Occurrence at the “Carnival of Souls”

Carnival of Souls is a 1962 low budget horror film that, over time, developed a cult following.  Its creepy visuals and dreamlike story have continued to give this film’s viewers an unforgettable experience.  While Carnival of Souls did influence the works of directors George A. Romero and David Lynch, it is important to look at its own inspiration.  Heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone and similar stories, Carnival of Souls tells its own story of death, dreams, and purgatory that requires further analysis.

The film opens with Mary Henry (played by Candece Hilligoss) and two other women as passengers in a drag race among Kansas youth.  The car containing the girls crashes into a bridge, falling into the water below.  The sheriff’s office and local residents dredge the river for several hours before Mary emerges, unscathed.  Mary goes on with her life as if nothing at all has happened, even taking a new job as a church organist in Utah.  On the way to Utah, Mary is haunted by a ghoulish figure, an eerie, corpse-like man in a tuxedo.  In Utah Mary rents an apartment, interacts with her neighbors, and starts at her new job.  All the while, she is constantly haunted by that same ghoulish figure following her around.  Eventually, Mary’s growing fear and desperation lead her to escape, finding an abandoned carnival on Utah’s Great Salt Lake.  Mary dances with this ghoul, and others, in a macabre ballroom scene, and then she vanishes with them.  The next thing we see is the car from the opening scene pulled from the river where, apparently, Mary died.  The whole narrative, it seems, was a fantasy of some sort.

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Mary emerges from the water.

That brief synopsis does not properly convey the subtleties and foreboding eeriness that abounds in Carnival of Souls.  While the film deals with common horror movie elements, such as the undead and ghostly apparitions, it does not play out like a standard horror film.  Carnival of Souls is a slow-moving psychological thriller that, presumably, takes place entirely in Mary’s head.  Instead of jump scares or horrifying imagery, Carnival of Souls choreographs each scene to create a foreboding and dreamlike atmosphere, necessary for its themes of death, dreams, and purgatory.  It is these themes which bear further analysis beyond what that synopsis can provide.

Carnival of Souls bears striking similarities to two episodes of The Twilight Zone from the same time.  The first is 1962’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (itself based on an 1890 short story by Ambrose Bierce); the second is 1960’s “The Hitchhiker,” (based on an earlier radio play by Lucielle Fletcher).  “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is the brief tale of a Confederate soldier in the Civil War facing execution.  As he is about to be hanged over Owl Creek, the rope snaps and this man is able to flee to safety.  As he arrives home, however, he feels the snap of his neck breaking as he is at the end of the hangman’s rope back at Owl Creek; the exciting narrative of his escape was merely a fantasy in that moment before death.  “The Hitchhiker” is about a young woman named Nan who, after she survives a car accident, is haunted by an ominous and ghostly hitchhiker.  Finally, Nan calls home but is told that her mover had a nervous breakdown after her daughter, Nan, died in a car accident.  Nan then allows this hitchhiker into her car, seeming to accept death.  Both of these stories, like Carnival of Souls, deal with the events occurring in a character’s mind at the moment of death.  They address a person’s fear and then eventual acceptance of their fate.

The ghoulish man pursuing Mary.
The ghoulish man pursuing Mary.

Unlike those episodes of The Twilight Zone, however, Carnival of Souls is not all about the twist ending.  In fact, we’re shown through Mary’s interactions with others that she is inhabiting a dream world.  She is living in purgatory, or some equivalent fantasy world between life and death. For instance, when accepting her job as a church organist, Mary is invited to spend time with the congregation which she refuses, stating that she is not a religious woman and only took this job for the money.  Her secular attitude is brought up again when, while playing the organ in a daze, she’s scolded by the minister and fired for “being sacrilegious.”  These scenes establish that Mary has not gone to heaven, nor would have been permitted to because of her secular beliefs.  The setting for Carnival of Souls is a place beyond death but outside of heaven.  The ghosts she sees throughout are, indeed, real and not a hallucination.  They only seem so horrifying to Mary because she doesn’t yet realize she is already one of them.

Another scene that establishes Mary’s fate is a dream sequence (within this meta-dream).  While taking her car in for maintenance, Mary is once more haunted by the ghoulish man.  She goes to others for help, but nobody sees or hears her.  Mary, in desperation, tries to buy a bus ticket to escape this nightmare but again is confronted with the fact that nobody can see or hear her; it’s as if she ceased to exist.  She flees to her therapist who, surprise, turns into that ghostly man pursuing her.  At that point, Mary “wakes up” back in her car at the auto mechanic’s, but still trapped in this dream of purgatory.  Scenes such as this represent a dialogue between Mary and her subconscious; her subconscious is trying to tell Mary that she is dead and Mary refuses to listen or accept that reality.

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Mary is panicked while playing the organ.

The abandoned carnival, a recurring visual motif and the setting for the film’s climax, is a real place and, according to director Herk Harvey. The initial inspiration for the movie.  The real location was called Saltair which, in 1962, was an abandoned and dilapidated carnival Harvey encountered while visiting the Great Salt Lake.  He was fascinated by the place, especially the carnival’s expansive, though eerie looking, ballroom.  Harvey’s direction to screenwriter John Clifford was to create any story that concluded with a ghoulish dance in that creepy ballroom.  That scene is effective, both from the atmosphere it provides and the fact that this is Mary’s acceptance of her death.

The ghostly carnival ballroom
The ghostly carnival ballroom

Carnival of Souls is in the public domain because the distributor, a company called Herz-Lion, went out of business before they ever thought to copyright the film.  In fact, Herk Harvey saw no money from the film’s release as the checks he received from Herz-Lion all bounced.  With no conceivable way to renew the copyright, the film fell into the public domain and quickly became a staple of late-night television throughout the 70’s and 80’s.  Today, it mostly exists on any DVD collection of horror films.  As such, I have quite a few copies of this movie.  There was, however, a Blu-ray release, part of The Criterion Collection, in 2016.  While the film did not receive a wide theatrical release and only mild acclaim from critics at the time, its easy accessibility in the public domain has made Carnival of Souls available to different generations of discerning fans.  People such as myself came to know the film through the knowledge that it inspired filmmakers I appreciate such as David Lynch and George A. Romero.  Seeing the film through such a lens, as many do, places it outside of its own time.  It has allowed for broader interpretations from a variety of audiences.

Artists and philosophers have long dealt with the question of an afterlife and what happens when we die.  Carnival of Souls, like the works that inspired it, deals specifically with that moment of death; what is that last thought that flashes through someone’s mind as they die?  It is a very metaphysical question: does the soul come to accept death with the same kind of rationality as us?  Carnival of Souls does not definitively answer those questions, but it does introduce us to the philosophy and does an outstanding job of bringing the topic up for further discussion.

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