Archive for ‘alex’

January 30, 2011

The Child Molester (1964): The Highway Safety Foundation Beyond the Road

by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

The following is a supplementary component of a larger research project I am currently working on about The Child Molester  (1964) and the Highway Safety Foundation. The majority of this article is a summary of the events surrounding a series of shots at the end of the film, and this reconstruction would not have been possible without the gracious assistance of Bret Wood and Boyd Addlesperger (the Sherman Room Librarian at the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library).  Bret Wood’s documentary Hell’s Highway – The True Story of Highway Safety Films (2003) is essential viewing for anyone interested in ephemeral or industrial films, exploitation cinema or screen histories more generally. A trailer can be viewed here, and it is available to purchase through Amazon.

The Child Molester is in the public domain, and as such can be seen in its entirety online (please note that there is extremely graphic imagery in this film that may be disturbing and upsetting for some viewers): Click here to view film


A Brief Introduction

As their name suggests, the bulk of the Highway Safety Foundation films concerned road safety. Famous highway safety films such as Signal 30 (1959) and Wheels of Tragedy (1963) combine zeitgeist-drenched re-enactments of small town Americana with grizzly footage of actual car accidents and their mangled (often dead) victims. The juxtaposition of these pantomime-like re-enactments with often extreme, real-life gore is shocking, even to viewers today. While there is debate regarding the educational effectiveness of films such as these – did they really reduce car accidents, or were they simply an exploitation wolf in didactic sheep’s clothing– there is no escaping the powerful impact of the Highway Safety Foundation films. But as artist William E. Jones’ Mansfield 1962 (2006) and Tearoom (1962/2007) (the latter which screened in 2008 at the Whitney in New York) has shown, the Highway Safety Foundation’s non-driver education films offer a just as fascinating (and conceptually problematic) point of interest. Sifting through public domain footage online, Jones discovered a Highway Safety Foundation film from 1964 titled Camera Surveillance: ostensibly a training film showing the virtues of using hidden cameras for law enforcement professionals, it consisted of footage Mansfield police filmed through a two-way mirror with the assistance of the Highway Safety Foundation of anonymous homosexual encounters in a public bathroom in Mansfield’s Central Park in 1962. This footage led to the arrest of a large number of men (numbers vary from 38 to 69), and formed the basis of Jones’ Mansfield works which are remarkable historical documents that eloquently and powerfully capture a particular moment of the unfolding story of human sexuality. Jones’ work is visual poetry that captures the very real invasions of privacy and abuses of human dignity that result from bigotry and discrimination. But the events that lead to the filming of the material later used in Camera Surveillance and Jones’ work lie in another Highway Safety Foundation film, which is the topic of this post. Ex-Mansfield Chief of Police John R. Butler wrote in his book about 19-year-old Jerrel Ray Howell who was charged and imprisoned for the murder of Connie Burtoch and Jean Hurrell, aged 7 and 9.  In his interview with police the night of the murders, Howell informed them about the activities taking place in Central Park leading to the filming of the now notorious ‘tearoom’ footage.

While much of this film plays out at as a simple educational film for school-aged children about the threat of the eponymous child “molester”, the shock of seeing those murdered corpses of two young girls in the final moments is arguably one of the most shocking and grotesque moments in any Highway Safety Foundation film. But who are these children? Although Jerrel Ray Howell, Jean Hurrell and Connie Burtoch’s names are not used in the movie, there is enough evidence that supports claims that this crime scene footage in The Child Molester is taken from their case.  This evidence supports the opinion of Bret Wood (director of the excellent documentary Hell’s Highway: The True Story of the Highway Safety Foundation)  that he voiced in our email correspondence that “it’s a safe assumption. The circumstances are identical”. William E. Jones also explicitly states that both The Child Molester and Camera Surveillance were “inspired by” and “based on the 1962 double-homicide”. Witnesses at the Hurrell-Burtoch scene recall the girls wearing “bathing suits or sun suits”, and in the film, the outfits the girls wear (‘Mary’ in a white top and ‘Jeannie’ in a pink sun suit) closely resemble the same outfits worn by the victims shown in crime scene footage in the film’s final moments.


