Carnival of Souls: “Thinkin’ Like That, Don’t It Give You Nightmares?”

“The world is so different in daylight. But in the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. In the daylight, everything falls back into place again.”
 —Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls

In the sixteenth century, the medieval notion of purgatory as a physical place started losing favor to a broader conceptualization of it as a liminal state of being. As the centuries wore on and Dante’s seven-terraced description of purgatory in The Divine Comedy was increasingly accepted as allegorical, even within the church itself, the concept called attention to other relationships that were appearing in newly emerging secular philosophy and psychology—such as those between the sleeper and the dream world, the existentialist and the Absurd. Those ideologies challenged the objective physical definition of “place” itself, posing the question of how much of our experience unfolds solely within the confines of our own imaginations.

The mutability of place and the disconnection from one’s sense of it form the central concern of Herk Harvey’s elegiac 1962 cult horror film Carnival of Souls. While two decades of experimental cinema had already been replicating dream states prior to its release, this low-budget, independent marvel was a pioneer of the purgatorial horror subgenre—along with the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker” and the Oscar-winning 1962 short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—which has continued through films as disparate in ambition as Lost Highway (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999), and The Oregonian (2011).

Candace Hilligoss, the film’s only professionally trained actor, plays Mary Henry, who emerges unscathed from a car accident that claimed the lives of her two companions, and sets off on a strange adventure to Salt Lake City, where she finds herself drawn to a dilapidated lakeside pavilion and dogged by a spectral figure known only as “the man” (played by Harvey). Mary’s journey seems normal enough at first—she’s in denial about the terrible trauma she’s endured and wants to start over in a new place—but as the film progresses, her environment becomes increasingly hostile and confusing, and she is plagued with anxiety about her inability to make contact with the people around her.

Carnival of Souls would be the only feature film by the Kansas-based Harvey, who nonetheless, over the ensuing years, would become irritated by questions from the film’s fans as to why he “never directed another film.” The fact was, Harvey made hundreds of films as a director for the Centron Corporation, an independent production company in Lawrence, Kansas, put together in 1947 by childhood friends Arthur Wolf and Russell Mosser, who recognized a niche in the educational film market. With the explosion of classroom films following Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957—with its implications that the American educational system was lagging—Centron would go on to be one of the most prolific and respected makers of academic and industrial training films. Its star duo was the writing-directing team of John Clifford and Harvey, the latter of whom had actually started his career at Centron as an actor.

Carnival of Souls certainly taps its creators’ industrial filmmaking background—opening with a road race challenge that results in the pivotal car accident, the film immediately recalls a “teenicide”-style highway safety film, such as Harvey’s own None for the Road (1957). But there are also several clever stylistic flourishes, thanks in part to Maurice Prather’s black-and-white cinematography. When Mary arrives at a gas station and inquires about the location of a boarding house, the attendant points out its direction, into the darkness beyond. A rectangular light pierces the darkness, and we realize that our point of view has shifted, and we are now looking out from the interior of a dark room as Mary enters from outside. Later, as she looks out her room’s window at night, we see the abandoned pavilion in the distance, but the shot again abruptly changes perspective so that the view is now from inside the pavilion, which sits vigilantly like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, watching and waiting. These impressive transitions also connect to the aforementioned mutability of place—like in dreams, one place becomes another, and the notions of “inside” and “outside” cease to have strict definition.

It’s because of eerie, disorienting spatial logic like this that Carnival of Souls has often been cited as a probable influence on the work of David Lynch—a connection made all the more plausible by the fact that Lynch’s longtime composer, Angelo Badalamenti, was once Clifford’s songwriting partner. In the late 1960s, despite his daytime workload for Centron, Clifford was still a multidisciplinary writer in his spare time, and he and Badalamenti (then billed as Andy Badale) penned songs for the likes of Nina Simone and Della Reese.

But in 1961, Harvey approached Clifford to write a feature-length script inspired by an image that had lingered with him after a drive through Utah: the sight of the deserted and dilapidated Saltair Resort, a Mormon-owned amusement destination on the shore of the Great Salt Lake that had once hosted a bustling carnival and ballroom (Glenn Miller played there, among others) but had been abandoned after a series of fires over the years left it in ruins. Other than the requirement of a central scene featuring waterborne zombies engaging in a sinister danse macabre, Harvey gave Clifford carte blanche, and Clifford wrote Carnival of Souls in less than a month. The film would be a Centron production in all but name; it was filmed during a work vacation by a Centron crew, with many of them—including editors Bill de Jarnette and Dan Palmquist and regular Centron writer Peter Schnitzler—doubling as actors.

