Last night I saw a musical adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie at my local theater. The Apple Hill Playhouse is a barn nestled in the woods of western Pennsylvania. For forty dollars, you get tickets to a Saturday night show and dinner at a local restaurant. Local theater students and teachers compose the cast and crew. It’s not Hamilton on Broadway, but it is so obviously a labor of love it’s easy to be charmed.
Honestly, it’s the best deal in town.
But back to Carrie. Most know the outline of the story, either from the novel or the film which launched the careers of Sissy Spacek and John Travolta. Raised by a fanatically religious mother, sheltered Carrie White is savagely mocked by her high school classmates. Feeling guilty for joining the fray and humiliating Carrie, Sue Snell convinces her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom, where Carrie enacts a horrifying revenge on them all.
Written over forty years ago, Carrie is as relevant as ever. It isn’t just the brutality of the bullying or the blood that horrifies us, it’s the knowledge that if we had been in that bathroom with Carrie White, most of us wouldn’t have stood up for her.
In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King remembers one of the girls he based Carrie on, and writes, “The girls didn’t just laugh at Dodie; they hated her too. Dodie was everything they were afraid of.”
In high school, especially, it’s important not to stand out too much, and only in the right ways.
Most of us aren’t pathetic victims like Carrie, nor are we Chris Hargensen, the head mean girl who delighted in her cruelty.
We’re somewhere in the middle, constantly monitoring the social winds and always making sure we land on the right side of the numbers. We’re cruel in small ways when we have to be to preserve our standing in the pack. We feel guilty about it later, but we secure our own masks before assisting others. We’re all for kindness, but as Chris sings in the musical, “better to whip than be whipped.”
We’re Sue Snell.
King wrote that he “never trusted Sue Snell’s motives in sending her boyfriend to the prom with [Carrie],” and I don’t either. Does she genuinely want Carrie to have a good time? Or does she just want her own guilt to go away? I suspect some of both.
And if her motive is atonement, is it a brave social act? Or is her selfless gesture just another means of self-preservation, no different than when she joined in the taunting?
I don’t know.
I do know Carrie can teach us as much—maybe more—about ourselves as a fistful of bullying public service announcements.
 On Writing, Stephen King