The Burtoch-Hurrell Murders: Mansfield, Ohio, 1962

The Child Molester cannot be fully considered without a reconstruction of the events that surround its climactic real-life crime scene footage.  It was the middle of summer in Mansfield, Ohio on Saturday June 23, 1962. It had rained that day, and 9-year-old Jean Marie Burtoch and her 7-year-old friend Connie Lynn Hurrell, perhaps enjoying the break in the weather, were playing outside. Jean was in the fourth grade and was active within the community—she attended Sunday School, was a Brownie Scout and was a member of the Mansfield Children’s Theatre. Connie was a little younger, and had just finished second grade and was ready to move into the third. Connie’s mother was out that night and had left her daughter with a babysitter. Jean lived with her grandparents, and her grandfather Carl recalled seeing Jean and Connie playing outside at approximately 4pm that afternoon: “It had rained, they put on their swimming suits and went out to play in the puddles. I gave Jeanie some change and they went to the refreshment stand for ice cream. The two girls were friends although Connie had only lived near us a couple of weeks”. Michael Bowie, who was 13 at the time, remembered seeing the two girls at North Lake Park that afternoon, playing near a creek close by. They were alone, he recalled, and he warned them against playing in deep water.

Glendon Mount was in his early 20’s and worked at the mini-golf course at the park. He remembered seeing Howell playing with the girls near the golf course that afternoon at approximately 4pm to 4.30pm.  In The Best Suit in Town: A Great Generation of Cops (2001) ex-Mansfield Chief of Police John R. Butler includes a lengthy excerpt of Howell’s confession of the murder of the two girls. Howell claims he met the girls near the water while they were catching water lizards. He offered to take them to a better location, but they refused because of snakes. Howell insisted that there were no snakes in that area, but the girls refused to believe him, and insisting on showing him otherwise, they left with him. Once in a secluded area with the two girls, Howell stated, “he got his penis out and held it in his hand and both girls started to scream. He told them to shut up and they screamed even louder and began to cry. Then they began to run, the smaller one behind the older one. I gave the small one a shove and she fell onto the other one. They were both down, still hollering. I then chopped both girls across the neck with a judo chop and then put the feet to them’”.

The bodies were discovered by a group of boys walking across the bridge that ran across Touby’s Run. One of those boys, John Duzan, spoke at Howell’s trial: “At first we thought it was a joke somebody was playing, they looked like dolls. They were face down in the water. We went to a filling station and the man there called the police”. The call was made from a nearby gas station close to 8pm that evening. Officer Edwin Smith received a call that some children had drowned in the creek near West Fourth Street Bridge, and the police arrived soon after. At first, there was some confusion about the scenario presented before them: coroner Dr D.C. Lavender, Butler recalls, believed it was an accidental death until a police officer pointed out blood and that some fabric had been tied around one of the girls’ necks. But upon further investigation, Lavender reported, “both girls died as a result of violent blows to the head which produced skull fractures and brain injuries…there was no evidence of sexual attack”. He also reported, “a ‘T’ shirt worn by one of the girls had been wrapped and knotted about her neck and that there was some possibility of partial strangulation”. On this, he was right: during Howell’s trial in 1965, a pathologist confirmed that Jean Burtoch had been strangled to death, while Connie Hurrell had drowned.

