Medusa in the Mirror: The Split World of Brian De Palma’s Carrie – David Greven

Abstract: Brian De Palma’s Carrie obsessively thematizes splitting in myriad forms, both formally and thematically. On a meta-textual level, the film’s thematic of splitting represents the director’s highly productive agon with the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. In this film, De Palma intertextually engages with Hitchcock’s career-long concerns with femininity and identification. Carrie’s most potent theme, however, is the violent splitting of the mother-daughter relationship in patriarchy. Carrie unsettles the Oedipal narrative into which Freud inserted female psychosexual development. The film demands – by manifesting – a different mythic narrative of feminine identity and power from the Freudian Oedipal one, one that nods towards an alternative archetypal narrative: the myth of Persephone, her abduction by Hades to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s world-destroying grief.

Where is the ebullient woman, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naiveté,kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentrism, hasn’t been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives…hasn’t accused herself of being a monster?
– Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

In her influential 1992 study of American horror films, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol J Clover observes that, while studies have been made of Alfred Hitchcock’s ambivalence towards his female characters, no such study has been made of Brian De Palma’s (1992, 61n). Certainly, however, a critical consensus on the misogynistic sensibility of this still-active director (his latest films being Redacted, his multi-media 2007 film about the current Iraq War and his 2006 adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1987 noir novel The Black Dahlia) would appear to have been reached. In an essay on Carrie (De Palma, 1976), Shelley Stamp Lindsey excoriates the director for his demonization of Carrie’s emergent female sexuality: “Carrie presents a masculine fantasy in which the feminine is constituted as horrific… the film presents female sexuality as monstrous and constructs femininity as a subject position impossible to occupy” (1996, 281). Abigail Lynn Coykendall offered a more nuanced and complex but, ultimately, an incoherent reading of Carrie, one that makes the fatal critical error of collapsing the film’s sensibility with that of its source material;[1] recently, Aviva Briefel has encouragingly challenged Lindsey’s schematic reading, but disappointingly draws the same general conclusions about the significance of the film.[2]

In my view, De Palma’s depiction of women has often been misunderstood.[3] He doesn’t exude a misogynistic hatred towards them – far from it. Rather, his position towards them is one of rivalrous and ambivalent identification. He empathizes with their position in patriarchy, affirms and identifies with their desire to transgress against its strictures, especially in matters of sexuality, and then – for the mingled reasons of his pessimism and his profound ambivalence – pulls back to watch the ramifications of their intransigence, often dire if not utterly fatal. In his great horror films of the 1970s – Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), Carrie, and The Fury (1978) – and in several films afterwards, including Dressed to Kill (1980) and Femme Fatale (2002) – women dominate the action and defy male power, even if the penalty is sometimes death. De Palma is both enraptured and freaked out by female power, more enraptured or more freaked out depending on the film.

Carrie provides De Palma with an extraordinary opportunity to negotiate his conflictual feelings towards women. Based on Stephen King’s novel but remarkably different from it in tone and effect, De Palma’s Carrie unfolds like a fusion of the Cinderella fairy tale, the woman’s film melodrama, Grand Guignol theatre, and Greek mythology and tragedy. The film crosses the Persephone myth with the Medusa and the Medea myths, fusing all with gothic horror. Somehow, the film seamlessly integrates this clashing mixture of tones and themes, yet Carrie remains the ultimate split text, forever at odds with itself, looking, as Carrie does, at itself looking at itself. Its fusion of tones complements its polyglot origins. De Palma’s shaggy, 60s counterculture sensibility, emblematised by his early, Vietnam War-era films such as the comedies Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), manifests itself in even his most sombre and frighteningly intense works. The scenes between Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a shy, awkward, lonely girl, mercilessly abused by her high-school classmates, with the power to move objects telekinetically, through force of the mind, and her mother, Margaret White (Piper Laurie), a fundamentalist Christian as tormented by the religiosity with which she torments her daughter, hover tonally between comedy and despair. But as the film develops, it is this despair that emerges as the deeper and finally the utterly pervasive tone.

In one key moment of the film, the titular heroine, having been humiliated by both her fellow students and by her mother, stares at herself in the mirror. Carrie has internalised the messages of hate directed at her, both for her physical ineptitude and for her menstruating body. As Spacek plays the scene, Carrie, weeping and staring at herself in disgust, appears to be experiencing shame, a condition that both the social order and her mother, from wildly distinct yet ultimately similar motives, have attempted to inculcate in her. But Carrie’s rage fights against this shame even as her shame threatens to overwhelm her. The shot of Carrie looking in the mirror (in which a drawing of Jesus is reflected) is intercut with one of her mother at her sewing wheel; De Palma establishes a tension between Carrie, the modern woman contemplating the incomprehensibly divergent yet unified demands on her identity, and Mrs. White, the traditional (though, as we will see, defiantly berserk) woman employed in the conventionally gender-specific task of sewing. We hear a shattering sound and something else, the shriek of violins. Her mother comes up to inspect the situation, failing to see what we see after she leaves: the simultaneously restored and shattered mirror. It is this cohesive-shattered image that will be the template for the formal design and thematic concerns of the film.

Like the wetness of water or the viscosity of blood, the theme of splitting permeates Carrie. In the famous split-screen prom-destruction sequence, the film makes the daring decision to employ a split screen just at the moment of greatest narrative tension and release, dissociating us from the horror that ensues as its heroine unleashes her apocalyptic wrath. Yet the prom-sequence is only the most explicit and well-known manifestation of the theme of splitting in Carrie. Throughout the film – and throughout his career – De Palma creates images that split themselves, bifurcated views in which one or several characters are cut off from, in opposition to, or in a mirroring relationship to the others, often through his use of the split screen but through other methods as well, such as the split-diopter lens. As a technique, the split screen dates back to the silent cinema, most notably the films of Abel Gance; its fitting that for a film that reaches into ancient roots, De Palma reaches into the origins of cinema, employing a technique that conveys a desire to realize the potentialities of film. Given the valences between Carrie and Greek myth, it is not surprising that De Palma returns to the split-screen technique that he employed in his filmed version of the stage play Dionysus in ’69, a retelling of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae.[4] One of the most striking overlaps between his Dionysus and Carrie is the image of a bloody red hand rising up.[5] This hand represents De Palma’s control over his own bloody narratives, the anguish and the violence in his art.[6] One of the major thematic concerns of the film is authorship; the split screen can be said to be a visual representation of the splitting of authorial control between De Palma and his vibrant, formidable female characters.

De Palma saturates the film generally with split images, through his use of the split-diopter. A special camera lens with two focal distances, the split-diopter allows objects at different distances from the camera (usually on the left and right side of the screen) to be in simultaneous focus. De Palma uses the split-diopter effect to convey visually subterranean levels of meaning. In one scene – the one in which Carrie quietly calls aureole-blond jock Tommy Ross’s (plagiarised) poem beautiful, and is then mocked by a surprisingly cruel English teacher – we see Tommy in close up but also Carrie behind him. In this split-diopter lens image, Carrie appears to symbolize Tommy’s feminine side, his anima, the better part of himself, and it visually establishes and anticipates the bond that they will develop at the prom; here, in this scene, Tommy reacts against the teacher’s vitriol, saying “You suck” under his breath as the teacher mocks Carrie. But as with all images, split or otherwise in De Palma, we can never be sure what we’re seeing or getting; Tommy quickly crumples into moronic frat laughter, as if he’s instantly forgotten his moment of empathy.

Carrie obsessively thematizes splitting in myriad forms: an internal split, in which a character is divided from herself; an inter-subjective split, in which a fatal rift prevents any sustained intimacy between one or more persons; a social split, between a person and her larger community; and an ideological split, between one belief-system and another. Moreover, on a meta-textual level, the film represents a split that is both a divide and an attempt at unification, the director’s highly productive agon with a cinematic predecessor obsessed with similar subjects and equally adept at realizing them in the cinematic flesh. De Palma’s obsession with the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock reaches an especially feverish and eloquent early height in Carrie. In this film, De Palma intertextually extends, deepens, reassembles, and scrambles Hitchcock’s career-long concerns with femininity and identification, taking them to a wrenchingly personal level in which they become his concerns, his obsessions. In Carrie, De Palma most boldly re-imagines the Hitchcockian psychosexual thriller as his own.

