Poor, poor Mary Henry. She is not crazy. She is a perfectly sane, perfectly reasonable victim of tragedy. Perhaps the only survivor of a fatal car crash, Mary is naturally carrying around a lot of post-traumatic stress. So much in fact, she doesn’t even stick around to hear the fates of the others involved before running off to begin life anew in Salt Lake City…But she’s definitely not crazy.
The only feature-film from documentarian Herk Harvey, the spectacularly crafted Carnival of Souls has endured for decades as an exercise in mood and atmosphere; overflowing with shadowy frames that crackle with danger and temptation. Story goes that screenwriter John Gifford was given only 3 weeks to deliver a script based on a single image described to him by director Harvey: a caliginous danse macabre in an empty ballroom, attended by spirits in formal dress. The result is a harrowing story of a woman in existential peril, confronting demons both personal and literal – real and imagined.
Prior to the accident, nothing is known about Mary Henry (played by the magnificent Candace Hilligoss in a rare performance). Watching her settle into her new life as a church organist however, a portrait of an empty person emerges. Mary has no family. She doesn’t dance. She doesn’t drink alcohol. Someone suggests that she doesn’t like men – they also think she’s crazy, so what do they know. Mary has no observable spiritual life, yet seeks employment at a church; constantly clarifying that she is non-religious and simply needs a job. If this were the case, surely she could find secular employment as an organist elsewhere? Baseball stadium, or funeral home maybe.
Mary’s inert personality then, reveals a stifled curiosity about the afterlife – one that even she may be unaware of. During a particularly bewitching scene, a beautifully stained-glass window reading the words “CAST OUT THE DEVIL”, seems to taunt Mary while she plays her organ. It’s in Mary’s passivity that her life is most altered.
As if accepting mortality wasn’t hard enough, Mary also finds herself grievously haunted by a flagitious ghoul: “The Man”. Played by director Harvey, The Man is relentless in his pursuit of Mary as she tries to put the past behind her. In thrilling chase scenes mirroring that of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Mary finds herself exasperated by the inability of those around her to see the apparition. Unlike in Mitchell’s film however, Mary’s monsters exist for her to conquer all on her own. Other characters Mary meets are willing to condescend to her with uninformed diagnoses for her behavior, but none are all that willing to provide meaningful empathy. She is alone, but she’s not crazy.
Now, one could argue over what The Man does or does not symbolize in the story – though vague, the movie hints at multiple meanings – but it’s the slow, determined pace of Harvey’s sinister performance that undeniably gives the film its most frightening images.
Yet, the richly textured lighting and design in Carnival of Souls make it clear the film is not interested in story whatsoever – it means to underscore a specific mood that Harvey’s going after instead. His unobtrusive proto-horror style is exemplified during Mary’s visit to the titular carnival: an abandoned outdoor pavilion rotting on the edge of a dried up lake, it may reveal the truth about The Man. Harvey lets this sequence play out on wide shots, lingering on surreal images of decay to create lurid spaces both disturbing and enchanting. A picturesque nightmare so convincing, it lets you accept the reality before you and forget you’re dreaming — among other things.
Since its release in 1961, Carnival of Souls has achieved enormous recognition that was absent for its debut. The film’s theatrical re-release in 1989 met an audience that was more attuned to Harvey’s gothic sense of atmosphere and staging, an audience hungry for both the surreal and the ordinary (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks would premiere in 1990 to record viewership). Knowing what happens to Mary at the end of the movie – or is it at the beginning? – makes subsequent viewings all the more hypnotic. None of this should exist and yet we find ourselves, like Mary, leaning in. Unable to resist the seductive allure of Harvey’s phantom images.
Carnival of Souls’ near perfect execution of the psychological thriller broke the mold. Any attempt to dramatize the arresting psychosis of trauma in motion would no doubt emulate it, however indirectly. That is the mark of good filmmaking. And that– hey wait a minute, are you listening to me?