Since childhood, I have associated Karo syrup with Sissy Spacek's broken heart. For a time, I was the only kid in middle school who found the pivotal scene of Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), the horror film that has long been a thoroughfare of American television's rotating stable of Halloween movies, rather sad. My peers preferred the manufactured, soulless entropy of The Exorcist to Carrie’s more careful, exacting psychological terrors. But it's a film with a unique breed of genius, one that is distilled most fully in the film's most famous scene, wherein Carrie, the newly-minted prom queen of Bates High, is drenched in the blood of swines.
The “pig’s blood” is, in actuality, a mash-up of red dye and corn syrup manufactured by Karo. This is a bit of trivia I had learned of while perusing the film's IMDB page after first seeing the movie on TBS. Until that point in the movie, Spacek’s body language is willowy and sluggish. But the shift is immediate and tectonic. The drop of Karo syrup makes Carrie straight-backed and serious, prompting her to engage in a vengeful genocide of the residents of her small town.
"At first the 'blood' felt like a warm blanket," Spacek would write in her 2012 memoir My Extraordinary Ordinary Life. She received her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her intense, committed work in this film—a kind of recognition virtually unheard of for actresses in horror films. "But it quickly got sticky and disgusting. I had to wear that stuff for days. And when they lit the fires behind me to burn down the gym, I started to feel like a candy apple."
Karo syrup, like a lot of corn syrup, has adopted many uses since its creation in 1902. It's deployed for candy, glazes, pastries, and French toast toppings. (Candy apples, too.) Some have even attached it to the myth that its potency mirrors that of a laxative for young children. I have only ever known Karo syrup as the liquid that fell on Carrie White.
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Corn syrup has long served as the foundation for falsified blood on celluloid, evolving from the chocolate syrup of the black and white era. This particular concoction involving corn syrup and red dye would grow especially popular in the gore-soaked New Hollywood era, with such aesthetically grim, somber films as The Godfather and Taxi Driver demanding their blood have a whiff of verisimilitude.
With time, the practice of using Karo syrup as blood was retired in the film industry, particularly because the labor involved in cleanup was cumbersome. 2013's woefully inadequate remake of Carrie, for example, used CGI blood. In the original Carrie, though, Karo syrup assumes an unexpected meaning—attached to the film's overarching philosophy, which takes artifice and marries it to honest feeling. Carrie is a coming of age story cut short, told in a manner that's self-aware but never too self-serious, and it's no better contained than in this scene. The blood is fake, just Karo syrup mixed with red dye. Carrie White's fear that the whole world is laughing at her is real.
See anywhere else food popped up in Carrie? Let us know in the comments!
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.