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Paradoxes of the Horror Heart: Brian De Palma’s Carrie

Brian De Palma and Piper Laurie on-set of Carrie (1976)


In an article that prepared for the 2018 Antwerp Summer Film School with this year’s focus on Brian De Palma (and Éric Rohmer), I analyzed the correlation between De Palma’s use of the Steadicam and the way this is intrinsically linked to the thriller genre. To do so, I turned to the recent work of Torben Grodal, who offers an empirical, neurobiological basis that allows for a new approach of the question of what defines a genre. While it is crystal clear that this approach will not offer radically new insights that have not been established before in the realm of film studies and visual poetics, it still provides a solid new ground to support existing theories about the idea of genre. Neurocinematics — as the emerging field of study is called — will not radically alter the solid theoretical work by films scholars such as David Bordwell or Barry Salt, but it does provide new empirical data to support certain claims or even add some nuance and detail to certain more vague areas.

After visiting the 36th edition of the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF), with its large share of horror screenings, and after the 2018 edition of the Antwerp Summer Film School (and in anticipation of the very first Rotterdam edition of this event), I would like to turn to the (often maligned) horror genre for a further merging of Grodal’s findings with existing genre theory. To do so, I will offer a (brief) analysis of Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror (1990), discovering that what Torben Grodal states to be the core of the horror genre from a neurobiological point of view — emotion — is also the central element in Carroll’s analysis of the genre. In order to illustrate some of Carroll’s arguments, I will offer a quick look at one of this year’s highlights at the BIFFF — Ryûhei Kitamura’s delightful little horror gem Downrange (2017) — before offering a more in-depth analysis of Brian De Palma’s seminal classic Carrie (1976) and the way it epitomizes the elements both Noël Carroll and Torben Grodal highlight as the essential core of the horror genre.

Paradoxes of the Heart

In his 1990 book The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Noël Carroll offers one of the first serious investigations into the nature of horror, only briefly touching upon the then (and still) prevalent socio-cultural perspectives that interpret the horror genre solely as a reflection of the anxieties of the time, such as the great depression that gave rise to the famous Universal cycle of monster films (Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932)…) or the horror of Them! (1954) born out of the collective fears of the atomic age and the emerging cold war. Carroll instead takes a multi-perspective approach, looking into the defining characteristics of the genre. The author uses the term ‘art-horror’ for his subject, thus excluding the real life horror of illness, death, pain etc. and limiting his scope to artworks (in whatever form) that deal with horrorI will use the word ‘horror’, but it should be clear that this stands for ‘art-horror’, excluding real life events..

The book is roughly divided into three parts, of which the first two are most interesting for the objective I am pursuing here. The first few chapters try to single out the core elements of the horror genre (both in film and literature) and answer the question of why audiences are attracted by it. Very quickly the author dismisses ‘suspense’, ‘thrills’ or ‘action’ as defining elements, as they belong just as well to other genres and fail to stand out as discerning factors in regard to horror. After discarding several other options, Noël Carroll defines horror as a genre that has a bifurcated core, consisting of two main emotions: disgust and fascination (or curiosity, to use a broader term). According to Carroll, horror is always about the disgust and fascination for ‘a monster’. This monster can take on any form (classical evil such as Dracula, a werewolf or a swamp dweller, but just as well alien creatures, ghosts, sharks, enlarged insects, a psychopathic killer etc.). It is important to note here that Carroll sees this combined object of disgust and fascination as the absolute sine qua non for the horror genre: no monster, no horror.

These monsters (I emphasize again that the term ‘monster’ should not be limited here to the likes of King Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon or whatever alien monstrosity that comes to mind) are the focus of two opposite emotions. The first is ‘disgust’. Monsters are categorically interstitial and break the mold of any cultural, moral or formal categories. We are disgusted by their actions, appearances or formal traits because ‘they should not be’. A monster is a monster precisely because it does not fit in with what we know and expect, because it ignores boundaries of moral and formal conventions. This leads to us being disgusted by either the formal aspects of the monster (its appearance, its combination of creatures and beings …) or its threatening deeds (blind natural evil such as the shark in Jaws (1975) or repulsive acts of pure evil committed by e.g. Hannibal Lector). At the same time, because the monster is ‘impure’ and ‘interstitial’, it is an object of immense fascination, a fascination that co-exists with the disgust.

