Guide to the Horror Movie Genre


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American Nightmare

The Baying of Pigs:

Reflections on the New American Horror Movie

by Jack Sargeant

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Jack Sargeant is author of Deathtripping: The Cinema Of Transgression (1995), Naked Lens: Beat Cinema (1997) and Cinema Contra Cinema (1999), and editor of the journal Suture. His underground film events and tours are legendary, combining academic lectures, screenings and occasional outbursts of virulent nihilism. He divides his time between his home in Brighton and travelling, and hates relaxing.

Films screening under the banner of American Nightmare include: The American Nightmare (2000), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Shivers (1975), Halloween (1978), The Hills Have Eyes (1978) and Videodrome (1983).

For more details, visit: the BIFF website

These notes are from the 10th Brisbane International Film Festival 2001 catalogue and have been published here with the kind permission of the Festival's artistic director.

"Now it's dark"

Frank Booth, Blue Velvet

"You're not running a talk show now. you can forget pitching the audience the moral bullshit they want to hear."

Television doctor, Dawn of the Dead


As the autocade drives through Dallas the President of the United States is shot, brain matter and skull fragments spraying across his beautiful, terrified wife.

In Vietnam, entire towns are erased in fire-and-rape storms by young men stoned on cheap pot and pure adrenal fear.

Detroit, Watts, Oakland and ghettos across the United States are burning.

Somewhere in the deserts behind Hollywood, a group of LSD-munching teenage girls polish knives and guns and prepare to slay Sharon Tate and a group of socialites, with the intention of starting the end of the world.

By the late six-six-sixties it was apparent that night-stalking, blood-sucking Romanian émigrés and monster-building mad scientists aided by hunchbacked grave robbers, no longer reflected the true horrors of a world sinking into a quagmire of self-designed chaos. The classic Universal horror films of the 1930s and the Cold War and science-based horror movies of the 1950s' drive-ins appeared exaggerated and campy; their Christian morality and happy endings reflecting a long-forgotten age. God-as Nietzsche observed-was dead. Humanity and human civilisation were clearly not progressing, and the teleological belief in Utopia remained an unachievable ambition rather than a palpable reality.

The world was as shitty as the faded brown 16mm film stock that revealed the bloody atrocities in Vietnam.


In 1968 a new form of horror film emerged, shat from the darkness of the era. In Pittsburgh, George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a film in which all the moral certainties that had become associated with horror were negated. It was a film in which the flesh-eating living dead appeared to take over a largely defenceless America-the partially consumed corpses of their victims joining the legions of lurching zombies while lynch mobs and the National Guard spectacularly failed to hold back the tide of the undead. Focusing on a group of survivors trapped in a besieged house, Night of the Living Dead should, were it a conventional horror film, have recalled the mythic themes of danger and salvation, but there is no end to the path here, no promised escape and, most importantly, no cavalry racing to the rescue. A bloody death is the only possible outcome. With the populace decimated and flesh-eating zombies lurching across the world, how could there be a narrative resolution that was anything other than nihilistically bleak?

When Romero revisited this terrain a decade later in Dawn of the Dead (1979) the collapse of society was even more apparent, the film's few (living) human protagonists hiding in a besieged shopping mall enacting every consumer's fantasy of being able to have everything you want, even as, outside the mall, the world was ending. But Romero's films avoid predictable political metaphor, rather they reflect a growing unease with the hegemony of modern American society, but it is disquiet that seeks to unsettle audiences rather than offer simple solutions. The zombies are-after all is said and done-us.

