The first time you see Carnival of Souls you’re pretty sure you’ve seen it before. That’s because any number of horror films in the nearly sixty years since its release have cribbed liberally off its look, feel, and twist ending. It’s possible many of those filmmakers did so unknowingly—that’s how much Carnival of Souls is woven into the fabric of cinematic horror.
If I’m making it sound like Carnival of Souls is as well-known as descendants like Night of the Living Dead or The Sixth Sense, well, no, it’s not. No one saw Carnival of Souls when it came out in 1962. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but hardly anyone did. It took decades before art houses began screening it for Halloween showings, introducing it to a new generation that embraced it and made it one of the ultimate cult classics. But even now it’s still relatively obscure outside of film critic and cinephile circles.
A quick synopsis of the plot goes like this: a woman named Mary (Candace Hilligoss, whose expressive and truly stunning face was tailor-made for this movie) is the sole survivor in a car full of women that crashes spectacularly while drag racing some cool cat daddy-os. Soon after she feels a wanderlust overtake her. She dramatically quits her job as a church organist—“I am never coming back”—and leaves Kansas behind before landing in Utah. What follows is a series of strange encounters where Mary begins to feel increasingly isolated and invisible, even in the company of others. Oh, and she also keeps seeing a ghoulish stalker (played rather ghoulishly by the film’s director Herk Harvey), who scares her silly. Then there’s the sprawling old abandoned carnival on the outskirts of town. Mary is mysteriously drawn to it. Eventually we discover why, in one of cinema’s most haunting endings.
The story behind the film is almost as intriguing as the film itself. Former industrial filmmaker (think human resources training films for fast food employees) Herk Harvey made Carnival of Souls on the cheap as a labor love for somewhere around $30,000 in two decidedly un-Hollywood locales: Lawrence, Kansas and the Salt Lake City area in Utah. Hilligoss was the only cast member with any acting training. She’s possibly the only person associated with the film who ever made more features, and even she only appeared in a handful. Harvey never made another film again, unless you count the countless industrial videos he made for Centron Productions before and after Carnival of Souls.
That a film this low budget, made by a group of filmmakers existing about as far outside the mainstream of moviemaking as possible, could become such an influence on future filmmakers is astonishing. It’s also a testament to a film’s ability to find its audience over time. Like Mary drawn to the carnival, horror nerds and filmmakers alike have been drawn to Carnival of Souls over the last several decades. Why? Because for all its cheapness, it remains a truly great horror film.
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