The problem that arises here is the question of why we should like to be submitted to an emotion as unpleasant as being disgusted. Carroll dismisses two takes on this problem before offering his own position. The first approach (the ‘Illusion Theory’) states that we are afraid of Frankenstein’s monster because when we watch the movie, we believe to be in the presence of a hideous and dangerous monster. The problem here is that if that is the case (and we thus identify completely with its potential victims in the movie) our reaction should be to run out of the theatre and get help as soon as possible. Why would we want to stay and watch if we truly believe in the presence of some foul demon or zombie? There is an even deeper issue at work here: if one adheres to this view, how can we appreciate or experience any kind of fiction if we truly believe what we are seeing or reading or hearing, is actually happening? To solve this conundrum, the ‘Pretend Theory’ claims that we play a game of make believe and that we are thus dealing with make believe emotions: we go along with the ‘rules of the game’ and pretend to be frightened, because it is part of the context of the experience. Carroll rightly dismisses this on the basis of empirical evidence. Anyone can conjure up a moment of true fright he or she experienced when watching a horror movie. A whole generation apparently was scared to death by Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) but I’ll draw from a personal experience to illustrate the point thoroughly: back in 1998 I attended one of the first European screenings of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. While this kind of horror imagery has become mainstream by now (and has been copied ad nauseam) and I had more than a superficial experience with horror films, at that time I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see and I can still vividly remember the metallic taste of pure fright and shock in my mouth when I was subjected to the grisly finale. This personal anecdote, only to illustrate that I agree with Noël Carroll in his firm rejection of the ‘Pretend Theory’ approach: we are experiencing real emotions, not surrogates or make believe (even though not all horror films obviously have the same impact and reactions will depend inevitably on the tolerance level of the individual viewer).

Carroll points out that both these theories seem to require that we actually believe in the presence of the monster at hand and deal with it in one way or the other: it seems as if our reaction to it should be exactly the same as that of the characters in the fiction. That is obviously not the case and entertaining the thought of the existence, presence or threat of the monster is clearly powerful enough to stir or minds and neural pathways to evoke real emotions. At this point the work of Torben Grodal becomes relevant, as this process (the way — in this case — horror films interact with our neural pathways) is exactly the basis he uses to define and delineate film genres from a neurobiological point of view. At the same time, Grodal finds exactly the same defining component for the horror genre as Carroll does from a theoretical and philosophical point of view: emotion (and not suspense, action etc.) which, according Torben Grodal puts the genre more in line with e.g. melodrama than action or adventure.

Before delving a little deeper into this material and using Carrie as a prime example, I want to quickly address the rest of Carroll’s book, as it offers some more useful insights.

Downrange (Ryûhei Kitamura, 2017)

