"Carnival of Souls"

by Cynthia C. Scott

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Most horror movies nowadays can't seem to feel complete without a lot of blood and gore to shock young audiences. But any movie that manages to creep under your skin like a bad dream will inevitably zero in on the psychological horror that defines modern-day society.

The 1960s horror classic "Carnival of Souls" is just one such film. Haunting, ethereal, and spooky in all the right ways, "Carnival of Souls" captures the themes of alienation, loneliness, and sexual hysteria to near perfection.

Released in 1962, "Carnival of Souls" was the brainchild of industrial filmmaker Herk Hervey, who got the idea for the movie after driving through the lonely Utah desert and encountering the Saltair, an old and abandoned amusement park outside of Salt Lake City. Hervey directed the film on a shoestring budget (approximately $30,000), using a few of the actors he worked with in some of his industrial/educational films for Centron Productions in Lawrence, Kansas. With the help of actor Sandy Berger, who played John, Hervey cast Candace Hilligoss as the film's lead Mary Henry.

The premise of "Carnival of Souls" isn't a terribly original one. In fact, Ambrose Bierce covered similar territory in his short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The Twilight Zone" also mined this material for an original 1960s episode. Yet "Carnival of Souls"–with its use of carnival-like, spooky organ music and Hilligoss's cold, ethereal and ghostly beauty–has an eerie, unsettling feeling of otherworldliness that is all its own.

While out drag racing with her girlfriends, Mary Henry is involved in a fatal car accident when the car plunges off a bridge. Mary survives the crash, but her near-death experience leads her to an otherworldly nightmare populated by ghouls and ghosties, including one such specter, played with frightful delight by the film's creator and director, who seems obsessed with her.

Henry, an organist, gets a job at a church in Salt Lake City and it is during her drive there that she first encounters the specter when she sees its image reflected on the window of her car. The specter continues to follow Mary, beckoning her into his frightening world. The Saltair makes a spooky appearance in the film, serving one of its most important settings as Mary goes there to try and make sense of her life and the strange encounters she's been having.

Those unfamiliar with Bierce's story or the "Twilight Zone" episode might be shocked by the film's ending, but the movie sets up this twist throughout the story. Clearly Mary is dealing with something not of this world.

"Carnival of Souls" has the feel of all those late night Friday spook fests on television so popular during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Best watched at midnight, it's a movie that captures the feelings of alienation and paranoia Americans were feeling during the Atomic Age, bringing a supernatural component to those fears.

Despite the fact that the film sunk after its initial release through the drive-in circuit, it would go on to influence many noted directors, such as George Romero (the film was an inspiration for "Night of the Living Dead") and David Lynch. In 1989, "Carnival of Souls" was re-released to much more lauded acclaim and interest, and continues to this day to spook and inspire fans all over.

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