Originally published by Ms., Sociological Images, and The Huffington Post

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to 7167066734_95a0688a25signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order–as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now–when 41 percent of Americans report being born again–was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters, Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers–who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening–and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation–coming into her power–which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end–as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed–but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her–and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. For more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwo, Three, and Four.

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Cross Posted at Ms.

When the film industry finds an idea that works, they tend to use it again and again. And again. And again and again. In the realm of horror, once a franchise has spawned seven or so sequels, filmmakers continue to capitalize on name recognition by simply going back to the beginning and starting over. This Halloween season’s Carrie represents the fifth reboot of a successful horror franchise in the last 10 years. The teen-angst turned supernatural-revenge tragedy joins Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Halloween (2007), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), and Evil Dead (2013) in recycling stories and characters first introduced in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Love them or hate them–and the ongoing success of these franchises tells us that a lot of people love them–horror movies provide a window into our culture’s deepest fears, drawing from a well of shared anxieties created by both domestic and geopolitical threats. Reboots adapt existing stories to frighten in new contexts by replacing the fears behind the original story with ones of contemporary significance. The changes tell us a lot about what audiences feared then and what they fear now.

The original films Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween–released between 1974 and 1984–reflect a culture-wide fear of the unknown fed by the Cold War, repeated oil crises, economic stagnation, and changes to family structures. These slasher flicks, as they came to be called, focus on the vulnerability of the victims: They use suspense, generated by the knowledge that the killer might strike at any moment, punctuated occasionally by successful attacks, to keep the audience in a state of terror. The reboots, on the other hand, put the killers themselves–and their violence–front and center.

texas-chainsaw-movie-poster-2The 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which a group of teenagers runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and is terrorized by unemployed slaughterhouse workers, was being made during the OPEC embargo of 1973, when, for the first time, America realized the danger of it’s dependence on foreign oil. In the film, while a supposedly town-wide gas shortage leaves these all-American kids vulnerable, Leatherface and his family are conspicuously running their generator, drawing the teens to their house. The sound of the generator mirrors the sound of the chainsaw, while repeated shots of a decrepit, unused windmill remind the audience that we have put our fates in the hands of those with access to oil.

The 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in the midst of our occupation of Iraq, created a new character in the form of a crooked cop who aids and abets Leatherface. This film relies on the fear that corruption of authority has left us vulnerable to evil, a fear that proved all too real when news broke of torture at Abu Ghraib seven months later. Whereas the original movie relies largely on camera angles and surprise to generate fear, the reboot relishes not in the moments before an attack but in the attacks themselves, and therefore puts as much violence as possible on-screen. The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre arguably marked the beginning of what has been called torture porn–the graphic portrayal of violence perpetrated against imprisoned victims–perfected in such franchises as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005).

halloween_1_poster_02Of the three rebooted slasher franchises, Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween takes its story as far from the original as possible while still featuring characters with the same names. Whereas in the original, Micheal Myers‘s childhood murder of his sister occurs before we know anything about him or his family, the remake spends the entire first half of the film exploring Micheal’s motivations. The audience is presented with every social ill imaginable: Divorce, an evil step-dad, a neglectful sister, an over-sexed mother, the failure of therapy, and a corrupt prison system all serve to turn a loveable child into a serial killer. Whereas the original Halloween (1979) focuses on the vulnerability of teen-aged girls to predators lurking in the bushes, the remake seeks to justify Meyers’ desire to maim and mutilate.

A Nightmare on Elm Street represents more domestic fears. The original, released in 1984, focuses on Nancy, a teen-aged girl whose parents have recently divorced. Her father is therefore absent while her mother is too much of an emotional wreck to protect her daughter from evil. The context? The United States divorce rate had peaked at 5.3% in 1981, leaving unprecedented numbers of “latch-key kids” and an underlying anxiety that the central organizing unit of our society was falling apart. Nancy’s generation–that of X–has even been called “The Divorce Generation.”

MV5BMTMxOTk4NjMzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQ3NDAzMg@@._V1._SX325_SY500_In the first film, Freddy‘s original sin (having sexually abused children) is mentioned only as the motivation for the parents’ misdeeds. The 2010 remake turns pedophilia into the primary fear driving the story. This is not surprising, given that from 2001-2009 the Catholic Church publicly faced sex abuse allegations against thousands of priests for acts going back 50 years. The teenagers tasked with taking down Freddy in 2010 are not confronted with their parents’ malfeasance, as they were in 1984; they are confronted with their own suppressed memories of abuse. What makes Nancy vulnerable today is not unfit parents but her sexual attractiveness to predators.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America feared the things hiding in the dark. The monsters under our beds were the invisible but menacing power of the Soviet Union, stagflation that kept us suspended in economic limbo, the possible disintegration of family structures, and repeated energy crises which undermined our sense of our country as a superpower. Naturally the horror films of those decades were about faceless terrors that might jump out at us at any moment. Though A Nightmare of Elm Street contained more gore than its predecessors, all three originals rely on shadow, suspense, and surprise to frighten us. Today our fears are of the terrible things happening right in front of us–chemical weapons, gun violence, and sexual abuse–over which we seem to have no power. Not surprisingly then, this decade’s horror movies have focused the camera on the act of violence itself.

What has all this meant for women? The original slasher films have been rightly criticized for their killer’s-eye views of mostly-naked women running scared. Theoretically, shifting the camera’s focus to the killer could have disrupted the male gaze. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the psychology of the killers and the focus on torture rather than the chase do just the opposite: The remakes ultimately turn women’s bodies into ever more irrelevant carnage, with the Halloween remake being the most offensive both to horror fans and feminists.

The return of the Evil Dead franchise and the new Carrie join The Conjuring, the Insidious films, The Possession, The Last Exorcism, and other recent movies in embodying contemporary fears not in serial killers but in supernatural forces. Hopefully this trend will mark the end of the torture porn era. The original Carrie (1979), about the daughter of a religious fanatic whose telekinetic powers eventually fulfill her mother’s prophesies of doom, was released in the year that Time Magazine called “The Year of the Evangelical.” Perhaps the Left-Behind philosophy of contemporary evangelicals and their kindred nihilists in politics, The Tea Party, are still enough to frighten us, because the available plot synopsis for the reboot indicates that the story hasn’t been changed at all.

For my own tastes–and I am a huge fan of horror movies–I prefer to be frightened by suspense and the supernatural rather than evisceration. But I’ve no doubt that torture porn stems from unacknowledged guilt about crimes against humanity committed both at home and abroad. These films are the clearest examples yet of John Carpenter’s horror aphorism: “Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. They’re us with hats on.”

DSC_0045Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games, and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. For more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwo, and Three. Tune in next week to see if my predictions about the new Carrie are accurate in Part Five: The Blood of Carrie.