The second part of the text, states that the core emotions of horror (disgust and fascination) are also translated into the two main story lines that define the horror genre. Drawing on the insights H.P. Lovecraft offered in talking about horror and on Stephen King’s study of literary horror classics, Danse Macabre (1981), Carroll arrives at two typical story lines that define the whole genre. The first is structured as ‘Discovery (disgust) – Confirmation (ratiocination & fascination) – Confrontation’. I lack the space to list the necessary examples, but Carroll convincingly argues that almost all horror stories are structured around the two main emotions (fascination/disgust) that drive the story forward and usually involve the discovery of a monster, the confirmation of its existence (e.g. to authorities or a larger group) and a final confrontation (or confrontations). A variation on this structure is the ‘Mad Scientist’ approach in which fascination leads to the creation of a monster, disgust with the result and again confrontation. Although the author goes to great lengths to offer ample illustration of this, I would like to point out that the horror (film) genre is par excellence a genre that offers plenty of room to experiment with this structure, even though I agree with Carroll that almost every single horror film adheres to these two models. An interesting case is Ryûhei Kitamura’s Downrange because it bends the rules of the genre to such a degree that at first glance it might seem a counterexample in regard to Carroll’s models, but underneath the formal idiosyncrasy, it turns out the basic model is still there. Downrange starts in medias res and completely foregoes any idea of introduction or setup. We see a car driving on a deserted road and immediately there’s a blowout, which strands the passengers in the middle of nowhere in the blistering heat. Within a few minutes three of the passengers are shot dead (in some imaginatively cruel ways I might add) and the rest of the survivors crawl up behind the crippled car in order to find shelter for what is clearly a shooter hiding somewhere in the trees alongside the road. The rest of the film is an exercise in getting the most out of a repetitive situation by means of Kitamura’s signature baroque style — he first rose to fame with the extravagant gore-fest Versus (2000) — and some very efficient scare tactics. The nihilistic finale upends our expectations once more and does include a confrontation with the ‘monster’, albeit not exactly what the viewer was expecting. On the surface, Downrange seems to defy both of Carroll’s models: we can safely say that this is not a ‘Mad Scientist’ structure, but even the more fundamental model seems to be missing: there’s plenty of disgust, but at first glance there seems to be no fascination. Yet, a closer look shows that this a prime example of Carroll’s claim that previous theories about horror tended to suppose too much that the audience’s reactions should mirror exactly these of the fictional characters. For the fictional characters there’s only disgust, but in this case the fascination part is transferred to the viewer. We never get any kind of information regarding the shooter/monster (and the script is refreshingly stubborn in sticking to that approach) which turns the unseen enemy into a fascinating monster. We can only guess about such things as motive, identity, modus operandi etc. Thus, while Downrange seems to be devoid of the bifurcated emotions Noël Carroll puts at the center of every horror fiction, it turns out that by bending the model in a creative way, the film is still true to the basics of the genre.

I will skip the third part of Carroll’s book here, in which the results of the first few chapters are combined and tested against a variety of other theories. This part offers stimulating reading material for sure, but is less relevant in regard to my article.

Neurocinematics & Genre

Turning to Torben Grodal now, I’d like to refer to my earlier photogénie article (‘Discovering Cinematic Space: Brian De Palma’s Steadicam and the Definition of Genre’) for a basic analysis of Grodal’s work. For convenience however, I’ll still list the main ideas presented in his 2017 article ‘How film genres are a product of biology, evolution and culture – an embodied approach’.

Combining film theory, neuro art studies, neurobiology and studies in embodiment, Grodal analyzes film genres as being biologically grouped in three major types: reptilian emotions central to action and adventure; mammalian emotions related to offspring and care; and finally, instincts based on panic and grief. Each type has its own set of corresponding genres and film activates these models — deeply engraved into the pathways of our brains — through use of subject but also through formal elements that are intrinsically linked to certain genres. In my previous article, I looked at the way the Steadicam is linked mainly to the thriller genre because the ancient brain pattern of ‘scouting a space for clues’ is closely linked to the Steadicam technique and forms the basis on which the thriller genre functions.

For the horror genre, Grodal states that it belongs to a group of genres (along with romance, comedy & drama) that functions mainly to cue basic emotions and in the case of horror these are mainly linked to the idea of discovering/scouting one’s environment (for signs of danger, but also of food, shelter etc.), self-protection and (the culturally further evolved) emotion of the sanctity of the body. Here we find strong echoes of Noël Carroll’s statements about the two main emotions at the basis of the horror genre: disgust (linked to being disgusted by something out of order that threatens the survival and sanctity of the individual’s body) and fascination (discovery). There are some overlapping elements of the thriller genre to be found here, something I did not touch upon in my previous text, a factor also recognized by Carroll, who states that inadvertently elements of suspense will invade the model of the horror genre because they tend to sneak in with the ‘fascination’ element. As a quick aside, I would like to note that this also corresponds to the shared preference for some typical camera movements and techniques in both thrillers and horror movies (or a combined version of these two, though not all horror movies need to be thrillers as well, as I will point out below, Carrie only contains one real suspense scene), illustrated e.g. by the fact that both genres (in their purest form that is) are well suited for the typical ‘discovery in space’ movement of the Steadicam.