Carrie’s most potent theme, however, and the one that will be the chief focus of this essay, is the violent splitting of the mother-daughter relationship in patriarchy. In this regard, the film bears similarity to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the female Oedipus complex, which he addressed in several writings from the 1920s onward, most significantly in his 1925 essay “Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” to which we return below. Female Oedipal development is a theme De Palma explored with dreamlike intentness, albeit primarily in terms of the daughter-father relationship, in his previous film, Obsession, a highly self-conscious re-imagining of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), written by Paul Schrader. De Palma’s Carrie is a parallel narrative to Obsession, but one that eclipses the role of the father, focusing intently on relationships between women, especially the mother-daughter bond.[7] In so doing, the film deploys Freudian theories of the transformation of femininity into properly Oedipalized womanhood with a savage force that takes these theories to their absurdly logical height and holds them, and their implications, to a new critical scrutiny. Carrie unsettles the Oedipal narrative into which Freud inserted female psychosexual development. The film demands – by manifesting – a different mythic narrative of feminine identity and power from the Freudian Oedipal one, one that nods towards an alternative archetypal narrative: the myth of Persephone, her abduction by Hades to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s world-destroying grief.

I argue that Carrie, like several De Palma films, thematizes the potential anguish in the process of what Margaret S. Mahler (1968) has called separation-individuation, in which the child emerges as a separate individual from the initial phase of mother-child symbiosis in which the child experiences the mother and herself as one, indivisible being, a collapse of self and object, the mother as extension of the child’s own body. In her study Remembering the Phallic Mother, Marcia Ian describes the phallus as the phobic screen for something else: the umbilical cord, which literalises and symbolizes the trauma of birth and our separation from the mother. Ian’s reading challenges the Freudian theory of castration (the recognition that the mother lacks a penis) as the original trauma that shapes subjectivity (1993, 21). The Persephone myth, which Carrie retools,expresses the core emotions of this traumatic separation. As I will argue throughout this essay, the fundamental trauma of the separation of the child from the mother – a traumatic event for both child and mother – is the original split that informs this film and, as I will suggest, De Palma’s cinema as a whole. Formally and symbolically, Carrie thematizes the mother-child split through an obsessive cinematic design of relentless visual and metaphorical splitting.

Mothers/Daughters: Myth,Psychoanalysis, and Splitting

Given that De Palma has long been associated in certain quarters with misogyny, it seems relevant to discuss him in relation to Freud. Freud remains one of the most controversial analysts of sexuality, especially when it comes to the discussion of female sexuality, and his difficult treatment of the Oedipal complex for girls remains deeply controversial. Without discounting the problems of Freud’s sexism, I would argue that we can say that he exposes the effects of misogyny at the same time as he constructs them. In any event, his theory of female Oedipal development casts a relevant light on Carrie.

In his essay “Some Psychological Consequences of Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes,” (1925) Freud explores masculine and feminine identities within patriarchy. Writing of penis-envy – a theory that can only be recuperated as “desire for power in our culture,” as Freud’s French re-interpreter Jacques Lacan did – Freud remarks that one of its consequences “seems to be a loosening of the girl’s relation with her mother as a love-object” (1993, 19:254). In the tragic terms that Freud lays out, the development of femininity derives in the girl from:

her narcissistic sense of humiliation which is bound up with penis-envy, the reminder that after all this is a point on which she cannot compete with boys and that it would therefore be best for her to give up the idea of doing so. Thus the little girl’s recognition of the anatomical distinction between the sexes forces her away from masculinity and masculine masturbation on to new lines which lead to the development of femininity. [The thus far unseen manifestation of the Oedipus complex now occurs when]…the girl’s libido slips into a new position along the line – there is no other way of putting it – of the equation “penis=child.” She gives up her wish for a penis and puts in place of it a wish for a child: and with that purpose in view she takes her father as a love-object. Her mother becomes the object of her jealousy. The girl has turned into a little woman (1993, 19:256).

Reading Freud against the blindness’s of his own argument, we can posit that he theorizes the emotional and social consequences of the construction of femininity within patriarchy, the enforced separation between mothers and daughters (which also must occur, with equally traumatic but differently registered resonances, between sons and mothers). If the Oedipus-complex provocatively illustrates the male process of socialisation, what Freud might have more properly been describing here – had he not attempted to shoehorn femininity into his version of the Oedipus narrative – is the Persephone-Complex, the inevitable, ineluctably tragic dissolution of the daughter-mother bond necessitated by the daughter’s journey away from the mother into the social order, which the Greek myth of Persephone’s abduction hauntingly symbolizes.

Lacan’s theory of the child’s passage from the originary world of the mother (pre-linguistic, associated with sensations, sounds, feelings) to the symbolic world of the father (language, rationality, law) – a retooling of Freud’s Oedipus-complex that emphasizes the signal importance of language over the Freudian focus on the biological – remains a frustratingly apt and succinct account of the normative socialization of the individual subject, who must renounce his or her maternal ties in order to enter the legitimising realm of the patriarchal order. This passage is harrowing enough for the male, who must identify with the same masculine, paternal force he competed against and feared would destroy him; it is close to annihilating for the female, who must not only simultaneously identify with and reject her mother but somehow grope her way towards the mother’s own status as procreative but always already socially inferior subject. One of the chief insights of psychoanalytic theory, at its most useful, is that the “normative” exacts a fairly traumatic toll from an individual subject.

While mothers in American culture have certainly been ennobled, there also exists the fearful image of the mother as an archaic maw that threatens to engulf her child and reabsorb her into her own primal system. Film theorist Barbara Creed makes this female figure her chief focus in her study The Monstrous-Feminine, reformulating Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection to theorize the horror genre. Creed (1993, 12) parses the Kristevian theory of abjection within the mother-child relationship this way:

In the child’s attempts to break away, the mother becomes an “abject”; thus, in this context, where the child attempts to become a separate subject, abjection becomes “a precondition of narcissism.” Once again we can see abjection at work in the horror text where the child struggles to break away from the mother, representative of the archaic maternal figure [for Creed, the Alien films are exemplary in this regard], in a context in which the father is invariably absent (Psycho, Carrie, The Birds). In these films the maternal figure is constructed as the monstrous-feminine. By refusing to relinquish her hold on her child, she prevents it from taking its proper place in relation to the symbolic [as Lacan described, the world of the Father’s Law of language and reason]. [The child is] partly consumed by a desire to remain locked in a blissful relationship to the mother and partly terrified by separation…. Kristeva argues that a whole area of religion has assumed the function of tackling this danger.

As Creed quotes Kristeva, “this is precisely where we encounter the rituals of defilement,” which all converge on the conflation of the maternal and the abject.” “The function of these religious rituals is to ward off the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into the mother” (1993, 12).

While I concur with Creed that the horror genre represents a phobic image of the mother, I also think that the horror genre attempts to express the psychological anguish that can also occur within the profound – even suffocating – intimacy between children and parents. In our culture that essentially equates motherhood with care, nurture, and emotional training, the mother-child bond is especially freighted with significance. Moreover, it is, simultaneously, culturally enforced and culturally abnegated, made all-important and a stage from which the child must be weaned off, a stage the child must be trained to desire to reject. Little wonder that a potential for deep ambivalence inheres within the mother-child bond along with intimacy and love, perhaps especially because of the depth of these affectional ties.

Despite the lapses of psychoanalysis, it serves a vital function in its attempt to theorize such relationships; if classical psychoanalysis fails to include the social in its formulations, a film like Carrie adds this dimension to the psychoanalytic portrait of the mother-daughter bond. Though it moves well beyond the breaking point of its own frenzied passion and anguish, the bond between Carrie and her mother also exists in the social order, and the film registers the severity of the cut through their bond that the social order demands. When Mrs. White, after learning that Carrie has menstruated for the first time, says to Carrie, “You’re a woman now,” she speaks with an awareness that Carrie’s womanhood is the force that will take Carrie away from her. The film concerns itself with the emotional impact on the mother of the daughter’s Persephone-like “abduction” by the social order, the anguished loss of the tie between mother and daughter as the daughter makes her way into the world, a way clearly marked in patriarchy as the progression to the domestic sphere of marriage and family. ‘’Compulsory heterosexuality” (Rich, 1980/1987), like Hades in the Persephone myth, performs the function of removing the daughter from the mother; but what Carrie also registers is the daughter’s desire for sexual knowledge and fulfilment. The tricky balance the film strikes is that it leaves as an open question what, exactly, the terms of this sexual knowledge will be. Does Carrie want heterosexual romance, or something different? In sum, what does Carrie want?

