Libraries as Safe Places in Horror Cinema – Case Study One: Carrie (1976)
Characters in horror cinema and literature often assume the role of information gatherer/knowledge seeker. There is usually a mystery at the heart of the story that needs to be solved, a truth uncovered. There frequently comes a moment when research is required in order to find out what the hell is going on, and sometimes equipping oneself with reliable and impartial information in order to obtain truth can mean the difference between life and death. Characters may visit libraries (or indeed archives or public halls of records) to fulfil their information needs and obtain truth - sometimes with the guidance and support of library staff. Of course, libraries are more than just storehouses for books; they provide a crucial (and free) service by connecting people with information, and also, connecting people with people. They enable individuals to access and acquire knowledge they may, for various reasons, be otherwise unable to obtain.
The role of library as a safe place for individuals to seek knowledge and information in order to understand and learn about themselves, and the (sometimes terrifying) issues they are facing (especially if they are a character in a horror film) is beautifully conveyed in a scene in Carrie (1976). A social outcast, teenager Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is ridiculed and persecuted by her classmates (it’s a good day if she’s just ignored and ostracised), many of whom actively go out of their way to make her life a living hell. At home, things aren't any better. Her mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), is a religious fanatic with extreme views who has raised Carrie in ignorance of many things, including the physical and biological changes she will go through during adolescence. Her mother believes these changes are a sure sign of sinfulness. Carrie is extremely shy and awkward and lacking in any kind of self-confidence. She is wary and distrustful of her peers because of how they treat her, and of her teachers, who, with the exception of gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), who attempts to reach out to and help Carrie, are either ignorant of the bullying she faces on a daily basis, or turn a blind eye to it. For Carrie, high school is a cruel, painfully lonely place. When she begins to menstruate for the first time in the school locker-room shower, she has no idea what is happening to her. She thinks she is dying, panics and screams for help, but is met only with derision, disgust and ridicule from the other girls. This moment, and the trauma it causes Carrie, instigates the awakening of her latent telekinetic powers. According to Stamp (2015, p332) '[Carrie’s] adolescent body becomes the site upon which monster and victim converge.' She has no one to turn to for help.
This is why libraries are so important, but more about that in a moment…
Being a young person has always been difficult. That awkward period between childhood and adulthood, when hormones are raging, bodies are changing, and sometimes being sure of who you are is not always a given. There is pressure to fit in, to conform to expectations of parents, peers, society, or oftentimes, those expectations we place upon ourselves, which can be worst of all. It can be difficult to talk about certain issues because they are so personal, so intimate, and many young people ‘seek to hide their identities and their struggles, in order not to seem different or vulnerable’ (IFLA, 2018). Whether there is anxiety stemming from bullying, bereavement, body image, sex, familial strife, sexual orientation, gender identity, it can be overwhelming. It is so easy to think you are the only one affected by these things, especially growing up in conservative places or environments, where being 'different' or 'other' is always viewed so negatively, even hostilely. Oftentimes it might be too difficult to talk to parents, or an adult or friends for advice, or even just to gain basic reassurance or information.
This is where libraries come in and why they are so important. They provide a safe, impartial place where you can access and gather reliable information, for free and without judgement, to learn about what's going on with yourself, be it biological, physical, psychological, sexual, gender-related - to inform yourself, and ultimately empower yourself (because knowledge is power). A good library will have ‘widely advertised fiction and non-fiction (both print and the more private online) resources that children [and young people] can use to learn more about whatever issues they face’ (Beckingham, 2019). Libraries are therefore essential for students who may be struggling pastorally: ‘For young people, in a transition phase between dependent childhood and independent adulthood, such places offer an important opportunity to develop their skills, their ideas and their identities. A place to continue and complete the process of learning and finding a place in society’ (IFLA, 2018).
For young people who may seek out information in their school library, by simply being in that physical space, they may also find refuge from the harsh glare of high-school life. According to librarian Bonnie Barr, ‘The library has the potential to be an accommodating space for everyone […] as well as a safe space for those who seek a place to belong. This can have a lasting and positive impact on the lives of the students’ (Accessit Library). Ideally students can access the library to educate themselves and for when solace is needed. Access to certain information is vital, especially for those students from underprivileged areas or backgrounds, whose parents or carers might not have the means or money to help them, or maybe a student doesn't feel comfortable discussing their worries. Barr also notes, ‘The school library cater[s] to people in their most vulnerable stages of growing’ (Accessit Library). As young people discover who they are, ‘their information needs may change, and they certainly become more diverse’ (IFLA, 2018).
Access to libraries is especially important for young people like Carrie White, young people ‘who are moving from a situation of dependence (being fed information directly by teachers or families) to independence. They take on new responsibilities, and must take new choices. As they have new experiences, and find out new things about themselves, the importance of being well-informed grows, as well as simply having a quiet place where they can be calm, and be themselves’ (IFLA, 2018). Carrie is obviously unable to talk with her mother about these issues. Her mother believes Carrie's menstruation is a sign that she is a sinner and therefore must be punished. When she does try to open up to her mother about what is happening to her, Carrie is beaten and locked in a cupboard and forced to pray. When a parent such as Carrie’s is unwilling or unable to offer guidance and support, or is never around, when there is no one else to turn to, Carrie is still able to use the library to safely explore and gather information for herself so she can better understand and deal with her issues. Libraries enable ‘freer information seeking, with practical support as a fall-back, less formal than schools or universities. By providing access to information, libraries can offer a bridge between home life and the wider world’ (IFLA, 2018).
