‘Carnival of Souls’ 50 Years On
by Nia Edwards-Behi
CAUTION: Contains spoilers.
Independently made on a tiny budget, Carnival of Souls is the sole feature film directed by educational and industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey. A weird little film, it was instantly forgotten on its B-release in 1962. However, it has since rightfully gained a cult appeal, playing festivals and having received several home entertainment releases. Although admittedly rough around the edges, it predates Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead by six years as a masterclass in suspense, shocks and genuine terror. 50 years on, why is Carnival of Souls still so incredibly frightening?
Music plays a key role in the film. Carnival of Souls’ lead character, Mary, is an organist. The film is scored by Gene Moore, and organ music pervades the entire film. Indeed, by the end of the film’s slim running time the instrument has been so incessant that it’s easy to dismiss it as irritating. The organ music, however, is central to not only the story, but to what makes it so damn creepy. Organ music is inherently quite creepy, and has a rich horror movie history, associated with characters like the Phantom of the Opera and Dr. Phibes. There’s a duality to the way the music is used in Carnival of Souls. On the one hand, the music is associated with religion, as Mary gets work as a church organist. Almost conversely, the music is also entertainment, as the organ is so readily associated with the pier its amusements. Importantly, we only ever see these places as empty – Mary rehearses to an empty church, and the pier is wholly abandoned, aside from its ghosts…
Carnival of Souls doesn’t really have a ‘villain’ per se, but if it has a monster, for much of the film it might be The Man. Played by the director himself, The Man appears to Mary throughout the film, scaring her senseless, and seeming to lead her along an unseen path that leads to her fate. He’s creepy because he’s unknown – who is he? What is he? Why is he appearing to Mary? What does he want? He is only threatening because he is unknown – it’s never wholly clear if he means to harm Mary. The look of him is so simple: pale, pale skin, dark piercing eyes, anonymous suit. He’s so clearly human, and yet…clearly not. He’s really quite uncanny, which is far more frightening than a more obviously monstrous monster. If The Man is creepy because he is unknowable, then the Ghouls who accompany him are somehow even creepier. They are free of intent, drifting in whatever plane of existence they inhabit.
If The Man and the Ghouls are uncanny, then Mary herself is uncannier still. Carnival of Souls is not a simple ‘she was dead all along!’ story. She begins the film in a should-have-been-fatal car accident, then she interacts with people and leaves traces of herself before being dredged up as a corpse when the car is eventually found. Throughout the film she encounters people who cannot see or hear her, and has whole episodes in a state of unbeing. A sequence toward the film’s end reveals itself to have been a dream, but it’s probably the film’s most terrifying, and, regardless of its position as a dream sequence, still entirely accurate to Mary’s experience. Ultimately, it’s the notion of being invisible to the world that’s most terrifying in the film, not the ghouls or strange men that lurk around Mary. More ultimately still, the film is simply about death, or rather, the fear of it. As Mary in the end literally disappears, and is pulled from the river she crashed into at the film’s opening a corpse, we see the whole film has been about her desperate, futile attempt to cling to life.
The film is currently in the public domain, so if you haven’t seen it, get to the Internet Archive, download it, and feast your eyes and ears on one of horror’s creepiest gems.
Alternatively – watch it right here! Crank up the sound, hit full screen and dim the lights…