The Big Picture

  • Hollywood mourns the passing of iconic actress Piper Laurie, who had an impeccable career spanning over half a century and earned multiple award nominations.
  • Laurie’s portrayal of Margaret White, Carrie’s terrifying mother, in Brian De Palma’s Carrie challenged traditional horror villain roles with a nuanced and empathetic performance.
  • The physical transformation of Laurie’s character in Carrie, along with her outstanding acting, showcased her versatility as an actor and left a lasting impact on the horror genre.

With Piper Laurie‘s passing on October 14th, 2023, Hollywood mourns an icon. Born Rosetta Jacobs, Piper Laurie, as we came to know her once she changed her name after signing a contract with Universal Studios at the age of 18, was a fine actress who withstood the test of time making us a part of her impeccable acting career for more than half a century. She survived ’50s Hollywood’s starlet-making machine, took a break from acting, and returned to it with gusto before retiring again. In between, she earned three Oscar nominations, an Emmy Award from eight nominations, and a series of other outstanding actor accolades for her performances. Perhaps the most memorable of them is her venerated portrayal of Carrie’s mother in Brian De Palma‘s 1976 horror film, Carrie. As a come-back-present after a fifteen-year-hiatus (Laurie hadn’t appeared in films since her Oscar-nominated role in The Hustler in 1961), her portrayal of Margaret White in Carrie earned her a second Oscar nomination. It was as if she never left. And with her mother-from-hell role in the film, Laurie subverted the horror genre.

Who Did Piper Laurie Play in ‘Carrie’?

Piper Laurie as Margaret White in Carrie (1976)
Image via United Artists

Carrie is De Palma’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. The film follows a teenager Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) who has telekinetic powers, with her despotic mother and is a victim of bullying at school. Laurie Piper played Margaret White, Carrie’s petrifying, Puritanical mother. Margaret’s abuses toward her daughter are horrifying to see on screen — she physically beats her, and she verbally abuses Carrie calling her “Satan” while emotionally making her languish in her lonely world. Laurie’s Margaret wants to control everything her daughter does, even her physical growth. She fears that her daughter will become sinful by growing into a woman (read sexually active), and hates her for it. Margaret is as scornful as she is heartbreaking, and it would be hard to imagine anyone other than Laurie playing the celebrated role in the classic film.

On the other hand, Carrie White, the daughter Margaret tortures, is just another teenager growing up, except for her new-found telekinetic powers, which are slowly but surely becoming her defense when attacked or ridiculed. Brought up with her mother’s fundamentalism, Carrie has no clue how to make friends, or even about her own body. She panics when she experiences her first period thinking something is terribly wrong with her. But Laurie’s nuanced portrayal of Carrie’s delirious mother and the duo’s estranged relationship brings sympathy to the titular character. With her performance which is both terrifying and miserable, Piper Laurie challenges the traditional villain role in horror films.

How Does Piper Laurie’s Margaret Subvert Traditional Horror Villains?

Piper Laurie as Margaret White in Carrie
Image Via United Artists

Most horror films of the time such as William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist, which became the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and also had a religious angle like Carrie, and Steven Spielberg‘s Duel, among others have had villains that were either outright irreparable or sycophants craving human blood. De Palma’s Carrie did not. In Carrie, Piper Laurie’s character isn’t an evildoer for the sake of it. Yes, she abuses Carrie, but with her behavior, you have an awkward understanding of her ignorance due to her extreme indoctrination. If you have read Stephen King’s novel that the film is adapted from, it makes Margaret’s character even more heartbreaking.

In the novel, Margaret starts attending fundamentalist classes after her father is killed in a gun battle and soon becomes a Christian fundamentalist. Rarely in the film do you want Margaret to end up dead until she finally attacks Carrie believing that she is saving her for “eternal bliss.” In her twisted love – with which she wants her daughter to remain “pure and innocent” for the greater good beyond, Margaret herself confesses to having sinned (when she had sex twice, one of which conceived Carrie) and regrets liking it. Here, Laurie’s portrayal finds a nuance that, at the time, was a landmark in horror filmmaking.

RELATED: The 12 Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

Piper Laurie as Margaret White in Carrie (1976)
Image via United Artists

Most horror films before Carrie had physically imposing and grotesque characters. But Piper Laurie’s transformation into Margaret White with her defeatist gaunt and haggard appearance with hollowing eyes wasn’t the norm for a horror villain. In The Exorcist, Pazuzu, the demon in Regan’s body is menacing in its manifestation. In Duel, the imposing truck representing the driver behind the wheels, even though the driver’s identity is never revealed, provides a sense of ominousness. In Carrie, Laurie’s portrayal grows from a woman seemingly happy with her unorthodox beliefs (remember her introduction visiting a neighbor whose child was Carrie’s classmate?) to one who is worn out as the film’s events unfold. She looks like a victim of her own beliefs, and fundamentalism has taken a toll on her.

Piper Laurie’s performance in Carrie, while less physically petrifying, is enlivening. As she gets consumed by hate for her daughter as Carrie grows into a woman, she grows accustomed to the fact that she won’t be able to stop her. Only her hollow eyes show the depth of her hate. Meanwhile, Carrie’s powers are becoming more and more prominent. This portrayal by Laurie makes us pity Margaret’s ignorance and her attributions of Carrie’s powers to the devil’s work. She even believes that her husband was driven away by the devil, to which Carrie points out that he left her for another woman. Again, Laurie’s role and her interpretation of it created a new direction for horror films.

The successful balance that Laurie Piper brought to her portrayal of Margaret White shows her versatility as an actor. Margaret is a mother who believes she wants something worthwhile for her daughter and for that twists love she has to do whatever is necessary, even if it means literally stabbing her in the back, and her horrifying abuses toward her. As cinephiles remember Laurie’s performances, her portrayal of Margaret in Carrie will go down as one of the finest ever. And her Carrie co-star and silver-screen daughter, Sissy Spacek, agrees, “Everyone was always shocked and thrilled with the choices she made,” Spacek said in an interview with Coming Soon, adding that, “Piper Laurie was just outrageously brilliant!” As she is laid to rest, Piper Laurie deserves her flowers.

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