Carnival of Souls
October 25, 2018
1 Hr., 24 Mins.
efore Herk Harvey co-wrote and directed Carnival of Souls, a pseudo-surrealist feature-length horror film, in 1962, most of his movie-making experience had come in the form of educational and industrial filmmaking in Lawrence, Kansas. Also an instructor within the theatrical department at the University of Kansas, Harvey often took on small acting jobs on the side for the Lawrence-based Centron Studios. Toward the end of the 1940s,
higher-ups, impressed with their sometime-employee's bonafides, asked Harvey if he would be interested in directing for them full time. Remembered Harvey, in a 1983 interview with Timothy De Paepe, “I said, ‘Sure, it’d be kind of fun to try.’”
About a decade later, while driving back from a Centron-backed shoot in California, Harvey was struck by the look of a pavilion he drove past in Salt Lake City. It was sunset at the time, and the natural lighting made the structure look eerie and otherworldly. Harvey thought that if at all possible, a film needed to be made at this particular location. He kept the locale tucked away in his mind.
Years later, Harvey would scratch his itch to make a feature-length following a long period of short-helming. In 1962, after writing a script for a movie to be shot at the Utah pavilion, he would garner about $30,000 through a soupçon of ingenious methods.
The culminating film, which would be called Carnival of Souls, was shot on location (mostly at the pavilion) over the course of three weeks. Guerilla-style methods often had to be employed. Distribution, taken on by an up-and-coming, and doomed, company called Herts-Lion, was warped, though: The film was released as a double-feature with the low-budget, Lon Chaney, Jr.-starring omnibus movie The Devil’s Messenger. Carnival of Souls was, then, quickly forgotten about. But in 1989, when United States-based arthouses began to screen the movie in accordance with Halloween, critical reappraisal came about. The movie is now considered one of the great horror features of the 1960s.
The feature stars the 26-year-old Candace Hilligoss, whom Harvey had discovered in New York City, as Mary, a blonde musician. As the film opens, Mary is a passenger in the back seat of a car whose driver decides to challenge a fellow traveler to a drag race. Catastrophically, the contest culminates in the vehicle plunging off a bridge. Everyone inside dies. Except for Mary, who, after spending an unthinkable amount of time submerged, emerges from the car unscathed.
Mary turns out to be, at least visibly, emotionally unscathed, too. Immediately following the tragic accident, she heads to Utah, where she has accepted a job as a church organist. Watching her move about life, it is as if nothing happened to her: perhaps she is suffering from amnesia. (The film never specifies.) But throughout her travels, and her eventual settling-down, Mary finds herself stalked by a ghostly, creepily smiling tuxedoed man (Harvey) no one is able to see but her. He is probably an entity from an otherworld: his appearances conjure spectral organic music, and, on many an occasion, make Mary indiscernible, as if she were wearing Harry Potter’s famed invisibility cloak in public.
Carnival of Souls is elliptical and ambiguous; it is reminiscent of the strangest facets of the oeuvre of David Lynch, who is speculated to have been inspired by it. As mentioned by the critic Roger Ebert, it is also akin to a forgotten episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-’64), working as a piece of the supernatural that takes place in the unromanticized everyday.
Certainly, Carnival of Souls is frightening. But one of the things I like best about the movie is the way it is committed to being viscerally rather than rationally so. Logic be damned; obliquity, as it turns out, is a powerful thing to uphold when you’re confident enough to lean into the illogical and the wraith-like.
Evasiveness invites interpretation. Harvey has maintained that Mary is a poltergeist — a paranormal being who has infiltrated the human world — and that the ghoulish, antagonistic figure seen for most of the film is merely a spirit beckoning her toward the afterlife once again. But I prefer to think that the movie is about trying to live in the aftermath of a traumatic incident; ignoring rather than processing might provoke a blustering brand of trouble down the line. The ghoul, foundationally, is the trauma embodied. The more attempts you might make to turn a blind eye, the less likely he is to go away.
This is takeaway rare to find in the early-‘60s horror zeitgeist, which was more partial toward highlighting literal frights. Perhaps this is why Carnival of Souls has accumulated more adoration from modern-day audiences. I’m not so sure the movie deserves the “forgotten masterwork” honorific that so often sits on top of its name. But it is beautifully photographed, immaculately blood-curdling, and undeniably scrappy — the little tale of the macabre that could, and the little tale of the macabre that never did, and still doesn’t, quite fit into any kind of sanctioned horror wave. B+