The Exorcist was part of a flurry of late sixties and seventies films about supernatural children. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was the trendsetter, and in 1976 The Omen would expand upon the theme with the exploits of young antichrist Damien Thorn. That year also saw the release of Carrie, based on the 1974 debut novel of Stephen King.
The Trials of Carrie White
At first, Carrie may seem like the odd one out. The Exorcist is steeped in Catholic tradition, while Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen similarly take the existence of the Devil as a literal fact. But the story of Carrie White – who, lashing back at school bullies and an abusive mother, uses her psychic powers to destroy her community – is rather more secular, couching her abilities the pseudoscientific language of psychokinesis. Carrie’s mother attributes her gift to the Devil, but this character is portrayed as a misguided fanatic – particularly in the original novel, where she is so deluded as to think that menstruation, acne and the development of breasts only occur on sinful girls.
Yet, despite this, Carrie White and Regan MacNeil do indeed belong to the same family tree as both of them are poltergeist girls.
In his 2000 book On Writing, Stephen King describes how Carrie was inspired partly by an article on poltergeist phenomena:
I’d read an article in Life magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena – telekinesis being the ability to move objects just by thinking about them. There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers, the article said, especially girls in early adolescence…
This was an idea which, by that point, already had significant currency within paranormal research. Amongst its proponents was that eccentric collector of “damned data” Charles Fort, who compiled many cases of alleged poltergeist girls in his 1932 book Wild Talents – a volume which is, incidentally, specifically mentioned in a later Stephen King novel, Firestarter (1980). With characteristically oddball humour, Fort imagined a time when poltergeist girls could serve a military purpose:
Girls at the front—and they are discussing their usual not very profound subjects. The alarm—the enemy is advancing. Command to the poltergeist girls to concentrate—and under their chairs they stick their wads of chewing gum.
A regiment bursts into flames, and the soldiers are torches. Horses snort smoke from the combustion of their entrails. Reinforcements are smashed under cliffs that are teleported from the Rocky Mountains. The snatch of Niagara Falls—it pours upon the battlefield. The little poltergeist girls reach for their wads of chewing gum.
Significantly, the idea of poltergeist phenomena as stemming from a troubled adolescent’s psychic ability is actually addressed in Blatty’s The Exorcist. The novel includes an exchange where Father Karras, at this point still skeptical about the reality of demonic possession, posits the psychokinetic theory of poltergeist phenomena as a scientific explanation for mysterious events around Regan:
‘Then explain all those rappings and things.’
‘I haven’t heard them.’
‘Well they heard them at Barringer, Father, so it wasn’t just here in the house.’
‘Well, perhaps, but we’d hardly need a devil to explain them.’
‘So explain them,’ she demanded.
‘Well, you have heard of poltergeist phenomena, haven’t you?’
‘Ghosts throwing dishes and things?’
Karras nodded. ‘It’s not that uncommon, and usually happens around an emotionally disturbed adolescent. Apparently, extreme inner tension of the mind can sometimes trigger some unknown energy that seems to move objects around at a distance. There’s nothing supernatural about it. Like Regan’s abnormal strength. In pathology it’s common. Call it mind over matter, if you will.’
‘I call it weird.’
‘Well, in any case, it happens outside of possession.’
‘Boy, isn’t this beautiful,’ she said wearily. ‘Here I am an atheist and here you are a priest and—‘
‘The best explanation for any phenomenon,’ Karras overrode her, ‘is always the simplest one available that accommodates all the facts.’
Naturally, Karras’ theories regarding psychokinesis turn out to be misguided: Regan’s condition is the Devil’s work after all.
The Exorcist and Carrie each deal with the topic of the poltergeist girl, but from drastically different perspectives. The Exorcist takes a religious standpoint, and dismisses materialistic explanations as misguided; Carrie adopts a secular perspective, with the religious alternative confined to the dangerously fanatical character of Mrs. White. It is doubtful that King consciously set out with the intention of writing an anti-Exorcist, but parts of Carrie nonetheless invert many key images and concepts from The Exorcist.