The belief that horror could be located firmly within the realm of the social and the human also emerges in David Croneberg's Shivers (1976). Here a supposedly benevolent man-made parasite, which in true Freudian fashion resembles an animated turd, spreads through a luxury tower block. The repressed yuppie denizens are gradually transformed into a pack of salivating rapists at long last able to unleash the darkest sexual fantasies of the id. Whilst some have suggested that the film revealed a loathing of the body, and a reactionary gesture vis-à-vis the liberal hopes and ambitions inherent in the '60s notion of free love, the film, in fact, searches for something far deeper and far more disturbing-the primordial atavism that lies at the heart of modern society, welding together the concerns of contemporary bioengineering and the logical outcome of Sadian philosophy. The final scenes of libertarian amoral sexual excesses manage to combine equal parts eroticism and terror in a previously unimaginable alliance-the charged, lusting, continually unsated mob moaning in a stumbling quasi-orgasmic sexual delirium that recalls the zombie hoards of Romero's films.

Yet, if it was democratic capitalist society that was the zone from which this horror emerged, its locus was frequently located far closer to home, taking root in the contemporary family. If it was the family that was the initial agent of socialisation then it was in the triadic mother-father-child relationship that the abjection of true horror was born. This is best illustrated in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), in which a group of twenty-somethings (including a brother and sister) come face-to-face with three generations of unrestrained bloodlust and pure backwoods psychopathy. Similarly psychopathic families emerge in Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House on the Left (1972). This is not to suggest that the films associated with this genre of new American horror merely attack the family or society, so much as they recognise that these are the spaces from which true horror emerges-the horror that is ourselves. The soldiers at My Lai were not some legion of the lost; they were the fathers, brothers and sons of normal American families. The horror was everywhere; it lay in the ordinary, in the general populace, thinly disguised by the veneer of civilisation. Witness the blood vengeance that informs Last House on the Left's grimly bleak narrative, or the suburban terror that underpins John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Further, in these films there is no sense of unification, even among the characters traditionally assumed to be heroes. Many of them are at each other's throats (especially in Romero's zombie movies), their thin social relationships straining and breaking under the pressure of the terror in which they find themselves-suggesting that the fundamental unity that links familial groups is not necessarily survival but primitive brutality. The murderous family, however, stays together, bonded by the abjection of their bloodlust.

These films also stand apart from previous generations of horror movies, because of their narrative focus on the bruised and torn flesh of the body as the text on which terror becomes inscribed. While previously films engaged within the fear of destruction of the body, the narrative aspect of the supernatural and the alien meant that the human body was presented by reductive definition as an organic whole. The monster attacked the body through a clearly demarcated series of social relations marked via stability between self and other. However, in the films of Romero, Craven, Hooper, and especially Cronenberg, the body itself becomes both the source and the object of annihilation. These films emphasise a brutal estrangement envisioned through the loss of control over the body, which becomes both unwitting source and victim to the horror. The zombies were once friends and relatives. In each of Romero's zombie films there is a sequence in which one of the protagonists undergoes the zombification process; while in Texas Chain Saw Massacre the consumption of human flesh simultaneously breaks the taboo surrounding cannibalism and re-iterates our own primordial animality. Finally, is it any surprise that Cronenberg's Shivers was also released under the title They Came from Within?

These horror films recognised the power of the contemporary news media, and it is noticeable that with a chilling verisimilitude almost all of these movies utilise realistic broadcasts to underpin the sense of overwhelming and unrelenting horror. Thus the protagonists of Romero's zombie films watch the news reports of the unfolding chaos (and, in an even more chilling scene in Dawn of the Dead, are unable to locate any broadcasts whatsoever). In a similar fashion Shivers ends with a radio broadcast detailing a growing wave of sexual assaults spreading from the Starliner apartments. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre likewise opens with news reports of disturbed graves mixed with Weegee-style flashes of decomposing flesh emerging from the blackness of the screen in images of flash-soiled journalistic psychosis. Even the extra-diegetic materials surrounding these movies blur the fine line between authenticity and cinematic fantasy, thus the publicists behind films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre utilised the tag line, 'It happened', while Last House On The Left relied on the advertising slogan, 'To avoid fainting keep repeating: it's only a movie'.

