In 1962 Carnival of Souls was released to audiences. It was not an immediate hit, but has evolved into a cult classic. The film stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry. As the film starts, we see Mary’s car crash off of a bridge and into a body of water below. Miraculously she walks from the car hours later, after the police and rescue personnel all assumed her to be dead. After her accident, Mary seeks a new life in a new town, but soon finds herself haunted by a terrifying and ghoulish man. There is no other way to describe him, he is squarely ghoulish.
This story falls into one of my favorite categories of paranormal horror, “is it paranormal or is someone experimenting a mental breakdown of sorts.” Think The Turn of The Screw. And there is a reason the essence of this story has a Victorian Era Gothic Literature feel to it. It’s based on a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which was written in 1890 (eight years before The Turn of the Screw), and adapted in 1961, which inspired writer John Clifford to write the film.
George Romero credits Carnival of Souls as being the inspiration for The Night of The Living Dead (1968). Growing up I had a CD-ROM (you read that right), with Carnival of Souls and Night of The Living Dead as a double feature. When it was initially released, Carnival of Souls was actually a double feature with The Devil’s Messenger.
My favorite thing about this movie is that every single viewer can walk away with a slightly different idea of what happened to Mary. Carnival of Souls does a great job at leaving audiences with a definite ending, but with a myriad of interpretations. One of my favorite ways to leave a theater. The filmmakers make a choice, but don’t spoon feed you the punchline.
The cinematography is one of the most well known elements of Carnival of Souls. Director Herk Harvey worked with cinematographer Maurice Prather to use a guerilla style. With only a $33,000 budget, Harvey needed to be crafty. The film was shot over three weeks, Harvey only had three weeks off of work from his full time job. He was inspired by Bergman and Cocteau.
We also have to talk about the outdated plotlines that are incredibly important to the film. Mary has a terribly gross and pushy neighbor named John Linden, who continuously bothers and pushes himself on her. Mary is depicted as a “tease” for not wanting the company of men. He later abandons her when she needs him, because he thinks she’s “crazy.”
Finally, the score is worth mentioning. Mary plays an organist, and much of the film is set to an organ score by Gene Moore.
If you haven’t seen Carnival of Souls, it’s worth a watch. I watched it because we are currently exploring the intersection of horror and amusement parks on Lunatics Radio Hour. Mary is called to an abandoned park, where eventually she is confronted with the climax of the story.