Carrie is seen checking the card catalogue and browsing the shelves by herself, and does not appear to seek assistance from library staff. This could of course be because she is happy to just browse by herself, unfortunately it could also be because she doesn’t even feel comfortable asking for help. This highlights several negative issues regarding the perception of libraries, and that there is still much work to be done to change attitudes. As Wexelbaum (2016, pp27-28) suggests, in academic libraries particularly, the phenomenon of ‘library anxiety’ ‘often renders libraries and library employees unsafe for students [...] Students may find academic libraries overwhelming, and feel intimidated by librarians, who they often perceive as judgmental and “knowing everything”. For this reason, only a small percentage of students actually visit the Reference Desk, go to the stacks to search for materials, or even visit a Circulation Desk to check out materials.’
Wexelbaum (2016, p29) also notes ‘School libraries have a long history of restricting access to information and resources, as well as self-censorship. They are also still used as centers for disciplinary action, such as after school detention […] Last but not least, school districts with decreasing budgets will hire a paraprofessional—or even a volunteer parent—to run the ‘school media center’ if state laws do not demand that school districts must have an MLIS [Master of Library & Information Science] - holding librarian. Lack of appropriately trained people running school media centers may inadvertently cause harm to students.’ These issues highlight, in the starkest way, the necessity of a school (indeed, any kind of) library having professional, qualified and approachable staff who will ensure users can access information and find solace and privacy when they need it. The service needs to be impartial and non-judgemental, and students must feel empowered to read and freely explore and ask for help without fear of reproach or judgement.
Library staff therefore play an absolutely crucial role in ensuring the perception of the library as a safe place to gather knowledge, free from judgement or harassment, is upheld and evident within services provided. The librarian and former President of the American Library Association Josephine Adams Rathbone – who drafted the first suggested ALA code of ethics in 1930 - called for staff to always be neutral, friendly and accepting of diversity (Wexelbaum, 2016, p10), and to always ensure library users feel safe, welcome and unjudged. According to Wexelbaum (2016, p15), the 1995 ALA Code of Ethics, ‘without stating it outright, provides the foundation for library as safe space. Section I of this code states that the highest level of service to patrons is “accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.”’ Mick Smith, secondary principal at Bangkok Patana School, states: ‘Librarians should not be seen as simply checkout operators in glorified book supermarkets. Rather they are knowledgeable and friendly hosts, eager to share their treasure trove of invention and information in libraries where guests feel welcome, safe and able to follow their imagination’ (Beckingham, 2019).
Fortunately, it appears that Carrie regarded the library as somewhere she could obtain information and truth regarding her circumstances. While the audience see her browsing books on the topics of telekinesis and the paranormal, she may also have been looking for titles on adolescence, women’s health, anatomy and human biology. Information is a key component of growth and development. The safe, impartial provision of this access so that everyone can use, share and create information is ‘therefore essential to development, from the individual to the global level’ (IFLA, 2018). Libraries provide an essential service by helping to deliver this, and school libraries especially should be aware ‘that for many students the library space is so much more than a repository for books. Today, more than ever, students need a welcoming and adaptable library space which is, at times, a refuge from the everyday pressures they face’ (Accessit Library).
While Carrie White’s life was tragically cut short as the result of a series of unspeakably cruel and humiliating acts carried out by her peers, her mother and eventually by the power of her own inner rage and misery, she did find a few brief moments of respite from the din of her tormentors. At the ill-fated prom she, for a moment at least, and before the blood and the fire, felt accepted finally by her classmates and peers. Before that though, when she walked with quiet purpose and calmly browsed the shelves of her school library seeking knowledge and understanding, she experienced self-empowerment through learning, and maybe, just maybe, amidst the quiet stacks and pages of the books she located therein, found momentary relief from the storm of her life.
Accessit Library. (n.d.). The library – a safe space for everyone. [online] Available at: https://accessitlibrary.com/project/library-safe-for-everyone/ [Accessed 8 Sep 2020].
Beckingham, K. (2019) Libraries as safe havens. Independent Education Today [online] Available at: https://ie-today.co.uk/facilities-buildings/libraries-as-safe-havens/ [Accessed 8 Sep 2020]
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) (2018) How Libraries Provide Safe Spaces for (All) Youth [online] Available at: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/66072 [Accessed 8 Sep 2020]
Stamp, S. (2015) Horror, femininity and Carrie's monstrous puberty, in The Dread of Difference: Gender in the Horror Film. 2nd ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press
Wexelbaum, R. (2016). The Library as Safe Space. [online] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303839143_The_Library_as_Safe_Space [Accessed 8 Sep 2020] DOI: 10.1108/S0732-067120160000036002 27/08/2020