“Carrie” Turns 45: Inside the Hometown of Sissy Spacek’s Telekinetic Teen

Brian De Palma’s Oscar-winning adaptation of the Stephen King novel debuted in theaters on November 3, 1976

In the history of practical locations appearing on the silver screen, there’s perhaps no better example of life imitating art than the house of outcast teenager Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) and her religious fanatic mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie). At the end of Carrie, mother and daughter are consumed in a fiery blaze as their modest Victorian gingerbread home sinks into the ground, flames bursting through the broken windows.

The house that sank into the ground was really a quarter-scale replica shot in an empty lot in Northridge. But, the property where the full-scale Carrie house once stood – located about 40 miles west of Northridge – has remained hauntingly empty for decades, as if the spirit of Carrie deems it so.

Brian De Palma’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s first published novel was released forty-five years ago, opening first in a limited run on November 3, 1976, before its wide release two weeks later. Carrie was a bona fide hit, grossing $33.8 million on an estimated $1.8 million budget. In a rare acknowledgement of the horror genre at the Academy Awards, Carrie garnered Oscar nominations for both Spacek and Laurie.

King’s novel takes place in the fictional town of Chamberlain, Maine. (A coastal village of the same name exists in the town of Bristol, Maine, but it’s not the location depicted in the novel.) The film, however, takes place in a small, unnamed bedroom community where everybody knows everybody.

“I had sort of conceived it as a town anywhere in America, one of those sort of all-American towns,” says production designer Jack Fisk, who had previously worked on De Palma’s 1974 cult horror musical Phantom of the Paradise. “What I like to do on films is make them universal when we can, so that everybody can appreciate them, and not be too specific about where it is. … [Carrie] seemed like such a universal story, you know, teenage revenge. That’s what Brian used to tell Sissy all the time: ‘It’s a story of teenage revenge.’” Fisk and Spacek met while working on Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and married in 1974.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) approaches her house
Margaret White (Piper Laurie) approaches her house (Photo courtesy of MGM)

While Carrie features only a dozen locations, Fisk says he put about 6,000 miles on his car driving around the L.A. region looking for spots to shoot the film. The hardest to find was Carrie’s house. Fisk says the problem in some of the usual places, like South Pasadena, is that over time the houses had gotten bigger as people added on to them.

“I wanted a house that looked like it was in a small town, and it looked isolated and it looked quirky, unusual,” says Fisk.

Taking into account Margaret White’s extreme Christian fanaticism, Fisk had the idea to model the Whites’ home after a type of uniquely Philadelphia row house. Known fondly as a Trinity, or a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, it gets its name from three single-room floors that are connected by a steep, winding staircase. In the late ‘60s, Fisk lived in one such house with David Lynch during their time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

One day, Fisk and his Volkswagen ended up in the Ventura County town of Santa Paula.

“I drive by this house and the dormer [window] upstairs is off-center and it looked so bizarre,” says Fisk. “It being off center, it’s like something an architect would never do,” he adds. “I thought it was just remarkable. You look at it and it was weird; something was wrong with it.” The house on North 7th Street between Santa Barbara Street and Main Street was one-and-a-half stories, not the triptych that Fisk had in mind, but it felt isolated and atypical. Fisk estimates that the house was only about twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet. “It was bizarrely small and singular.”

“It was a really old, beautifully done, wood frame house, and we couldn’t find anything like that [in L.A.].” says Dow Griffith, whose first location manager job was Carrie.

A 1981 Ventura County Cultural Heritage Survey of Santa Paula noted that the house was built around 1900 in the Vernacular Victorian style with Eastlake details. The survey rated the house in fair condition.

The Carrie house appears in a 1981 cultural heritage survey of Santa Paula (Photo courtesy of Ventura County Cultural Heritage Boarding)

Santa Paula exteriors appear onscreen for about five minutes of Carrie’s 98-minute running time, but they set the tone of the entire movie. White picket fences, kids riding their bikes on sidewalks and Santa Paula’s Main Street all added to the small town aesthetic and mood the filmmakers were after.

“We basically modeled things on the Santa Paula location that we found for Carrie’s house and that sense of Anywhere, USA,” says Griffith.

Located along California State Route 126 just fourteen miles east of Ventura, Santa Paula wasn’t convenient in proximity to any of the film’s L.A. locations. Palisades Charter High School, the Hermosa Beach Community Center, the Cahuenga Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, Morningside Elementary School in San Fernando, and the gymnasium set built at the Culver Studios all made up Bates High School – named after Norman Bates. There are seventy miles between Santa Paula and the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon – where Billy Nolan (John Travolta) and pals acquire the film’s infamous pig’s blood. But, in terms of film production, what Santa Paula lacks in convenience it makes up for with an abundance of character.

