Carnival of Souls (’62) By Michael Campochiaro of Starfire Lounge

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.

Unk Sez: Check out more of Michael’s work at his home base STARFIRE LOUNGE!

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1 year ago

I love, love, love Carnival of Souls. I have a copy of the Criterion blu ray, which includes several of Harvey’s industrial training films (I tried my best, but couldn’t watch them past a minute or two).

One of my favorite moments in the film isn’t particularly horrifying or uncanny. It’s the transition from the gas station attendant pointing to a local hotel – fade to black as the camera follows the attendant’s pointing finger – a door opens and it’s Hilligoss entering her hotel room. That transition and invisible cut is so artful in a smart, unpretentious way that subtly confirms how great Carnival of Souls is.

James Lewis
1 year ago

Thanks for the reminder that CARNIVAL OF SOULS is awesome, Michael! I will definitely have to check out your blog.

I don’t know what industrial movies of Harvey’s are included on the Criterion disc, but SHAKE HANDS WITH DANGER is a crazy safety film he made for the Catepillar Co. CARNIVAL and SHAKE HANDS would make a killer double feature!

If you dig educational films, check out the book MENTAL HYGIENE by Ken Smith. It’s a really great look at the genre — Centron is one of the companies the book focuses on.

Ben S
Ben S
1 year ago

I love this! I once stopped dating a guy who “loved horror movies” because he didn’t like CARNIVAL OF SOULS and said, in a disparaging way, that it was “campy.” I mean obviously this was only indicative of deeper problems… Weirdly I first discovered this movie on Prevue Guide! They showed a commercial, probably when the director’s cut was released. So many Kindertraumas on the prevue guide.