Still, the element that is most important here is the fact that Carroll’s theoretical model (the author himself points out that extra empirical data to support his claims would be most welcome) matches perfectly with the neurobiological model that groups genres on different grounds. This means that the research from the newly emerging field of neurocinematics (the term was coined by professor Uri Hasson) offers the necessary data and empirical evidence to support models used in film studies that were up to now strictly theoretical. Defining genres has always been a difficult task and has been approached in many different ways that yielded sometimes-vague results. Now there is extra data to support the strongest of these theories and Carroll’s take on the horror genre clearly fits with the neurobiological input.

A Teenage Girl on Prom Night

In honor of the Antwerp and Rotterdam Summer Film Schools, I will use Brian De Palma’s 1976 Stephen King adaptation Carrie as a test case for both Carroll’s take on the story model for horror films and the idea of the two emotions at the heart of the genre, the latter already strongly confirmed by more recent research in a slightly different field.

Carrie is an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1974 debut and deals with a shy teenage girl who is harassed by classmates and ends up exacting a gruesome revenge by using her telekinetic powers. First it is important to mention that I will use the filmic incarnation of the story for this analysis. Stephen King’s story has an extra layer, that adds the element of confusion and paranoia that swept America in the late sixties and early seventies, following the murder of president John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War. The screenplay, co-written by Lawrence D. Cohen and King himself, omits this part completely, thus arriving — as I will argue — at a more pure horror story.

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

At the start of the movie, Carrie (Sissy Spacek) unexpectedly gets her first period while taking a shower at school, after gym class. Her classmates violently turn on her and make fun of her, before the teacher intervenes. In a few scenes following the incident, we get our first glimpses of the fact that there’s more to Carrie than meets the eye. As it turns out, she has telekinetic abilities, even though she is clearly not fully in control of them. She is the daughter of a zealously religious mother, whose adherence to the principles of the catholic faith borders on lunacy. That Carrie was so shocked by her first period is due to the fact that her mother keeps her completely in the dark on sexual issues and now that her daughter has become — to her eyes — ‘infected’ with the ‘sin of blood’, her stance becomes even more staunch. Meanwhile the gym teacher severely chastises Carrie’s classmates, although only a few of them are willing to admit they may have crossed a line in the way they treated Carrie. One of them thinks it might be a good idea to get the shy girl more involved in school matters, by having her handsome boyfriend invite Carrie to the senior prom. After initial hesitation, Carrie accepts even if this means she has to defy — for the first time — the will of her dominant mother. Her coming to terms with herself and her environment runs parallel with learning more about her strange powers and how to wield them. Unbeknownst however to Carrie, the boy or the teacher, one girl (Chris) plots an elaborate revenge against Carrie, whom she holds responsible for getting banned from the prom. With the help of her boyfriend, she kills a pig and collects the blood in a bucket that will be placed above the stage where the prom queen and king will be crowned. She enlists a few friends to make sure that this honor will be bestowed on Carrie and her date. The prom night turns into an enchanting introduction into a different life for Carrie. That is, until she gets up on stage, the bucket load of blood drops and she is humiliated in a way that supersedes even her worst nightmares. Struck with rage and humiliation, the girl unleashes her powers, destroying the school and killing almost everyone inside. She returns home, where she falls victim to her mother, who believes her powers to be the devil’s work and has decided to kill her daughter. Carrie survives the attack and turns on her mother, (fittingly) crucifying her with kitchen knives. Her powers however seem to have gotten out of her control and in the end the whole house and everyone in it, is sucked in to a hellish hole in the ground.

Based on this brief summary it is safe to dismiss Carroll’s ‘Mad Scientist’ storyline variation as irrelevant when it comes to analyzing Carrie. That leaves us with the ‘Discovery (disgust) – Confirmation (ratiocination & fascination) – Confrontation’ model, which should be the model underpinning the story if this is to be a horror story at all.

