Wicked Wednesday: Carnival of Souls (1962)

“I don’t belong in the world. That’s what it is. Something separates me from other people.”

Most weeks when I finish watching my movies for Wicked Wednesday, my feels can be summed up as “ambivalent.” Neither irritating enough to complain about nor good enough to remember. Some weeks the movies are “fun” or “amusing” but occasionally I find something that really strikes a chord.

Carnival of Souls is a beautiful, haunting movie about loneliness. It’s also a movie about ghosts. But what’s really important is that it’s really fucking good.

One day, during a drag race, a car careens off a bridge and into the water. The three women inside are presumed dead after searching the river. Only one girl, Mary, emerges looking bedraggled and unable to remember anything about the accident.

Mary isn’t everyone’s favourite. She’s distant and detached. Even more so after the accident. She leaves town to go to her new job as a church organist.

On her drive to Utah, she sees an abandoned building that immediately captures her attention. But while studying it, a ghostly man appears as a reflection in her passenger window. She swerves off the road when his image appears again in her windshield. She stops at a local gas station where the man tells her it was once a bath house, a dance hall and finally a carnival.

Once Mary arrives at her new home, she immediately puts off her walls. She doesn’t want to meet the congregation. She doesn’t want to mingle with her fellow tenant (a creep named John). But she does agree to a drive with a minister, which takes her closer to the pavilion.

Mary begins to see The Man, as she calls him, around the town. She sees him in her lodgings, but her land lady tells her the only man in the building is John.

Things begin to get stranger for Mary. While trying on new clothes she realises that she can’t hear anyone speak, and no one seems to even notice her. She begins to panic at a park when a doctor finds her and offers to help.

Dr Samuels explains to her that her visions of The Man could be manifestations of her guilt. Simply tricks of her imagination.

Despite the doctors suggestions, Mary doesn’t believe him. She decides to visit the pavilion again – alone.  Strange, little things begin to happen. Like items moving on their own. An illustration of her isolation from others.

John, the other tenant, continues to pursue Mary and after he calls her cold, she agrees to go out on a date with him that night. But before either date, Mary goes to the church to play on the organ. She gets swept up in the music, and begins to play something melodic and strange. The minister begins furious with her and asks for her resignation.

With that little treat to set the mood, Mary spends much of her date with John in a foul mood. She doesn’t want to talk. She doesn’t want to drink. And she doesn’t want to dance. After getting John angry with her, she begins to insist that she needs to be with him.

John, being a perv, believes that means Mary wants to be with him and begins to come on to her. When she resists, he leaves. She barricades herself in the room until the following morning after Dr Samuels examines her.

Mary begins her journey to try and leave. Only the village doesn’t seem to want to let her go. She slowly spirals into a sort of madness. A realisation that something isn’t right. That she doesn’t belong in the world.

The ending of Carnival of Souls is perhaps predictable, but it’s still satisfying. Each scene has great cinematography that helps build a sense of delirium.

Carnival of Souls is a ‘fun’ movie to pick apart and dissect, particularly the ending. While it is intentionally abstract, the movie never makes itself feel unnecessarily complex. Sure, it’s a film about ghosts, but it also captures the feeling of helplessness, and emotion and mental disconnect. Things you don’t have to be a ghoul to understand.

This was the only feature-length film made by director Herk Harvey (who also plays The Man). That only seems to add mystique around the movie itself. If Harvey had mysteriously disappeared before its release, I’d assume I was watching Popcorn again.

One of the most commonly noted things about Carnival is it’s incredibly tiny budget ($33,000). What Harvey managed to achieve was nothing short of incredible. It helped that actress Candace Hilligoss is completely mesmerising as the wide-eyed, tortured Mary.

I’m definitely late to the game when it comes to watching Carnival of Souls (that theatrical poster is really misleading), but all that matters is that I got here in the end. Right? But don’t make the same mistakes I did. Watch it. Love it. Have sweet dreams of dancing ghouls.

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