Dislocation is something that everyone has experienced in their life, or at least can relate to; be it from friends, family, or co-workers. Sometimes we feel alone, or conversely wish that we were left that way. No horror film captures a sustained sense of isolation and dread better than Carnival of Souls (1962), Herk Harvey’s only narrative film and a low budget miracle.

Released by Herts-Lion International Corporation stateside in September as part of a double feature with The Devil’s Messenger (1961), Carnival of Souls was lucky to have any distribution at all on a budget of $30,000 (!) and it came and went with nary a notice. Until 1989, that is; a critical reappraisal was in order and the film was rereleased for a new generation to discover it through home video, where it rightly holds a place as one of the finest and influential horror films of the ‘60s. Not a bad legacy for a guy who made Industrial and Educational shorts.

Our film opens as Mary (Candace Hilligoss – The Curse of the Living Corpse) and her friends get in a drag race with a carful of boys, which ends with Mary’s car sent off the side of a bridge. The credits roll as the car sinks to the bottom. Cut to Mary, soaked and muddy climbing up a nearby embankment, stumbling towards a crowd of concerned onlookers. As her life resumes, Mary finds out she’s been offered a church organist position in Utah, and feeling listless since the accident, decides to take it. On her drive out she passes the Saltair Pavilion, an abandoned amusement park she inexplicably feels drawn towards. But Mary carries on to her destination, even after seeing a ghoulish reflection in her passenger window.

Once in town, she just wants to be left alone; the church priest insists she play with her soul (but she’ll have none of that religious nonsense), her single neighbor (Sidney Berger, quite good and skeezy) at the boarding house keeps hitting on her, and a local doctor (Stan Levitt – In Cold Blood) tries to explain away her specter sightings as anxiety and depression. Her desperate sense of isolation swells as she experiences pockets of time where no one can see or hear her (other than her ashen faced stalkers, that is) and all she has left is silence. Throughout all this, the pavilion calls to her as she seeks answers to her increasingly fractured life. Will Mary find the answers she’s looking for in the dilapidated structure, or does something within it have plans for her?

Herks Harvey was on his way back home from a cross country shoot when he passed through Utah and saw the Saltair, which inspired him to draw some money together, take a few weeks off from making shorts such as Manners at School and Operation Grass Killer, and try his hand at a feature. This docudrama feel is part of what gives Carnival of Souls its power; while some of the acting diminishes the low key vibe (not Hilligoss or Berger though; both give strong performances), Harvey grounds his tale with a sobering small town loneliness that’s hard to shake.

While the central conceit of the story has been played out on screen many times since its release (and may leave some viewers rolling their eyes), it wasn’t novel even back in ’62; the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890) by Ambrose Bierce has served as inspiration for several horror films through the years, and the end result with Carnival of Souls is a film that itself has influenced several filmmakers. David Lynch’s work is heavily informed by COS; it’s there in the dream-like realm that this film inhabits, and George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (’68) wouldn’t be the same without Harvey and friends’ Kabuki-esque undead.

Which isn’t to say that Harvey was a better filmmaker than either of these celebrated artists; how can we judge a director’s lone effort against two careers worth of craft honing? But it needs to be said that Harvey is able to sustain a palpable sense of unease throughout COS’ 84 minute running time with nothing more than a few actors, no effects (save some makeup and wavy lines that represent Mary’s breaks from reality), a haunting organ score by Gene Moore (another documentary veteran), and succinct, effective B & W cinematography by Maurice Prather (also part of the Harvey stable).

While Carnival of Souls can be read as a morality fable – Mary’s only choices seem to be following the church or giving in to her neighbor’s lascivious ways – it resonates greatest as a journey; one with no easy answers and more than a few uneasy questions. I suppose it depends on one’s own outlook: Do you really want to be left alone? As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

Carnival of Souls is in the public domain; however the Criterion Collection offers an immersive dive into the chilling waters of this classic.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: HOSPITAL MASSACRE aka X-RAY (1981)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.