The emotional discoveries that children and young adults go through during adolescence are one of the recurring themes in Stephen King’s work and are definitely at the center of this story. Carrie not only discovers her powers, but also her mental strength and her own body. Furthermore, even other characters follow the same trajectory, as a scene between Chris and her boyfriend (a very young John Travolta) illustrates: Chris starts using her seductive powers to make sure the boy will serve the purpose she has set — exacting revenge on Carrie. The same adolescent discovery of one’s own is present here and actually permeates all the character arcs in the story. The question is: how does all this relate to the discovery of a monster? Here it is important to return to Carroll and his definition of ‘the monster’. According to Paradoxes of the Heart, the monster is something that defies the normal order of things, carries with it a threat and both fascinates and disgusts (us and the fictional characters). Carroll also calls the monster ‘impure’: something that stands outside the accepted order of things and that ‘soils’ the fabric of normality. This is an idea that runs through De Palma’s movie in different ways. I’ll single out the most obvious one in the opening scene: where the eroticizing power of the imagery (I’ll return to this later) is brutally ripped apart by the taboo images of menstrual blood (there are few movies that contain such imagery, which asserts the taboo that still surrounds this subject matter). The normal chain of events is shattered and something that fascinates and disgusts (I am not implying here that female menstruation should be regarded as disgusting, but bringing the image to the screen in this way, surely raises more than a few eyebrows as — regardless of the objections that can be rightfully raised against this stance — the culturally accepted standard is to be as discrete as possible about this subject matter). From the start, there is something about Carrie’s powers that disturbs us; the monster or at least potential monster we are looking at is Carrie herself. Here it is useful again to turn back to Noël Carroll, as one might object that we are drawn to be sympathetic towards Carrie and her plights. Carroll uses Frankenstein’s famous monster as a prime example to address this: it is par excellence a monster we tend to extend a certain amount of our sympathy to, because we feel for its loneliness and longing for companionship. Still, that doesn’t make it less of a monster. The same goes for example for Dracula, a character whose motivation for wanting to be reunited with his long-lost love we can fully comprehend — “I have crossed oceans of time to find you”, he says in Coppola’s 1992 version — but the count is still a monster. The same reasoning goes for Carrie, who will be driven to terrible deeds, but is still a monster in Carroll’s definition. (This also shows how broad Carroll’s definition of the monster needs to be interpreted, as it is clear that a monster can also be a victim.) One might argue that there’s another monster at work here: the monstrosity of the classmates and mother, and of Carrie’s humiliation, that finally drives Carrie towards unspeakable acts, including matricide. However, while this monstrosity surely is implied on a symbolical level, the fact that these elements are part of normality (sad as that may sound) places this symbolical monster outside of Carroll’s definition.

As for the ‘confirmation’ part of the model, it is usually so that this means convincing some authority or larger group of the existence of the monster or the danger it implies. One needs to think e.g. only of the reluctant major in Jaws, who refuses to let chief Brody close the beaches or his hilarious counterpart in Enzo Castellari’s L’Ultimo Squalo (1981) who believes he can avoid the impending disaster by placing nets in the ocean. Here the monster itself needs to be convinced though. Carrie unwillingly accepts her own powers, strength and body and only comes to term with them when pressed to do so.

The confrontation is in this case a double confrontation: the first is the confrontation between Carrie and her schoolmates and teachers; the second is between Carrie and her mother. In this case (even though the monster is ultimately destroyed — or is it?) it is the monster that is victorious. Carroll claims that there is no general rule for the outcome of the confrontation that might as well lead to re-establishing normality, as end with a victorious monster.

From the above, we can conclude that even though Carrie is a multi-layered and incredibly well crafted story, it still fits Carroll’s basic model for horror stories. Both parts of this sentence should not come as a big surprise, as the already mentioned Danse Macabre attests to Stephen King’s vast knowledge of horror literature and the way its storytelling devices work.

My analysis shows that the two basic emotions at the core of the horror genre are translated into the plot of Carrie. As a conclusion, I will single out some specific moments in the movie and argue that De Palma perfectly incorporates these emotions in his visual language, thereby strengthening the underlying ideas. This way I’ll come full circle with the previous article, that ended with a nod to Grodal’s claim that certain image schemes and camera movements are better suited for certain genres, because they activate the neural cortex in such a way that the primal emotions and basic schemes linked to this genre are triggered. A great director such as De Palma seems to have a natural instinct for choosing these correct stylistic devices, regardless of the genre he is working in (although, I have to admit that talent seems to have deserted him when it came to comedy, as the largely forgotten Wise Guys (1986) attests to).