The cycle of these films reached their narrative and visceral zenith in Cronenberg's Videodrome (1982). Here the often banal questions and criticisms that had been posed by both the critics and the fans of these films become realised, as Cronenberg engages with a direct deconstruction of the socio-political effects of brutal horror films while simultaneously representing the breakdown of the body-both social and physiological-as a response to violent visual stimulus. Arguably this is the last film of this grim cinematic sub-genre; certainly none of the directors made such unsettling, ambiguous or dangerous horror films in their subsequent careers (although Cronenberg continued to explore some of the concerns of his earlier work in Dead Ringers [1988] and eXistenZ [1999]). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s American horror films-with just a few noticeable exceptions-allied themselves to comedy, confusing sudden jumping shocks with genuine fear, and eventually the genre sank into predictable parody, producing stupefyingly banal beautiful-teen-meets-slasher, low-end, post-modern trash such as Scream (1996).

This season of films-rooted in the 1970s American horror tradition-reflects the best of these filmmakers' work of the period. Contextualised via the acclaimed documentary American Nightmares, these films are the genuine article-radical horror films that locate their terrors in that most terrifying thing of all: our humanity.


The American Nightmare (2000, US/UK, 35mm, Colour, 75mins)

Director: Adam Simon Producer: Paul Jaflon, Colin McCabe, Jonathan Sehring Executive Producer: Caroline Kaplan Script: Adam Simon DOP: Immo Horn Editor: Paul Carlin Production co: Minerva Pictures Print source: British Film Institute

Cast: Wes Craven, George Romero, Tom Savini, John Carpenter, Trobe Hooper, Carol Clover, Tom Gunning, Adam Lowenstein

Described by director Adam Simon as a film essay, The American Nightmare tests his general hypothesis that horror films of the late 1960s and 1970s "somehow had a profound relationship to the social chaos out of which they emerged" by delving into the specific. Liberally illustrated with clips of the associated screenings being shown here and with some well-known others, it sets the context for this season very well.


Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968, US, 16mm, B&W, 98mins, Print source: Ross Barnard)

Possibly the most significant horror film ever made. This vastly influential movie led to an explosion in flesh-eating zombie films, especially in Italy. Focusing on a brother and sister visiting a graveyard, the film gradually spirals out of control: a zombie in the graveyard kills the brother and pursues the sister to a farmhouse. As the narrative progresses the rag-tag inhabitants of the remote farmhouse are forced to defend the property from increasingly large numbers of ghouls. The battles are made all the more difficult by the internal quarrels between those wishing to hide in the basement and those wishing to defend the entire property from the zombies.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, US, 1974, 35mm, Colour, 83mins, Print source: Blue Dolphin)

From the haunting title sequence to the final scene of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw on the freeway, this film never lets up and contains some of the most nauseating and disturbing images committed to celluloid. However, the film is not the bloodbath that both fans and critics erroneously believe it to be; instead it relies on impressive cinematography, aggressive editing and thoroughly oppressive sound design to create the impression, even among contemporary audiences, that they have unwittingly descended into the inferno.


The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

The disintegration of American society as articulated in Craven's classic movie, one of the bleakest movies committed to celluloid.


Shivers (David Cronenberg, Canada, 1975, 35mm, Colour, 88mins, Print source: Film Alliance [ex Filmways])

In an upmarket tower block things begin to go awry. With soap opera finesse couples exchange gossip and bodily fluids, blissfully unaware that their lives are about to be transformed, thanks to a 25cm-long parasite that has begun to spread throughout the population of the flats. Spread largely by sexual contact the parasite stimulates the host to satisfy the most debased sexual urges. This is one of the most disturbing of the new American horror movies.


Halloween (John Carpenter, US, 1978, 35mm, Colour, 93mins, Print source: British Film Institute)

The first and best of the slasher movies, Halloween unwittingly created an entire genre and its rules, as parodied in so much pop-trash-horror. Despite its numerous reworkings, this remains a haunting example of American small-town gothic cinema.