Howell was hardly an elusive suspect, and he was taken into custody only five hours after the discovery of the children’s bodies. The police gained intelligence very quickly (probably from Glendon Mount) that the troubled 18-year-old had been seen nearby at the North Lake Park near the public toilets speaking to the two children. Howell was familiar to police: he had been cited twice previously for “sexual perversion” in 1957 and 1968, and had been out of institutionalized care for only four months prior to the murders of the two girls. Four days after the killings, Dr Robert A Hames, the Director of Mental Hygiene and Corrections for the state of Ohio, was reported in the Mansfield News-Journal stating that “Howell was released from the Juvenile Diagnostic Center in Columbus four months ago because examination failed to show he needed further psychiatric treatment”. Media coverage of this self-defined “lone wolf” often mentioned his weight and IQ: he was 200 pounds and six foot tall at the age of 16, which according to the current Body Mass Index would suggest he was overweight (but not obese). Howell was also very bright, with his IQ ranking of 127 suggesting he was a young man of superior intelligence. But Howell was also clearly troubled, and according to court records he talked regularly about suicide “because he felt people didn’t like him”.

Howell was arrested at the house where he lived with his mother and stepfather that night at 1.30am, and confessed to the murder of Hurrell and Bertoch at 2.30am the next morning. The news was the front-page headline in the Mansfield News-Journal, and Glendon Mount picked him out of a line-up behind a two-way mirror that same day. According to Captain Marion L. Hardesty, he and two other detectives offered to take Howell to the funeral home to view the bodies. While he had little response to seeing the corpses, Hardesty noted that “in the cruiser on the way back … he started to sing and whistle and did that all the way back to the station”. Howell pleaded an insanity defence, which rendered an appalled public effectively crippled in their outrage: they still demanded some kind of action, even though the culprit had been easily captured. Police Chief Clare W. Kyler announced the day after the murder that “he would strongly urge to the city administration that the city re-establish park police to prevent a recurrence of Saturday’s tragedy”. But this was deemed insufficient, and it was in this climate that Howell’s comment during his interrogation regarding the gay sex occurring in the Central Park’s public toilets led to the ‘tearoom’ busts and its notorious footage.

In February 1963, eight months after the murders, and long since the ‘tearoom’ busts, Howell was sent to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane for 25 months. Over three years after the murders, Howell’s trial began in the Richland County Commons Pleas Court in Mansfield on November 5, 1965 when he was deemed fit to stand. Public interest in the case when the trial started was low, and the local newspaper reported, “the courtroom has not been full. The spectators are mostly Howell’s family, the families of the two slain girls, courthouse employees and sherriff’s deputies”. Howell appeared calm throughout the trial, although he was still being medicated for his epilepsy.  A few days into the trial, however, and it began to look less like the open-and-shut case that locals may have assumed it to be. Interest grew as prosecutor and defence attorneys debated the legal and constitutional ramifications surrounding Howell’s arrest and the seizure of the clothes he wore during the crime. It was in this context that Howell’s sudden change to a guilty plea of murder on November 11 1965 came as a shock: “Howell’s guilty plea came with an almost numbing calmness and left spectators in the half-filled common pleas courtroom a little wilted and disbelieving”. This plea nullified Howell’s previous insanity defence, but by pleading to two counts of second-degree murder he avoided the possibility of being executed if the insanity plea was rejected. Howell’s was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment, and he died in prison at age 33.

After the trial’s sudden conclusion, the rhetoric about “sex deviants” that had so strongly marked the case at the time of the murders had vanished. Instead, the Richland County Prosecutor Rex Larson made it clear whom he considered responsible with no mention of the events surrounding the ‘tearoom’ busts: “I lay these two deaths, and this is for the record, at the doorstep of the juvenile authorities in the state of Ohio…He (Howell) was in custody of the state juvenile authorities and was released by them without their resolving his personality problem … The state not only made it possible, but probable that he would do these acts”. The vehemence with which Larson’s speech shifts the responsibility for the murders of Connie Hurrell and Jean Bertoch from “sex deviates” to a broader institutional failing on the part of the government is striking, and raises significant questions surrounding the effectiveness of the crusade against “sex deviates” in the ‘tearoom’ busts in 1962. It may seem obvious from a contemporary perspective that associations between homosexuality and child abuse are factually unsupportable. Says Dr Gregory Herek: “The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. This is not to argue that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children. But there is no scientific basis for asserting that they are more likely than heterosexual men to do so. And, as explained above, many child molesters cannot be characterized as having an adult sexual orientation at all; they are fixated on children”. But regardless of how ideologically regressive and factually unfounded the linking of homosexuality to so-called child sexual assault and other forms of what once was called “sex deviancy” may be now considered, there is little doubt that there was some degree of sincerity on the part of many in the Mansfield Police department and those involved in the ‘tearoom’ busts to take concrete action to avoid similar future instances. Whether this was justified higher up to distract the public from the slipshod manner that Howell – an earlier offender – was allowed to slip through the cracks to commit such a heinous crime is open to debate.

