Directed by Herk Harvey
Carnival of Souls is a B horror film that does an effective job of both frightening you and making you laugh. It’s at first hard to take seriously, between the poorly dubbed audio, and the perpetually-horrified face of the main character, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), but then the scares become surprisingly effective and fairly inventive for the time (I assume).
The tricks and jump scares felt surprisingly modern. On one hand they feel very trite, but that’s from the 2017 vantage point, where every horror movie knows the shortcuts. In 1962 I don’t think this was a cliche, and was probably rather new.
In one scene, Mary drives to her new town in Utah, following a car crash from which she was the only survivor. The camera, up until that point stuck in front of her, suddenly cuts to the side, so we can see clearly through the passenger window. Having seen many present day horror films, I knew this must be a set up for a coming scare, and sure enough we cut away, then cut back to this shot with a ghoulish face up agains the window. It was a bit chilling, and I guess an old man in creepy make up following you around will always be a bit eerie.
Carnival of Souls is about Mary’s transition into her now town and new job following the aforementioned car crash which opened the film. At first there seemed to be no survivors, but then Mary crawled out of the water, shaken. She was quickly treated by the locals, but the next thing we know she’s preparing to move to Utah to take a job as a Church organist, and it’s like the car crash never happened. We get no sense of who were friends were, who her family is or who even cares about her. She’s on her own in a sense.
Mary does tell someone, I don’t remember who he was exactly, that she has no special interest in the church. The organist job to her is just that, a job. She is either disenchanted with the church or never had much interest in organized religion to begin with. This seems a bit surprising for a midwestern movie in the early 1960s where it feels to me like everyone involved in the film might’ve been raised going to church every single weekend.
In Utah, Mary moves into a small boarding house occupied by the elderly woman who runs the place and one other man, John Linden (Sidney Berger), who takes an immediate liking to her. Between John, Mary’s new boss (a priest), and a doctor she goes to for help regarding her nightmarish visions, Mary is effectively shaped by three men. We learn as much about her from her isolated hallucinations as we do in these interactions with these men who all have some kind of power.
First, Mary turns John down, but he’s persistent and also a little creepy. She later goes out with him and becomes desperate to stay with him, scared that the creepy ghost might appear at any minute. John is suspicious of her because just the night before she was playing hard to get. He doesn’t understand her new eagerness to please, and this makes me more weary of him than he is of Mary.
Eventually he runs off when she sees the old ghost man in his presence, frightening him.
Mary’s boss is a small-town, wholesome old man who I’ve come to be suspicious of in the context of horror films. His character, though, does nothing to harm her other than fire Mary when she is possessed and plays a, I suppose, ominous tune on the organ. The piece she plays didn’t stand out to me as anything out of the ordinary (the film is filled with creepy organ music), but apparently is struck a nerve with him. She is fired, but she never much cared for the church to begin with.
Then there’s the doctor. Mary runs into him after a panic attack induced by not being able to interact with the world for about an hour. It seems unexplainable as one day she’s buying clothes, and the next thing she knows, no one can see or hear her. Then she hears a bird chirping in the trees outside, and it goes away. She really freaks out when she sees a man who we believe might be the ghost that’s been haunting her. The doctor just happens to be int he right place at the right time, and he invites her to his office for a chat. There she tells him about what she’s been seeing. He implies she might be seeing imaginary things, and this rubs her the wrong way. She doesn’t want to be labelled as crazy.
The doctor then makes the connection between Mary’s visions and an old rundown bathhouse which we’ve seen her focus on as she drove by on multiple occasions. The bathhouse really has no significance other than that Mary is drawn to it. She decides to go investigate this place. Once there, she see the ‘carnival of souls.’ There are ghostly figures, like the man haunting her, dancing rapidly. The whole thing feels kind of freaky, but the horror doesn’t match the comedy of just how horrifying this should be. It feels like a silly, absurdist, Luis Bunuel-esque nightmare.