Mary Henry first comes across the haunted pavilion as she makes a journey to Salt Lake City to take up a position as organist in one of the city’s marginal non-Mormon churches. Before she leaves her old life in Kansas, while she is practicing in an organ factory, the manager there urges her to put her “soul” into her music, and to make more of an effort to engage with her surroundings. But she’s very clear that her connection to the church is part of a financial transaction and nothing more. When she gets to SLC, even the lecherous boarder across the hall finds her dissociation from the religious implications of her job to be rather suspect: “Thinkin’ like that, don’t it give you nightmares?”

Ironically, the decision to make Hilligoss’s character a church organist was itself financially motivated; there was an organ company in Lawrence that Clifford thought would make a great location without overtaxing the film’s limited budget. It provides a spectacular set piece as well as underlining the spiritual allusions in the film. The church-organist-as-lost-soul is a fantastic character, and an effective cipher for audiences who want to find some kind of affirmation—or, alternately, nihilism—in her plight. “I decided early on to give the heroine no real sympathy or understanding from any other character,” said Clifford in an interview with film historian Tom Weaver in 1996. “So, for the viewer, there’s no relief from her dilemma. There’s no catharsis, even, except what the viewer creates for himself.” That the character could remain lost forever creates the same sense of beautiful unease that we encounter in Lynchian horror.

Fabio Scacchioli and Vincenzo Core’s 2011 experimental short film Miss Candace Hilligoss’s Flickering Halo expands upon this purgatorial fantasy, repurposing Harvey’s film to propose a stuttering multiplicity for our bewildered protagonist, and accompanying it with text that refers to its own constant flicker as “the interval simultaneously separating and uniting, the silence between words, the black between pictures.” The flicker is a nice analogy for Mary Henry’s ambivalent relationship to place; as Peter Wilshire wrote about Carnival of Souls in Offscreen Magazine in 2007: “It’s as if Mary is flickering in and out of existence; that she appears to inhabit an otherworldly or parallel universe.”

Scacchioli and Core’s flickering, fractured film also calls attention to the doubling inherent in Carnival of Souls. Whenever Mary sees the ghostly face of the man, the camera deliberately frames them as counterparts, either with reflections (in a mirror or a window) or rapidly alternating zooms. Her moods likewise convey a split; through most of the film she is sullen, even venomous. But she will suddenly turn giddy. When she visits the pavilion, she seems exhilarated, almost drunk.

While the cinematic descendants of Carnival of Souls are many (George Romero credited it as an inspiration for the zombie makeup of Night of the Living Dead), the funereal tone and odd pacing of Harvey’s film probably find their closest complement in Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck’s 1973 indie Messiah of Evil, specifically in its strategically placed silences and in Anitra Ford’s famous scene in a Ralphs supermarket. As with that memorable sequence, in which the strangeness of her environment only slowly occurs to Ford’s endangered character, Carnival of Souls’ Mary is in a department store changing room when she has an intuition that something has (rather fittingly) changed. When she emerges, she is invisible to everyone around her. The previously helpful retail attendant looks past her to other customers, and neither can Mary hear the words that seem to be coming out of moving mouths. Her response is telling—she reaches up to her neck to feel her pulse.

Scenes such as this send Mary into a frenzy as she tries to discern whether the problem is coming from within or without. She is flanked on her trip through this purgatorial landscape by authoritative men who position themselves as “guides,” and there is much about the film that exploits this tension between Mary and the condescending men around her. The doctor—who admits he’s not a psychiatrist but presses her to divulge her problems anyway; the priest—who urges her to save her damnable soul; the letch—who threatens her with sexual assault morning, noon, and night; and the man—who, like the titular hitchhiker in the aforementioned Twilight Zone episode, appears as Mary’s doppelgänger and the harbinger of her death. As the film repeats and substitutes identities, it implies that all the men are one, and that all the men are reflections of Mary’s hostility and transience. Mary is doomed. As her colleague quips at the beginning of the film, “If she’s got a problem, it’ll go right along with her.”

The Catholic doctrine pertaining to purgatory holds that it is a state in which the soul undergoes purification. Mary Henry is clearly not a Catholic, and her defiance against religion is one of the film’s central provocations. Part of the film’s brilliance is its ambivalence about whether its topography is psychological or spiritual, which allows the film to linger with both religious and secular audiences. But purgatory, by its very nature, exists as a means of addressing spiritual ambivalence. As Mary grows more frantic throughout the film, she becomes desperate to “make contact,” finally acknowledging that she is afraid to be alone. In reality, however, she has no lifeline. There is no one to bring her back, no one who would even care to. In her dying seconds, it is this that she ruminates on, with all of us as witnesses to her existential despair.

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