Dawn of the Dead (1979, George Romero)

Less a sequel and more a re-working of the themes of the first film. Four survivors flee a collapsing city in a stolen helicopter and head west to avoid the plague of the undead. As they flee it becomes apparent that the zombies are everywhere. Deciding to hide in an empty shopping mall surrounded by zombies, the group begin to live a bastardised consumer fantasy; having everything they want except the pleasure to enjoy their conspicuous consumption. Meanwhile society is collapsing all around their enclave. A marauding gang of bikers add to the fun.


The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, UK/US, 1978, 35mm, Colour, 89mins, Print source: Film Alliance [ex Filmways])

The all American family-including an ex-cop father-take their recreational tour bus into the desert, where they break down. Stranded in the middle of the most powerful nation on earth, things take a severe turn for the worst when they meet run into a psychotic anti-family. The balance tilts. The world spins out of control. The Hills Have Eyes makes Deliverance pale in comparison. Get ready to cheer at the explosive climax!


Videodrome (David Cronenberg, Canada/US, 1983, 35mm, Colour, 88mins, Print source: Institute of Contemporary Arts)

Max Renn owns a porno cable channel, but is looking for something harder. Enter 'Videodrome', a snuff-fixated TV show in which participants appear to be tortured to death for entertainment. Renn's world soon spins into a hallucinatory nightmare as he encounters all manner of figures from television philosophers to right-wing corporations, all of whom have an overwhelming interest in the broadcasting of the gruesome 'Videodrome'. Max's world gets even stranger when a vagina opens on his stomach.

© Jack Sargeant, July 2001


Ragtime: the horror of
growing up female

by Serafina Kent Bathrick

from Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

From its beginnings, classical Hollywood cinema has relied on and reinforced the “natural” characteristics of women (reproductive or destructive) in order to motivate and propel its closed narrative structures. Certain coded behavior on screen could represent a woman as ideal mother or as lustful vamp. If she tells bedtime stories to children, she'll never be seen smoking cigarettes in her negligee. However, Hayes Codes and culture industry politics often permitted a fallen woman to die—so that her last minute suicide allowed for the rescue of her little son (THREE ON A MATCH, 1932). Or an innately possessive nurse could finally be treated for her murderous tendencies after collapsing, suffering, and surrendering to a forgiving husband and a psychiatric ward full of experts (POSSESSED, 1947).

Until recently, with the advent of the disaster film, in which “Mother Nature” herself wipes out whole cities, the individual woman has mostly been spared the capacity for large-scale destruction. But now, in the age of the crazily mixed genre film, where confused narratives tell us that humans are decadent, technology doesn't work, and nature has been ravished, there emerge whole new possibilities for ways to explain the rationalization of life and the destruction of community—again in terms of the nature of women. As Carrie White comes of age, she discovers that “she’s got the power.” With earth, air, fire, and water at her command, she annihilates a generation of all-American teenagers.

From the outset of CARRIE, Brian de Palma’s latest film, the telekinetic abilities of the central character are intimately connected to her new-found physiological functions. She discovers her menstrual blood and her unnatural powers begin. The film is divided into two halves that ultimately reinforce the biologism that is used to explain Carrie’s destructive nature. First, her self-discovery brings the entire high school to know of her private ignorance and fear. This culminates with the central, most public incident (the senior prom), in which her precarious self-confidence is again shattered by the bloody revenge of her classmates. Thus, the second half of the film simply traces Carrie’s rampage, in which her crazed mind and body join to produce the complete destruction of her community. This simple narrative gives film audiences new and not so new ways to consider the reification of women through their physical attributes. Sociopolitical contradictions can still be covered with the ritualized esthetic of female biology.

It is ironic and fitting that de Palma can exploit the new openness with which the media have attempted to discuss and demystify women’s sexuality. His film style reveals the dedicated relish with which he encounters and twists the subject—at his most flamboyant he can weave fear and self-hate into a spectacle of female destruction. There is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community among women.

