Writing

What Stephen King Can Still Teach Us About Bullying

There’s a certain aggressive tone somebody can take that will send me reeling far back into the past, guaranteeing that a hell of a fight is about to occur — or equally likely, that I’ll become frozen in panic until the moment has passed, and then spend days wallowing in anger and deep shame for not standing up for myself.

All that from a tone.

In learning how to rise to the occasion of conflict, those of us who are still haunted by Ghosts of Bullies Past eventually discover what our tormentors knew from the beginning: that anger can become an endless source of motivation in its own right — one that blots out reason, hope, and even love. It allows one to rationalize the loss of any friendship, any relationship. As recipients of abuse, we were given a terrific array of weapons; we carry them around with us as we walk through the world. Some carry their arsenal openly, others conceal it so well that you’d have to marry us, or be our child, to know that it exists at all.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned about this phenomenon. In the book Christine, which I read long before I was old enough to drive, Stephen King’s nerdy protagonist Arnie Cunningham becomes possessed by a spirit that’s just as violently antisocial in death as it was in life — but he was primed for this ghostly visitation by equally frightening physical run-ins with hoodlums in his shop class. In the end, it remains unclear whether one could have ever happened without the other.

Conversations about bullying in Stephen King’s books tend to revolve around Carrie — and perhaps for good reason, since it was his first novel, and at under 200 pages it remains one of the easiest for new readers to pick up. Its focus on female characters and themes was unusual for its time, and the movie adaptation became a worthy cultural institution in its own right. 

Those who know King better will point out that the subject of bullying looms over a great many of his books — particularly the earlier ones, when the author himself was much closer in age to the protagonists of Carrie, IT, and yes, Christine. This may also partly explain why an entire generation of teen and pre-teen readers shoved aside more age-appropriate fare in favor of these unabashedly adult novels. They became a rite of passage among young bookworms, a call to arms in the great, culturally-sanctioned war between the oppressors and the oppressed.  

Here’s the thing about King’s bullied heroes, though: they didn’t make it. In most cases they became monsters themselves, twisted by suffering and rage into unrecognizable figures, wreaking their vengeance less and less discriminately as their power grew. Even those who managed to survive seemingly unscathed prove to be permanently wounded by it, carrying around an inner world still dominated by torment years or even decades later — literally haunted, in Freudian terms

Due to the wave of LGBTQ suicides and other tragic events in the past decade, we’re awash in new narratives from authors and educators who are desperate to eradicate this social illness at its root, making bullying less socially acceptable for kids (and adults) to indulge in. Victims are urged to seek help, take the high road, and above all, hang in there. “It gets better!” the internet shouts in unison.

But that’s a half-truth: while your day-to-day experiences are likely to improve with time, you may not. Because of the long-term emotional damage caused by this kind of abuse, you may find that your trajectory through life has been altered in ways you won’t be able to appreciate for years, or even decades. As such, King offered teenagers in the ‘80s and ‘90s what today’s well-meaning authors do not: a view of the ugliness and anger bullies impart upon their victims, and the disfiguring effect that can have on everyone involved.

Carrie and Christine are the female/male bookends of this phenomenon, the latter being a formidably unpleasant read (and I mean that with love) due to the physical and emotional degradation of pretty much every character in the book. Just as in ‘Salem’s Lot and numerous of his other works of the ’70s and ’80s, King observes a post-Vietnam America that’s sagging at the seams: starkly segregated by class, status, race, and education, marred by social and economic unrest. Optimism is in short supply among young and old alike, creating fertile ground for all kinds of menace to take root, both real and supernatural.

christine by stephen king - bullyingArnie Cunningham is hardly just a male stand-in for Carrie White, even if both of them are mainly glimpsed through the eyes of a “passable” popular main character (Sue Snell in Carrie, Dennis Guilder in Christine) who emerges from the high school political system with a sympathy for underdogs, trying to curb the violence they see being enacted in the name of vengeance (Dennis resorts to fisticuffs, but only in self-defense; Sue effaces her own popularity by sacrificing her prom date).

Anchoring his stories to a “safe” protagonist instead of the victims themselves might seem like a serious oversight at first, but it’s actually a diabolically clever strategy on King’s part — one also adopted by Judy Blume in her YA novel Blubber, which contains more sheer brutality per square inch of text than even most adults could stomach. It affords real-life victims a glimpse of the psychology of their oppressors, as well as all of society’s passive enablers. It also provides a long, hard look in the mirror, daring us to confront our own inborn ugliness, and how we, too might be inclined to react with disgust, contempt, and pity to those we perceive as  lower in status. In the tragic fates of King’s “heroes,” we also see the longer-term risks of accepting a mantle of victimhood.