Before I can attempt to offer an answer to this question, I need to distinguish my project from that of Creed, who addresses similar themes in the film but in ways that differ significantly from my own. The Kristevian theme from which Creed draws her own – “the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into the mother,” as Kristeva puts it (1982, 64) – provides for a brilliant reinterpretation of the horror film. In Creed’s hands, the image of femininity in horror gains complexity as we are forced to recognize that horror film derives a great deal of its force from the ‘fear’ of woman’s power, her power to castrate, the mother’s power to subsume the subject, rather than exclusively from the fear that the woman will be destroyed, rendered the annihilated victim. These are two sides, for Creed, of the misogynistic coin, for the fear of woman’s power is no less anti-woman than the victimization model; but Creed does importantly demonstrate that other side, the relay between a victimized and a terrifying, annihilating image of woman.

But,as Creed’s discussion of Carrie amply demonstrates, her reformulations have some serious limitations, for they fail to plumb the deepest levels of a work such as De Palma’s film. In part, this failure lies in Creed’s model. Kristeva’s (1982, 74) view of the mother’s world as “a universe without shame” and the father’s world as “a universe of shame” in no way illuminates Carrie, which if anything squarely associates shame with the mother and actually comes close to suggesting that the father’s symbolic world may provide a means of transcending this shame – volatile, to be sure, responses to theories of the socialization of gender (Creed 1993, 13). The more recent feminist psychoanalytic work of Mary Ayers on the role mother-infant attachment plays in shame provides a more resonant insight into De Palma’s film: “When the maternal intrapsychic conflicts that influence the mother-infant relationship become impingements that in turn become a pattern, the details of the way in which the impingement is sensed by the infant are significant, as well as the infant’s reaction to them” (2003, 76-7). The ways in which a child can respond to such emotional abandonment are myriad, and gender and culture will shape the response. Shame, in other words, is deeply caught up in the mother-child relationship (Ayers 2003, 76-7).

A thematic movement that “suggests symbolically a return to the womb,” as Creed would have it, does, indeed, motivate Carrie. But the film does not ultimately offer a “final statement of complete surrender to the power of the maternal entity” (Creed 1993, 82). What Creed schematically reads as the film’s ineluctable movement towards this resolution is one of the most contested and anguished struggles thematized in the film, one left wholly irresolvable: far from returning its protagonist and us to the womb, the film represents this return and the desires aroused by it in highly complex, ambivalent terms. In other words, rather than being a vehicle of return to origins, the film explores the tremendous ambivalence on the part of its protagonist as well as her mother with the entire mother-child bond, depicted as something both women cherish and abhor at once. Most importantly, the film emphasizes not return, with its suggestion of engulfment, but separation, splitting, the fatal cut that separates child from mother. This cut informs a series of thematic and stylistic elements of the film. The mother-daughter cut is both the chief trauma around which the film circles and an allegory of the acutest kind for the general human failure of connection, the impossibility of genuine intimacy and sustained kinship, the tendencies towards duplicity and even more harrowing levels of betrayal that characterize relationships in De Palma films, a view of the social that De Palma represents in a cinema of splits, cuts, jagged, violent disruptions and juxtapositions, of the film itself rendered a stranger to itself, a distorted mirror of its own filmic identity. As I will elaborate below, the figure that recurs in De Palma’s film and that synthesizes all of these concerns is ‘the failed pietà’, the image of attempted but unsustainable, unrealisable connection, resonant with an enduring tradition in Western art of the mother-child bond at its most plangent and sorrowful, as deep connection and deepest loss at once.

I will now proceed to offer a series of readings of the film that ultimately support a close reading of the prom-destruction sequence but also suggest that it is only the most vivid explication of the film’s aesthetic and thematic preoccupation with splitting.

Autoerotic Plenitude/The Maenads

The film opens with an image, from a high angle long shot, of division: two volleyball teams of female teens competing on either side of a net. That this image of competitiveness within a same-sex sphere commences the film is not incidental; this is not Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s female world of love and ritual but the ritualised violence inherent, in the imaginations of artists like Herman Melville and Brian De Palma, in homosocialized spaces.[8] But then again this vision of division narrows down from a general one within a group to the more specific one between a young girl and this group of her peers. Suddenly, the camera isolates Carrie White, targeted as the one who will fail the group (her team), struggling like a wounded member of the herd to keep up, with the crucial distinction being that, far from shielding her from predators, the herd is her predator. A litany of abusive remarks and an array of assaultive glares and shoves issue forth from the lines of angry girls who blame Carrie for the loss of the game, Carrie forced to withstand them all. The teen villainess Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen, smudgily blonde, moist, and memorably malevolent) provides the final blow: “You eat shit.” This verbal condemnation speaks volumes of histories of hate. It evokes verbally what the film will evoke symbolically, the association of female sexuality with unspeakable abjection, a point that Creed importantly makes. Clearly, Carrie takes on the role of scapegoat for the girls’ anxieties about their own sexuality – hence the number of shots of women aghast at the sight of Carrie’s blood, especially when its residue is left on their own white clothing. The film catalogues an entire history of misogynistic motifs and phobic reactions to women and femininity: the image of the menstruating woman as a source of contagion, fear, and disgust; the association of female sexuality with beastliness, particularly in the figure of the sow or pig, whose blood will symbolize the dread of female sexuality and menstruation; related to this, the satanic associations of all these symbols, and the phobic construction of woman as witch.[9] But what’s especially provocative here – in a work that is a male fantasy of women and female experience – is that all of these phobic anxieties emanate from the female sphere itself. Carrie’s connection to other women is presented as the height of disconnection.

In the film’s first image, an intra-group split transforms into an individual-group one. The film’s first sequence recapitulates but also reorients this relay of splitting. As De Palma’s languorous, dreamlike slow-motion camera floats through the steaming locker-room in which girls undress, dress, emerge from the shower, we have bifurcated rows of girls, the undressed and the dressed, the nude and the semi-nude. The atmosphere recalls classical myth, the eros but also the dread associated with such images; in the Victorian artist John Waterhouse’s 1896 oil painting Hylas and the Nymphs, a young man is lured into the water by a group of water maidens, who will drown him. But there is no Hylas here, only the nymphs and their soft menace – and Carrie. When De Palma’s camera finds Carrie, she is this time in total isolation, almost invisible within the steam-engulfed frame in which we have yet another of an endless series of splits, that between the collective eroticism of the girls to the autoerotic plenitude of Carrie in her own private shower-world. A multiple-shower head-beam the length of the screen bifurcates the image, much as the telephone pole does the image of Marion Crane asleep in her car on the sun-blasted highway in Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960). This massively phallic beam adorned with multiple shower head-phalli obtrudes like an apparatus from the Inquisition, the sadomasochistic resonance of which deepens the intensely autoerotic spectacle of Carrie showering. Yet this hyperphallic emblem sprays pleasure rather than implements death.

De Palma’s representation of Carrie here utterly distinguishes his version of the character from Stephen King’s. King describes his Carrie in a manner meant to evoke as much revulsion in the reader as it does in her tormentors; De Palma, on the other hand, idealizes the naked Carrie and – this is a crucial point – shares in her autoerotic self-fulfilment, her dream of oneness and erotic self-connectivity.[10] De Palma is a 60s counterculture believer in the myth of sex as liberation; he’s also a tormented Catholic who struggles with the sense of sex as sin, a view that he defends against through the alternate strategies of idealization and coarse humour. Through interlocking personal and public mechanisms of condemnation, she is denied access to her body and its pleasures. She allegorises the classic psychoanalytic split subject who can never know her essential, unconscious self, but, more importantly beyond this, her adventurous desire to access the full range of her corporeality encounters social ban and maternal prohibition, the full opprobrium of Western phobias about female sexuality.

If girls, as Freud’s theory of the female Oedipus-complex would have it, must reject “masculinizing” masturbation to develop along the track of femininity, De Palma would appear to align himself with Carrie on a search for her authentic self through self-pleasure, and seeing any bars to this self-knowledge as the result of stifling social ban. Carrie’s body itself shatters the membrane of ignorance that has been kept between Carrie and the world.[11] When she menstruates, she believes she is dying; De Palma conveys the shock-force of this impression by shattering the onanistic, oneiric dream world of Carrie’s shower with a return to “normal” expressed through a jarring transition to a cinéma-vérité style, handheld-camera footage of Carrie, screaming and bleeding, crying “Help me!” to her unfeeling classmates. Worse than unfeeling: they pelt her with tampons, derisively cackling, “Plug it up, plug it up!” The split between dreamlike autoerotic plenitude and real life could not be starker or more violent, as registered in the shift from Carrie’s soft, supple body in the shower and her defenceless and un-idealized bareness now.

