There’s magic in growing up. It’s a theme that forms the catalyst for many of Stephen King’s stories. The shifting of innocence into maturity, the awakening of self and awareness of all the possibilities of the future, and triumph over fear—the most powerful magic of all—are an element of the alchemy of childhood. In King’s world it is children who are the strongest, and adults often triumph by discovering their inner child…or meet terrible ends in their failure to do so. But there’s a space in between. A gap between kids like Danny Torrance, Jake Chambers, Mark Petrie, The Losers, and adults like Ben Mears, Frannie Goldsmith, Johnny Smith, and The Losers twenty-seven years later. In that gap resides adolescence, an oftentimes invisible stage of becoming within King’s works, a stage that’s either unremarkable or all-but forgotten in the characters’ memories. In adolescence, the magic is turbulent, muddied, and the possibilities of the future take on a claustrophobia-inducing narrowness. The magic of adolescence is unknown, and harnessing it can be just as destructive as it is beneficial. That stands especially true for the most notable teenagers of Stephen King’s novels: Carrie White and Arnie Cunningham. The telling of their stories is separated by nine years, nevertheless these two characters represent a fearful symmetry defined by the heartbreak of knowing the limitations on their future.
Track 1: “You Got Enough Trouble Without That”
In both Carrie and Christine, and their respective films by Brian De Palma and John Carpenter, Carrie and Arnie’s central threat to self comes from a fear of being laughed at. This is no different from any other teenager, which is so often what makes high school settings so despicable for the characters trapped in them. If there’s one thing that’s consistent among the teenagers in these respective stories, it’s that no one wants to be vulnerable, and that often means rejecting sincerity. We see this rejection of sincerity as Tommy Ross laughs off the reading of his poem early on in Carrie, and we see this as Dennis and his football teammates urge each other to ask out new girl Leigh Cabot, their rejections inciting outbursts of communal laughter in Christine. Even among the outsiders of these high school environments, there’s a protective force formed by the fact that at least they can cling to their outsider label, are defined by their peers in some knowable, categorical way. What makes Arnie (Keith Gordon) and Carrie (Sissy Spacek) such targets is that they exist as question marks, ubiquitous in their distance from the norm, slightly frightening in their pathetic natures, like warning signs to their peers of what they could be if life’s deck had been stacked against them. Carrie, unquestionably has it worse within both her high school and home setting than Arnie does, and much of that stems for King’s willingness to acknowledge the different experiences between teenage boys and teenage girls. There are distinct gender dynamics at play in Carrie and Christine, as both De Palma’s and Carpenter’s films follow depict.
Track 2: “They’re All Going to Laugh at You”
Within the opening minutes of both films, we witness defining moments of bullying that shape the course of the rest of the films. Arnie’s happens in shop class, as masculine a setting as any, when Buddy Rapperton and his friends take Arnie’s lunch and break his glasses. This is rather typical bullying, but Carpenter escalates the tension by having Rapperton pull a switchblade on Arnie. The camera pulls back to show Arnie cornered like some small animal among a vicious back of wolves. Among the gray walls, and industrial shop machines Carpenter and cinematographer Donald M. Morgan create a sense of confinement, and further the idea that Arnie has nowhere to go in life other than this. While this event happens later in King’s novel, in the film it serves as the impetus of Arnie’s decision to try to reclaim some of the masculinity and freedom he feels is missing. It is what draws him to Christine.
Carrie’s opening minutes, as the high school showers turn to a scene of horror, are more iconic. The camera moves gracefully over the bathing young women, their open nudity signaling a comfort with their bodies. The combination of Pino Donaggio’s melodic score, and cinematographer Mario Tosi’s focus on the cascading water and steam creates an almost mystic scene as if we were watching nymphs instead of adult women playing high school students. This opening frames Carrie as a Greek Tragedy, and its heightened reality exists in stark contrast to Carpenter’s more grounded establishing scenes in Christine. Of course the defining moments within this opening begin when Carrie starts her period. The melodic music fades away as she brings her hand to her face and sees the blood running through her fingers. As she runs from the shower in horror, desperately clutching at the other girls, smearing her blood on them, the nymphic beauties become shrill harpies, throwing tampons and chanting, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
While Arnie’s feeling of his masculinity being attacked has little to do with his body, and more so with his status as weak, as virgin, as loser, Carrie’s femininity is directly attacked. Her womanhood is profusely denied by her peers (and later by her mother). As gym teacher, Miss Collins tells Carrie’s attackers later, “I don’t think any of you have any idea of just how nasty what you did really was.” It’s clear that the girls, led by Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) don’t have a clue, and that they don’t care, apart from the consequences of detention. Like Buddy Rapperton and his friends, Carrie’s tormenters, with the exception of Sue Snell, find the situation more amusing than damning. Laughter is their best weapon, a way to cement the community from which Carrie and Arnie exist apart.