These are all perspectives likely to be obscured by a well-meaning, more sympathetic service to victims, but these days it’s no longer fashionable to veer from a script of encouragement and positivity. This is reflected in the most recent adaptation of Carrie, in which the dewy Chloë Grace Moretz stands in for the ultimate outsider — when even Sissy Spacek’s simple, wan beauty somewhat obscured Carrie White as she was originally conceived, heavyset and acne-afflicted. The casting of someone like Moretz is meant to ennoble the victim, win us over to her side more easily; what it actually does is fail to inspire any sincere empathy for the real “losers” out there, the ones who aren’t quite so easy to make over, whom society still dictates are fair game for abuse. 

Just like Carrie, Christine‘s Arnie also gets a makeover as part of his revenge: as his beloved ’58 Plymouth Fury gains a stronger hold over his soul, his acne clears up and he begins to swagger through life with an eerie confidence, eventually catching the eye of the prettiest girl in school. King allows Arnie a character-arc that swings much wider than Carrie’s. Whereas you could say Carrie goes out on a high note, self-destructing at the apex of her newly-discovered beauty, Arnie’s metamorphosis continues for months, long after the favorable effects have given way to grotesque disfigurements. By the novel’s end, he bears more resemblance to the ’58 Fury’s deceased owner, Roland LeBay, than to the goofy honor-roll student he once was.

Exploring the effects of these changes, King takes quite a few jabs at adults’ blinkered view of social problems, showing how our feel-good policies of intervention and inclusivity persist in totally ignoring the way teenagers experience reality. “At heart most high school kids are about as funky as a bunch of Republican bankers at a church social,” he writes in Christine. “There are girls who might have every album Black Sabbath ever made, but if Ozzy Osbourne went to their school and asked them for a date, that girl (and all her friends) would laugh herself into a hemorrhage at the very idea.” He goes on: “What’s now is forever — ask any Republican banker and he’ll tell you that’s just the way the world ought to run…It’s only when you’re a teenager that you talk about change constantly and believe in your heart that it never really happens.”

The idea that we can overcome this kind of orthodoxy and social Darwinism with a campaign of rubber wristbands or sensitivity training will strike many young people as patently absurd — because it is.

As Arnie finally discovers an outlet for his pent-up anger (and Christine begins stalking the streets in search of revenge) King reveals what this outwardly-impressive transformation has wrought on his psyche: “Love is the enemy,” Arnie preaches to Dennis. “Yes. The poets continually and sometimes willfully mistake love. Love is the old slaughterer. Love is not blind. Love is a cannibal with extremely acute vision. Love is insectile; it is always hungry.” When Dennis asks what it eats, Arnie is locked and loaded with an answer: “Friendship. It eats friendship.”

King’s interest in the long-term effects of bullying and victimhood are in the text, not just the subtext. See the passage where Dennis’s father describes a tormented schoolmate from his own past, a young man channeled his pain into an obsession with model trains and then later committed suicide. “My point is just that good people can sometimes get blinded,” he tells his son, “And it’s not always their fault.”

Just as in domestic abuse, the psychological effects of bullying end up being passed along from person to person, from generation to generation, until they form a sort of diseased lineage — almost indistinguishable from a supernatural curse. These themes recur throughout more of King’s books than we can mention; the psychopathic schoolyard bullies in IT inadvertently became allied with an ageless evil, and decades later their leader resurfaces as the conveyance for IT’s retribution against the heroes. In The Stand, teenage social pariah Harold Lauder manages to survive a global pandemic — flourishes, even, shedding the acne and extra pounds that once marked him as an outcast — but the burden of Harold’s past humiliations leaves him spiritually malformed, and he’s easily twisted into the murderous puppet of mastermind Randall Flagg.

It would be nice to look back on all these books as mere artifacts from a time when displays of anger and obsession enjoyed a more comfortable place in our society, but if anything, technology such as cell phones and social media have inflamed these senses, emboldening us to speak and act ever-more impulsively, before a wider audience. In his own gruesome way, King anticipated the fates of young people like Matthew Shepard, Tyler Clementi, and Trayvon Martin. In his version of the stories, these boys might have been avenged by violent supernatural forces — but also, had they survived, the consequences of these monstrous acts would have become embedded in their identities, and the smiling faces we see in old photographs would have grown unrecognizable next to the burdens they went on to privately bear as adults.

