the horror genre; Jason Voorhees and Hannibal Lecter among them. While the typical horror anti-hero is given a backstory that explains their unfortunate origins, they are often portrayed as vicious antagonists that the audience loves to hate. Carrie, on the other hand, is placed front and center for us. We see her pain firsthand and feel her emotions as she unleashes his telekinetic powers on her peers. With other horror films, we tend to feel more empathy for the victims despite the backstories of their killers.

Angela Bettis as Carrie in the second adaptation (2002).
Angela Bettis as Carrie in the second adaptation (2002).

Helping Us Understand Ourselves

Carrie is the story about a girl who felt that using her supernatural powers to do what she did was the only answer in that moment. That’s why the audience doesn’t hate her. She’s been a poster child for bully victims in cinema for four decades (2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the original film). When something this good keeps thrilling audiences, why look anywhere else?

The story is one that causes everyone to look at themselves and look at others. While the climax is frightening, Carrie’s actions teach the audience lessons about pain and longing. We see the kinds of effects that bullying and abuse can have on a person, and what that might lead them to do. We all know what being a victim is like, so we understand why she does what she does.

Sissy Spacek, Angela Bettis, and Chloe Grace Moretz in all three Carrie movies.
Sissy Spacek, Angela Bettis, and Chloë Grace Moretz in all three Carrie movies.

Many horror fans tend to disregard her when they think of the scariest characters, but she has a legacy nonetheless. It’s that she’s only human that makes her story truly stick with those that experience at least one form of it. Whether a person saw the original back in the late seventies or just saw the 2013 remake, Carrie White is a character that grips on to your heart and doesn’t let go, no matter how terrified of her you might become.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how popular she stands among the other horror classics. What does matter is that she reminds us so much of ourselves.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. King has been a constant on my reading list ever since I can remember. As a teen, his books were always in my backpack and were constantly passed around my circle of friends, eagerly discussed in the caff and at home, along with Asimov, Bradburry and Heinlein. It, Dead Zone, The Talisman (w/ Straub), The Stand, all give me the “warm and fuzzy” glow of nostalgia just from writing the names down. But the novel that really, really got to me was “The Gunslinger” (with the Michael Whelan illustrations) which to me is still the best of the whole “Dark Tower” series.

    Also, as a movie buff, I loved his “Danse Macabre” non fiction book. I really enjoyed it and it led me to tracking down many clasic films I was not even aware of at the time. Still have it somewhere, and I still read bits of it from time to time. And his short stories truly rock. The Road Virus, Long Walk, the one were some Maitre d’ goes batshit in a restaurant while the protagonist is having a divorce meeting with his wife and their lawyers, the one were the traveling salesman keeps a list of toilet stall phrases and dreams of making a book of it, they are all just fantastic.

  2. Brian De Palma’s direction of Carrie and Laurie/ Spacek’s performances both did justice to the book, loved both.

  3. I have just realized that amongst all the novels of Stephen King, Carrie is the only one I’ve read. Don’t ask me why.

    I remember I’ve liked it a lot as I’ve enjoyed very much Brian De Palma’s adaption for the screen. An excellent novel, really. Thanks for this article 🙂

  4. Always found Margaret scarier than Carrie. I’ve met people like Margaret, so I know they’re out there.

  5. Munjeera

    A classic story of macabre justice.

  6. As a horror movie fanatic Carrie is one of my favorite films. It is one film out of the Stephen King genre that keeps coming back for a vengeance.

  7. King is good when his stories deal with Introspective and personal themes…

  8. Adrien Sot

    Carrie & The Shining are the only 2 novels – (a few of the short stories too) – that King wrote really well. Much of his work is Supermarket-shelf-Junk in quality & number of pages, but these 2 – & possibly the Dead Zone – are good examples of US literature. At least Carrie had an excellent transition to film.

    • I would suggest you try out a couple of his short stories – I think he takes more time crafting his short stories. I would recommend “The Monkey” and “1408.) I agree with you about some of his longer novels.

  9. I’ve always thought of Stephen King books as teenage fiction – mainly because I read a lot of them as a teenager.

  10. Great character, great article, great author.

  11. Barraza

    If it takes a movie to make people realize how scary, hypocritical, and judgmental religion is then kudos to the movie. For some it just takes going to mass and realizing how crazy it is. For others you need to talk to someone who has left the church. For others it may take watching a movie that shows the extremes of the beliefs.

  12. Hien Valle

    I’m not a huge Steven King fan. I guess I read too many of his novels when I was younger and got tired of him, but Carrie is one that stuck with me. The death of Carrie at the end was possibly the most emotionally powerful scene of all Kings Books, at least of those Ive read.

    I dont have an opinion on the movie. I saw it but it left no real impression on me. The King character was described as being pudgy and homely if I remember. Sissy Spacek didnt really match the characters appearance, but then again how many pudgy homely teenage actresses are there in Hollywood.

  13. Polanco

    Lovecraft was full of wonderful stories and brilliant imagery, but King is a far better writer in terms of his prose and descriptive talents. Reading any Lovecraft doesn’t ever feel like fun, it feels like an upward struggle to find the good parts.

  14. LackOfSleep

    I remember reading it around the time of its first publication and being quite impressed with its style which was very different to anything else I’d read at that point.

  15. Slyvia Meredith

    Great book, great character, tragic story.

  16. They’re all gonna laugh at you!

  17. Marisela

    Travolta captured the essence of a narcissistic, remorseless creep in the original. High school is a pretty scary place. I’m so glad to be an adult and working with such kind, well-adjusted people ALL around me!

  18. The first King book I read was the first he published – this one.

  19. I will always have a special spot in my heart for Stephen King as his books were an integral part of my childhood. Nothing beats being on the cusp of puberty and reading books that scare the hell out of you. (I had plenty of nightmares after reading ‘It’ but that didn’t stop me from reading it three times.)