Entering the scene is one of the film’s most complex, troubling, and ambivalently regarded figures, the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). In that as a mother figure she doubles for Mrs. White, providing a seeming alternative to her, Miss Collins represents the second half of a split mother in the film, the Good versus the Terrible Mother. But she is not the Good to Mrs. White’s Terrible Mother – far from it. Rather, each figure combines, to a greater or lesser degree, good and terrible elements, and the film may even regard Miss Collins with more sceptical eyes than it does Carrie’s mother.


Miss Collins, the gym teacher, notices the girls screaming “Plug it up, plug it up!” and goes to investigate it. She interrogates Sue Snell (Amy Irving) first, asking her “What are you doing?” as Sue fumbles in response, Miss Collins intensifies her interrogation: “What are you doing?” she says, violently shaking Sue. Miss Collins’ increasingly violent temperament will be one of the key emotional registers of the film; a fundamentally split character, she oscillates between modes of tender nurture and violent reproval. Her initial response to Carrie, screaming in the corner for help, conveys a pragmatism of response that borders on the censorious: “Now grow up, take care of yourself, grow up…” Carrie’s telekinetic frustration (it bursts a light bulb above them) cuts through the communicative impasse between the women, forcing Miss Collins to understand that Carrie, kept ignorant of the body’s knowledge, really does believe that she’s dying. When Miss Collins does finally realize this, she embraces Carrie, whimpering like the small child to which she’s been reduced. This hard-won, faltering embrace will be the first of the several, significant such gestures in the film, what I called the failed pietà: a half-completed, inadequately realized or motivated, or tonally ruptured embrace that combines love with its opposite, hate or indifference.

Miss Collins resembles the ambiguous figure of the nurse from such tragedies as Euripides’ Hippolytus or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – a figure who nurtures the young but also foments discord, even havoc, in their lives, mainly through her own ambivalence towards them, the confusion between her self-sacrificing desire to help the young, desiring lovers and her own repressed appetite for their erotic energy. Like the witch, the nurse combines occult properties with those of a caregiver; as a nurse/witch figure, Miss Collins combines nurture with negation, loving, protective feelings with a rage that almost approaches that of Carrie and her mother. This rage dramatically bursts out in her taunting, tormenting tone as she berates the girls for their treatment of Carrie – richly deserving of her castigation, the girls nevertheless visibly quake and wilt in the full face of her rage to a degree that begins to suggest that they are not so much Carrie’s victimizers as they are the victims of their educator’s confused desires. (It is not the main focus of the present essay, but I regard Carrie as a richly productive text for queer readings, and Miss Collins, coded as lesbian, as a crucial figure for such readings.) Though Miss Collins has moral right on her side, the excessiveness of her emotional investment in disciplining the girls becomes undeniably apparent when she brutally slaps intransigent Chris during the gym-detention that Miss Collins runs. One could say that both Carrie and Chris – now Carrie’s strange double – go to the prom in retaliation against a terrible mother, one for the promise of love, the other for the triumph of hate.


The themes of the film correspond closely, as I have suggested, to the Persephone myth. In this myth, Hades, the god of the underworld, abducts, rapes, and makes his queen Persephone, the maiden daughter of Demeter, the earth-goddess of grain, fertility, and the seasons. Demeter roams the earth, searching for her daughter; in her grieving wrath, she turns the world to ice. Finally, in this myth about the origins of the seasons, a pact of sorts is made: Persephone will spend half the year with her mother and the other half with Hades. Carrie evokes the key themes of this myth: the daughter’s abduction, the mother’s despair over it, and her nuclear-winter wrath.

It’s impossible to imagine Carrie working as well as it does without the accomplished acting of its players, especially Spacek in the titular role and Piper Laurie as her mother, Margaret White. An entire study of the delicacy, passion, and range of these great performances should be written – for now, let me emphasize that their contributions shape the film as much as De Palma’s visual designs do. The way Laurie plays Margaret White, she’s a sex-phobic woman obsessed with sexuality, specifically her own. When Carrie comes home after her humiliation in the shower and tearfully rebukes her mother – “You should have told me, Mamma” – the mother’s reaction is to slap her, which knocks Carrie to the ground. This is the second failed pietà in the film: what should be a warm, intimate, restorative embrace splinters apart into violence and disconnection, as Margaret drags Carrie (pointedly) to her closet to pray.

After Tommy Ross invites her to the prom (unbeknownst to Carrie, at his girlfriend Sue Snell’s request), Carrie tellingly asks her mother over dinner, “Mamma, please tell me that I have to try to be a whole person,” making her case for why her mother should allow her to attend the prom. “Boys,” the mother begins cackling. “After the blood come the boys, like sniffing dogs – it’s that smell, they want to see where that smell comes from.” No one in the film exhibits more urgent misogyny than Carrie’s mother; but, as Laurie plays the role (as opposed to Patricia Clarkson in her more cerebral interpretation in the 2002 television version of King’s novel), we are made aware that Margaret eroticises her own phobia about the female body, veritably quakes with the knowledge of sex she repudiates. When she beholds Carrie wearing a pink dress on the night of the prom, she says (in a line Laurie fought to keep in the film), “Red. I might have know it would be red.” [12] Looking at Carrie’s chest, she says, “I can see your dirty pillows.” But there’s more going on still. Before Tommy picks her up, Margaret becomes increasingly desperate, finally revealing her genuine concern for Carrie: “They’re all going to laugh at you.” “It’s not too late,” she says to Carrie, “you can stay here with me.” “I don’t want to stay with you, Mamma.” Carrie innovates the Persephone myth by giving Persephone her own agency – Carrie wants to leave the mother. But there’s nothing triumphant in the film’s depiction of this struggle between them; it registers the psychic wounds of the split between mother and daughter, the daughter’s longing for a wholeness she can realize, the mother’s desire to keep her daughter wholly to herself.

In this manner, and several others, Carrie re-imagines Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) (as well as Psycho) as a narrative in which the daughter wants to break free of the mother rather than return to her. In Hitchcock’s film, Marnie (Tippi Hedren), having internalised all of her mother’s hatred against men and her belief that women should have nothing to do with them, desperately longs to be by her cold, unyielding (but privately tormented) mother. A thief who steals from her corporate employers, Marnie experiences periodic episodes in which memories of childhood trauma overwhelm her, memories triggered by the sight of the colour red. Hitchcock vividly and surreally conveys the force and fear of Marnie’s feelings through scarlet suffusions that engulf the image.[13] In Carrie, the heroine combines mother-obsessed Norman Bates and Marnie with a new, self-affirming investment in her own body and her sexuality, counterculture feminist values that De Palma identifies with and affirms. If in Marnie the colour red symbolizes childhood trauma, in Carrie it signifies the wound of the daughter’s separation from the mother, but, more complexly, the internalised misogyny that the mother has attempted to inculcate in her daughter. As we previously had occasion to note, in Lacan’s well-known theory of the imaginary and the symbolic orders, for proper socialization to occur, we must pass from the mother’s pre-linguistic world of sensations and feelings through the imaginary into the father’s world of law, reason, and, most importantly, language (the symbolic). The mother’s views about sexuality and the “Father’s” – the social order’s – views about sexuality here coalesce; the mother only mirrors and identifies with the misogynistic messages about women within patriarchy that she has so utterly absorbed. It is a mistake, then, to see the blood that drenches Carrie at the prom as some kind of especially violent return of the repressed. Rather, the blood bathes Carrie in knowledge of patriarchal misogyny, shared by her mother, anxiously defended against by the social order, which uses Carrie as scapegoat to expiate its own maddening, gnawing anxieties about the hypocrisy, the penchant for violence and mayhem, at its core. Hypocrisy and betrayal are, perhaps, the central themes of De Palma’s oeuvre. Carrie is forced to undergo her humiliation so that the social order can remain ignorant of its most fervent and artfully maintained designs, as I will demonstrate.

