Carnival of Souls

Written By Tim Waggoner

Tim Waggoner has published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He’s a four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award and has been a multiple finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.

What can I tell you about Carnival of Souls? I could tell you that it came out two years before I was born (1962), that it was produced by Herk Harvey (who also played a major uncredited role in the film), that’s it’s also known as Corridors of Evil, and that while Harvey made over 400 industrial and education films, Souls was his only contribution to cinema. But you can find out all these tidbits and more simply by logging on to any decent Internet movie review database. What you want to know is why this particular film—with its sometimes wooden acting and low production values—is deserving of inclusion in a book with a title like Cutting Edge.

I’ll tell you.

The story, for those of you that haven’t seen it, goes like this: Three girls in a car are challenged to a drag race by two guys. The girls accept, and the race is on. The two vehicles speed through town, out into a rural area, and across a wooden bridge. The cars are driving side by side when the girls’ vehicle breaks through the railing and plunges into the river below, while the boys drive off unharmed. The police drag the river for three hours without locating the girls’ vehicle, but then one of the girls—Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss)—stumbles out of the lake, soaked and covered with mud. She has no idea what happened to the other girls, or indeed, how she got out of the car. The authorities see to Mary while continuing to search for the submerged vehicle.

Mary is an organist, and she’s just accepted a job to play the organ for a church in Utah, despite the fact that she has no apparent religious leanings herself. It’s just a job, as far as she’s concerned. After she recovers from the accident, she packs up and drives to Utah to start her new life. During the drive, she sees a mysterious apparition (played by an uncredited Herk Harvey himself) outside her car window, along with the silhouette of a strange, abandoned pavilion on the shore of a lake outside of town.

Both the apparition and the pavilion continue to haunt her in various ways as Mary tries to establish her new life and put the car accident behind her. It doesn’t help that she also starts experiencing episodes during which people cannot see or hear her. Finally, driven almost to the point of madness by these unsettling events, she goes to the abandoned amusement park to confront her fears. There, she’s terrorized by a number of ghostly apparitions—including “The Man,” portrayed by Harvey. The apparitions pursue Mary to the beach, she falls, they close in around her, and she’s gone. Later, her car and footprints in the sand are discovered, but there’s no sign of Mary herself. However, back at the scene of the original accident, the police have finally found the submerged vehicle, tow it to the surface, and inside are all three of the girls’ bodies, Mary’s included. The End.

Sure, you saw it coming. We all did. That’s part of what makes this movie great. It’s no mere sleight-of-hand, booga-booga twist ending ala The Sixth Sense. It’s much more.

Souls derives much of its power from its eerie, surreal imagery. According to film legend, Herk Harvey had the idea for Souls after coming across an abandoned amusement park and realizing it was a perfect location for filming a movie. Certainly the pavilion, with its decaying grandeur, is the eerie centerpiece of the film and serves as an effective borderland between the worlds of the living and the dead. The amusement park, once so full of life and joy, becomes a macabre commentary on Mary’s disconnection from life, and it calls to her throughout the movie, and she finds herself ultimately unable to resist its strange allure.

Throughout the film Mary is also haunted by a spectral apparition of a suited man with dark hollows for eyes and scaly, flaking skin. “The Man,” as he is simply known in the credits, first appears to Mary as she’s driving on the highway at night. She sees him through the passenger window of her car, where a moment before was only her own reflection. This mirror motif reappears throughout the film, with Mary seeing The Man through windows and in mirrors, often replacing her own reflection. The symbolism is obvious. The Man is Death and Mary herself is dead, though she refuses to acknowledge it.

The Man isn’t the only apparition to plague Mary. She has visions of other ghostly beings that inhabit the pavilion, dancing in swirling fast speed in the disheveled ballroom. The Man is their leader, dancing along with the others and beckoning Mary to join them. During the film’s climax, Mary goes to the pavilion to finally confront the apparitions, and she’s shocked to see that she herself is one of them, and in fact she’s The Man’s dance partner. The apparitions chase her then, exploding in shocking speed as they run toward the camera and pursue her throughout the pavilion, finally catching up her on the shore of the lake and closing in menacingly around her.

Water imagery also appears periodically throughout the film, from the river that the girls’ car plunges into to the lake next to the pavilion. A quartet of apparitions, The Man included, arise from the lake in Mary’s visions, as if calling her to return to the watery grave that she’s forsaken. Water can symbolize purity, of course, but it can also embody the concept of mystery, for who can say what lies within its hidden depths? And then of course, there’s also the River Styx, across which the ferryman Charon bears the dead to the final resting place. The Man could well be viewed as Charon in suit and tie, if not as the figure of the Reaper himself.

