Carrie On

Stephen King was still a fairly new writer when I first read “Lawnmower Man” for an English class in high school.  Carrie had been published by then, but I didn’t read any more Stephen King until after my academic job ended.  (There is, for those who are curious, a correlation between that traumatic change and my interest in horror.)  Like many, I suspect, I saw some of the movies before reading the King books behind them.  With a writer as prolific as King there’s always the issue of where to start, and I’m often subject to the selections independent bookstore owners make.  I seldom buy fiction through Amazon—I have to see the book for it to grab me (a kind of King thing to happen).

A used copy of Carrie recently came my way.  Now, I’ve seen the movie (both versions) many times; it is discussed at some length in Holy Horror.  I’d not read the novel until now.  Obviously there are differences between book and movie, but as this was Stephen King’s debut novel it struck me just how central religion was to the fearful scenario he paints.  That’s pretty clear in the film, I know, but it’s even more so in the novel.  Carrie is made into a monster by religion.  One could argue that she was born that way—telekinesis as a genetic marker is also a theme in the book, although absent from the films.  Still, it is Carrie’s rejection by others, largely because of her religion, that leads her to use her powers to destroy Chamberlain, Maine.

In a strange way, Carrie is a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective.  Strange because King is a man and some literary magazines won’t even accept stories written from the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender.  Men can’t know what women go through.  Indeed, most of the male characters in the story are less than admirable, while some are downright wicked.  The real question is whether religion saves from wickedness or causes it.  There’s not much ambiguity here on the part of Mr. King.  Holy Horror, although it deals with movies and not novels,  makes the point that films based King don’t infrequently use religion as a source of horror.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I frequently make the point that this genre, more so than most, relies on religion as an engine to drive it.  And religion also has a role in repressing women.  Coincidence?  Ask Carrie.

Frozen Over

The_Blob_poster

For reasons that may eventually become clear, I was watching The Blob. It seems that each generation’s fears are unique to its time—let the reader understand. For whatever reasons, star-appeal I expect, Steve McQueen was cast as the teenage Steve Andrews. A little unbelievable as a twenty-eight-year-old teen (Sissy Spacek was a more convincing teenage Carrie at twenty-six) Steve drives around his small town trying to find and stop the Blob. What is the Blob? Nobody really knows. Emerging from a meteorite, it seems to be an EBE (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity) that encompasses, dissolves, and assimilates animal life forms, getting bigger all the time. In a day when the Russians were actual enemies, this is hardly an intentional vision of capitalism but an apt description nevertheless. If it touches you, you’re dead. Since it can ooze through air vents, there aren’t too many places at hide. It forces itself upon you.

Steve’s love interest, Jane Martin, has a lisping little brother named Danny. While big sister is out on a date battling the jello-monster, Danny—a future NRA member—charges outside in his pajamas shooting at the thing with his cap gun. Can this be? One capitalist shooting at another? Don’t be fooled. This is the nature of the free market. Either the Blob ends up on a dinner plate, or Danny does. We know that prior to 1960s monsters seldom kill little children (but don’t get me started on Frankenstein), so it is the Blob that will succumb. As the town’s teens combat the goo with fire extinguishers, freezing it, Jane, Danny, and Steve escape to go hunting another day.

Those of you who’ve read my blog for any time know that subtext is often the point. I’m counting on you following along with me here—think of what day it is. The small town police chief, Dave, calls in the Feds. No wall will keep this alien out. It has to be deported. To some place that will never thaw. Like all good monsters, the Blob never really finally dies. It must be kept frozen to keep humanity safe. The final words Steve utters are indeed chilling, “As long as the Arctic stays cold.” Getting on sixty years later our “industriousness” has begun to melt the ice caps and the friends of the Blob deny global warming. I’ve seen The Thing from Outer Space too, and I know the last thing you want to do is thaw the Arctic. Remember what day it is, and do the right thing.

Carrie the Cross

Carrie1976With all the buzz about the new Carrie movie just released, I decided to go back and watch the Brian De Palma version again. I’ve written here before about the religious symbolism of the movie, but I have to confess to never having read the novel. This time a particular symbol stood out, and I’m not sure whether it derives from De Palma or King. Crosses abound in the 1976 Carrie. This is a bit odd because of the indeterminate religion of Carrie’s mother. Clearly she has a belief in Jesus, but an odd Jesus it is. In Carrie’s prayer closet the statue—presumably of Jesus, since it is never clearly identified otherwise—is of a man whose abdomen in pierced with arrows. Those familiar with saints immediately recognize Saint Sebastian, but the arms are outstretched, as if this poor victim were both crucified and superfluously shot with arrows. The traditional cross, however, seems to be missing in that dark room. It reappears on prom night.

