Horror movies take place in their own territory. The trick is to get us there. It doesn’t matter whether they start with fantastic premises and gothic settings, or with ordinary neighborhoods and daily experience, because the places and assumptions change when they enter and are redefined as horror territory—by the intrusion of crazy violence, for example, or an awful discovery: that the folks in the next apartment are Satanists orthat a maniac made a bloody sandwich on the cutting board while you were out of the kitchen. The rules have changed, and it is dangerous to find out how they have changed and why. It is also difficult. It can be hard to realize that one’s friends are pods or that they have to be dismembered, hard to find the terms of a world that behaves like a slaughterhouse or a dream.
The world can fill up with angular, scary shadows, lurking with little monsters—or it can look the same but be different underneath. Different in a way you can’t define, a perceptible but invisible tonal shift that is the ideal of one kind of horror film, a Peeping Tom or Seventh Victim. (At the opposite extreme, the ideal would be the mostradical, visible, and namable horror, a Godzilla or Blood Feast.) This ideal of unsettling horror was best described by Carl Dreyer:
"Imagine that we are sitting in a very ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. Instantly, the room we are sitting in is completely altered. Everything in it has taken on another look. The light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. This is the effect I wanted to produce in Vampyr (1932)."
In Carnival of Souls (1962), one place is allowed to be blatantly creepy: the amusement park where ghosts rest under the water and rise to dance. The rest of the world appears both normal and somehow wrong, and part of what is wrong about it—and within it, and encompassing it—is the liminal protagonist, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). For she has gone wrong, and the world with her. It may be her subjective world, as in the Cocteau and Bergman films that producer-director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford admired, but it is ours as long as we are in the theater, and it looks too much like the real world outside the theater for comfort.
Call it Orpheus meets An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge—or an episode of The Twilight Zone directed by Ed Wood and Antonioni. After surviving an accident in which she and two girlfriends drove off a bridge into a river, Mary leaves to pursue her career as an organist in another town. Before the accident, nothing about her suggested that she was emotionally cold, had girlfriends (reckless or not), or even that she played the organ. But after the accident, she plays a church organ without religious conviction and dates without desire; she has no libido and is accused of having no “soul.” She feels cut off and doesn’t know why. And to find out the reason is to be destroyed: to synchronize with and, quite literally, meet her fate.
In several of the movie’s best sequences, Mary’s relation with reality shifts or slips, and no one can see or hear her. She’s as out of place in this world as if she were dead—until she touches a magic tree and hears its magic bird (who must have sung as well to David Lynch). In this altered state, the reality she sees is ours. It doesn’t include her.
Unless a character turns on a jukebox, all the music in the film, especially the underscoring, is played on an organ. The organ is the music of Mary’s mind and of the world in which she finds herself: the world as a gap in the way things are. It may be that she imagines her tale in her own terms, with a soundtrack as cold as she is said to be—or that she “really” lives for awhile in a world where the dead intrude. The underscoring and the underwater undead make it likely that what we see and hear is her mindscreen. But the horror film can have it both ways: an alternate world and an imagined one, existing as long as it appears to, because it appears to. Aside from the music, the most artistically daring element of this film—one that defies a central convention of the horror genre—is its flight from romanticism, its concentration not on a foaming monster or on the hammering bosom of a Hammer heroine, but on a cold fish. If she is a magnet for the gothic, there is nothing exciting or sexy about it. The thrills of this carnival are cold ones, bits of death.
Carnival of Souls was shot in three weeks for about $30,000: one week at Saltair, an abandoned amusement park on the Great Salt Lake, and two weeks in Lawrence, Kansas, where the filmmakers—who never had or would make another feature—were based, with an industrial film company called the Centron Corporation. To say the least, it was an independent production and, like many of the best rock ’n’ roll records, a one-shot deal. Its influence on other independent work was huge.
If Mary bears a resemblance to Barbara, the heroine of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and if Romero’s undead sometimes look and move like Harvey’s, that is because Romero was lucky enough to see Carnival of Souls at the right time—when it first came out and all its inventions were fresh—and the right place, a drive-in. (He missed, however, a few minutes of footage, restored when the film was re-released in 1989 and, of course, included in the extended director’s cut on Disc Two.) But the man whose relation with ordinary reality is severed in the French film Life Upside Down (1965) is enough like Mary for one to argue that Carnival of Souls has also had an international influence—appropriate for a film that was inspired as much by Bergman (Wild Strawberries, The Magician) and Cocteau (The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus) as by the cheap, raw, ordinary landscape of America, out of which Harvey, Clifford, and Hilligoss constructed the only landscape where Mary, a projection pursued by reflections, can exist: the indefinable space of the horror film.
Bruce Kawin is Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His books include How Movies Work and Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film.