Halloween is the time for “Carnival of Souls,” the poetic marvel of low-budget horror

By on October 28, 2015

There is probably no better way to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve than with a screening of Herk Harvey’s 1962 feature Carnival of Souls. Shot in black-and-white on Kansas and Utah locations with a virtually non-existent budget and a small, inexperienced cast, with script and direction by a couple of industrial filmmakers, it’s a poetic, sometimes dream-like horror picture that has influenced many, but remains utterly unique.

This amazing one-shot of a film has a back story that’s as great as any in the history of movies, and possibly the most mind-boggling location in the annals of horror cinema. But before we get to the tale of its making, a précis of its simple but emotionally involving plot is in order.

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The plot set-up could have been derived from one of the driver-safety films on which its crew undoubtedly labored. In a small Midwestern town, a coupe occupied by three young women accepts the challenge of a drag race from another car holding three juvie delinquents. On a narrow bridge, the girls’ vehicle goes out of control, is catapulted into the water, and sinks.

As police drag the river for the car, onlookers are startled to see a lone survivor, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), stagger from the river onto a sand bar. Not long thereafter, she leaves town for a job in another city as a church organist. As she drives at night, she discovers that she can only tune her radio to eerie organ music; suddenly the leering white death’s head of a man’s face appears in her window and her windshield, and she narrowly escapes another accident.

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Stopping for gas, she asks the station attendant about the ominous, enormous pavilion she saw silhouetted in the distance as she drove. She is told the structure is an old bathhouse, dancehall and carnival, now long abandoned. “It just sorta stands out there now,” the attendant says.

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Arriving in town, Mary moves into a rooming house run by a kindly but somewhat meddlesome landlady. The only other boarder is John Linden (Sidney Berger), a skeevy warehouse worker who likes to sweeten his morning coffee with booze and openly lusts for the new girl in the house. Her new boss, the local minister, is happy about his new organist’s skills, but Mary is put off by his piety. She later tells Linden, “To me a church is just a place of business…I’m a professional organist and I play for pay, and that’s all.”

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Equally alienated by the sacred and the profane, Mary is plagued by the silent white-faced apparition, who materializes in her rooming house and the church. Shopping for a dress in a department store, she has an even more alarming experience: She discovers that she momentarily cannot be seen or heard by anyone around her.

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Convinced that the ghostly pavilion outside of town may be the source of her disturbing visions, Mary drives to the deserted site, a vast, arabesque product of some 19th-century architect’s dreams. She wanders the ruin without incident and departs, but we come to know that something evil lurks within its decaying walls…

I won’t spoil the last third of Carnival of Souls by giving away the rush of incident and escalating terror that concludes the film. The picture wraps up with a kicker that’s completely effective and affecting, even if some practiced horror fans (or readers of Ambrose Bierce) in the audience will see it coming a mile away.

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Bruce Kawin, who annotated the Criterion Collection’s lavish two-DVD release of the film in 2000, compares the atmosphere of Carnival of Souls to the reverie state of Jean Cocteau’s fantasy Orpheus, thus casting the achievements of the American feature’s principal filmmakers and their lone feature film in an astonishing light.

At the time they began shooting the movie in 1961, director Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford had both been developing their considerable craft for years at Centron Corporation, a modest film house in Lawrence, Kansas, which had been cranking out educational and industrial films since the late 1940s. There they had learned how to write, light, and shoot well-crafted short pictures on lean budgets.

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Harvey, who also boasted a long list of acting credits in college and community productions, was struck by a highly unusual location (of which much more in a moment) while driving outside Salt Lake City, and brought the idea of writing a horror film built around it to his Centron colleague Clifford.

Armed with a script and a production stake variously stated as $13,000 and $33,000, Harvey and his crew – mainly drawn from Centron’s staff – shot the picture in three weeks, mainly on Lawrence locations, with a cast that could only charitably be called “professional.” Harvey himself took the role of the mute, menacing white-faced man. Most of the other actors were friends of the filmmakers (as were many of the local investors in the production).

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At the time, Sidney Berger was a drama student on the local University of Kansas campus (he later chaired the drama department at the University of Houston); after being hired to play the richly entertaining role of the drunken, slavering Linden, he was dispatched by Harvey to audition actresses in New York for the role of Mary Henry.

He chose Hilligoss, a former Lee Strasberg student and veteran of the Actors Stage with no screen experience. (Her only other film role would be in another modestly budgeted horror picture, 1964’s Curse of the Living Corpse, in which she was cast opposite another Actors Stage member, the young Roy Scheider.) Her deft and often touching performance animates Carnival of Souls; she makes the viewer believe the tragedy in a line like, “I don’t belong in the world…Something separates me from other people.”