While Carrie is getting ready for the prom, her crazed mother peers out the window at passing cars, telling Carrie that Tommy isn’t coming. In one shot, as two cars pass in the street, there appears an inverted white cross on the road. I supposed at first that this was a painted parking space marker, but then, this is a residential street, and no such markers appear in other shots. Carrie’s mother had accused her of being a witch, and the upside-down cross is an oft-claimed symbol of Satanism (not the same, however, as Wicca). At the prom, Tommy insists that Carrie vote for them as the prom queen and king. When Carrie makes her x, the camera angle rotates slightly to reveal the sign as a Latin, as opposed to Saint Andrew’s cross. After Carrie kills everyone and goes home, her mother stabs her and, chasing her through the kitchen, makes the sign of the cross with her knife. Finally, Sue—in a dream?—wanders to Carrie’s burnt down house to lay flowers at the foot of a “for sale” sign that is a white cross, with the clashing words “Carrie White Burns in Hell” scrawled on it.

I may have missed more since the use of the symbol only dawned when the passing cars pointed me toward it. There is a strange kind of misuse of the cross here—not visible on the Sebastian-Jesus, and ultimately also Carrie’s mother figures, but inverted on the street, a sign of pride at the voting, made with a knife by the mother, and scrawled with an arrow pointing to Hell in the final scene. Carrie’s fiery end appears to confirm her mother’s interpretation of telekinesis as witchcraft. There is no forgiveness in this film. Well, I suppose I’ll have to go see the remake now. And maybe even read the book. I need to know if I’m just seeing things or if I’m still sleep-deprived from worrying about jobs and a surfeit of imagination as October’s chill settles in.

Used Against You

Many times I’ve confessed to being a reluctant Luddite. My reluctance arises from a deep ambivalence about technology—not that I don’t like it, but rather that I’m afraid of its all-encompassing nature. This week’s Time magazine ran a story on how smartphones are changing the world. My job, meeting the goals set for me, would be impossible without the instant communication offered by the Internet. Everything is so much faster. Except my processing speed. We all know the joke (which would be funny if it weren’t so true) that if you’re having trouble with technology, ask a child. In my travels I see kids barely old enough to walk toddling around with iPhones, clumsily bumping into things (i.e., human beings) as they stare at the electronic world in the palm of their tiny hands. And once the technocrats have taken over, “progress” is non-negotiable.

I made it through my Master’s degree without ever seriously using a computer. Even now I think of this very expensive lap-warmer before me as a glorified word processor. Over the weekend I succumbed to the constant lure of Mac’s new OS, Mountain Lion. Some features of this blog had stopped working, and, being a Luddite, I assumed that it was outdated software. Of course, to update software, you need an operating system that can handle it. So here I am riding on a mountain lion’s back, forgetting to duck as the beast leaps dramatically into its lair. In this dark cave, nursing my aching head, I realize that I have become a slave to technology. For a student of religion who grew up without computers, I’ve got at least half-a-dozen obsolete ones in my apartment, each with bits and fragments I’m afraid to lose, despite the fact that I’m not even sure where to take them to retrieve the data. When I sat down to write my post this morning I received a message that Microsoft Word is no longer supported by Mountain Lion. Fortunately my daughter had the foresight to purchase Pages, so life goes on.

This blog has an index. It is an archaism. Indexes are not necessary with complete searchability. It is there mostly for me. In my feeble attempts at cleverness, I sometimes forget what a post is about, based on its title. The index helps me. In a truly Stephen King moment, I found this morning that my index had infinitely replicated a link to my post on the movie Carrie, so that any link after that will lead you directly to the protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel. It will take a few days to clean that up. There’s probably an app for it. For those of us brought up before household computers were a reality, however, there is a more religious explanation. Yes, my laptop is clearly haunted. And in the spirit of Stephen King I type these words while awaiting the top to snap down with the force of an alligator byte and break off my fingers. I should be worried about it, but instead, I’m sure there’s an app to take the place of missing digits. Even if there isn’t I’m sure my iPhone will happily survive without the constant interference of a Luddite just trying to call home.

Not a lap-pet.

Carrie That Weight

When it comes to keeping up with the classics, I have a lot of catch-up to do. This even applies to classic horror films – I’ve been a fan since college but slipped out of the groove for a decade or so and now I’m working my way back in. Recently I watched Carrie for the first time. Considering that it came out in 1976 (I still remember the original trailers), it has held up remarkably well. The story of the child struggling to become an adult against the wishes of an overweening parent never goes out of style. In keeping with a long-term theme on this blog, the religious element was fully represented as well.

The portrayal of Margaret White as a religious fanatic included incongruous elements that had clearly been selected for their ability to set a creepy mood. The statue of St. Sebastian with an abdomen full of arrows seems a strange fit for a Christianity that is apparently Protestant. Mrs. White’s veneration of the Bible settles better in a Protestant milieu than the Catholic background of director Brian De Palma. The decidedly unnerving scene where Carrie returns home from the prom to find hundreds of candles burning recalls a more Popish atmosphere, but the prayer closet resonates better with reformed traditions. This unholy mix creates a disturbing lack of specificity, as if religion itself is the danger.

Writers and movie-makers attempting to scare audiences have long drawn on the stock character of the over-zealous religious believer. One reason may be the lack of understanding such characters demonstrate towards those who do not share their views. While it would be comforting to suggest that this is a mere caricature, experience unfortunately belies this assertion. Religions around the world all have adherents who brook no rivals and claim victory only in convert manifests or body counts. Truly classic horror films draw their power from a deep honesty. And many people are honestly afraid.