Track 3: “For the First Time in My Life I Found Something That’s Uglier Than Me (I Know What I Am)”
Carrie and Arnie are awakened by newfound power. For Carrie, it’s the harnessing of the telekinesis she’s exhibited since a child, a factor that the novel makes more explicit. And for Arnie, it’s a red
and white 1958 Plymoth Fury named Christine. Both teenagers receive a bit of what they need, and a bit of what they don’t. Early on, we’re given the idea that both of these powers are evil, that they stem from the devil. In Arnie’s case, that hypothesis is true. Christine is pure evil, and has been since the day she was made. And Christine looks evil, corroded and more ready for the junk yard than to go parking with any girl, until it begins to repair itself and mask its ugliness. But Carrie’s telekinesis isn’t evil, despite her mother’s instance that it comes from the sin of being a woman. It’s an invisible force of change and that invisibility gives her power a possibility to be either a force for good or evil. Carrie’s is a power of self and initially fosters her own self-improvement by giving her an upper-hand on her mother. While Arnie’s power is material, physically discrete and lacking in possibility. His self-repair begins with other people rather than on himself. It’s interesting that Carrie’s way out is through her mind, while Arnie’s is a car, both of which speak to the great 20th century American dream of the working, self-powered woman unconfined to home, and the roaming man, free to find himself on the great highways, unconfined by borders.
Both Christine and the telekinesis take on a kind of sexual power, and it doesn’t go unnoticed that Carrie can achieve this power entirely on her own, while Arnie needs a partner. Sex is power, and wrongly acknowledged or not, sex serves a bridge to adulthood in many societies. While both Arnie and Carrie’s sexuality is denied in the form of Arnie’s virginity and boyish body, and Carrie’s forced repression of her womanhood, they find a sexual power in their symbiotic relationships with their supernatgural gifts. These gifts are like newfound organs, ones could potentially ferry them into adulthood and not simply the sad, controlled adulthoods they imagined for themselves, but normal ones like they assume their peers will have. For Arnie, this is easier to imagine. Despite his status as other, he does have a friend. Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), Arnie’s childhood friend, is popular, honest, and good-natured. It’s through his perspective that we experience the majority of the novel Christine. In both King’s novel and Carpenter’s film, Dennis stands in contrast to Arnie, their friendship straining credibility so much that Arnie considers himself to be Dennis’ charity case. While Dennis is occasionally frustrated by Arnie’s arrested development, the friendship between them is genuine. Dennis with his cool car, and his choice of girlfriends becomes the figure that Arnie can imagine himself being, with the help of Christine. Carrie, on the other hand is entirely friendless. The only act of kindness from a female peer, Sue Snell, is done entirely in secret, an act done not of friendship but of guilt-driven empathy. There’s no path for Carrie to follow to reach her adulthood normalcy. She only knows that its different from the life she’s lived all her life, and the way to get there comes from her mind. For Both Carrie and Arnie, their power, and their means of escape are treated as something ugly, and forbidden, inexplicit sexual taboos. But the solace they find in ugliness, in these supposed devil works, only push Carrie and Arnie further into them.
Track 4: “Part of Being a Parent is Trying to Kill Your Kids”
Not only must Arnie and Carrie contend with their high school peers, they must also combat their parents, who are equally damaging. Margaret White (Piper Laurie) is consumed by a mad religious fervor, a fire and brimstone parenting style that’s nothing short of abuse. Unlike Mrs. WhiteArnie’s parents are genuinely good people, but they subject Arnie to the kind of rule system that has made him grow stagnant, and prevented him from maturity outside of schoolbooks and perfect grades. Both the Cunninghams and Mrs. White exhibit a need to control their children, a perverse method of protection that only ultimately invites danger. Christine exhibits this need to control to some extent as well. While Arnie sees her as his path to freedom, she limits him, separating him from his friends, his girlfriend, and replacing love with a putrid hate that fuels her. These parents exhibit a fear of their children’s sexuality, and thus their impending adulthood. “I know where they take them in their cars,” Margaret White says of boys and Carrie’s prom invitation from Tommy Ross. This same knowing is also why Mrs. Cunningham forbids Arnie from parking the car in their driveway, in the hopes that limiting his access to it will also limit his access to girls, and the things boys do in cars with girls. In the novel, Arnie, now almost entirely under the influence of Christine, offers a theory to Dennis about this fear. “Has it ever occurred to you…that parents are nothing but overgrown kids until their children drag them into adulthood? Usually kicking and screaming… I think that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids…Because as soon as you have a kid, you know for sure that you’re going to die. When you have a kid, you see your own gravestone.” What’s ironic is that this parental fear of growing up, growing old, and losing a sense of control is exactly the same fear that Arnie and Carrie have. Adolescents, particularly in these cases, also fear growing old, fear the gravestone, which is why they rebel. Without rebellion there’s a sense of very little control over what they become, and so they chase after adulthood, try to catch it and mold it, lest it rise up and consume them in a slow digestive process that it ends with bones and dust.