In order to examine the implications of de Palma’s aesthetic and his use of the naturally destructive woman, it is important to look closely at exactly how he averts any analysis of the social causes for the narrative development of the film. From the outset, the image of blood plays on our senses, creating the kinds of fears of women which prevail in most pre-industrial cultures. The witch-healer in Medieval Europe was a triple threat to Church and State. Contemporary analyses have pointed out the significance of her function, along with its threat to the social order.

“She appeared to be part of an organized underground of peasant women. And she was a healer whose practice was based in empirical study. In the face of the repressive fatalism of Christianity, she held out the hope of change in this world.”(1)

De Palma exploits the position of women in this tradition of healers and rebels. By systematically witch hunting for social wrongs through the sexualizing of women’s nature and bodily functions, he upholds and contributes to the kind of scapegoating that keeps capitalist culture in the service of the state. Every woman in CARRIE is understood entirely in terms of her sexual frustration or potency. Carrie’s mother and teacher are middle-aged loners—one a neurotic fundamentalist, the other a lonely romantic. For both women the focus on prom night reinforces de Palma’s central icon. Mrs. White cannot consider the occasion anything but an orgy, while Miss Collins recalls her own prom as a moment of adolescent innocence. Carrie’s two peers represent a similar polarity—sweet Sue is a well-meaning monogamist and Chris a spoiled nymphomaniac. For prom night, they both get favors and affirmation from their boyfriends. Carrie herself is limited and defined by this repellent culture of women, but she tops them all in her capacity to destroy and be destroyed.

In recent studies on the history of menstruation, fears connected with witch women are associated with the belief that at the time of their monthly periods, women are their most self-aware, most powerful, and most destructive. In many cultures the menstruating woman threatens male virility, contaminates crops or poisons the food she cooks. Thus her reproductive powers are linked to destructive ones:

“Menstrual blood, the outward sign of her duality, could be her weapon to annihilate the society she was responsible for preserving.”(2)

De Palma’s career as film director suggests his own desire to reconcile or flatten this dangerous dualism. In SISTERS, the surviving Siamese twin takes on the personality of her homicidal “other half” who had died during their surgical separation. In a more recent bomb by de Palma, OBSESSION (1976), his Hitchcock homagery thinly coats the same concern with a woman whose posthumous mystique gives proof of her duplicitous nature. This time she leaves her double, a daughter, behind to do the necessary damage. In CARRIE the same director further reveals his bewildered fascination with female power. As he described it in his earlier films, he once again denies the operation of class or institutional force by focusing on the biological determinism of women.

To look closely at de Palma’s style—its often fatuous display of filtered images, overstuffed frames, and floating cameras—is to understand further the modes by which he has developed his own brand of sexism. Though the film opens with a brief pre-credit scene, shot from high angle to show the mechanics of a girl’s volleyball game, there is neither the director’s flamboyance nor any of the real interest in this activity to tell us anything about high school, gym classes, or girls as athletes. The camera quickly locates Carrie and cranes down towards her fumbling figure in the corner, and, as the game ends with her miss, a surge of angry schoolmates run past her towards the gym, calling to the gawky girl: “You eat shit.”

The credits begin with a cut to another more delightful stage in post-game ritual. Coyly hidden behind the words and obtrusively blurred by filtered lenses, the camera drifts into the girl’s locker room like a male fantasy. It tracks slowly amidst their steamy bodies as they proliferate, repeating each other’s gestures and turns, bending and lifting to dress their nude bodies. The process is prolonged by slow motion, the better to see them, the better to expose their narcissism. Again, de Palma’s camera leaves the group to find Carrie alone in the shower: last because of her modesty, or because she’s the most self-adoring of them all? There is a cut to a close up of her upturned face with the shower nozzle spraying her, eyes closed, succumbing to that pleasure. Surely the sequence recalls Marion’s shower in PSYCHO. Is the intent to prepare us for a wound, a rush of blood? De Palma cuts to close ups that reveal all the self-touching gestures that soap ads use, and more. When the bar drops on the floor and bounces in slow motion, he cuts to a subjective shot that invites more intimacy, as Carrie’s hands now touch her inner thighs. Her body is most her own at this point and yet most fetishized, most erotic for us.