The scars and lesions that spontaneously appear on Regan’s body never affect Carrie; instead, it is Carrie’s over-pious mother who is disfigured. Attempting to dissuade her daughter from going to the school prom, Mrs. White resorts to self-harm in a manner recalling the Biblical demoniac’s habit of “crying and cutting himself with stones”:
Her mother reached up and pinched her own face. It left a red mark. She looked to Carrie for reaction, saw none, hooked her right hand into claws and ripped it across her own cheek, bringing thin blood. She whined and rocked back on her heels. Her eyes glowed with exultation.
‘Stop hurting yourself, Momma. That’s not going to make me stop either.’
Momma screamed. She made her right hand a fist and struck herself in the cheek, bringing blood. She dabbled her fingers in it, looked at it dreamily, and daubed a spot on the cover of the Bible.
‘Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,’ she whispered.
Where The Exorcist has the demon defacing Christian art, Carrie surrounds its heroine with religious iconography that she finds disturbing enough as it is. The pictures owned her mother depict the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the drowning of sinners in Noah’s flood, and Thomas the Doubter feeling Christ’s wounds (“oh, the horrified fascination of that one and the nightmares it had given her as a girl!”) Dominating the family living room is a large plaster crucifix depicting Jesus “frozen in a grotesque, muscle-straining rictus of pain” with eyes “turned up in a medieval expression of agony”:
This corpus had also given Carrie endless nightmares in which the mutilated Christ chased her through dream corridors, holding a mallet and nails, begging her to take up her cross, and follow Him. Just lately those dreams had evolved into something less understandable but more sinister. The object did not seem to be murder but something even more awful.
This passage comes across as a distorted echo of The Exorcist’s notorious scene where the possessed Regan masturbates with a crucifix yelling “let Jesus fuck you”.
The Exorcist is a battle between good and evil on a spiritual plane, but Carrie chooses something far more down-to-earth as its central conflict: the pressures of high school. As King describes in On Writing, the plot of Carrie was also informed by his memories of high school and its attendant misfits. He recalled two girls in particular, whom he refers to in On Writing under the pseudonyms of Sondra and Dodie; Sondra grew up in a devout family with a living space dominated by a life-sized statue of crucified Christ, while Dodie was a designated target for bullying – the sort whose attempts to fit in, no matter how thorough, lead only to further bullying. “I never liked Carrie, that female version of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold,” writes King, “but through Sondra and Dodie I came at last to understand her a little. I pitied her and I pitied her classmates as well, because I had been one of them once upon a time.”
In exploring the themes of religion and adolescence, Carrie departs heavily from the model of The Exorcist. The next major entry in poltergeist girl cinema would mark another departure – with strikingly different results to either forbear.
Poltergeist and Carol Anne Freeling
In the sprawling real estate of American pop culture, Stephen King and Steven Spielberg share a neighbourhood. Born within a year of each other and sharing Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine as a formative influence, the two men emerged at around the same time as celebrity storytellers and – between them – helped to define the popular fantasies of the late twentieth century.
Of the two, it is King who has shown the greater dedication to horror. Spielberg has dabbled in the genre but appears interested less in probing the darker corners of the psyche than in building a ghost-train ride for his audience: one that offers thrills and chills without straying too far from the picket fences of suburbia. The 1982 film Poltergeist, a collaboration between Spielberg and horror director Tobe Hooper, is a good example of this ethos. Although it draws inspiration from the same paranormal phenomena as Carrie, that story’s examination of adolescent angst is replaced with classically Spielbergian vision of an idyllic, all-American childhood – albeit one in the process of disruption.
The film follows the tribulations of the Freeling family – parents Steve and Diane and their three children – as they find their suburban household under siege by ghosts. Poltergeist is unusual in that its central girl is not a teenager: while the family does include a teenage girl, Dana, this character is sidelined towards the end of the film (she is explained as being at a friend’s house) and dropped altogether from the sequels. Instead, it is five-year-old Carol Anne who is the centre of the activity. With clean blonde hair and wide blue eyes, Carol Anne represents an ideal of early girlhood as immaculate as a porcelain doll or a Victorian children’s illustration.