Track 5: “Red. I might have Known It Would Be Red”
Red is the color of love, lust, rage, and blood. Each of these pushes the narratives of Carrie and Christine to their horrific climaxes. For Arnie, the final straw is when Buddy Rapperton and his friends destroy his car, smashing it, ripping out consoles, cutting wires, and shitting on the hood. The sight of the damage elicits such an emotional response in Arnie that he vomits, and all his entire sense of self seems displaced and replaced by something black and cruel. Carpenter doesn’t linger on the destruction or Arnie’s reaction like the book does, which results in a certain impulsiveness and disconnect in Arnie’s revenge. It’s impersonal, and cold, like the way Arnie tells Detective Junkins that “shit wipes off,” when he’s first questioned in relation to the deaths of his classmates. His reaction, in conjunction with the fact that Gordon plays Arnie like a combination of drug addict and 50s greaser, is prototypically male. He shoves down his emotions, buries them, and becomes poisoned by them, just as every trope and truth of male anger suggests.
With Carrie, cataclysm is delayed with slow-burning and painful joy. While Arnie never gets the opportunity to be truly happy, outside sporadic moments with Leigh, and is constantly on the defense, Carrie gets a brief moments of happiness at the prom. Tommy Ross, played with effortless charm by William Katt, finally gives in to sincerity, and Carrie is allowed to experience romance that goes above and beyond her wishes for simple normalcy. We know this romance won’t last, though we desperately want it to. De Palma teases us with the idea that Carrie could be happy, that her life could finally begin. But by now we’re all too aware of the bucket of pig’s blood, and the rope in Chris’s hands. De Palma creates an almost sexual tension in the minutes leading up to the bucket of pig’s blood falling on Carrie’s head. The atmosphere becomes dreamlike and the voices in the auditorium fade as the moment comes into focus. No matter how many times this scene is shown, and no matter how many remakes have attempted to replicate this moment, nothing matches the sheer, wide-eyed and vacant horror that comes over Sissy Spacek’s face as the pig’s blood hits her. While Arnie’s rage plays out over the course of days, Carrie’s is immediate an outburst that represses nothing and showcases all the pain and hurt she feels in that moment, that she’s felt for her entire life. Carrie opens with water, but ends in fire as high school is stripped of its mystique and beauty and revealed as the hell that Carrie has always experienced it as. The pig’s blood baptism, like the destruction of Arnie’s car, aren’t just horrible, cruel pranks, but attacks on their very femininity and masculinity, social castrations that confirm their biggest fears, that they cannot grow into more than what they are in that moment, jokes to be laughed out and adolescents unable to cross the gap.
Track 6: I Want to Start Trying to Be A Whole Person (Before It’s Too Late)”
In terms of the film adaptations it’s far easier to sympathize with Carrie than it is with Arnie, though both are victims of circumstances that spiral out of their control. Because Dennis serves as the protagonist of Christine, it’s far easier to label Arnie as an antagonist. Arnie’s connection with Christine changes him, so that by the end he shares little resemblance to the Arnie we started with. But Carrie, the film version which removes the epistolary nature of the novel, is entirely centered on Carrie’s perspective, and she remains the same person throughout, uncorrupted by her supernatural power. Though some readings and the various adaptations do suggest that Carrie’s powers grow beyond her conscious control, it’s more likely that Carrie’s entire destruction of Chambrerlain came from a subconscious desire to see the small-world that contained her destroyed, if not a conscious one. With Carrie, there’s almost a righteousness to her act. King intended Carrie to be a tragic heroine, a kind of martyr for two teenage girls he knew growing up whose tragic lives and death formed the story. Carrie destroys the social system that held her, while Arnie is swallowed by it, becoming a misogynist punk, like those who made his life a living hell. Still, whether we view them as innocents or monsters, the greatest horror in both stories is how close Arnie and Carrie get to a happy ending, how Christine and Carrie’s telekinesis do make their lives better for brief moments, but in the end there’s nothing on the other side of their teenage torment but death. Arnie summarizes their stories best when he says, “If being a kid is about learning how to live, then being a grown-up is about learning how to die.” Carrie and Christine both meet bloody ends amidst wreckage, the pieces of who they could have been strewn about them. While King, De Palma, and Carpenter all have more terrifying works to make up their legacy, none of them quite capture the horror of wasted potential and the broken teenage dream quite like Carrie and Christine. At the end of Carrie, Sue’s mother tells someone on the phone that, “the doctor said she’s young enough she’ll forget all about it in time.” It’s almost comical after all the destruction we’ve witnessed to think anybody could forget what happened. But perhaps there’s some truth in Mrs. Snell’s statement, a truth that King’s other works, largely absent of adolescence speak to. We may not forget, but when we cross the gap into adulthood we lose sight of that stage. Carrie White and Arnie Cunningham are our reminders, our reconnection to teenage dreams, fears, and rebellions. They are our reminders of those who crossed the gap, and those who didn’t quite make it. Here’s to them.
Featured Image: United Artists