Main Street, Santa Paula (Photo courtesy of Jared Cowan)

According to Santa Paula councilman, current honorary mayor and retired Santa Paula Police Lieutenant Carlos Juarez, the population of Santa Paula is just over 30,000. The city’s biggest workforce is in agriculture and the community is predominantly Hispanic, says Juarez, who is also the president of the Santa Paula Historical Society. Museums, murals, historic sites and authentic Mexican restaurants are just a few points of pride for the city.

Almost since its incorporation in 1902, Santa Paula has been no stranger to film crews. Gaston Méliès, the older brother of pioneering French moviemaker Georges Méliès, moved his film company to Santa Paula in 1911 and shot a number of movies there. Stunning Craftsman and Victorian-era homes, a classic train depot, and a quintessentially American main street that stretches four blocks have attracted filmmakers for decades despite the city’s location outside the 30-mile studio zone.

Santa Paula native and retired Santa Paula Police Sergeant Jimmy Fogata says he worked details on hundreds of film, TV, music video and commercial shoots in town during his 31-year law enforcement career. “We’ve always had the movie industry around here,” says Fogata. “When we were all just kids we were always extras. I was an extra in a couple of movies that they were filming around here.”

Tommy Ross (William Katt), right, and friends enter a clothing store on Main Street (Photo courtesy of MGM)
The sites of the men’s clothing store, left, and pharmacy, right, from “Carrie” (Photo courtesy of Jared Cowan)

Santa Paula’s tree-lined streets appear in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990). The town’s 1887 train depot shows up in The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) and doubles for Pasadena in Chaplin (1992). Main Street can be seen in Assassination (1987) starring Charles Bronson, Phantasm II (1988), Three Fugitives (1989), Leave It to Beaver (1997), Bubble Boy (2001), Joe Dirt (2001), Mr. Woodcock (2007), Georgia Rule (2007), and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016).

Carrie also shot on Main Street. Just a couple of doors down from the Odd Fellows clock tower, built in 1905, was Seeber’s pharmacy where Carrie tries on makeup before going to the prom. The storefront at 908 East Main Street, currently occupied by an H&R Block, looks completely different today. Directly next-door at 910 East Main Street was the men’s clothing shop where Tommy Ross (William Katt) and his friends try on rental tuxedos. Today it’s a shuttered antique shop slated to become a barbecue restaurant; it retains the façade seen in the film.

(While exploring Main Street, stop into New Orleans eatery Rabalais’ Bistro for a coffee and lemon bar – or beignets if lemon bars aren’t your thing.)

The boy on the bicycle (Cameron De Palma) is falls off his bike as Carrie watches (Photo courtesy of MGM)

Fogata, who is also on the board of the Santa Paula Historical Society, was fourteen or fifteen when the filmmakers of Carrie shot a scene in the front yard of the Craftsman home built in 1911 that’s been in his family for about seventy years.

In the film’s opening, Carrie – scared and traumatized after getting her period for the first time – is tormented by her bullying classmates in the girls’ locker room. Carrie is dismissed from school for the day and walks home along a lush, tree-lined street, her school binder clutched to her chest. A boy on a bicycle weaves in and out of the tree line, taunting the demure teenage girl with the insulting nickname, Creepy Carrie. A quick, piercing glance in the boy’s direction sends him tumbling from his bike and onto the Fogata family front yard located at 601 East Santa Paula Street.

“I remember watching them shoot it. They must have shot it twenty times to get the fall right,” says Fogata.

The front yard of 601 East Santa Pauls Street. Some of the trees have been removed since filming (Photo courtesy of Jared Cowan)

This being before the days of star trailers and massive base camps, Fogata says that craft service was set up on his front porch and his mom opened up the house for the cast and crew.

“I remember John Travolta was sitting in my living room; Sissy Spacek was sitting in my living room. It was kind of their relaxing area,” says Fogata.

Over the years, Fogata’s house has been seen in numerous movies, commercials and music videos, he says, but he remembers Carrie being the first. The same trees from the aforementioned scene are prominent in the music video for Stevie Wonder’s Grammy-nominated, 1987 single, “Skeletons.”

Fogata’s house is just a block away from the vacant dirt lot where Carrie’s house was once stood. Today, behind a chain link fence, a faded blue 1971 Ford LTD station wagon and a neglected, white travel trailer are parked amongst overgrown weeds and brush at the rear of the property on North 7th Street.

In 2001, the location was used as part of the Santa Paula Theater Center’s annual Ghostwalk for a Carrie adaption called “Shocking Amanda,” for which an actress was dressed in a formal prom gown covered in blood.

Over the last few decades, the disappearance of the Carrie house has turned into something of a local myth.