De Palma’s Screen/Medusa’s Gaze

In some of the most spellbinding sequences of his career, in which Carrie and Tommy Ross (William Katt) are elected prom king and queen, Carrie’s fairy tale happiness is shattered by the successful completion of Chris’s revenge plot, and then Carrie, covered in blood, unleashes her wrath, De Palma uses the Hitchcockian technique of pure cinema to give us an overwhelmingly distinct array of perspectives, emotional registers, desires, and effects. Carrie at the prom looks like Medusa before the curse, shimmering in rosaceous beauty; with the blood on her, she resembles the Medusa whose look can kill, even as she wields the retributive might of the Erinyes, which in Greek literally means “the angry ones,” the Furies who effect divine punishment (little wonder that the title to De Palma’s next film is The Fury). Carrie, like Medusa, suffers for the sin of femininity itself – she suffers for the condition of femininity in patriarchy. But she also wields Medusa’s, Athena’s, and the Furies’ power to destroy – not Cixous’s beautiful, laughing Medusa but the Medusa of Greek myth itself.

As Ovid presents the myth of Medusa in Metamorphoses (1.4; Dryden’s translation), Medusa is the victim of both male and female oppression:

Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
They, who have seen her, own, they ne’er did trace
More moving features in a sweeter face.
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
In golden ringlets wav’d, and graceful shone.
Her Neptune saw, and with such beauties fir’d,
Resolv’d to compass, what his soul desir’d.
In chaste Minerva’s fane, he, lustful, stay’d,
And seiz’d, and rifled the young, blushing maid.
The bashful Goddess turn’d her eyes away,
Nor durst such bold impurity survey;
But on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes,
Her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes.
These in her Aegis Pallas joys to bear,
The hissing snakes her foes more sure ensnare,
Than they did lovers once, when shining hair.

Carrie’s version of the Medusa myth corresponds both to Freud’s theoretical explanation of it in his essay on the Medusa’s Head – as a representation of the terrifying qualities of the mother’s genitals, separated off from their erotically pleasurable ones – and of Cixous’, as the power of femininity misread by men as fear, fright, and shame.[14] But De Palma’s film most directly engages with the Ovidian understanding of Medusa. Medusa is a beautiful woman destroyed both by the monstrous rapacity of patriarchy and by the allegiance to patriarchal logic on the part of the phallic mother. If we read Mrs. White as a modern, failed version of Athena, the virgin goddess, who punishes Carrie for the social position of femininity in patriarchy, then we can read Carrie as Medusa, the object of fused patriarchal and father-identified female wrath. But the difference here is that Carrie is no mere Medusa enacting this phallic-female’s own hatred of her sex; rather, she is both this and an autonomous female force wielding her own Fury. The film finds a filmic means of representing Carrie’s Medusan duality, or, more properly put, the dual Medusas she embodies.

Carrie’s transition from rapturous joy to abject to monstrousness encompasses the joy and the anguish and the violence inherent in De Palma’s filmmaking. When Chris pulls the rope and appears to experience violent orgasmic release; Sue Snell veers between joyful contentment at seeing Carrie so radiantly happy to horror at realizing that Chris and Billy Nolan (John Travolta), her dim-witted boyfriend, lurk beneath the stage, ready to pull the pig’s blood-bucket rope; Carrie yields to the joy of her coronation; Carrie transforms into a Fury, De Palma shares in each disparate, dichotomous reaction. Each of these female characters fascinate him in their fulfilment as types of female power and, moreover, as author figures, each of whom attempts to wrest control over narrative (as Miss Collins and Mrs. White also do). It is with Carrie’s accession to author – an accession De Palma facilitates, thwarts, and joins in with – that De Palma experiences his greatest filmmaking joy and terror.

In a bravura tracking shot, the camera follows two of Chris’s co-conspirators (Norma, played by the marvellously lively, red-baseball-capped P. J. Soles, and her boyfriend, beefy Freddy) as they gather up the ballots, first getting Carrie’s and Tommy’s (Tommy, golden embodiment of the social order, having convinced Carrie to “vote for ourselves”), dump the ballots and replace them with their own, duplicitous ones that ensure Carrie and Tommy as winner, hand these ballots to the judges, including Miss Collins; the camera pushes past the judges at their table to go past the stage, behind which we see Sue Snell, sneaking into the prom to see Carrie and Tommy together; and then the camera rises up, high above the stage, to the rafters where the bucket of blood expectantly awaits, bobbing as if in anticipation; and from ‘the blood’s point of view’, we see from this aerial distance Carrie and Tommy declared Prom King and Queen. We then cut to Carrie and Tommy making their way towards the stage, which De Palma films in languorous slow motion; bathed in blue light, Carrie and Tommy are idealized figures of romance, making their way to institutionalised status as the couple that embodies normativity on the stage, and as the couple that destroys as it is destroyed.

For some critics, such as the influential Pauline Kael, De Palma slows down all of the action at this point because of his sadistic glee, extending the unbearable suspense (1980, 208-12). But such a reading misses the crucial quality of De Palma’s ambivalence towards the entire proceedings – the pageant that signifies normativity, the heterosexual couple as the seal of the social order, the enforced, compulsory nature of institutionalised social rituals like the prom – and his utterly split allegiances between seeing Carrie happy and seeing her wrath, the rapturous joy of Carrie’s romantic aspirations and the world-shattering mayhem of her rage, and the competing author figures. And, of course, De Palma’s identification extends to wanting to see Carrie shamed so that he can share in it; his identification with her, engineered to be our own as well, means that he must experience her shame so that he can unleash her anger.

For the simultaneous high points of Miss Collins’ removal of Sue Snell, who can stop Chris’s plot, and Chris’s pulling of the rope just as Carrie experiences the full height of her joy – and her Christlike forgiving of her oppressors, as she mouths, through tears, “Thank you” – De Palma designs a brilliant montage sequence, still in the slow-motion mode, in which Chris’s successful pulling of the rope results in a kind of cinematic orgasm, heightened by the spatialized shots of Chris licking her lips, of her eye, and of her bared teeth. De Palma expresses his own wresting of narrative control away from Carrie through these spatialized shots of a woman’s body, part-objects he wishes to reverence and destroy. Chris’s isolated eye, in particular, links her to Carrie as a fellow author-figure, whose killing eye will foment and foil narrative.

De Palma exudes his ambivalence towards the heterosexual master-narrative the ritual of the prom metonymically represents in another extraordinary failed pietà. When the bucket of blood releases its contents on Carrie, Tommy angrily (though, for us, silently) screams at the crowd, reaching out to comfort Carrie. But then the bucket itself falls on Tommy’s head, probably killing him on the spot – he becomes the decapitated male to Carrie’s seemingly castrated woman. As he reaches out to Carrie, he slides over her body, and – in a highly ambiguous manner – Carrie either reaches out to him or repulses his body from her own; either she mourns him or casts him out of her hell-paradise.

When Carrie is drenched with blood, De Palma drowns out almost every sound other than those in Carrie’s psychic life, save for the dripping sound of blood and the bucket swinging. What De Palma creates here as well in the film’s diegetic sound-world is a kind of split soundscape, which transforms into a split between the muted diegetic world and Carrie’s interiority. De Palma makes inaudible the “real” action of events, splitting its sounds off from those in Carrie’s head, producing odd effects such as P.J. Soles’ riotously cruel, guffawing, yet silent laughter. As she subjectively hears every member of the crowd, including Miss Collins, laughing at her, and her mother’s thickly exaggerated voice (“They’re all going to laugh at you”), Carrie also sees the crowd, spinning in vertiginous circles, laughing, taunting, in kaleidoscopic shots that are a formal tearing apart and reassembling of the image that anticipates the imminent use of split-screen. While it is clear that only a few members of the audience are actually laughing, at least at this point – and indeed that many are horrified and angry, ashamed for Carrie – what matters to De Palma and to us is that Carrie feels an unbearable assault of derisive looks and laughter, a kind of miasmic entombment in shame. When she ‘rises up from herself’, looking like a foetus covered in blood but with eternal, knowing, blinding eyes, she comes into her own as a powerful author figure whose eyes transform, reshape, and kill, the mirror and the match of De Palma’s camera. (Here De Palma’s film bears a certain similarity to David Cronenberg’s film about the birth of female rage, The Brood [1979], which may have been influenced by De Palma.) De Palma’s defence against Carrie’s gaze, the split screen technique allows him competitively both to control and manage Carrie’s vision; yet it also extends the reach and the range of her gaze.