Forgoing both the Catholic theology of The Exorcist and the pseudoscience of Carrie, Poltergeist writes its own supernatural rulebook. Through the character of the paranormal investigator Tangina Barrons, the film outlines a difference between poltergeists and conventional hauntings: the former usually focus on an individual, while the latter is centred on a location. Yet, having established this, Poltergeist has it both ways by explaining that the supernatural activity is the result of the house being built on a graveyard, but also focused specifically on Carol Anne. Not fully understanding what is going on, the girl is able to communicate with the ghosts through a television set, referring to the spirits as the “TV people” (shades of Captain Howdy, the entity that communicates via Regan’s Ouija board in The Exorcist). She is later sucked through a portal into the plane occupied by the ghosts, causing her to effectively become a ghost herself as she manifests as a disembodied voice; the main plot of the film deals with the family’s attempts to rescue her, the solution to the poltergeist phenomena being of secondary importance.
Rather than the Satanic force of The Exorcist, the phenomena in Poltergeist is caused by human spirits whose graves have been disturbed. Most are presumably benign – one manifests as a glowing, angelic apparition – but a particular spirit has become so corrupted by anger that it is, for all intents and purposes, a demon, being identified as “the Beast” and eventually appearing as a distorted skeletal entity. Poltergeists are traditionally invisible – but Poltergeist is not the sort of film to shy away from making its monsters front and centre.
Although it uses elements from paranormal research as its basic premise, the film – in true Spielbergian fashion – ultimately favours broad, iconic fantasy imagery. A gnarled tree branch reaches through a window like an enormous arm; a child’s closet becomes the site of a glowing vortex; a clown doll comes to life, its smiling face turning into a malicious scowl; and smaller-scale phenomena are used as visual gags. The atmosphere often borders on cartoonish – and with some of the special effects produced by 2D animation, the film sometimes becomes a literal cartoon. The climactic scenes of coffins shooting out through the ground, with skeletal corpses tumbling out, could have come directly from a 1950s EC horror comic.
The film does not deal with spiritual possession, excepting the unusually literal form of spiritual possession represented by the Beast holding Carol Anne captive in its realm. The mother eventually saves her daughter by descending into the spiritual plane on a rope, a solution that owes rather more to action movies than to any kind of metaphysical thought.
The colourful fantasy of Poltergeist is a long way from the this-could-happen-to-you verisimilitude of The Exorcist or the raw emotions of Carrie. Instead the film is carefully calculated to work as a harmless popcorn movie: horror of the most family-friendly variety. True to its squeaky-clean, non-confrontational nature, its portrayal of religion is benignly non-committal. The parents are identified as Christians. but the investigator Tangina practices a light, frothy mixture of cultural Christianity and pop-Spiritualism.
The sequel, Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), continues along similar lines, borrowing whatever spiritual concepts needed to further its crowd-pleasing plot. Here, the ghosts are revealed to have been members of a apocalyptic sect from the nineteenth century, who committed mass suicide by sealing themselves in a cave. The malevolent spirit, the Beast, was in life the unhinged leader of the sect – a gaunt, black-suited southern preacher who seems drawn from vague cultural memories of cult leaders like Jim Jones, a shorthand for the negative side of alternative religion. To defeat him, the family turns not to a Catholic exorcist, but to character representing the positive side of alternative religion: a Native American who follows a tribal belief system.
Looking at these three heroines side-by-side – Poltergeist’s Carol Anne, The Exorcist’s Regan, and Carrie – we can find the coming-of-age narrative of a poltergeist girl. First we have the 5-year-old in Poltergeist, an angelic innocent filled with wide-eyed wonder; the spirituality that surrounds her is simplistic but comforting, providing a light show that sends the monsters back under her bed. Then, in The Exorcist, the poltergeist girl is a twelve-year-old: her innocence is set to be lost as her body and mind undergo a series of disturbing transformations. Spirituality, in the form of Catholic traditionalism, serves to put her back on the straight and narrow. But with Carrie and its teenage poltergeist girl, everything has gone wrong: faced with both ongoing changes to her body and with the cruelty of her peers, the poltergeist girl finds no salvation in religion, only destruction.
1976, the year that Carrie was released into cinemas, also saw the tragic death of a 23-year-old German woman named Anneliese Michel. She was a psychologically troubled individual who, like Regan, was subjected to the rite of exorcism; but like Carrie, she found dubious help in religion. Her memory went on to haunt subsequent poltergeist girl narratives, as the next post in this series will demonstrate.