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If you search for “cupboard under the stairs” on Google you will be met with a deluge of Harry Potter fan theories. Namely, that he, the titular Harry Potter (said in the voice of Severus Snape, of course) never left the confines of his life beneath the Dursley’s stairs, but, in fact, fell into a psychosis and imagined his education at Hogwarts entirely. However, before there was Harry Potter skulking beneath Dudley Dursley’s continued trundling to and from his room, there was Carrie White, praying for a salvation that, ultimately, wouldn’t come from God.

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Carrie, 1976

While Stephen King wrote Carrie during the early 1970’s, the world was in uproar over what it meant to be a woman. The sexual revolution of the 60’s had begun to trickle into congress and tabloids screamed about women seeking “free abortions on demand” It was a time of counter-counter culture, of social upheaval and modernization, of sex, drugs and Rock’n’Roll. Religion was in decline, the youth were disentangling themselves from their parents’ designs on their futures, and women were finally exercising their power like never before.

And amongst all of this, in the Maine town of Chamberlain, was a woman named Margaret White.

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Carrie by Stephen King

Carrie by Stephen King

In many ways, she represents the values and concerns of the immediate post-war population of many European countries. Sue Short brings up a fantastic concept of one of the main signifiers of ‘Otherness’ that ostracises Carrie from the girls in her class is also an economic one, not simply a social one. The White’s live in a house that (it’s assumed by the For Sale sign in the movie) they can no longer afford to keep; they make their own clothes in a dowdy style more reminiscent of the ‘40s rather than the 70’s; and Margaret ekes out a living through peddling an apocalypse that only she hopes will come – the Whites are the religious outcasts of Chamberlain, an analogy of the first puritans who fled to the New World, dowdy clothes and all.

And Margaret does seem to possess many of the same characteristics as those first settlers; a rejection of modern religious discourse, a frightfully violent code of authority, and a need to appease her God through bloodshed. Mrs White had an orgasm with her husband during Carrie’s conception and has hated herself for it ever since. In the film, she repeatedly says to Carrie on hearing of her daughter’s first menstruation that the “First sin is intercourse! First sin is intercourse! First sin is intercourse!” This hatred manifests itself in both guilt that thrust’s the White’s deeper into religious fervour and an unmistakable hatred for the product of that orgasm – Carrie herself. In fact, the conception of Carrie is one of the defining moments in Margaret’s life, in the same way many would feel the birth of their child was. For Margaret, this was the day she was punished for her ‘sin,’ and she’s been making it up to God ever since – by punishing Carrie for having the audacity not to grant Margaret clemency and die in the womb.

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The White Cupboard, or the cupboard beneath the White stairs filled with religious iconography and part-time convent for Carrie throughout both the book and the film, is Margaret’s attempt to reverse her role in displeasing God with her now gone ex-husband Ralph. The White Cupboard serves as a replica womb, one in which Margaret is able to temporarily suspend her maternal responsibilities – and therefore her guilt – for a short while. In Carrie’s absence, Margaret can repent her sin without staring it in the face. Tellingly, Margaret refers to the cupboard as Carrie’s “closet,” and repeatedly asks her to “come to her closet and pray to be forgiven.” In this we see a second reason for Margaret’s reliance on the White Cupboard as a surrogate womb for Carrie – it is the last place any of us are ever really truly free of sin in Margaret’s eyes and, in regressing Carrie to that of an infant within its confines, she sees a greater likelihood of God being able to witness whatever innocence is left within Carrie and be more inclined towards forgiveness.

For Carrie, however, the White Cupboard becomes a catalyst for her own breaking from her mother’s world view. She is able to see the futility and madness of her mother’s religious zeal, and how it has stolen much of her life from under her. Under the guidance of Mrs Collins, Carrie is slowly indoctrinated into the male gaze of feminine beauty as all she needs is a “pretty dress and to curl your hair.” This break is short lived and the infamous Prom Scene looms bloodily.

With the climatic destruction of the town, Carrie – for the first time – willingly regresses into a child that shrinks back into her mother’s arms. An article could be written in itself on the feminist ideal that Carrie exhibits in the aftermath of her prom, but its repercussions are what concern us here. She retreats into her mother’s arms and is rewarded by the only mercy her mother understands from her pamphlets about the end of the world and her vigorous reading of (probably) the Old Testament – a blood sacrifice to God via a knife in the back. Carrie reacts, killing her mother with the same power that convinced Mrs White that Carrie was under the influence of the devil, but it is where she chooses to die herself that shows the most revealing aspect of Carrie’s story arc. In the film, Carrie retreats to the cupboard, dragging her mother’s corpse, perhaps hoping that – like her mother – the room could be a sanctum, one which might suspend her guilt and save them both.

Last Updated on April 2, 2021.

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Conner McAleese
Conner McAleese is a current PhD student at the University of Dundee studying 'spaces' in contemporary horror. His debut novel, The Goose Mistress, was published in 2018 by Dark Ink Press and details Eva Braun's experience of World War Two. McAleese now considers himself a horror writer and has had his short stories published in Blood Rites Magazine and Haunting Voices among others. He looks to the 'disturbing' for inspiration, hoping to academically push back the last taboos in literature to analyse what they represent for today's cultural fears and anxieties. However, he hopes to balance this with a satisfying and long career in horror writing. He currently lives in Dundee and is working on his first horror novel.

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  1. […] for Daddy in People Under the Stairs is Jack Torrence in The Shining. Mommy with her crazed take on motherhood and religiosity you can compare to Carrie. But I think there is a better comparison, one that is found in clues […]

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