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Happy Anniversary to Stephen King’s “Carrie!”

Carrie is fifty years old today. It’s a rare anniversary for any living author, but doubly so for one who is still pumping out at least a book a year and getting some of the best reviews of his career, too. Since April 5, 1974, Stephen King has gone on to restructure the architecture of horror around himself with more than seventy books, featuring some of the genre’s most iconic characters and scenes that have burrowed their way into the very guts of popular culture. But Carrie is where it all started for King, with the slim story of a bullied teenager and the retribution she unleashes through her budding telekinetic powers. The book climaxes in a violent conflagration, but that fire burns on beyond the final pages, a fitting metaphor for the furnace of contemporary horror that King and Carrie ignited.

As well as influencing countless fictions, the book spawned three film adaptations and a stage musical. Brian de Palma’s 1976 film remains the high point. The climactic image of Sissy Spacek, wide-eyed and drenched in pig’s blood at the prom, is a landmark of the era, rivaled only by The Exorcist’s head-spinning contortions. It’s a scene endlessly deployed and alluded to in other horror media—It Follows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, of course, the inevitable The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror riff—but it can also be spotted in such weird places as Pixar’s Monsters University and a My Little Pony comic book.

This draws me back to my comparison of Carrie and Frankenstein. The parallels don’t end with their interesting origin stories. Both novels are now irremovable elements of the cultural consciousness. Both begin in well-lit, sanitized spaces that are stained by blood and bodies. Just as Frankenstein’s creature starts life in the laboratory, the real Carrie White is “born” in the steam and spray of the girls’ shower room, where her first period evokes cruelty from her peers and invokes her own power.

They are also both monster stories. Guillermo del Toro–who knows a thing or two about the subject–famously described monsters as “the patron saints of our imperfection.” It’s easy to assume he was thinking of Frankenstein’s poor creature at the time, but maybe he had Carrie in mind, too. Carrie represents the outlier, the reject, the victim, who we are all afraid to be. She exposes the hypocrisy of the normal, the pull of conformity and mob rule. Her death shows us that monsters are not always who or what we expect them to be. It’s a lesson that has endured for the past half century.

All that said, it’s tricky to map the practical extent of Carrie’s impact. People in search of a nice, neat narrative enjoy the idea that, had Tabitha King not dredged those pages from the trash, all of contemporary horror—and maybe even the entire landscape of pop culture—would be different. The assumption is that, if King had not written Carrie, he would not have gone on to write the many books that have girded and guided the horror genre for the past fifty years.

I find the idea fairly ridiculous myself. In an afterword to the novel, Tabitha describes how at that point, King was already writing for at least a few hours every night. In his memoir, On Writing, King admits that the risk of Carrie was in “wasting two weeks, maybe even a whole month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell.” A month! That’s all. If King had binned this story, he would surely have gone on to write something else, then something else again. After all, he’d already written three (then-unpublished) novels before Carrie. Sooner or later, he would have made his mark. His imagination has proven too undammable to believe otherwise.

But Carrie did sell, and it sold big. In the early seventies, the $400,000 he received for the paperback rights must have been an unimaginable fortune at a time when $200 short-story sales were sometimes the only thing standing between the King family and crisis. Margaret Atwood, who has written a new foreword for the fiftieth-anniversary edition of the novel, considers this financial cliff-edge a crucial part of the book’s success. “Among many other things,” Atwood tells me, “Carrie is a study of what it’s like to be hardscrabble poor and brutally marginalized in America. It’s territory King has returned to again and again. He knows it inside out. He grew up in it.”

The money from Carrie released that economic pressure. It allowed King to concentrate on writing full-time, and in the next six months alone, he wrote two entire novels. One of them was ’Salem’s Lot, and the rest is history.

It’s old history, though, told repeatedly in the many forewords and afterwords appended to this novel over the years. What isn’t discussed as often is Carrie’s unique legacy: the elements that still reverberate in contemporary horror five decades down the line.

Small towns, bullies, supernaturally gifted children, a skin of normality pulled across the ugly bones of the world: These are themes we see again and again in King’s work. Carrie White may have telekinetic abilities, her mother may be lost in a fog of extreme religious mania, the book may even end in a holocaust of pig’s blood and fire, but so much of the nightmare is mundane and tragically human. That flat reality is evoked both in the story’s details and in its structure, which intersperses long narrative sections with an assemblage of faux documentation (including excerpts from a fictional Esquire article). It presents that most Kingian of worlds: brutal reality, temporarily disturbed by extraordinary moments of human goodness, badness, and otherworldly forces. I’ve long argued that King is an American realist at heart—that the supernatural is mostly a tool he uses to stir the human drama that really interests him. I once asked him if the theory held any water. “It doesn’t even leak,” he replied.