Later, Mary does have a nightmare. She wants to leave town, so she goes to a mechanic to fix something with her car. The mechanic has to lift the car up with a lever to work on the underside, and Mary chooses to stay inside, still frightened of the ghost. Then she senses the ghost coming, but she suddenly can’t get out of the car. She rolls down the window and runs out. Like before, she is momentarily unable to communicate with the world, both invisible and impossible to hear. She desperately tries to escape the town but can’t. Then she wakes up, still in the car, revealing that this was all a dream.
This dream sequence might be the most absurd moment of the film because it doesn’t fit at all. The main problem I had was that there was nothing in this sequence to suggest this was a dream. Nothing Mary encounters in this dream is out of the ordinary of what she encounters throughout this film. We’ve already seen her being followed by the ghost, and we’ve already seen her become inexplicably invisible to the world. The one thing I can think is that this sequence establishes that everything in this story is a nightmare, and not just this specific sequence.
Eventually Mary returns to the bathhouse where the ‘souls’ descend on her, killing her. The next day, the police arrive at the location (as well as the priest and the doctor) and trace her footsteps to the spot where they simply stop, replaced by the marks of a large scuffle. There is no body, no blood and no Mary.
The last thing we see is the scene of the car crash that opened the film. The police have finally found the vehicle, which they pull from the river, revealing that Mary has been dead the whole time.
This film really is very silly, but I think it raises a bunch of interesting questions, not about a philosophy of life or death but simply about what the hell happened to Mary. She’s dead the whole time, so that reframes the story to suggest she was a ghost the entire time. This makes some sense, because it explains why she can see the ghosts and they can see her. It also explains those moments in which she becomes invisible to the world, herself a ghost. What it doesn’t explain is how she is able to interact with John, the priest or the doctor and other people she encounters. What are the rules of this world?
But I kind of enjoy this mystery. It could either be a bunch of plot holes or, more entertainingly, it could be a puzzle to solve, so let’s look at it that way.
My first thought is that the people Mary comes into contact with have all seen death in some way or they’re soon to die or they’re already dead too. OR there is some symbolic connection between death and these characters’ views on life or what they represent.
John, for example, has rather unenlightened views about romance and life. This isn’t an indictment of his character, but he does seem to represent an increasingly outdated (at the time) way of looking at women, sex and life. He wants Mary simply because she’s there. We never get a sense that he likes her beyond wanting to sleep with her. He later talks with a friend, establishing that he gets around but also that he doesn’t want Mary to know he hangs around with the type of people he hangs around with. Maybe John sees Mary as different than the girls he normally sleeps with, but probably not. He’s uneducated, he drinks in the morning, and he tries to sleep with women he barely knows. This is both a stance in opposition to religion and in opposition to the modern woman, so I don’t know what John represents, if anything.
The priest is more clearly a representation of the church. He likes good ‘ol family values, and he expects Mary to be there for more than just a job. He rejects Mary, ultimately, in the way we expect once it’s made clear how little she values the church and therefore him.
Now the doctor might represent the type of person that calls a woman crazy without understanding what’s going on. It felt to me like he was straight out of a time period in which certain, nuanced diagnoses were ignored or not yet known, and they simply labelled a person hysterical rather than mentally ill.
The common denominator between these three men is that they seem to expect something from Mary that she can’t offer or refuses to be. She needs to break away from them as much as the ghosts that haunt her… but that’s just a theory. I don’t know if they represent anything at all.
In the end, of course, Mary has been dead the whole time, showing that she never really had a chance to survive, however the narrative structure implies that if she escaped the ghosts, then she would’ve been able to survive. But still, the final shot must suggest that her escape was always futile.
So I don’t know if this represents anything more than a simple B horror film. It’s fun and cheesy, and it’s inconsistencies seem to add up to something more powerful than what’s on the surface, but I might be giving it too much credit.