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If Hilligoss, who appears in every scene, has a real co-star, it is the Saltair Pavilion, the immense, decrepit former pleasure dome outside Salt Lake City where much of the critical action takes place. Harvey, who probably couldn’t have known much about the site’s haunted history, could not have picked a more perfect location. The tale of Saltair is a kind of horror story itself.

It was built in 1893 on the shores of the Great Salt Lake by the Mormon Church, which envisioned it as a family-friendly alternative to the rowdier vacation spots that sat on the nearby sands. It sported the largest ballroom in the Midwest, carnival rides, and a beach strand where swimmers could enjoy the natural buoyancy of the salt water. For years it was the most popular vacation and getaway destination in Utah, but it burned to the ground in a catastrophic 1925 fire.

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Rebuilt, it reopened in 1926, but the Depression took a toll on attendance. Mother Nature had an even more dire impact. By 1933, Salt Lake had receded dramatically, stranding Saltair in the middle of a dry, foul-smelling plain half a mile from the new shoreline; a railway had to be built to take guests to the water. It closed during World War II; reopened later, it never found renewed favor, and it shuttered again in 1958. Harvey shot it as it was in 1961, deserted, rotting, and filled with trash.

The tragic saga of the Saltair Pavilion did not end there. It burned down a second time in a 1970 arson fire; reconstructed again in 1981, it closed after a huge surge in the Salt Lake’s height flooded the property in 1983. Reopened by a developer in 1993 as a concert venue, it has since fallen into haunted dereliction once more.

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Harvey and his director of photography Maurice Prather made the most out of the otherworldly Saltair onscreen. Especially stunning is the film’s use of Saltair’s vast ballroom, with its towering high ceiling, as the setting for a climactic sequence in which a troupe of ghouls perform a dance of death. It’s difficult to watch the scene without thinking of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Fellini’s 8-1/2.

Wonderful short tour of the “COS” locations, produced by a Kansas TV station (this was an extra on the Criterion edition)

Carnival of Souls is a work of constant unease that often veers into nightmare. And that’s exactly what the film’s original release proved to be for its makers. The picture’s distributor, Herts-Lion, dumped the movie onto screens – mostly Southern drive-ins – on the bottom half of a double bill with The Devil’s Messenger, an awful latter-day vehicle for Lon Chaney, Jr. Grosses were meager, but Harvey and his investors never saw anything anyway, for the distributor’s principal absconded to Europe with the receipts.

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However, the film maintained a quiet but persistent afterlife on the tube, via screenings on the type of weekend late-night shows parodied in SCTV’s “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” sketches. It was apparent from the first that Carnival of Souls wasn’t standard scary-movie fodder; there isn’t a drop of gore to be seen, and its shocks don’t provoke screams or averted eyes, but instead a delicate raising of the hackles. Though the acting is sometimes blunt, the picture always seems subdued, and imbued with a strange beauty and elegance. It was a movie that stayed with people.

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In 1989 it was embraced when a new distributor began screening it, not in grind houses, but in art houses – venues that Harvey, who died in 1996, believed were the natural homes for his distinctive little picture. Audiences responded to its unsettling, lyrical brand of Midwestern fear, to its tale of a terrified woman adrift between two worlds.

Its influence had already been absorbed by a generation of filmmakers who had experienced it on TV – directors like George Romero and David Lynch, whose respective feature debuts Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead both owe an obvious debt to Harvey’s feature. In 1998, director Wes Craven produced a not especially faithful remake; the trailer makes it look like a Nightmare On Elm Street companion; Sidney Berger – in his only other screen appearance before his death in 2013 — appears in a small role.

It also left behind a formidable legacy in music, no doubt thanks to Gene Moore’s evocative solo organ score (which was issued on CD by Birdman Records in 1999). Tributes were offered by bands as diverse as neo-lounge unit Combustible Edison (who paid homage in an eponymous track on their 1994 album I, Swinger) and KISS (whose unreleased song “Carnival of Souls” later appeared on bassist Gene Simmons’ appropriately-titled 2004 solo album Asshole). The film’s title has been taken as a handle by a German punk unit and a Celtic band from Pittsburgh.

In 2013, an ad hoc edition of Pere Ubu, fronted as always by lead vocalist David Thomas (a devoted fan of Cleveland TV horror host Ghoulardi), created a new underscore for Harvey’s film. After debuting the work with a screening at the London East End Film Festival, the band toured the songs in Europe that year. An album of the material – including such numbers as “Drag the River,” “Bus Station,” “Road to Utah,” and “Carnival” – was issued by Fire Records as Carnival of Souls in 2014.

If you’re a Hulu subscriber, you can catch the original Carnival of Souls there (in Criterion’s crisp print) as the witching hour approaches on Halloween. It is also widely available, uncut, on YouTube. Do catch it – it remains a thing with the power to chill you, like an icy index finger lightly drawn down the spine.

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About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).