“It became pretty well known after that film,” says Fisk. As far as he knows, the house suffered a fate similar to its onscreen destruction. “I was there [in Santa Paula] a couple of years ago when I was working on Water For Elephants, and I went to a coffee shop and I was talking to the waitress. I said, ‘Do you know where the house is that they shot Carrie?’ She said, ‘Oh, the Carrie house, that burned down.”

Juarez also seems to recall that the house burned. “People said that maybe it burned down because it was the Carrie house, or it was cursed. I remember people talking, but you never really know,” he says.

The quarter-scale replica of the “Carrie” house burns in Northridge (Photo courtesy of MGM)

Fogata doesn’t exactly remember what happened to the house, but speculates that in order to save costs, perhaps it was purposely set ablaze for fire department training. “That’s what a lot of people did with a lot of old houses in Santa Paula. They’d go in there and start a room on fire and the guys would go there and attack the fire, and then part of the deal was the city would help tear down the house,” says Fogata.

What’s striking is that in this small town where some people have lived their entire lives, where lifelong residents seem to know each other, the cause of destruction of this famous movie house isn’t a commonly known fact. If it was consumed by a fiery blaze, it seems the type of singular event that would be more than a point of conjecture within the community.

Robin Gillette, who was born and raised in Santa Paula and is today the principal of Renaissance High School, owns the property where Carrie’s house once stood. She’s a private person and was apprehensive about speaking with us for this article, but she wanted to set the record straight.

The Carrie house had been in Gillette’s family going back, at least, to her grandparents, she says. Her parents, John and Gloria Simon, subsequently lived there for a short time in the early 1950s and kept ownership of the house after they moved. Later, her family purchased the lot next door with the intent of building an apartment complex on the property. In the film, the lot next door is up for sale; the property agent is Paxton Realty, named for the late Bill Paxton, who worked as one of Fisk’s assistants in the art department.

Tommy asks Carrie to the prom girl (Photo courtesy of MGM)

Preparation and filming for Carrie took place at the house on and around April 20, 1976, as noted in a calendar that belonged to Gillette’s mother. The house was not occupied at the time.

Gillette has vivid memories of the shoot. She watched Spacek walk down 7th Street covered in red Karo syrup. She interacted with William Katt, who told her how “spooky” the film was going to be. She recalls the lighting cables snaking their way through the front room of the house.

(Except for a small peek through the front door when Tommy Ross asks Carrie to the prom, none of the house’s real interiors appeared on screen; they were built on a soundstage at the Culver Studios.)

Gillette and her family were later invited to Northridge to watch the quarter-scale replica of their house burn and sink into the ground. “My dad said, ‘Why do that? Just burn this one down,’” recalls Gillette. She thinks it was likely a joke and chalks it up to her dad’s sense of humor. She and her family did not travel to Northridge to watch the torching of the replica.

Sue Snell (Amy Irving) delivers flowers to Carrie’s grave (Photo courtesy of MGM)
Seventh Street looking north (Photo courtesy of Jared Cowan)

Sometime in the early ‘80s, Gillette’s father had the Carrie house demolished – not burned – by a land clearing company. It was bulldozed for reasons related directly to the film, says Gillette.

“My dad became very frustrated because it was the Carrie house, and individuals – mostly teenagers and young people – they started breaking into the house and started doing odd things inside the house,” says Gillette. Sometimes people would sleep in the vacant home; Gillette’s father would often find excrement on the floor; various items would be smashed against the walls. These were almost daily disturbances that hadn’t occurred before the movie came out, Gillette tells us. “My dad just got tired of it and said, ‘It’s coming down. That’ll end it.’”

Since then, the lot has remained empty. Whether or not Gillette will realize her mother’s dream to build apartments – some of them earmarked for low-income tenants – on the property remains to be seen, as she has hit roadblocks with the city on multiple occasions.

The former site of the “Carrie” house at 124 N 7th Street (Photo courtesy of Jared Cowan)

No matter the facts, fanciful stories of the Carrie house will surely continue to spread like wildfire through local legend, and the romantic legacy of the film will likely be kept alive and well in the town of Santa Paula for another forty-five years. Factor in the film’s heart stopping conclusion and you have all the makings of a killer urban legend.

The film’s finale, in which Carrie’s bloody, reanimated hand reaches up through the house’s makeshift grave, was filmed in Northridge, not in Santa Paula. Still, it took Gillette years to gather the courage to cross the walkway that once led from the sidewalk to the house. “I consciously made myself walk back and forth there and say, ‘Okay, it was just a movie, Robin. You saw it being made.’”

“People still have that lore because it’s just a dirt lot now,” says Fogata. He has friends that walk on the other side of the street where there’s a church. A year ago, Fogata walked by the property with his kids and reminded them of the film’s shocking ending as they ambled past. “They were all freaked out. It’s kind of like a little legend in town that that’s the Carrie house [location], so you don’t want the hand to come out and grab you.”

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