In the first split-screen image, which signals the onslaught of her wrath, we see a close-up of Carrie’s face on the right of the screen as she telekinetically sets the stage – creates the scene – of her prom-destruction narrative; in the shifting images in opposition to her face, we see the back door close behind Chris and Billy as they leave the gym; the gym’s front doors closing; the lights turning red. (And it is clear in these shots – which do not appear as if they are from Carrie’s subjective view but are, instead, counterbalanced against her viewing, many of the prom-goers are indeed laughing, so – did they all really laugh at her? What did Carrie hear? What did she see? We will never know.) If Marnie saw red and then experienced trauma, Carrie turns her trauma into the colour red, reappropriating the colour of condemnation as her own palette of agency, much as his Puritan heroine Hester Prynne does in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Moreover, De Palma takes his intertextual agon with Hitchcock to a deeper, auditory level here (not for the first time in the film): Carrie’s telekinetic “flexing” is signalled by the sounds of shrieking violins, a quote from Bernard Herrmann’s indelible score for Psycho. In Herrmann’s score, the violins symbolize the sounds of Norman’s Bates’ annihilating knife during the shower-murder scene; but in De Palma, the effect is more various – the violins intertextually link Carrie to the equally mother-dominated Norman Bates, but they also signify, among other things, the force of De Palma’s editorial control, slicing through film to create singular images, and the fulfilment of Carrie’s promise of power.[15] Pino Donaggio’s Herrmannesque score further deepens the intertextual levels throughout, a split score split between homage and self-conscious mockery.

In an extraordinary effect, the image of Carrie’s face in one panel sinisterly passes across the screen itself, moving to the left. This manoeuvre firmly establishes the film at this point as a text, a narrative that Carrie’s authority grabs hold of, turns back to the beginning (the movement resembles a typewriter or keyboard cursor being moved to the starting position of the line), begins afresh. We can say, as well, that here De Palma acknowledges but also wrests himself free of the influence of King’s novel and of the struggle between literary and cinematic modes of telling a story; the moving panel of Carrie’s flexing face gestures towards literary production but more dramatically, as an effect only possible through the split screen, announces the potentialities of the cinematic, the image as endlessly mutable.

We then get a remarkable split-screen image, one panel of which is a close-up of Carrie’s face, the other of which is a medium shot of Carrie looking down at herself, engulfed in red blood and red light; the effect of this split image is to make it appear that Carrie stares, bewildered and awed, at her own image, a sight of wonder and horror, the ultimate representation of the split subject. Even more boldly, I would argue, than Hitchcock, De Palma fuses Expressionism with Surrealism, as this distorted, impossible, self-reflective image emblematises. It also begins to suggest that the blood itself – this chthonic, ancient symbol of the body and of femininity – transforms Carrie, who stares in wonderment at what the blood has wrought. The image again dramatizes De Palma’s split identification between Carrie and his cinema, empathy and horror, revelry and revulsion.

As the mêlée of destruction ensues, a deep, infernal red suffuses the entire gymscape, as the prom-goers, those who laughed and those who wept, all succumb to Carrie’s killing gaze; De Palma would appear to pay homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s great short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” (1842) in creating a pageant of revellers attempting to elude “the horror and the redness of blood.” De Palma’s films, as Terence Rafferty (1993) has argued, are best understood in the context of the collage.[16] The shots of the fire-hose swelling and surging with water, moving out of its casing, and pulverizing the prom-goers with its forceful blast, all organically correspond – formally as well as thematically – to the previous images in the film of Carrie in the shower, the water imagery and the phallic might of the shower-head. The snaky, slithering hose suggests Medusa’s snaky locks, just as the phallic nozzle spewing liquid suggests masculine sexuality. One split image counterbalances the phallic, spewing hose on the left with Carrie’s left-angled gaze on the right, associating her eyes with phallic, penetrative force. To use Thomas Doherty’s phrase, these images connote the abstract genital, fusing tropes of gendered power, as does the Medusa myth itself (1996).[17]

In Freud’s view, Medusa’s head signifies “the terrifying genitals of the mother”; males attempt to defend against this terror through the display of their “erect penis,” an apotropaic effect that attempts to “intimidate the Evil Spirit” to whom it says, “I am not afraid of you. I defy you. I have a penis”(1993, 18: 273-4). Revealing the hilarious inadequacy of this defence, Carrie dispatches the flimsy figures of male power with her phallic eyes. The male conspirators get caught in the gym doors that Carrie makes a maw; the anxious principal who couldn’t get Carrie’s name right and the ugly, bespectacled, pettily cruel English teacher are alternately electrocuted and burned to death; a male student who tries to arrest the wildly spraying hose only manages to direct its spray towards the electric lights, shattering them and disrupting the hold of red, which Carrie re-establishes through the flames that loom behind her and then adorn her descent from the stage and her eerie, godlike procession out of the gym.

In one of the most provocative and unsettling images, De Palma creates a surprising juxtaposition between two heretofore-oppositional characters. On the right side of the screen, we watch Chris and Billy watching the destruction; on the other side, we see Miss Collins, isolated from the group trying to aid the probably already dead Tommy Ross, thrown against the wall. The right side close-up of Chris’s face watching the mayhem in horror matches up against Miss Collins crying “Carrie, Carrie!” with her arms outstretched, then her hands covering her face; we then cut to paired/split images of Carrie’s telekinetic gaze and the basketball hoop-baseboard (in a grotesque parody of her gym-teacher role) violently wrenching loose and cutting Miss Collins’s body in two. De Palma then creates the stunning split image of Chris, her eyes popping in horror, watching on one side as Miss Collins writhes in her death-agonies on the other. The maternal themes of the film deepen the horror of this image; Miss Collins looks like a woman in the throes of a fatal childbirth or a woman fatally barred from embracing her daughter, another failed pietà. The last split-screen image shows us Miss Collins crumpled in death on the left, Carrie, bloody and erect on the stage. The failed mother sinks into oblivion as the avenging daughter rises up in apocalyptic triumph, a harbinger of the second climax of the film, in which Carrie and her mother have their final confrontation. Chris and Billy duck from their high vantage point lest Carrie see them and destroy them with her Medusian look.

Though it takes place outside the gym, Carrie’s destruction of Chris and Billy in their car provides the fitting conclusion to this entire sequence. As a red fire-truck heads for the gym, we see Carrie, a small, lonely, terrifying figure in red walking slowly towards us as Chris and Billy, Chris driving, speed towards Carrie in their red car (red, red, red), Chris barely containing her intent desire to run Carrie over. Almost at the point where Chris will run her over, Carrie turns around, stares them in the face, and then, with her flexing eyes, flips the car over, and then, with her eye, explodes the car. In a galvanizing effect, De Palma uses rapid-fire, surgical editing to give us the impression that we are zeroing in on Carrie’s eye and then that it outwardly projects the force of destruction. For Eyal Peretz, De Palma is the “greatest contemporary investigator, at least in American cinema, of the nature and the logic of the cinematic image,” which Peretz, following Lacan, describes as a blankness at the heart of the senses” (2007, 18). While the first part of Peretz’s argument seems undeniably true, I’m not so sure if De Palma is equally convinced about the blankness of the senses. If anything, in Carrie, he seems to suggest that looks can truly kill, that vision has the power to extend the force of the mind; De Palma’s corporeal cinema defies the bodilessness, the affectlessness, of Lacanian theory (which is why De Palma reanimates Freud’s body-bound thinking). If, in Psycho, Marion Crane’s dead eye, staring lifelessly out at us, projects the image of the death of the heroine at the hands of male power, Carrie’s eye outwardly, actively, phallically wields the power of death over life.

