Carnival of Souls (1962)

DIRECTOR Herk Harvey
STARRING Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger & Art Ellison
RELEASE DATE September 26, 1962
RUNTIME 80 Minutes
COUNTRY United States

Mary Henry ends up the sole survivor of a fatal car accident through mysterious circumstances. Trying to put the incident behind her, she moves to Utah and takes a job as a church organist. But her fresh start is interrupted by visions of a fiendish man. As the visions begin to occur more frequently, Mary finds herself drawn to the deserted carnival on the outskirts of town. The strangely alluring carnival may hold the secret to her tragic past.

By now it should be safe to assume this film is a staple of the horror genre. Rather than simply review Carnival Of Souls, because that would be redundant at this time, it would be interesting to explore a subjective pseudo-interpretation of this slept-on masterpiece. Be warned, this is a matter of opinion so feel free to call this quackery or justified at your own free will…

On the off chance some horror fans have not watched this film, here is a brief introduction.The film opens with our main character, Mary, riding shotgun with two other women in a car stopped at a red light. Suddenly another car pulls up beside them full of hip-looking men that challenge them to a drag race. The driver of Mary’s entourage agrees with her dutiful feminine smile and the vehicles speed off down the strip. As they continue the fierce, albeit, unnecessary race across a narrow bridge, Mary’s death-bound chariot loses control and is sent flying off the bridge only to be submerged in an alleged watery grave at the bottom of a murky river. Authorities search the waters for hours without success until Mary mysteriously emerges from the water without recollection of how she made it out alive. This dance with death must have been traumatic because Mary packs up and moves to Utah, and this is when the strange and unusual happenings begin to occur in her surreal journey.

This opening scene can be interpreted as the gender roles of men and women at the edge of a sexual revolution coming in the following years of the decade. A race between genders, with the men as an opposing force to women’s liberation. The men are the indirect/direct cause of a woman’s philosophical death, but….Mary is reborn as she emerges from death, renewed and now liberated to be in control of her own life, or will she succumb to the female role of the traditional nuclear family.

The film has many recurring motifs one being an eerie organ melody that not only serves as the score but as an entity in itself. Mary is, in fact, an organ player that has been hired by a church in her new town. This melody is the musical antithesis of this church. When Mary first practices her skills she becomes possessed by visions of the ghastly man dancing with other ghouls at the strange pavilion she is drawn to and plays the eerie melody herself. The minister hears her playing this terrible tune and deems it as blasphemy. This explains the thoughts of the church, or any institution, accepting independence within the female gender.

From the beginning of her journey, Mary is haunted by a mysterious ghastly man that seems to follow everywhere. He is seen in reflections, walking among the living, and even haunting her thoughts. The ghastly man becomes so frightening she fears to be alone, to the point of her complying with John’s attempts to get her to go out with him. After a failed “date” at a local bar, a drunken John tries to convince her to invite him into her room. The scene is almost insinuating he would probably rape her but has a mental breakdown when she sees the reflection of John as the ghastly man coming for her. This scares John away as she might be insane. Or is it because she is not a submissive like how he expects a female should typically be?

Leading to the next point, hysteria was originally a psychological diagnosis only attributed to women.  As Mary questions her sanity she confides in a doctor that dismisses the happening as hysterical hallucinations. During the film, Mary becomes invisible to others around her as if she is not there, just as she is invisible to the world, her problems are invisible as well. She is only recognized when her role is somewhat conforming with how women should be in that era such as attending church or being submissive to men.

Eventually, we are left to decide on what has happened to Mary from our own perspective as we are never given answers to the many questions left behind. Does this film explore the struggle of being a liberated female adapting to a patriarchal society? Or vice versa? Who knows? But this is an interesting concept to discuss and an excellent film.

Please do not take this as some scholarly social critique, only an entertaining interpretation. This film is a classic and should be revered regardless of the true motivation for its creation. This one withstands the test of time and is very influential to the genre, gradually carrying the horror to a new aesthetic. If you haven’t yet, put Carnival of Soul next on the watch list…

Editor’s Note: Carnival of Souls is one of the best movies besides the original Night of the Living Dead that’s in the public domain. This means you can watch it free AND legally online. Now you have no excuse to not watch it if you haven’t seen it yet.