Movie Review – Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls (1962)
Written by John Clifford & Herk Harvey
Directed by Herk Harvey

I made a dumb statement in my review of The Innocents. I caught myself. No one had to call me out. I used the term “elevated horror.” Ugh. I was reminded by seeing an excerpt from a John Carpenter interview that the term is meaningless. The word “elevated” implies better than something else, and when we talk about art, it’s profoundly reductive. I know what I meant and what I should have said. There is some horror that takes itself seriously and other horror that is tongue-in-cheek. I prefer the former because I want that suspension of disbelief. Tongue-in-cheek horror can be good, especially if you don’t want to lose yourself entirely in the work; you need some healthy distance & an ability to laugh at what is on screen. “Elevated” is often used to disparage low-budget films that did not have the resources of others. Yet, plenty of moving pieces of horror didn’t cost much to make. Carnival of Souls is undoubtedly one of those.

Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is riding in a car with two of her friends when a car of guys challenges them to a drag race. During the race, the women’s car is bumped by the men while crossing a bridge. They lose control, and the women’s car plummets into the river below. After three hours of dredging and finding nothing, authorities are about to give up when Mary emerges, unscathed and fine. Unfortunately, she has no memory of how she got out of the car or where she’d been for the past three hours. Later, Mary moves to Salt Lake City, where she has lined up a job as a church organist. She gets a nice room in a boarding house. But this new life is plagued with strange visions. Mary keeps seeing a ghoulish man stalking her. She’s also drawn toward a large abandoned pavilion on the city’s edges.

Herk Harvey started in film by directing industrial and educational movies out of Lawrence, Kansas, for Centron. While driving back from a shoot in California, Harvey passed through Salt Lake City. He passed the abandoned Saltair Pavilion, meant to be part of a resort on the Great Salt Lake. This imposing structure sitting in the desert wilderness was a striking image to Harvey and stayed with him. He imagined a scene of ghosts dancing in the grand ballroom of that building, memories from a time passed. Three weeks later, he’d written the script for Carnival of Souls. While on a work trip to New York City, Harvey met Lee Strasburg-trained actress Hilligoss and knew he’d found his Mary. He would take three weeks’ vacation from his job to shoot after raising $17k from local businessmen while deferring the rest of the $30k production budget. 

Like The Innocents, Carnival of Souls rests on the shoulders of the leading actress’s performance. You put the wrong person in that role and get something awful. It’s a good thing Harvey met Hilligoss. She exudes otherworldliness, a distance from the people around her from the moment she comes stumbling up the river’s muddy banks. Without understanding why Mary refuses to get close to people in her new city. There’s no interest in finding dates or going out. She is implied to be an atheist, which immediately distances herself from her place of work. Mary is living out a life that has been imposed upon her. She is of age and not yet married. The acceptable path at the time was to get some “unserious” job like church organist and wait for a man to pick her as his wife. 

There’s a terror of the male gaze woven throughout the movie. The drag race at the beginning is born out of aggressive male flirtation. Mary is followed by a corpse-like man who haunts her dreams and waking life. The only other boarder in her house is the lecherous Mr. Linden, who peeks in on Mary as she bathes in the tub. Her boss/pastor passes judgment on Mary’s unwillingness to conform. Men are forces of antagonism, a danger & an obstacle. When she expresses distress around Linden, he shakes and slaps her, the old cliche of telling a woman to get a hold of herself while they brutalize her and worsen it.

Carnival of Souls is deeply concerned with duality. Inside & outside. Day & night. Light & Dark. Mary comments at one point, “The world is so different in daylight. But in the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. In the daylight, everything falls back into place again.” We are not one person but many. We present ourselves differently, even based on the time of day. Imagine yourself as you are first thing in the morning. Then think of how you are when you’re out with friends in the evenings. Two different people reside in one form. We change ourselves depending on the space we’re in. We like to get cozy on the couch and watch movies at home. At the grocery store, we move with purpose from aisle to aisle. When you are in a space centered on hedonism & intoxication, you take on yet another shape. 

Which of these forms are we? Are all of them false faces we wear? Do we even know our actual selves? Having realized that I am autistic, these are questions I’ve been asking myself a lot. Because I’ve masked for so long, there is a strong chance I don’t know what my actual self is. My mannerisms and behaviors have been influenced more by an automatic need to “survive” by fitting in. How often have I denied my “true self” in lieu of satisfying some other person’s demands? Mary is moving through a world that demands so much of her that she cannot see her true self and the nature of her reality. Will we like what we see when the veil is lifted? Possibly, not. But that is where we must think about our relationship with Truth. Is it better for us to live in Truth even if it creates discomfort and upends our lives, or should we reside in safe, curated fictions that protect our psyche?

Carnival of Souls had me thinking a lot about the denialism running through American society over various issues. The abject failure of capitalism to respond constructively to crisis. The ongoing COVID pandemic. The global climate collapse. We can live in denial…for a while. But, sooner or later, we have to wake up. We have to confront the reality around us. We will have to dance with the ghoulish man and accept what comes next. You can run for a long time, but not forever. Then, when you wake up, you’ll find you actually never moved an inch.


One thought on “Movie Review – Carnival of Souls”

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