Tragically, it perhaps goes without saying therefore that these kinds of crimes did not magically vanish after the ‘tearoom’ busts. Only three days after Howell entered his guilty plea in court, a case with noteworthy similarities occurred again in Mansfield.  On Sunday November 14 1965, 22-year-old Lester Eubanks attempted to rape 14 year-old Mary Ellen Deener who was on her way to the local Laundromat. Like Howell, Eubanks had a history of criminal activity: he had assaulted a 12-year-old girl when he was 16, and had been released on bond for assault with intent to rape at the time of Deener’s death. She was shot in the right side of her chest, and then in the abdomen, but in a curious allusion to the Howell’s murder, Eubanks returned to the body after he had shot her and smashed Deener’s head in with a brick. It may only be coincidence and nothing more than a failed attempt to conceal her identity, but considering the Deener murder occurred during a period when local interest in the Howell case had been regenerated, there is enough evidence to at least raise some suspicions that Eubanks may have to some degree returned to attack Deener with a brick as some kind of subconscious (or even conscious) allusion to Howell. This is, of course, just speculation, and shall no doubt remain as such: while Eubanks was convicted on May 25 1966 for first-degree murder while perpetrating a rape, he escaped from prison on December 7, 1973. As of January 2010, the FBI is still offering a reward of up to $10,000 USD for information leading to his arrest.

References:

Butler, John P. The Best Suit in Town: A Generation of Cops. Royal Palm Press: Charlotte Harbor, 2001.

“Bodies of Two Girls Found In Creek; Suspect Murder.” Mansfield News-Journal 24 June 1962: 1.

Constable, George. “Parents of Slain Girls Recall Day of Brutal Murder.” Mansfield News-Journal 6 November 1965: 1, 13.

Gaynor, Donn. “Youth, 18, Admits Beating, Kicking 2 Girls to Death.” Mansfield News-Journal. 25 June 1962: 1-2.

Herek, Dr Gregory. “Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation.” 1997-2009. 11 January 2010. <http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/HTML/facts_molestation.html&gt;.

“Howell Arrest Debated.” Mansfield News-Journal 10 November 1965: 1-2.

“Howell Could Get Parole in 30 Years.” Mansfield News-Journal 12 November
1965.

“Howell Enters Innocent Plea.” Mansfield News-Journal 26 June 1962: 1-2.

“Howell Remains Calm.” Mansfield News-Journal 6 November 1965: 1, 13.

“Howell in Special Jail Cell.” Mansfield News-Journal 27 June 1962: 1-2.

“Larson Blames Ohio Juvenile Authorities.” Mansfield News-Journal 12 November 1965: 1-2.

“Man Saw Howell, 2 Girls.” Mansfield News-Journal 8 November 1965: 1-2.

“Murderer of 2 Girls Dead in Columbus.” Mansfield News-Journal 10 July 1977.

“Sparring Continues in Trial.” Mansfield News-Journal 11 November 1965: 1-2.

“Wanted by the FBI – Lester Edward Eubanks.” Federal Bureau of Investigation. 31 January 2011.  <http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/murders/lester-edward-eubanks >.

“Youth Has Record of Sexual Offenses.” Mansfield News-Journal 25 June 1962: 1-2.

Advertisements
September 14, 2008

Bricked Vermeer: Subversive Frames and Fulci’s “Sette Note in Nero” (1977)

Note: The post that was once here has now been refereed and can be found as the essay “Subversive Frames: Vermeer and Lucio Fulci’s Sette note in nero” at Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media (Issue 17, 2010).

