I’ve always regarded Carrie as one of the few films able to effectively capture the fear and horror of being a teenage girl. Regardless of the fact that it was written and directed by men, it was able to understand the confusion and ferocity of youth. However, there was always one moment that gave me pause, a scene that always appeared to me to be completely divorced from the rest of the movie.
The title sequence of the film follows a scene in gym class that shows us how much of an outcast Carrie White is within her high school. As we travel inside the school, a lilting, romantic music floats in, signaling the romance and possibility of youth, a contrast to the horror that is to come. The camera has followed the girls into the locker room. There are girls in various states of undress and the camera follows as they playfully hit one another with towels. They run around laughing or stand confidently in their underwear discussing the gravest topics of the moment. The camera lingers on them, while the music swells. The steam from the showers creates a kind of hazy fog, a sense of the unreal. They are engaged in various customs of femininity, in primping and makeup application. It is very clear that we have entered the world of girls, but it is a world mediated by the camera, and thus by men and it is through these men that they are idealized. It is an image of a soft femininity, heightened by the steam and the music. The camera traces its way through the masses of girls until it lands on Carrie, alone, in the shower. The camera lingers on her in the shower, fragmenting and closely observing the separate parts of her body: her arms, her torso, her legs, her breasts. She, too, is being idealized. The sense of peace is suddenly shattered when Carrie sees she is bleeding. Not understanding what menstruation is, she runs into the crowd of girls begging for help. They start mocking her, throwing pads and tampons at her and yelling “plug it up”. Thus begins our understanding of the horror of Carrie’s life, the horror of the despised girl. We have shifted away from this idealized world of the girl so fast it could give us whiplash. We are now firmly in a story about the fragility and dread of adolescence, a film about the mocked and maligned girl.
This title sequence, this gaze-induced lingering celebration of the body, takes the viewer completely by surprise. It is never repeated. It is completely separate and at odds with the rest of the film, thematically and tonally. It is a kind of calm before the storm, but it fixates on the very characters it professes to care about, reducing them to mere bodies, a list of fragmented parts and behaviors that don’t quite come together to create a whole.
The remainder of the film goes on to document with nuance the stresses and fears of adolescence, of fitting in. It catalogues the fear of a changing body, and thus a changing and somewhat unknown place within the world, the fear of abusive parents or boyfriends, and of expectations of beauty; expectations that, within the confines of this title sequence, the camera reasserts. While the film explores these and their effects on Carrie, it loses its credibility by asserting the very expectations it appears to want to address. It is a story about power and powerlessness and how these two can collide suddenly and dangerously, but what wrecks that illusion is the title sequence, because in it there is no power, except in the gaze of the camera.
Female-centered horror is so effective due to the fact that it is on the female body that we put the weight of the unknown, the supernatural. Traditionally, what is more controlled? What could be more haunting or more transgressive than a girl who refuses to follow social norms? It is the clash of the rigidly structured and constructed body against the wild unknown of the supernatural. The novel, written by Stephen King, on which the film is based, explores this more than the film, asserting that in the fraught time of adolescence a girl is more likely to exhibit supernatural powers, in this case telekinesis, because of the intensity of her experience. Her body dictates this power, drawing her closer to the supernatural. Carrie professes to be a story about the horror of adolescence but strips that away as early as the opening sequence in favor of gazing upon women’s bodies, romanticizing and idealizing them.