A timeless classic, Carnival of Souls is essential viewing — a black and white masterpiece of otherworldly sights and sounds
When I was a kid, the local horror host was he of the red fez, the beloved and bizarre Uncle Ted. I was first introduced to Night of the Living Dead and Godzilla on Uncle Ted’s Ghoul School. Then, on one very special night, Uncle Ted opened the door to another dimension.
But we shouldn’t really call it a dimension of otherness, because to understand otherness, we would need to have something to compare it to. That is what would define it as “other”, and there is no other way to comprehend an alternate reality.
However, the inhabitants of the Carnival of Souls dimension are unaware of any plane of existence, including their own. So, while floating within it, we are digested by the true essence of the cinematic otherworld and don’t even notice.
The events we experience in the Carnival of Souls otherworld are very simple: Mary, an innocent and thoughtfully classic 60’s beauty, is involved in a car accident. She manages to survive, despite the seemingly lethal situation. Compelled by the desire to leave her pre-trauma life behind her, she finds a job in another town as a church organist.
She is an organist professionally, and when watching her play amongst the towering, cage-like brass pipes, we ask ourselves if this city of ivory keys and bellowing metal cylinders could be the only place she feels truly safe.
This is one of the essential elements that keep us woven into the otherness of Carnival of Souls: the ethereal pipe-organ score, written by Gene Moore. Once this tangible sound soaks us during the opening credits, escape is no longer a hopeful possibility. It is like the only key that can free us from this swirling black and white universe, but it is bent, broken, and beyond repair.
One of the other important anchors that keep us trapped in Carnival of Souls is the sound design. Things in Mary’s vicinity have an unearthly echo to them, and to us everything experienced on the screen has a similar disjointed effect.
People (mostly men of authority) who think they know what’s right for her constantly advise her to feel and behave differently, to have more soul and willingness to interact with the rest of the world. She pays no attention to them, though. Still, we too sense something has gone grey inside her. What is wrong with Mary? A part of her appears to be shut down, in the dark, and lost.
Her landlady warns her not to drink coffee too late at night, since it might keep her awake. Mary, with emptiness in her eyes, laments “It won’t. Nothing ever keeps me awake.” She exists in a blank, trancelike state, shoved into fits of panic and emotion only when she catches quick glimpses of the pale-faced ghoul that appears to be following her.
It seems as if this well-dressed phantom gentleman attached himself to her after the car accident, and hasn’t been far away at all since. He never stops watching her, and he hides in places where logic could not possibly be sustained. We live in Mary’s head, as close to her as possible, as if we are a wall in her skull or a nest of sensory nerves. When the gentleman ghoul terrifies her, he terrifies us as well. What does he want? He never attacks. Just follows, and appears.
Mary’s fears and curiosity drift towards an abandoned pavilion in the lonely Salt Flats of Utah. She explores the abandoned carnival, balloons and streamers still twisting and dancing with ghosts.
Everything in the otherworld CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a dream state, where oxygen molecules seem to slip through the air, sucking up the sound and “reality” we have grown accustomed to. Mary’s final desperate attempt to escape the alternate dimension brings her to fate, spinning and stumbling, falling into it’s patiently waiting lap.
Halloween is a time of horror excitement and celebration. All the best things about the dark and morbid imagination are amplified. I look at Carnival of Souls as the perfect after-party introspection. The freaks and misfits, costumed and un-costumed alike, revel in all-night explosions of black lights and blood. And when the dust settles, the ones still dancing will sit in a circle and share their stories. Carnival of Souls would be one of those stories.
A timeless hallucination, made even more disorienting by the crystalline clarity of Criterion’s Blu-ray remaster, Carnival of Souls is a movie that hums in cobwebbed sound and shines in the light of a perfect black and white rainbow.