  20. King is brilliant. So, so readable. Each paragraph a peanut, leading unavoidably to the next.

  21. I’ve watched many a horror film but still, the most frightening experience of my life by some way was reading The Shining; he does have a special genius for scaring the wits out of you.

    That said, all the Kings I’ve read (and Carrie isn’t among them yet although probably will be after reading this article) tend to have incredibly effective scenes but always seem to fizzle out plot-wise before the final act. I’ll give this one a go. Good excuse for a summer of classic King reading…

  22. Anyone else tired of Hollywood recycling old ideas ? Let’s come up with some more original ideas and stop milking it already.

  23. Antebellum

    I have seen all of the film adaptations of Carrie, and I think that this was really well put. I was wondering why they kept remaking it as well, but it’s a good point that it’s just the relatability of such a solid horror heroine that keeps making directors come back to the story, and viewers continue to watch it on the screen. It would be interesting to go into a lot of the storyline differences between the three movies, since they are wildly different in terms of what they want to portray and how they go about telling the story.

  24. All of us would be Carries if our internal angst/emotional agony could be manifested.

  25. What about The Rage: Carrie 2? I feel that movie has a valid place in this article.

    • Karyn Little

      I wrote this article specifically about the character, not the franchise. Trust me, I love The Rage way more than the two remakes. This was meant to celebrate Carrie White on her own.

      • another fan

        Since you’re a Carrie fan just as I am, I agree with you that she is an anti-hero. Besides, I read that they’re more interesting than true heroes nowadays.

  26. danielle577

    What an interesting topic! I really enjoyed this article and agree that Carrie is an exceptionally relatable anti-hero. She’s a product of nature and nurture. Due to her telekinetic ability, she’s an anomoly; this places her in the position of the “other,” which always results in being misunderstood. And who can forget her mother! What a frightening character that preaches salvation while lacking any means of empathy. Very interesting topic that was immensely enjoyable to read!

  27. reesepd

    “We see the way she sobbed in the shower after believing she was dying once her period started. We see the way she looked down at her feet when talking to her principal and her teachers. Most importantly, we see the glimmer of hope in her eyes when Tommy Ross takes her to prom, and just how naïve she becomes when she has faith that night will change her life for the better. We want her to have a happy ending, and our dreams are just as crushed as her when the blood pours down on her from up above.”

    And that’s something so great about the story. The irony that it circles back on itself. That Carrie White is a representation of female sexuality at its most repressed. Her mother pushes her from it with her extremism, but there’s also the fact that we witness another female character (Nancy Allen’s) as some kind of object to the John Travolta one.

    The fact that “Carrie” begins with her “blossoming” (the “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” flower, so to speak) – and the telekinesis follows is a great touch by De Palma – whereas King had her with the powers since she was a child. Having her drenched in blood on the stage for everyone to see is the ultimate destruction of her willingness to be open. To “blossom”, with such a wonderful, surprising night with her crush. But then, it unleashes the rage of her repression.

  28. I watched every Carrie movie made and knowing the story still makes me have hope for her every time. I actually dread that moment she is crowned prom queen every time because I know what is about to happen. We seen the abuse Carrie gotten at school as well as not being able to run home to support and relief of it all because her mother was her bully as well. We got to see and for some relate to what Carrie went through. This story definitely makes you look at yourself and others, you were 100% right in my opinion about. Do we need another remake? Not really. However, would I mind another remake? No because it highlights on effects of bullying and what it can do to a person.
    My favorite article yet on the Artifice, you did justice by Carrie White’s name.

  29. Allie Anton

    “Carrie” could almost be considered a modern take on the ‘Revenge Tragedy’ (i.e., Hamlet), honestly.

  30. Jaeb512

    I recall watching “Carrie” for the first time (it was the 1976 version). Upon first impressions, I saw it more as “cool” rather than “scary,” probably due to a certain “car scene.” However, after refreshing myself, the story is much more thoughtful than I had previously viewed it as.
    In my opinion, the main idea one can take from “Carrie” is that it shows that “the mind” is a powerful weapon that can give and take great force (whether it be thoughtful intentions of abusing an individual, the weight of undertaking such abuse, or potential psychic ability).

  31. I agree with the statement that Carrie White is the ultimate anti-heroine. I truly think 1976’s “Carrie” is the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. I am hoping I can post the article I wrote on it on this website so my feelings on this movie are known. I think you were spot on about how she relates to all of us in some way. We all have felt wronged in our lives at one point or another and her character helps us remember these instances and how we possibly overcame them. It’s just such a heartbreaking story. I don’t even think of it as a horror film. I think of it as a horrible tragedy instead. The image of Carrie White hugging her mother after she kills her is so sad, along with about 10 other scenes. It’s honestly hard to watch without crying.

    • You might be right about those. However, I strongly agree with you on Carrie being anti-hero and neither an anti-villain nor a tragic villain.

  32. Carrie liker

    I’m so glad that you see Carrie as anti-heroine and not a villain. It pisses me off when people claim that she’s a villain and don’t put themselves in her shoes by experiencing all the crap that she put through. Hell, I remember that some asshole claimed that it doesn’t matter that people who committed murder were bullied. What a lying, inconsiderate, delusional self-righteous, and hypocritical cunt he or she. In fact, that dumb-ass is a black-and-white thinker as are those who badmouth Carrie.

  33. “Carrie” is not a nerd-gets-revenge story. As a bullied student, Carrie struggles with a religious and strict upbringing full of ideas that do not make sense in a high school full of superficial and promiscuous teenagers. She is not a nerd. She’s just a victim of her mother’s teachings.

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