Imagine a film where the only time we witness a woman alive is in the first few moments when, following a drag race, the car she is in careens off a bridge and into a river. Following, all are dead, save what appears to be her, who pulls herself out from muck and swamp like a zombie, walking slowly and claiming to not remember anything. Then flashes the title and the eerie, ambient organ music that accompanies. It’s not that the scene is scary insomuch as otherworldly. So who is she exactly?
Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls stars Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) as an attractive young woman who seems to move about in a dream, where she remains detached, and reviles human contact. After the accident, she informs her employers about her new job as a church organist in Utah (she studied organ in college). Astute and cerebral, Mary appears as though something else is continually on her mind. When she’s pleasantly asked to ‘come back and visit,’ she replies coldly, ‘thank you, but I am never coming back.’ Throughout, this emotional detachment is paramount to assessing Mary’s character. ‘I have no use for the company of others,’ she says. At one moment, she seems head strong and alien, as though she does not belong with the human race, but then, when inundated with fear due to the presence of a strange man who continues to follow her (played by director Herk Harvey), she is emotional, feeble, needy. She does not want to be alone.
As a B film, Carnival of Souls featured a small budget which works in the film’s favor, as the actors at times speak as oddly as she. They stand stiffly and move dreamlike—is this a dream? Not to mention their condescension. Her minister boss is kind at first, but then abruptly fires her for playing ‘profane’ organ music. ‘I am not abandoning you,’ he says. (Why be so brash? Shouldn’t he be trying to help her if she is so in need?) Then Mrs. Thomas, her landlord, is welcoming in that judgmental way that implies that one shouldn’t do anything out of the ordinary. ‘Go on and take as many baths as you like. I’m not one to make a fuss about that,’ she reassures. Then there is her pervy neighbor Mr. Linden who, while invasive and pushy, one cannot help but find hilarious. ‘Hey, don’t go usin’ those big words with me—I’m just a guy who works in a warehouse,’ he says while attempting to flirt with her over morning coffee.
Mary regularly speaks about an old pavilion that has long been abandoned—something is luring her towards it, but she doesn’t know what that something is. She notices that nights move differently and that in daylight everything changes, till she goes shopping one afternoon, and in her attempt to purchase a dress, the sales woman suddenly does not see nor hear her. ‘It was like for a time I didn’t exist,’ Mary speaks out loud. Her identity and existence abolished, it is as though she does not thrive within daylight, but rather thrives solely for this nocturnal, zombie-like man who keeps reappearing.
Yet perhaps I must pause and spotlight one of the most ‘beloved’ characters—John Linden, Mary’s next door neighbor. Yes, he is by all means a pig who forces himself upon her, as he eyeballs her while she is most vulnerable. But he is funny in that pathetic sort of way, where he takes her out one night, and upon chancing a friend of his who asks, ‘Hey Johnny, who’s the doll?’ Linden replies, ‘Hey, she’s out of your class!’ It appears that Mary is being polite out of her own need for closeness—she does not want to be alone, as she fears that if she is, the Man will return. Her moods fluctuate, so much so that even a dope like Linden notices: ‘This morning you were warm and talkative, but now you’re a submissive mouse. So you don’t drink, you don’t dance—what do you do?’ Then, when she shares her vulnerability, informing him that she doesn’t want to be alone, Linden replies, ‘Just what I need is to get involved with a girl off her rocker!’
All this is wonderful, as the men come across arrogantly (save for the auto mechanics who merely offer her direction). Each time Mary confesses her fears, no one believes her and she is ultimately gaslit into believing she is imagining it. As example, an interesting character is Dr. Samuels who, after chancing upon a frightened Mary at the water fountain, invites her back to his office. (Note how he grabs her by the arms inappropriately, as though she is a child.) He listens to her concerns, but then admits that he is no psychiatrist. (Um, so what sort of doctor is he, then? I don’t think it is ever mentioned, but please inform me if I am wrong.) However he does make interesting observations involving the ideas behind imagination ‘playing tricks on us.’ Mary, who believes she is a realist, is continually challenged by these images. ‘Have you ever thought people were speaking about you?’ Dr. Samuels asks. ‘Have you ever thought you saw someone, only to discover it was someone else?’ Mary, who rebuffs his theory as ridiculous, only encounters the Man later within a dream. She sleeps, and as she runs, her steps do not match her feet. Her world, even her very steps, are out of sync.
I have wondered why Herk Harvey only made one film, especially given that Carnival of Souls is so good. Moments are captured among the leaves, where sun pokes through among the peaceful sounds of birds. ‘It’s funny – the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again,’ Mary observes while glancing out the window. The film’s end then leads us back to the scene of the car accident, where the car is being pulled from the river. We see her as a passenger—never having left. Artful and intelligent, Carnival of Souls is not going to offer an easy answer. Was she a ghost? Was this a dream? Perhaps death is the only thing Mary can never escape. Dancing with the Man at the carnival, alas she has found her place.
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More from Jessica Schneider: Feeling Invites the Reason: On Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique” (1991), On Elliott Smith: Nickolas Rossi’s “Heaven Adores You” (2014), They Too Are We: Reviewing Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” (1976)