Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Carnival of Souls.
Psychological horror is a hard thing to get right. Some films just portray a crazy person or a psychopath and think that’s enough. A really excellent psychological horror film will pull us into the character’s mindset however warped it may be. We experience the world the way they do and that is what is unsettling. We understand their psychological problems because we can see how twisted their version of the world is. Herk Harvey’s 1962 film Carnival of Souls is an excellent example of this. It draws us into the mind of a woman who, after a horrible accident, feels a disconnection to everything and everyone around her. She’s distanced from the world and at the same time the world comes across as somewhat antagonistic towards her. Not only is she emotionally detached from others; some sort of ghoulish man is hounding her. The only thing she feels any connection to is a mysterious run-down carnival. It’s an incredibly atmospheric film, very influential and really creepy too.
Three young women in a car get challenged to a drag race by a car full of guys. They take them on but are thrown from the road into a river when the cars come to an old bridge. The only woman to emerge from the wreck is Mary Henry (Candace HIlligoss). Shocked and confused she decides to move away and put this behind her. On her way to Utah she sees an old pavilion and feels something pulling her towards it. She drives on. At one point a ghostly man’s face appears at her window and then he appears again on the road in front of her. As she strives to start a new life she is haunted by the man as well as by the pavilion that was once a carnival. Everything else in her life feels purposeless but something about that old place calls to her.
We don’t know anything about Mary before she gets into that car accident but when she emerges from the water she seems shell-shocked. She’s shaken but once she’s in Utah she also has a self-assuredness that seems off-putting to others. After taking a job at a Church as an organist the minister is shocked that she declines his invitation to a meet-and-greet reception with the congregation. In her eyes it’s perfectly reasonable to decline because she has no interest in religion but it troubles him. There is a streak of situations through the film where men are taken aback by her actions. The only reason she surprises them is because she’s honest. But her emotional uncertainty seems to extend to everything. She seems overcome with ambivalence towards everything except for that old carnival. This state of mind becomes increasingly problematic. There seems to be nothing that doesn’t just provoke ire or fear in her. It’s like the world is no longer the right place for her. Hilligoss conveys this perfectly. She’s wide-eyed and worried but surprisingly confident when dealing with people. It’s like she’s numb for most of the time and all she feels is fear when it comes. The performance at the centre of this film is so great and really helps to enhance the unease we as an audience feel. Although the scary moments creep us out they still have more life to them than the people of the film do. We’re as drawn to the source of scares as she is.
None other than the director Herk Harvey himself play’s the man whose image torments Mary. He looks like a mix of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead and Robert Blake’s character in Lost Highway with the eye shadow of Natalie Portman in Black Swan. A pale-faced spectre often sporting a disturbing grin. She tries to escape her past and he is the embodiment of everything she’s running from. The trauma hangs over her personality and death follows in the form of this man. Music also plays a key role in the creepiness. In one scene as she drives her car the radio plays an ominous organ tune. As much as she tries to change the station that’s all she can here. In another sequence she is overcome by something as she plays the organ in church and she begins to play a similarly menacing tune. Not only do spirits pursue her but also she seems possessed at times. Her past is not just following her, it is forcing its way into her life. All that has happened to her is so much a part of her that running will not help. What’s scary is the inescapability of what is pursuing her. There is no logic to what is after her so there are no moments where we feel “safe”. At any turn the man could appear or she could be possessed. The inability to understand or escape is such a horrifying thing and that’s what she’s plagued by throughout the film.
Carnival of Souls is a brilliant early example of psychological horror done right. As much as we root for Mary, part of us feels like it’s all in vain. This is not just a ghost we can get rid of by finding out who killed them. The horror stems from something within her and it will remain until she fully confronts it. Harvey’s black and white photography is beautiful and whenever his visage appears it is truly disquieting. It’s not quite as relentlessly scary as a few of the films I’ve talked about in this series but it is otherworldly and chilling. We are pulled into Mary’s mind and it is a troubling place to be. Paranoia and insecurity builds until the amazing climax that ties things up so well while also being really unsettling. It has influenced so many films yet it still feels so unique. Harvey only made one feature film, but if you’re only going to make one this is a fantastic one to have made.
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James M Macleod