It is at this moment that the blood appears, dripping down her leg, to be discovered by her hand. We saw it before she did, and again de Palma plays with our voyeurism and our privilege to be curious and horrified. Marion was slashed by a knife in her shower: where is Carrie’s wound? In this key scene we are taunted by her self discovery—by its isolation and the ways it is prolonged and sexualized—so that its trauma becomes all of these things, and none of them. Finally, in medium shot, Carrie is permitted to connect mind and body. Yet at this point her isolation is complete. Her body itself has punished her.”Help me,” she screams at the nymphets, now shocked out of their stupors. The camera tracks toward them as they assemble—spontaneous militants chanting in unison: “Plug it up.” They bombard Carrie with Tampax and sanitary napkins as she crouches in a corner.

It is at this moment of Carrie’s self-hate and the collective barbarism of her peers that her eyes flash for the first time. Her defiant magic is explained by a cut from her crazed face to a subjective shot of the light bulb on the ceiling overhead. The bulb shatters inexplicably, the mob is quieted, and the rescue of Carrie by the gym teacher begins. Miss Collins can only threaten to deprive her girls of what they want most to do—attend their senior prom. Now the teacher can use her authority to prevent her students from attending what is for her a fondest memory. This gesture—motivated by what we come to see as this older woman’s loneliness—propels the narrative to its bloody end. The film makes no effort to suggest that her authoritarianism results from her job, her relation to it and to the organization of her work place. Her loneliness itself seems to be a kind of inborn flaw—she couldn't keep that high school sweetheart on the string. The locker room scene, with its scapegoat-mob interaction stemming from adolescent self discovery, thus gives impetus to Carrie’s telekinetic powers as a form of revenge and to the punitive blindness of a teacher whose misguided rage simply fits another kind of female stereotype. Essentially, it is the sexuality of a woman that controls her. Furthermore, it separates her from other women and is the very reason why neither role models nor close relations are possible.

From the outset of this film, de Palma systematically eliminates the possibility that female behavior can be understood in terms of socioeconomic phenomena. His narrative relies on images of blood and fetishized body parts (the prom night bloodbath occurs just after an extreme close up of Chris’ lips as her tongue hungrily caresses her red mouth) that serve to remind us that the primacy of a woman’s fragmented sexual identity is only a microcosm of her social desolation.

De Palma’s subjection of women to the ravages of their physical-physiological natures is also articulated in the ways by which he structures the film around the opposition of two institutions which influence and ultimately control the adolescent Carrie. Through elaborate mise-en-scene and rococo camera, the film pretends to distinguish home from school, contrasting and finally denying those spheres which women may control. Carrie and her mother share a tiny, oddly nonsuburban turn-of-the-century bungalow. Another clunky comment on Norman Bates’ (PSYCHO) more massive mausoleum, this little house is stuffed with relics and grim knickknacks—a parody of the crazed collector in woman. Property chokes and clutters the mad mind of Mrs. White, providing another pretext for De Palma’s virtuosity.