The Mother’s Phallus/The Final Embrace

The living Mrs. White replaces the dead mother of Psycho. Like Mrs. Bates – at least, insofar as Norman impersonates her – Mrs. White both phobically fulminates against sex and displays ravenous interest in it. In the second – and truer – climax of the film, Mrs. White confronts her daughter with the full force of her tormented relationship to sexuality; in a long, desperate, sad, frightening monologue, she explains to Carrie that her sin lies in having experienced pleasure in her sexual relations with her husband: “I liked it,” she moans, “I liked it.” Mrs. White indexes the entire history of religious intolerance over sexuality and the eroticisation of this intolerance; reliving her own sexual past, Mrs. White reveals herself not as the film’s maternal superego but as its obscene mother, the mother who makes her own sexuality a spectacle for the child.[18] But, through the oddly angled focus at which we see Mrs. White kneeling before her daughter, she is also a child begging her mother for absolution. At the heart of this scene lies the unspeakable sorrow of an infinite divide between mother and daughter – each inconsolable and unable to console the other. In the most heartbreaking staging of the failed pietà in the film, Carrie finally has her mother’s arms around her, pressed against her body, wanting her mother’s love, love that Mrs. White seems finally on the verge of freely giving; and then Mrs. White picks up the enormous, gleaming phallic knife that she plunges into Carrie’s body. The promise of absolution and shared loves transmutes into the fatal severing of the mother-daughter bond. Playing with the tropes of obscenity he associates with her fundamentalism and self-loathing, De Palma films Mrs. White from a low angle, from Carrie’s perspective as she struggles, on the floor, to escape her mother; we see Mrs. White holding the knife, using it to sign the cross, all with a mad smile of unspeakably delicious delight. This is De Palma at his most Buñuelian: the entire sequence recalls the mother-meat dream in Los Olvidados (1950).

The mother who has absorbed the most woman-hating messages of patriarchy now wields a symbol that embodies its most murderous logic – phallogocentric power in the hands of a misogynistic, mad, self-hating, obscenely pleasured woman. This symbol represents not only a fetishistic overcompensation but also a phallicization of the traditional tools of the domestic angel, as the earlier overhead shot of Mrs. White chopping vegetables (ominously) with the knife suggested. Overturning and revising the Medea myth in which the mother kills her children, Carrie saves herself by telekinetically wielding the same domestic-phallic instruments of death and sending them hurtling into the mother’s body, using to the nth power the same phallic weaponry the mother wields. But so profoundly has the mother identified with the patriarchal logic that condemns her, when the domestic implements – a grater, other kinds of knives – impale her, she releases the fullest expression of orgasmic joy in the film, a kind of keening cry of final erotic fulfilment that satirizes as it surpasses all of the attempts at various kinds of satisfaction, pleasure, and fulfilment on the part of the other characters in the film; she mockingly transforms the mother’s cry of anguish in childbirth into the orgasmic cries of pleasure in death as the child she birthed kills her. When she dies, impaled, with a smile on her face, this blasphemous image associates her with the similarly impaled statue, oddly present in Carrie’s closet, of the Catholic martyr St.Sebastian, who has arrows sticking out of his body. Though De Palma certainly exudes a kind of satirical glee at this climactic religious parody, this is far from its only register. Few moments in the history of the cinema are more devastating than Carrie’s anguished cry of loss when she contemplates her mother’s lifeless body, hugging her to her own as the house itself begins to shatter and finally implode. As has occurred throughout the film, satire cedes to sorrow, one so deep that the world has to end.

Though famed for its Deliverance-style denouement in which Carrie’s bloody red hand rises from the grave and grabs Sue Snell’s as she deposits flowers on Carrie’s (rubbly, scorched-earth grave, from which a make-shift cross obscenely juts, with the words “Carrie White Burns in Hell” scrawled on it,), this is not the final image of the film. The final image is of Sue Snell in her mother’s arms; as Sue screams during her nightmare, her mother, holding her, says, “It’s alright, I’m here”; this frenzied image nevertheless constitutes the closest approximation of a loving mother-daughter embrace in the film. Enhancing this sense, De Palma cast Priscilla Pointer, Amy Irving’s real-life mother, in the role of Sue Snell’s mother. The bleak and horrifying Carrie, with its untenable mother-daughter bond and theme of the failed embrace, ends dramatically with an image of a mother and daughter, however agonizingly, in each other’s arms – itself, of course, another resolutely split image, agonizingly poised between life and death.

The Fatal Embrace

Mrs. White chooses death as compensation for the traumatic loss of her daughter. Her attempt to kill Carrie is also an attempt to kill herself, one that spectacularly succeeds: well aware of Carrie’s power, her mother must know that any attempt to harm her may have fatal consequences. Attempting to control Carrie, Mrs. White emerges as perhaps the author-figure with whom De Palma most closely identifies. Attempting to control and finally sever herself from Carrie; terrorized but captivated by sex; registering the violence enacted against women yet acting violently towards a woman, Mrs. White allegorises De Palma’s own conflictual directorial project. But De Palma identifies with almost all of the women in this film, with, I believe, the exception being Miss Collins. The only woman with actual, autocratic power in the film, she is also its chief hypocrite, the one who tells Tommy Ross that he will look ridiculous if he takes Carrie to the prom. It is the figure of the hypocrite whom De Palma cannot abide and who endures the most savage retribution.

What has been overlooked in most studies of De Palma is his investment in women. This investment is an ambivalent, fraught one, but it is an investment. Caught up in their fates, De Palma joins in with his female characters in their daring, dangerous battle against patriarchy, even if De Palma also constructs the narratives in which these battles are waged from a position of patriarchal power. I believe that De Palma’s interest in femininity stems from his prevailing interest in issues of intimacy and betrayal; women become important to De Palma, then, from an essentialist understanding of women as the more affectionally motivated of the sexes and therefore the most emblematic of issues involving interpersonal ties. Without exculpating De Palma for this essentialism, I argue that women are crucial to his cinema not just for issues of misogyny and violence but in order to understand the nature of cinematic representations of emotional and psychic experiences and processes, especially in terms of individual directorial obsessions.

De Palma shares the conflicted response to intimacy of Tommo, Herman Melville’s narrator in his first novel, Typee (1846). Observing the Marquesan islanders interactions with their colonial oppressors, Tommo remarks: “Fatal embrace! They fold to their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys; and the instinctive feeling of love within their breast is soon converted into the bitterest hate” (1846/1996, 26). In the end, the failed pietà of Carrie and other De Palma films represents the welter of warring emotions; the emotional and psychic needs and demands in his works. It represents the desperate need for connection and closure and the horror of intimacy and its threat of engulfment. It registers the potential for love and recognition but also suffering and violation, the piercing stab of betrayal within the very heart of the bonds of love and tenderness. The relentless splitting of his cinema attests to a despairing belief that all bonds will be severed, all intimacies shattered. De Palma’s roaming identificatory relationships with the various women author figures in this film and others is, finally, a desperate display of longing and loss, a search for one character who will return his embrace.


Allen, Richard. 2007. Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ayers, Mary.2003.Mother-Infant Attachment and Psychoanalysis: The Eyes of Shame. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

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[1] Coykendall presents the problem of deciphering what she calls De Palma’s “phallocentrism” as “a difficult endeavour,” because he “has himself already performed his own manipulation of the scopic drive via a distinctly self-referential hermaneutics of desire” (2000, 330). He “does indeed attempt to give ‘voice’ to the constrained, ‘castrated’ role that women…frequently play in films of any genre: namely, to display the audience’s own disavowed fears and helpless, paranoid reactions” (330). His films evoke “multivalent desires” (335). Coykendall’s brilliant insights into the difficulty of De Palma films must contend with what in my view is a disastrous manoeuvre taken by the essay to treat De Palma’s film and King’s novel as one and the same, both freaked out by a female power that they see as newly inevitable thanks to the success of feminism, with its ability to give women access to birth control pills and other new corporeal technologies and freedoms. De Palma’s baroque but also female-identified (admittedly not the same as feminist) sensibility and King’s are utterly distinct, but Coykendall views them, ultimately, as the same author.

[2] The predictability and therefore the knowability of Carrie’s menstruating body, argues Briefel in dispute with Lindsey’s (1996) reading, “compounds our identification with the female monster” (2005, 24; my emphasis). Yet Briefel concludes her essay on the horror film with a reading of the genre as
sexist in its relegation of a distancing masochism to the male monster and a feeling, empathy-inducing pain to the female one. The audience is barred from identifying with the masochistic male monster as it is encouraged to identify with the pain of the female one. Through this sexual segregation, the horror film “sets a safe parameter around the [horror film] spectators’ alleged masochism,” engaging in a conservatism that resists the potentially radical experience of the horror film” (25). Though she makes many striking points, I am not in agreement with Briefel’s view here. To take Carrie as an example, points of identification with Carrie undergo so many radical changes and challenges throughout the film that our own spectatorial position can only be described as liquid.

