Carnival of Souls

“I don’t belong in the world….something separates me from other people” says Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) in perhaps the most lyrical horror film ever made. It is the unlikely 1962 masterpiece “Carnival of Souls” which philosophically fleshes out the premise of “Twilight Zone’s” “The Hitch Hiker” episode (January 1960). The one where Inger Stevens (as Nan Adams) plays a young woman driving cross country who keeps passing the “same” man standing by the side of the road. Its masterpiece quality was unlikely because it was the low budget first feature film of Herk Harvey (a director of educational short films), using actors with little acting for the camera experience, and with a story structure adapted to fit sets and locations to which Harvey had free access.

One of these locations was an organ factory. This not only dictated the film’s unique and beautiful score but it suggested a profession for the main character (Mary Henry), a church organist. With this they really got lucky because it brings in many disturbing religious images and undertones. A church organist seemingly possessed by her instrument, as her playing alternates between the spiritual and the profane, deeply disturbs her wrapped-too-tight” minister who would have benefited from Pollyanna’s advice about the “rejoicing texts”. The organ factory also serves nicely for a Carol Reed-type angular shot with the huge organ pipes in the foreground and the diminutive figure of Hilligoss far below. This early shot sets the existential tone for what will follow. Finally, there is the moment when she is alone on the highway and her radio will only pick up organ music.

The other location is the abandoned Saltair Pavilion outside Salt Lake City. Much of the story takes place here as Mary Henry is mysteriously drawn to the place. Watch for this shot of her in front of a promotional poster for the Pavilion, on the poster is a look-alike blonde with the same hairstyle. Since the late 19th century, Saltair had been a family swimming/recreational facility built out into the Great Salt Lake. The huge pavilion looks like a strange cross between an Eastern Orthodox church and an Arabian Nights palace. The falling lake level doomed the swimming feature but the place operated as an amusement park until abandoned five years before the filming of “Carnival of Souls”. At the time of filming the actual pealing paint, broken glass, collapsed staircases, and general disorder made for a better location than even the best production designer could have constructed. It also works well from a “language of film” symbolic perspective as Mary is shown walking through an unnatural circular passage, which reinforces other subtle off-kilter elements that occur throughout the film.

While much of the film’s texture was the happy result of the low budget necessity of using these available locations, the casting of Hilligoss worked out even better. Probably cast because she was the most beautiful actress available for the price, Harvey hit a home run because she brings exactly the right sterile and distanced qualities that the film needs in its main character. Hilligoss might have been an acting-for-the-camera novice but she had extensive stage experience. Harvey was able to get an extraordinary nonverbal performance from her, unexpectedly taking the film deep into the concept of human alienation. Much like “The Incredible Shinking Man”, with its existential theme of separation from society, “Carnival of Souls” also transcends its genre and explores the isolation of someone who feels they no longer belong. And like “TISM”, the resolution is the realization that loss of identity is freedom, that the infinite and the infinitesimal are the same, that you are not alone because you are a part of something bigger.

The two occasions where Mary Henry suddenly becomes invisible to everyone are much more vivid because Hilligoss is so beautiful. Unlike a person of average appearance, an especially beautiful woman walking down the street is used to drawing stares from virtually everyone. For such a person the phenomenon of sudden invisibility would be far more jarring than for those who are used to not being noticed in the passing crowd.

For budget reasons, egg white was used on the faces of the “dead” cast members, including Harvey himself who plays Mary’s recurring apparition. This has an especially eerie effect with black and white film and would be adopted a few years later by George Romero for “Night of the Living Dead”.

Educational film veteran Frances Feist plays Mary’s cherubic landlady and John Linden plays her slimy (on the make) neighbor. Both are excellent, and the disjointed and stilted acting style of their scenes with Hilligoss will remind many viewers of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”.