September 5, 2008

Life in the Old Girl Yet: ‘Carrie’ (1976) and the Unbearable Lightness of De Palma Bashing

by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Crudely boiled down to the barest of narrative and thematic bones, horror more often than not is predicated upon a world of villains – Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees – and, in turn, the heroes who fight them to restore order. Even when delineations are not that clear cut, it still often exhibits (and may be  defined through) a perverse delight in manipulating and challenging the binaries of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ for its own macabre, sometimes even subversive, purposes. For its critical history alone, it is on these terms that director Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie is of some note. Neatly fitting into this binary system, responses to Carrie can be divided into two schools. The film’s brazen technical excesses and references to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some critics to be the films greatest virtues, while for others these same elements are Carrie‘s downfall and reveal De Palma as naught more than an artless hack. Even more violently opposed are the many critics that have taken part in the most heated debate concerning the film (and “De Palma studies” in general): is he a misogynist? The debate has reached the point of such repetition that over 30 years after its release, the question itself is problematic if only by virtue of its overwhelming dominance of critical treatment of the film. But not all criticism has entered into the invitingly Manichean world that horror frequently encourages. Despite the bulk of material to the contrary, there still appears to be critical life for Carrie outside of the traditional hackneyed debates.


To suggest that De Palma’s technical style – in Carrie at least – is anything less than overt would not only be untrue, it misses De Palma’s painstaking (although perhaps zeitgeist-drunk) formal construction of the film. Critics have employed startlingly polarised language in response to these stylistic issues, Richard Combs embarking upon the clearest mode of attack when he accuses De Palma of “leading his audience on with the gushy lyricism of a shampoo commercial before kicking them in the pants with the knife-wielding hysterics of the crudest Hammer horror” (1977: 4). Serafina Kent Bathrick is equally hostile, employing terms such as “fatuous”, “overstuffed” and “flashy”, describing the prom scene sequence as “the ultimate-moment of self-congratulation”. Eye-of-the-beholder critical evaluations come to the fore, however, when this same sequence is described by David Rosen as “De Palma’s stylistic high point” (38: 1977), and that the film’s excessive style is, as a whole, “lush” (37). Those who defend the films excesses do so by crediting the very significance of that excess: “Carrie…experiences everything with excessive intensity, and the film takes its purply style from her feelings”, says David Pirie (22: 1977), while for Kenneth MacKinnon, the issues are one of authorship; “De Palma’s announcement of his hand in the organisation and execution of the film may be resented by the spectator wishing to stay lodged in the security normally available to the viewer of dominant cinema” (132: 1990).

Then there’s the old “Hitchcock Knock-off” chestnut. Pirie describes Carrie‘s shower scene as “an odd and fruitful progression from De Palma’s acknowledged mentor” (22), while Rosen notes a shared thematic concern between the two directors, suggesting De Palma “quite effectively exploits [shared themes]…satirizing them with a menacing Hitchcockian touch” (37). Robin Wood and Keith Ulhich dismiss accusations of plagiarism as ultimately irrelevant, Wood suggesting a high-brow hypocrisy active within this claims core: “When De Palma works his variations of Psycho (1960), this is imitation or plagiarism, whereas when Bob Fosse or Woody Allen imitates Fellini or Bergman this is somehow, mysteriously, evidence of his originality” (125: 2003). Ulhich is more diplomatic; “I like to view [it]…as a conversation between two filmmakers – one who has been absorbed into history and memory, and another who uses certain of the elder filmmaker’s techniques and themes as a prism through which he filters his own sensibilities”. On the flip side, we find Bathrick’s attack encased in a continuing tone of dismissive indirectness; “Carrie is a senior at Bates (ugh) High” (Bathrick), the style of Carrie’s house is “another clunky comment on Norman Bates’…more massive mausoleum”. Shelley Stamp Lindsay gives her concerns about the connection between the two directors a somewhat more serious tone, suggesting that De Palma’s attempts to mimic Hitchcock fundamentally fail on an ideological level. Again referencing Carrie‘s shower scene; “Violence and sexuality are further confused in this sequence through overt parallels to Psycho‘s shower scene … whereas the violence in Psycho is split between victim and attacker, between Marion and Norman Bates, here no such division exists” (282: 1996).

