Criterion Cuts: “Carnival of Souls”

Welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts. By now you probably know how this works: each week I watch a film from the catalog of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video label The Criterion Collection. My choices, unless otherwise noted, come from their overwhelming options provided streaming courtesy of Hulu Plus.

We’re halfway through October, which has become a month of horror. You can check out the previous entries–Sisters and Kuroneko–or head straight into this one. As usual, we’re not in the realm of normal horror, but hopefully this week’s entry will prove interesting to the fans of the obscure and antiquated.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

There’s a subgenre of horror that practically doesn’t exist anymore, something that is more concerned with story than with scares. When you look back at the history of horror films, you can see it as early as the old Universal classics, monsters and curses serving as metaphors for truths of humanity. As time went on, these kinds of stories found a home on television in a more episodic format in shows such as The Twilight Zone, which was as much about horror as it was about sci-fi premises, often serving as a layer over the morality plays that drove the plot of any given week’s episode.

I offer that as an intro because that is firmly the mindset this week’s film, Carnival of Souls, finds itself rooted in. A 1962 black and white independent film from director Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls stands as the melding of B horror and those deeper, more fundamental roots of horror that seem so far away to the modern viewer.

The movie centers around the experiences of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), who as the film opens is riding in a car with two girl friends. The three encounter another car filled with boys who challenge them to a drag race which ends on a bridge. The girls accept, and the race concludes with the boys’ car nudging the girls’ which plummets off of the bridge and into the river. Only Mary survives, staggering out of the river muddy and shocked.

An aside, I don’t know what put it into people’s heads in the 50s and early 60s that hooligan teenagers went around racing and forming crazy rock and roll gangs, but it’s way cooler than the stereotypes of teenagers these days.

Mary, traumatized by the event, keeps returning the scene of the accident. She drifts through life, only finding some sort of purpose as an organist. She travels to become an organist at a church, trying to start a new life far away from the reminders of her accident. However, once she’s there, she starts seeing a spectral figure in reflections and windows, and slowly she retreats further and further away from reality.

Mary's hauntings seem like hallucinations, appearing and disappearing fleetingly throughout the film.

There aren’t a whole lot of scares in Carnival of Souls. The movie was made on a shoestring budget ($30000 or so, which even in 1962 wasn’t exactly earth-shattering) and is far more content to provide atmosphere than it is to scare the audience. Much of that comes from the haunting organ soundtrack by Gene Moore and the  sparse black and white cinematography. The cinematography in particular isolates Mary as someone who lives in a self-imposed wasteland, existing in so many frames by herself that the ghosts that haunt her are as welcoming as they are repulsive.

One has the impression that Mary feels the same way. In one of the major scenes of the film, Mary is sitting alone playing the organ, her church music giving way for something closer to a manic, carnival air. She dances along the keys, bare feet working at the pedals, a moment that seems shockingly sensual for the barren attitude of the 50 minutes that has come before. In her mind she sees ghosts rise up out of the water and dance at the abandoned amusement park outside of town, a place she’s been warned off from but keeps being drawn towards.

Even in her visions, the ghosts turn to recognize her, and then slowly reach out for her. She seems ready to let them in, the only people who really seem to care or notice her, until right before the reach her hands fall on hers on the keyboard and it’s revealed to be the preacher, ready to both chide her for playing such secular music and to worry after her mental state. She retreats from the one living hand that’s outstretched towards her, fleeing in a bewildered panic that seems more scared of his salvation than of the ghosts that were reaching for her.

The only time Mary seems at home is when she's making music.

Carnival of Souls is as much a story of personal trauma and suffering as it is the ghosts the film portrays, and in that the movies it most reminds me of are those of David Lynch. There is a certain Lynchian weirdness to the whole affair, a sense of reality on the tipping point of madness, a movie that rests in the head of a protagonist you perhaps cannot entirely trust the sanity of. It’s done in the vein of early Romero, with its stark no-budget ghouls and long periods of existential oppression, but that only better serves the eventual unraveling of its protagonist.

Which is exactly what happens. The last part of the film involves Mary trying to escape, and suddenly slipping into a reality where nobody can hear or see her, where all sound is muted except those that lead her inexorably to her doom. It’s haunting, but again in that way that presents itself more as a metaphor to untangle than scares to frighten us at night.

The question becomes, then, what is the metaphor? And that is the real difference between those prior horror stories and this. Carnival of Souls is content to leave us with no answers than what we are willing to dream up. Was Mary haunted by ghouls after having survived something that should have killed her? Was she plagued by survivors guilt that manifested in madness? Or was she never alive at all, dead in the beginning only to haunt some Americana-drenched limbo between heaven and hell?

For better or worse, we’ll never know. I think that’s a large part of the film’s charm. So often we’re given too much information and have intent shoved down our throats, especially in horror. It’s refreshing to see something so readily embrace its abstract nature and provide little in the way of closure. In some ways, that’s the most dread-inducing part of all, the not knowing. And for anyone who enjoys that kind of period eeriness, Carnival of Souls is a house of mirrors full of potential.

Not really pertinent to talking about the film at large, but it has really amazing opening/closing credits. Stylish!

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: “Carnival of Souls”

  1. I read somewhere that the movie was one big statement on how Mary is afraid to embrace her sexuality, but I don’t know how I feel about that.
    I find the mute scene really unnerving in the best way possible. This was a great write-up; I think you’re spot-on about the Lynch similarities. This movie is in the public domain, which means there are a lot of low-quality prints one can watch online for free, but I urge all to get the Criterion if they can.

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