An iconic horror classic turns 60 but remains as chilling and influential as the day it debuted; discover the magic of “Carnival of Souls”.
Multiverses and ‘everywhere-everythings’ seem to be trending as the most popular big-budget/genre concepts lately. The appeal of the multiverse has come far since its birth as an abstract subconscious idea. Now, it is studied by theologians and philosophers, and the dreamers of dreams are making movies about it.
That could be for a number of reasons, including the fact that reality itself is becoming a conspiracy theory.
The smorgasbord of horrific 2022 events that we have been force-fed thus far would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Thus, is the theory of the multiverse civilized man’s last-ditch effort to escape impending doom? Or is it just to distract ourselves from it? I can’t answer that. But what I can do is recommend you Google “the problem of evil” and “multiverse theodicies”.
To you, then, I offer the unsung alternate-dimensional deathmare, now celebrating its 60th anniversary: Carnival of Souls.
Though Carnival of Souls isn’t usually described as a film about an alternate dimension, I propose that’s exactly what it is.
While not as intellectually unreachable as actual multiverse theories, Carnival of Souls has the simple sensory power to take your eyes and ears to the same places.
The alternate dimension I am referring to here is what’s known as Limbo.
It has different definitions, depending on what story book you read. But in Carnival of Souls, our main character Mary seems to float in and out of it, probably even before she dies.
Candace Hilligoss plays Mary as if she exists in a trance of spite and anxiety, hiding inside a bubble with broken doors that lead to life and death. There are unpredictable moments when nobody can hear her, as if she is falling between our reality and the Grim Reaper’s opaque temporal plane.
Her hearing becomes compressed to the point where she can only hear herself as if to say she is no longer real enough to communicate with anything but her own inner noise.
Mary has an interesting career. She is a church organist. More specifically, she is a musician who specializes in organs, and the church is her gig. Not Moog organs, mind you. Or intestines. I mean huge pipe organs. However, even though Mary plays for church, she is repeatedly chastised for not having any emotions or soul.
Added to her bipolar dimensional confusion is the constant droning ambiance of experimental organ music. It never seems to leave her, and the movie very believably demonstrates that. Like most scores, it is meant to embellish the movie, yet it seems to be actually happening within the movie.
Throughout the film, Mary is being stalked (haunted) by The Man (Herk Harvey).
He is in a black suit, with skin spackling white and a look of teasing exuberance in his eyes.
Mary never quite encounters him face-to-face, but his actions are definitely predatory. Closer and closer, The Man gets to her with every sighting. The anxiety of this, plus her proneness to slipping in-between reality and Limbo, drives Mary to the edge.
It’s funny how at the beginning of the movie Mary doesn’t want to have anything to do with anybody. Yet, not being able to communicate with others is part of what eventually destroys her.
Hmm . . . we peel back the layers, yet only get tears and smaller onions.
Connected to all of this is the abandoned Saltair Pavillion (the “carnival” of the title), near the Salt Flats of Utah. Mary is mysteriously drawn to it. Nearly obsessive about it, at times. One day she decides to climb past the NO TRESPASSING signs and fences to investigate.
Stare at the screen and drown in the movie, because the scenes inside Saltair are spine-chilling.
There are several ghosts in the Pavillion. Some are in puddles, but most of them are dancing in an opulently-decorated outdoor ballroom. This is when the creep factor and surrealism are at the full subliminal blast.
The ghosts twist around smoothly and quickly, which makes it seem very unnatural. Imagine several dozen entities in black and white, spinning like pinwheels. As we (and Mary) fall into the hypnotic effect of it, The Man emerges from the dancers and attempts to strangle Mary.
She attempts to find herself some protective company in Mr. Linden, her next-door neighbor. But her spiritual absence from everything doesn’t sit well with him, and he deserts her as she is weeping in fear following another encounter — he doesn’t want to get involved with “a babe off her rocker”.
People who know me in the I of the RL know my personal hatred for Mr. Linden runs deep. It’s the way he delivers his lines, and especially his sly, squeaky, sleazy little voice. Fuck you, Mr. Linden!
After this, Mary spends the night barricading her door with furniture, and packing her luggage. She leaves in a flash and boards a bus full of ghosts. But rather than go somewhere else, she follows the pull to The Saltair once again.
This time, however, the ghosts are going to do more than just dance.
Slowly, ghosts begin to emerge from every corner. They arise from sandy, muddy pockets of water, and peek out from behind mossy boardwalk wreckage. Mary runs in terror, but they catch up to her. We see her, now as a ghost, dancing with The Man in the dance hall.
In the end, the people she had encountered throughout the film look for her at The Saltair, but there is no sign of her.
“There are footprints leading up to here, and then nothing.”CARNIVAL OF SOULS is an early example of what you can accomplish with black and white face paint and $33,000. It is forever an essential part of the horror punk/psychobilly aesthetic. Click To Tweet
But the otherworldly ambiance is remarkable, and it is assisted by some truly creaky line deliveries and the constant spookhouse organ tremors. The scenes at The Pavillion are very effective. Very surreal and very well-contrasted. It was once described as “Truffaut and Bergman by way of Tarkovsky.”
If I get just one person to watch this, and they tap into this other dimension, I have done my job well.