It is these ideological concerns that dominate discussion about Carrie. Bathrick’s attack on the film is not alone in its fundamental claims that De Palma “has developed his own brand of sexism”. She claims, “there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”, and that ultimately, “like all the women in the film…[Carrie] is punished for being a woman”. Lindsay shares a similarly negative view of the film in terms of its gender politics; “In charting Carrie’s path to mature womanhood, the film presents female sexuality as monstrous and constructs femininity as a subject position impossible to occupy” (281). Barbara Creed focused on this notion in The Monstrous-Feminine, approaching Carrie as, you guessed it, an example of the monstrous-feminine; “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster” (77: 1993) (with no Ginger Snaps around to take the now gratingly orthodox critical “flogging a menstrual horror horse”, many critics of this era had to make do with Carrie to fit the bill). Michelle Citron’s comparison of Carrie to The Marathon Man (1976) is also based on the connection between Carrie’s introduction to biological womanhood with her supernatural abilities; “To be a man is to become moral and courageous, to rise up victorious out of the evil of the world. To be a woman is to become that evil: uncontrolled and destructive” (1977). Michael Bliss shares this belief that Carrie’s telekinesis that “first manifests itself along with ‘the curse’ suggests that the power itself is a curse, a view supported by the film’s subsequent events” (53: 1983). For these two events – the onset of her first period and the awakening of her supernatural powers – to be fundamentally linked to De Palma’s misogyny is, again, dependent upon the critics subjective intent. De Palma himself defends the depiction of Carries’ “out of control” body simply: “I wanted to use it as an extension of her emotions”.

Misogyny arguments are primarily based on the assumption that because it is Carrie’s supernatural abilities that ultimately are a destructive force, it is this relationship between the onset of menstruation and those telekinetic powers that indicate that her womanhood is also a destructive force. But as Bruce Babington radically points out, the film never indicates that her telekinesis – and by association, her womanhood (gained through menstruation) – is a negative force as such in its own right. In fact, this is where the power of the film lies: our fundamental positioning as spectators with Carrie. The simplistic reading of her classmates violent attack in the opening shower scene where “period=abject/bad/ evil” are challenged by Babbington. The attack, he claims, stems from a larger social awkwardness at their own femaleness “their own self-hatred, of their own unconscious, culturally-developed fear of the female in themselves” (11). Their attack on Carrie is an attack on their own discomfort with their own response to their socially taboo menstruation. But to suggest that by virtue of exposing the other girls’ socially-conditioned and aggressive discomfort with their own menstruation, De Palma is himself responsible for creating the patriarchal attitudes that are responsible for such a phenomenon seems quite a leap, but one that is made by many of his detractors. This is the similar kind of rhetoric that surrounds much writing on rape-revenge film: does even the depiction of rape as a violent itself count as a symbolic act of violence , or is there a way that, by showing the horror of rape, some kind of message or lesson can be imparted? Does this act of “showing” in effect neutralise intent?

A further complication in the misogyny debate is from Carol J. Clover, who uses the film as an example of her notion of cross-gender identification in the horror genre. “With its prom queens, menstrual periods, tampons, worries about clothes and makeup, Carrie would seem on the face of it the most feminine of stories” (3: 1993). But, she argues, this is clearly not the case: ‘If Carrie, whose story begins and ends with menstrual imagery and seems in general so painfully girlish… and if her target audience is any high school boy who has been pantsed or had his glasses messed with, then we are truly in a universe in which the sex of a character is no object” (20).