The film’s use of sound adds a great deal to its atmosphere. Mary is an organist, and eerie organ music accompanies her strange visions of The Man and the undead dancers in the pavilion’s ballroom. Indeed, on several occasions Mary finds herself playing darkly lyrical organ music at her job when she should be playing hymns. But the film’s most effective use of sound occurs during two of its best sequences. Mary finds herself suddenly out of sync with the rest of the world. All sounds, save those she makes herself, disappear, and no one can see or hear her. She runs through a department store, through the streets, trying to get someone to notice her, the only sound the clicking of her heels on the pavement. Both of these sequences end the same way: Mary finds herself within a park, grasping a tree branch, when she hears birdsong. After a moment, the rest of the world’s sounds rush in, and she’s once more in turn with the world of the living. There’s a reason why these episodes of ultimate disconnection terminate in the same location. Mary reconnects to the world through nature, a vital, living place far different than the decaying pavilion.

While the imagery and symbolism are quite eerie and effective, the true genius of Carnival of Souls lies in its story. From the very beginning, we suspect that Mary died in the car accident and simply doesn’t realize she’s dead. But there’s a reason for this beyond setting up a Twilight Zone-style twist ending. Mary doesn’t know she’s dead because she’s never truly been alive. She literally doesn’t know the difference between life and death because her existence has been a kind of living death in and of itself. That’s the true horror of Souls: it’s only as Mary begins to embrace life that she realizes she is, in fact, dead, and comes to accept her fate.

The script sets up Mary’s existential dilemma when during her conversation with the man who supervised the installation of the organ in the church where she’s to work. Of her new position, Mary says, “It’s just a job to me” and “I’m not taking the vows. I’m only going to play the organ.”

The organ factory boss replies: “It takes more than intellect to be a musician. Put your soul into it a little, okay?”

Later in Utah, when the minister of the church suggests they have a reception for Mary to meet the congregation, she declines. The minister reluctantly agrees, but says, “My dear, you cannot live in isolation from the human race, you know.”

Mary’s episodes of literal disconnection from the world of the living embody this isolation. As she herself describes them, “It was as though for a time I didn’t exist. As though I had no place in the world, no part of the life around me.” Even before the accident, Mary had no part of life because she’s always kept herself apart from others. We see this in her reactions to Mrs. Thomas, the woman who runs the boarding house she moves into, and especially in her encounters with John Linden, her lecherous across-the-hall neighbor. Linden tries to get to know Mary in his clumsy way, and she resists at first, but finds herself warming to him somewhat, if for no other reason than that she needs some human contact as her visions become more frequent and disturbing. Toward the climax Mary becomes so upset that’s she’s willing to let Linden sleep with her just so she won’t have to be alone, but another vision of The Man sends her into hysterics, driving Linden away. Even when Mary attempts to make connections with others, she’s incapable of doing so.

Candace Hilligoss brilliantly portrays Mary’s disconnection from the world. In the beginning Mary is cool and brittle, with a slight mocking edge. Later, as she gets to know Linden and Mrs. Thomas, we see her thaw somewhat, though she’s clearly ambivalent about letting others get to know her. As Mary says at one point, “I have no desire for the close company of other people.” Mary’s mental and emotional state begins to deteriorate as her visions become more frequent and disturbing, but Hilligoss never overplays these moments, and when her character finally breaks down and begs Linden to stay, when it’s clear that she’ll do anything not to be alone, and he rushes off, the outpouring of emotion from Hilligoss is absolutely wrenching.

The impact of Carnival of Souls can be seen in a number of far more famous horror films. George Romero has cited it as an inspiration for Night of the Living Dead, and the forbidding presence of The Man seems to echo in Angus Scrimm’s portrayal of the Tall Man in the Phantasm series. The way the ballroom apparitions erupt into running motion in the climax presages the modern “fast zombies” in such films as 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. And of course, there’s The Sixth Sense, though in Souls, instead of being unaware of the main character’s situation, we go along on Mary’s nightmarish journey with her, ultimately making for a far more effective story.

While Carnival of Souls may have released six decades ago, it stands as a testament to what a character-based storyline coupled with inventive, surreal imagery can accomplish.

Cutting edge, indeed.

[photo: US film poster by F. Germain, public domain]

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