[3] For an excellent overview of critical views of De Palma’s purported misogyny and a careful, measured, and persuasive challenge to these views, see MacKinnon (1990), especially the lengthy discussion of Carrie in chapter six.

[4] “An explosion of drugs, sex and trance-like music invaded Off-Off Broadway, exemplified by Richard Schechner’s Euripides adaptation Dionysus in ‘69, played in a converted garage on Wooster Street,” writes critic Dan Callahan (2006). “This production so impressed Brian De Palma that he invested a lot of his own money trying to make a filmed record of the performance, and he spent two years on the project, mainly because he wanted to utilize split-screens in order to replicate the play’s open-ended freedom.”

[5] MacKinnon (1990, 186-7) observes that Dionysus in 69, based on Euripides’s play, foregrounds the hazards of the male gaze, since it climaxes in the beheading of Pentheus, who refusing to believe in Dionysus, spies on the wine-god’s group of nocturnal female worshippers, the Maenads, one of whom is Pentheus’s mother, who rend apart animals flesh in the night-time forest. When the Maenads discover Pentheus voyeuristically gazing upon them, they rip off his head; his mother, before she regains her daytime senses, carries his head on a stick. Carrie demands an analysis of this earlier film’s overlaps with its own themes, which extend the Greek myth into a kind of cross-Catholic but also secularised modern version.

[6] When criticized for “portraying graphic violence, De Palma responds that he is incorporating Eisenstein’s theory of montage as conflict, that ‘film is violence.’ Stylization acts to aesthetically distance De Palma’s violence so that it becomes a visual effect rather than a naturalistic detail.” See Monaco et al (1991, 152).

[7] The film’s thematic fixation on bonds between women is one of the many reasons why Kakmi’s (2000) appealing but limited analysis of the film misses the mark. Kakmi argues for the patriarchal significance of the key that Carrie wears around her neck. “Sissy Spacek revealed that the key is used to unlock a box kept under her bed, which contains, among other things, a photograph of Tommy and her father (these scenes were excised from the final cut). In a Freudian sense, Carrie has collapsed father into object of desire, and keeps them both imprisoned in her box. We can hardly overlook the echoes here of Ovid’s retelling of the incestuous tale of Myrrha and her father Cinyras in Metamorphoses. …. In Stephen King’s book (on which the film is based) it is stated that Carrie’s father is the bearer of the ‘telekinesis gene,’ which he has bequeathed upon his daughter. Seen from young Carrie’s point of view, the absent father is like a distant god who descends to plant his seed in a mortal before ascdending the heights of Olympus, never to be seen again. Although she lives in an earthly matriarchy, Carrie is very much under the spell of a patriarchal force which keeps her in thrall.” (2000) Kakmi goes on to theorize that the key has even greater significance in that it “symbolizes Hecate, Greek goddess of Shades and sorcery,” and also represents the unconscious and the witch’s power of life over death. Overall, I disagree with Kakmi, who makes the same error that Coykendall (2000) makes in collapsing De Palma’s film and King’s novel, over the significance of the key. In a Freudian sense, the key metonymically represents Carrie’s sexuality, which she hopes to unlock (echoes of Freud’s famous case history Dora); but what lies within this box remains forever unknown, enigmatic, precisely because the ritual of heterosexual fulfilment and socialization of the prom is itself annihilated. Carrie’s desire finds its clearest expression in her desire for union with the mother, as her final attempt at embracing even her dead mother expresses. That De Palma, who exerts such auteurist control over his cinema, excised any indication of the father’s image says a great deal about his resolutely feminine focus in the film, in which the father is a ghostly, intangible, close to irrelevant presence. “He ran away, Mama,” Carrie resolutely tells her mother, dispelling any attempt at keeping his ghost alive; if anything, it is Mrs. White who remains haunted by her husband’s presence.

[8] Smith-Rosenberg (1975) famously argued that Victorian women enjoyed deep ties of intimacy that possibly bordered on the erotic, but in many important works of nineteenth-century fiction, such as Melville’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, same-sex ties connote hostility and enmity, not connection and intimacy, a view that continues to resonate in De Palma films.

[9] “All women,” observes Lorber (1994, 49) of patriarchal attitudes towards menstruation, “are said to suffer the “horrors” of “that time of the month”… In our society, [such] syndromes denigrate women as a group and justify their less-than-fully human status.” Obviously, the literature on misogyny and its ramifications in our culture is immense.

[10] Here are snippets of the language used in King’s (1974/1999, 7-12) description of Carrie during the menstruation-shower scene: “She looked around bovinely. Her hair stuck to her cheeks in a curling helmet shape. There was a cluster of acne on one shoulder. …. She backed away, howling…fat forearms crossing her face… She looked like an ape.”

[11] In his excellent new study of De Palma, Peretz (2007) describes this scene differently, from a philosophical perspective that, I think, misses out on the erotic stakes of De Palma’s work. “What Carrie discovers under the shower is precisely that she has a period, that is, that she is a body, and a body as nakedness, that is as something that can bleed and therefore be wounded, a naked body that is not a self-sufficient totality but a vulnerable open surface” (Peretz 2007, 32). But De Palma’s fascination with Carrie stems from the fact that hers is a woman’s body, not just any, philosophically de-sexed body. What any analysis of De Palma’s cinema needs to address is his fascination and conflictual identification with the feminine.

[12] According to the documentary Acting Carrie (Laurent Bouzereau, 2001) included in the Special Features section of the most recent DVD of the film (1976; Los Angeles, CA: MGM/UA Home Video, 2001), a costume designer had changed the gown’s colour from the script’s red to pink; Piper Laurie fought to retain the line, believing, rightly, that it would speak volumes about Mrs. White’s attitudes towards sexuality.

[13] For an excellent discussion of the play of expressionistic and surrealistic techniques in Hitchcock films, see Allen’s (2007) excellent recent study of Hitchcock’s aesthetics (chapter six, on colour design in Hitchcock, especially).

[14] In his extraordinary brief paper “Medusa’s Head” (1993, 18: 273-4) published in 1940 but dated as having been written in 1922 (“it appears,” writes Freud’s standard translator James Strachey, “to be a sketch for a more extensive work” [1993, 18: 273n1]), Freud uses this Greek myth as an occasion to defamiliarize at once the family and the pleasures of sexuality. Contemplating the “horrifying decapitated head of Medusa,” Freud first associates it with the fear of castration: “To decapitate=to castrate.” He then proceeds to make a further linkage: Medusa terrifies because she links castration to “the sight of something” (273; my emphasis). Freud reminds us that castration fear is specifically a male fear, a fear that the boy feels; zeroing in on an even more specific target, Freud says that it is “the boy who has hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration” who is made to acknowledge castration. He acknowledges it because he is made to experience most overpoweringly the fear of it. This fear is a profound comeuppance that shatters his unbelief: he “catches sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother.” Presumably, this once unbelieving boy is now wholly, utterly, a believer; crucially, the source of this fear is essentially his mother.

[15] The contributions of Paul Hirsch, the official editor of Carrie and numerous De Palma films, should not be discounted, but De Palma appears to have taken a particularly active hand in the editorial process of composing Carrie. For instance, he revealed that, to create the split-screen sequence: ”I spent six weeks myself cutting it together. I had one hundred and fifty set-ups, trying to get this thing together. I put it all together and it lasted five minutes and it was just too complicated. Also, you lost a lot of visceral punch from full-screen action. Then my editor and I proceeded to pull out of the split-screen and use it just when we precisely needed it.” See the 1977 De Palma interview with Mike Childs and Alan Jones, “De Palma Has the Power!” collected in Knapp (2003, 42).

[16] As Rafferty (1993, 58)observes in his discussion of The Fury, its “narrative is delirious, out of control, but its horror is rigorous, with the unexpected formal correspondence of a collage.”

[17] Doherty (1996, 196)describes the art direction in the Alien films, as “abstract genital,” simultaneously “penile and uterine.”

[18] Mrs. White emerges here as a female version of what Zizek (1991, 23), parsing Lacan, describes as “the obscene and revengeful figure of the Father-of-Enjoyment,” “split between cruel revenge and crazy laughter.”

Author Bio

David Greven is an Assistant Professor of English at Connecticut College. He is the author of the forthcoming Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (University of Texas Press, 2009) and Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). A specialist in nineteenth-century American literature, Hollywood film, and psychoanalytic gender and sexuality studies, Greven is currently working on a book on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction and
Freudian literary theory.

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