What is unendingly fascinating is the very insistence of so many critics to take such extreme, polarised positions within the misogyny and style debates themselves. This raises significant questions about the critical landscape upon which De Palma criticism takes place. It could be argued that critics have followed habit when attempting to read Carrie on the plane of polarised heroes and villains that the horror genre so frequently evokes, but in the process ironically reducing critical debates on Carrie to one that mirrors the very same divisions: De Palma is a villain/ De Palma is a hero. What is more curious is the often-blatant disregard for evidence provided by the film itself to support or deny these claims. As Babbington points out, “in order to sustain the views that Carrie is misogynistic and incoherent, it is necessary to cut off discussion that might be embarrassing” (16). Babbington offers the example of the minor but significant character Frieda – her position is vital, but he is the only critic I have found who even mentions her. And for Bliss to comment on what he describes as “the polarized world of Carrie, in which a Manichean struggle continually exists between good and evil” (15), he relies upon a deeply concerning dismissal of the many debates concerning the moral classification of characters such as Sue and Miss Collins.

There are alternate ways of reading Carrie: these either/or readings are not the only positions possible. William Paul’s examination of the film in his brilliant book Laughing, Screaming takes the dominant binaries of the horror film into account in his reading to dramatically enlightening effect, taking the daring step towards a moral reading of the film and stepping away from the done-and-re-done debates of mysoginy and Hitchcockism. He’s worth quoting at length:

Horror films generally operate in a Manichean universe to the extent that the monstrous and the human inscribe a world of polar opposites. Carrie seems to take over the Manichaeism of the horror film, but it ultimately challenges it as well… Carrie offers a radical shift by invoking this familiar opposition in order to collapse it. The human and the monstrous are not polar states in this film precisely because the human is the monstrous (366) … Carrie earns a sympathy that seems to confuse our willingness to designate her as monstrous. Yet since the film does finally insist on her monstrousness, it invokes a scheme of opposing monsters only to collapse it as much as it collapses its other oppositions. (367: 1994)

Paul’s book – amongst other things – is the closest to attempt what Vivian Sobchack invites in a footnote to her seminal essay, “Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange” (1987), noting that critical attention needs to be given to connections between horror films like Carrie and “the contemporary teen revenge comedy” such as Revenge Of The Nerds (1984). Sobchack’s article also refuses to participate in the traditionally dominant either/or debates around Carrie, locating the film as a significant example in her analysis of the “problem child” figure in horror and other genres. And curiously, despite being referenced by both Creed and Lindsay in their positions on Carrie as fundamentally misogynistic, Sobchack has little interest in gender in regards to De Palma’s work, and instead weighs Carrie up against the far more problematic male protagonist in De Palma’s following film The Fury (1978).

Other interesting readings of Carrie do exist even if they hold less immediate appeal than the ready-made positions provided by traditional De Palma debates concerning style (Hitchcock!) and gender (pig!). Pauline Kael reads the film as “a satiric homage to exploitation film” (211: 1981), while MacKinnon views it as “a satire on fundamentalism” (136). Rosen agrees (39) also widening his critical scope to include in its thematic concerns “some very real and recognisable horrors of contemporary American life, chiefly and centrally the trauma of female adolescence when subjected to the… terrors of the anxiously conformist ambience of high school” (37). Dmetri Kakmi‘s analysis of the film is noteworthy if only for its refreshing absence of any reference to Hitchcock at all, replacing it instead with comparisons to everything from William Blake to Jean-August Dominique Ingres to Hieronymus Bosch. While these arguments may be debated in their own right, their very value stems from their refusal to enter into the more pedestrian misogyny/Hitchcock debates. And there are still areas as yet untouched – while virtually all critics comment in one way or another is to the sympathetic character of Carrie, not enough attention has been given to the powerful and specific role of pathos in the film.

Few other directors so immediately polarise opinion like Brian De Palma, and a history of the critical treatment of Carrie suggests that this film is no exception. But regardless of your take on the film – even if just on an initial subjective, gut level – it seems only fitting that this film, so intent on collapsing the binary framework of heroes/villains and good/evil, has even critics themselves caught up in the inviting honeytrap of the Manichean in horror.