Of the responses to bullying that have proliferated in more recent years, the only one I’ve heard that resonates with King’s messages is a speech given by Laverne Cox on the occasion of 2014’s National Coming Out Day. “Hurt people hurt people,” the trans actress emphasized, describing the damage wrought within the LGBTQ community by members who are still grappling with the effects of their trauma, and find themselves lashing out at allies as well as opponents. The same phenomenon repeats itself in the periphery of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, where it can be hard to gain a consensus on which hurts and injustices require the most urgent attention, and at whose expense. Meanwhile, elders and onlookers fret over all this contributing to a “culture of victimhood” — comfortably distracting themselves from confronting the evils in our culture that victimize people in the first place.

Deep down, mainstream society already knows that “hurt people hurt people,” and it is far more concerned with protecting itself from the Carries and Arnies of the world than with preventing any of them from being harmed. The proliferation of school shootings has interfered with our sympathy for high school students who exhibit the kind of disaffected behavior often exhibited by victims of abuse. Maybe we should call that empathy gap Miss Collins Syndrome, after the ill-fated gym teacher in Carrie. Kindness toward her troubled student didn’t end up saving her from being a target of Carrie’s blind wrath, did it? That’s where Cox’s wisdom twists out of our hands: “hurt people hurt people” can also be deployed as a warning of the dangers of associating with the damaged.

As we grow up, we are counted on to bear our burden calmly, silently, peacefully. Whenever persecuted minorities resort to protecting themselves in an organized way, such as the Pink Pistols or the Black Panther Party, we see that the sheer act of arming oneself in vigorous self-defense will be perceived by the rest of society as “radical,” a threat against the very “law and order” that failed to protect them in the first place. Even so, after this year’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the internet overflowed with 2nd Amendment defenders who insisted the tragedy could have been averted if the victims had been armed, their grief momentarily eclipsing their fear of young Hispanic men congregating in large numbers, equipped with firearms and alcohol.

Here we saw another side of that Miss Collins Syndrome: a critical lack of imagination for daily life as it’s experienced by the oppressed. Miraculously, these gun advocates were able to look past all the danger associated with being a young person of color, for whom brushes with law enforcement are already far more frequent and physically dangerous, resulting in a disproportionate number of arrests and much harsher sentencing — and yes, deaths. How could anyone prescribe gun ownership to one of these young men as a solution, knowing that later on, that gun’s presence could be used to justify the hasty actions of a police officer?

The Miss Collinses of the world do not have our backs, not in any meaningful way, and the Carries of the world know it. This was perhaps King’s starkest message to true outsiders, those for whom conformity is simply not an option: a little lipstick and mascara will not save you. The tools of the oppressor will not liberate you. Do not be fooled by those who try to convince you that they will. 

Most abused people would still prefer to have a Miss Collins than be handled like toxic waste — the popular alternative in our paternalistic society, coolly reminding us that the effects of our abuse have made us irrational, and we can’t be trusted to know what’s good for us — let alone wield deadly force in self-defense. As our traumatic teenage years give way to adulthood, we see how the lingering psychological effects of our abuse are stigmatized and selected against, in social and professional environments alike. Our nation’s collective disinterest in providing adequate mental healthcare drives this point home as well: now, just as then, you are on your own.

This gives members of all marginalized groups, who are more likely to be singled out for unwanted attention from a young age, something to ponder as they strive for equality: who are we capable of becoming, once we are no longer oppressed? Or for those who can bear to ask it: who might any of us have become without our bullies? 

The pat, polite answer is that we must be grateful for past hardships, because they’ve made us who we are today. No one wants to look you in the eye and admit that your life really might have turned out better if it hadn’t been for all that unpleasantness. As far as anti-bullying slogans go, “What’s Done Is Done” is a much harder one to rally celebrities around.

King’s honesty-disguised-as-fiction isn’t the kind medicine that will help everyone, but it did convey a potent message that still commonly eludes those who have the luxury of no longer being teenagers: anger is timeless. It pulls you out of the present, it erases your hopes for the future. Remember, Arnie’s beloved Christine was able to repair herself by running the odometer backwards — becoming whole again and stronger than ever, but more blindly malevolent with each pass.

In the hands of her original owner, a hardened bully, this anger was kept at a simmer, producing a slow-burning contempt for all society. In the hands of a defenseless victim, however, it boiled over into homicidal rage.

Those of us who read these books early, and often, saw the warning in them and have spent our lives since then finding ways to avoid paying our own anger forward, mitigating the damage so we can find a happier ending.

Just a story about a haunted car, you say? Our kids know better, even if we no longer do.