For evidence, you don’t have to look any further than the halls of Carrie’s Chamberlain High. King has no truck with the idealized teenagers of Grease or Happy Days, The Breakfast Club or Glee, where cliques collapse in an emotionally satisfying song-and-dance of hard-won respect. Chamberlain High is adolescence red in tooth and claw. It’s a pit of vipers, a gladiatorial arena, where conformity trumps community and the popular people decide the fate of others with a thumbs up or down. In Chris Hargensen, rich girl and head bully, King immortalized an archetype that persists in pop culture. Watch Mean Girls and you’ll find her shadow in Regina George’s angry, confident sexuality. Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions is Chris with even more money. Young Adult’s Mavis Garvey is what happens when Chris grows up to learn that beauty fades and life disappoints.

If Chris is Carrie’s high school devil, Sue Snell is the book’s imperfect angel, who makes the ultimate teenage sacrifice by asking her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom in her place (without realizing that she’s sparing herself the true sacrifice by staying at home and not burning to death). Sue is a complex character—as Tabitha describes it in her foreword, she is an attempt by King to write a woman who isn’t “a bitch or a zero.” She’s mature and kind but not immune to the mob frenzy of her peers. She’s sexually active, but unlike Chris, she seems to take little pleasure from it. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that the sex scene between Sue and Tommy ranks among the most sophisticated treatment of sex in all of King’s work. Rather than offering the lurid thrills common to the era’s trade paperbacks, King uses the scene to decode Sue’s anxieties about the suburban conformity awaiting her after high school.

It’s arguable that Sue is a prototype for the Final Girl: the capable, sensible and—most important—virginal archetype that would dominate teen horror movies for the next three decades. Remember, King’s novel was released in 1974, the same year as the proto-slasher Black Christmas—another film that had far more well-rounded female characters than those who would follow in Halloween and its many imitators. In those films, as parodied decades later in Scream, to have sex is to die. To transgress is to die. Sue Snell bucked that trend before it even began.

It’s hard to believe that King pulled this off in his mid-twenties. At an age when, as Tabitha writes, “we hadn’t yet scraped high school off our shoes,” King was able to depict girlhood without simplification, glorification, or titillation. Okay, there may be a bit of titillation. (Rare are the breasts that go undescribed in this book.) But on the whole, it’s a remarkably textured treatment of a world that was more typically rendered as black and white, or in reassuring sepia tones. It’s no surprise that King considers William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies an early and profound influence; few other books have the guts to look so bluntly at what kids are willing and able to do to one another.

The Horror with a capital H occurs on prom night, as Carrie rains fiery death down on her tormentors and complacent peers alike. As the rumor goes, that climax was originally a whole lot sillier, with Carrie growing to Godzilla-like proportions and batting airplanes from the sky. Thankfully, someone somewhere along the way had a sensible word, and King toned it down to the more realistic microcosmic apocalypse we know today. But regardless of how the book ends, anyone who has read it knows that the true agony is found in the first ten pages, when Carrie White dissolves into panic after getting her first period, only for her classmates to pelt her with sanitary products. That scene is horror of a very specific tenor: shock at the malice of high school girls, genuine revulsion at the blood running down Carrie’s legs, and the awful recognition of our own participation in this cruelty. Like Sue Snell, who finds herself “throwing and chanting with the rest, not really sure what she was doing,” the reader is equally swept along.

So much of Carrie’s profound horror is in seeing ourselves in her tormentors.

Each time I read this book, even knowing what will come, I find myself impatient, almost angry at Carrie for her hesitance, her passivity, for not knowing what she should already know about her own body and the world. That possibly verges on misogyny; I hope not. It’s certainly hypocrisy, considering my own relative ignorance about the workings of the female body when I was Carrie’s age. But whether I like it or not, it’s a visceral reaction that King draws from me against my will. He demands it, and I can’t help but think my reflex is not unique. So much of Carrie’s profound horror is in seeing ourselves in her tormentors. King forces us, for a moment, to share their disgust and contempt. We can smell the prey’s fear, and we’re ready to join the hunt.

Almost immediately after, King shows us Carrie as a human being, a victim of bullying, and a person with her own rich inner life. Whenever I read the novel, I guiltily recalibrate my first reaction and begin again the process of falling in love with this young girl plagued by acne, an insane mother, and blossoming power. But I never forget how it felt to be among those girls in that shower room, chanting PLUG IT UP, momentarily secure in the in-crowd.

It’s empathy, pure and simple—for both monster and victim, however transposable their positions may be. Empathy is the oil this book runs on. It’s the engine that has powered King’s entire career. But what a challenge it must have been, to find an understanding of those young women whose lives and bodily functions he knew so little about.