Mrs. White is never understood as anything but a freak who took the Bible too seriously for her own good, and is finally killed by her own Bean-ex in the heartland of her little home. Like all the women in the film, she brings on her own destruction she is punished for being a woman. There is a day-glo Last Supper on the wall and candle-lit suffering wax figurines on every surface. This private world of kitsch is our explanation of Mrs. White’s fanaticism—all necessary for her pardon from God: first for the “curse of blood,” then for her own lust and submission. Carrie is thus her mother’s shame personified. By some extraordinary leap (involving our notions of women-in-the-home, spiders waiting in their self-made traps), we are manipulated to believe that self-ignorance and telekinetic powers are her environmental and genetic inheritance. Rather than explode the real horrors of family dogma and parental authority, de Palma again relishes the sensual self-destruction of women who are ultimately privatized out of the productive world and into their own craziness. The baroque lighting, the weaving of the camera imply the final stages in the ritual of “homemaking,” but we learn nothing about the workings of that institution.

In the public sphere, where Carrie is a senior at Bates (ugh) High, again the film averts the possibility of exploring another node of institutionalized authority. The repressive aspects of this place are most specifically focused on in the person of Carrie’s gym teacher, Miss Collins. And while she is the opposite of Mrs. White, who wears long shrouds that hide even her ankles, this tall athletic woman who trots about braless and in track shorts is another victim of sexual frustration. There is no attempt to characterize the school hierarchy beyond typing the principal as a foolish lecher and the English teacher as a prissy baby. Once we associate Miss Collins’ lithe body with her authoritarian command over her female students, we are invited to fit her into the pattern as another woman whose lack of heterosexual fulfillment explains her entire identity and behavior. De Palma’s tracking camera moves past the sweating girls lined up for their punitive workout and records their puffing chests and tired thighs with the same relish he had displayed for the locker room vision. Miss Collins’ voice controls and coordinates their movements—she is angry and so are they.

It becomes more and more clear throughout the narrative that her desire to “rescue” Carrie has more to do with her own sense of unhappiness with being a woman and teaching women than with any understanding of what society has done to them all. Miss Collins’ special punishment for the blood-thirsty Chris—forbidding her to attend her own prom—brings on the final catastrophe that eliminates the senior class. Thus these two seemingly opposite women must share responsibility for the Hellish night. The gym teacher’s institutionalized authority, which victimizes her students and herself, is explained purely in terms of her physical nature. Neither Miss Collins nor Carrie’s mother feel anything but loathing for the sexual awakening that takes place among the adolescent girls who surround them. Their mistrust forms the basis on which we are asked to accept the impossibility of positive female relationships.

The final stage in this punishment of women by women is of course Carrie’s act of colossal monstrousness. Publicly splashed with pig blood, Carrie has a second moment of discovery that matches her horror in the shower episode. The gradual awareness of her position as a grotesque mockery of a prom queen is again conveyed with slow motion. Once again the camera fixates on her magic eyes, a split screen revealing that each of her stares can call forth the powers of nature to burn, drown, and hurl her victims through the air. As with each scene involving the self victimization of women, de Palma’s techniques run away with him while they reveal for us the essential ideology of the film. The prom night disaster is his moment of ultimate self-congratulation. He indulges in all the flashy tricks he knows—a 360 degree crane-pan shot of the prom king and queen: a mise-en-scene (often a rear projection display of blurred lights and faces and streamers) that includes every prom icon; the split screen; and lots of sound devices that alternately lull, seduce, and leave us in horrid silence.

As de Palma indulges and delights us with this display of female rage, it brings to mind the comment of a reputable late 19th century medical doctor (Dr. Weir Mitchell) concerning the pleasure of treating sick women: “The man who does not know sick women does not know women.”(3) CARRIE is thus a hymn to that inborn sickness, which de Palma attributes to the female power to reproduce and destroy. De Palma’s own attitude informs the very structure and imagery of the film—by sexualizing and mystifying this dread dualism of destruction tied to women’s reproductive power, he invites us to enjoy it as a spectacle and a travesty of growing up female.


1. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, a History of Women Healers, The Feminist Press, 1973, p. 15.

2. Janice Delaney and Mary Jane Lupton and Mary Toth, The Curse (New York, 1976), p. 70.

3. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Complaints and Disorders, the Sexual Politics of Sickness, The Feminist Press, 1973, p. 25.

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