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

The first scene to attend to is the opening sequence I already mentioned. The scene has a dreamlike and eroticizing quality that is perfectly in tune with the contemporary photographs of David Hamilton (who would turn to directing films a year later with Bilitis (1977), basically a moving version of his photographic oeuvre). De Palma however is already subverting expectancies by openly showing full frontal nudity in what is only the second shot of the film. The viewer is mesmerized by the images on display and is lured into a lingering state of mild excitement reminiscent of Peter Weir’s 1975 Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock. This approach makes the sudden shift in tone all the more poignant: all this soft erotic imagery is suddenly shattered by the appearance of menstrual blood — as pointed out before, one of the few surviving strong (Western) cultural taboos. The point I’d like to make here is that although (or ‘because’ if we accept Carrol’s and Grodal’s view) Carrie is a horror movie, its emphasis is more on emotion than on suspense. (Again, this does not exclude suspense as a factor in several — or the majority of — horror films, it only illustrates the point that the core of the genre lies elsewhere). Throughout the movie De Palma’s images strengthen emotion, only briefly disrupted by short bursts of suspense, underscored by the shrieking violins composer Pino Donaggio borrowed from Bernard Hermann’s Psycho (1960) score. The ultimate example is the full-blown emotional scene at the prom that gives way to the sole true suspense scene of the movie, that culminates in the dropping of the bucket filled with pig’s blood.

This scene (that required constructing a school gym at the studio because budget restrictions prohibited destroying a real building) shows De Palma at his absolute best, carefully mastering every movement and enhancing every subtlety and nuance present in the material. All the shots — including an uninterrupted bravura shot when the voting ballots are collected — were executed using a large crane, a device that offers an almost sensually moving imagery (one has the feeling of dancing along with the students) that is excellently suited to emphasize the heightened emotional state the prom sequence demands. At this point I would like to return to Torben Grodal and his claim that certain camera movements are better suited to certain genres, because they activate the senso-motoric cortex in such a way that they better invoke the basic neurobiological schemes linked to a specific genre. To give a brief example from my previous text: the floating imagery of the Steadicam is better suited for use in thrillers, because the act of penetrating a space in an embodied way, scouting the space ahead, matches perfectly with the basic hunter/gatherer scheme at the heart of the thriller genre. In case of the horror genre, we will thus ideally be looking at a camera that brings out the emotional core linked to the genre. The circular movements De Palma chooses for the prom scene can be considered a perfect fit to do exactly that and starkly contrast with the following scene — the only suspense scene in the movie — that is executed in straight lateral and vertical movements that invoke a completely different sensation in the viewer’s mind. A full analysis would require comparing the shot construction in De Palma’s subsequent thrillers (1978’s The Fury being a transitional movie that is a weird hybrid between horror and paranoid thriller) with how he shot his horror films: Carrie and Sisters (1972). Obviously the Steadicam only became available in 1976, but reducing the difference to the fact that De Palma started using that device for his thrillers (which as Grodal states it is better suited for) would be all to easy. The comparative study would have to account for a change in camera movements that better fit one genre or the other and show that e.g. circling crane shots were absent or almost absent from the thrillers that De Palma directed later in his career. A superficial look at these (Dressed to Kill (1981), Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), …) seems to confirm this, but in order to link Grodal’s findings to an empirical study of De Palma’s camera movements will require a lot more research than the scope of this article permits.

Wrapping up the closer look at Carrie however, one can clearly state that the movie perfectly fits the requirements Noël Carroll puts at the core of the horror genre and that De Palma’s approach as a director (maybe unconsciously, but in the DVD commentary the director claims that there is no other movie in his career that allowed him so much time to prepare his shots and that by the time actual filming started he had mapped out every single shot in advance, so it is safe to assume every movement was consciously chosen) manages to emphasize and strengthen these core elements of the horror genre, which is exactly the reason why Carrie is still widely regarded as one of the finest examples of a great horror movie.