Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Carnival of Life and Death

This is an essay that I wrote for my vampire/zombie film class. We had to pick a movie and write a research paper on it's theme and thesis and how it connected to Dracula. I chose Carnival of Souls since I never saw it and I wanted to. I deviated a little away from my thesis/theme but in the process of writing it, I discovered more to the film than I initially thought.

Carnival of Souls; regarded by most horror film historians as a classic horror movie but to the general moviegoer and film historian it’s an obscure cult classic. Directed in 1962 by Herk Harvey, which would ultimately be his first and only feature film, was very dark, very moody and very well constructed for a horror film for its time and if you really think about it, it’s more of a character piece than an actual horror film. By looking at the elements it uses, you can tell that it really set a standard for the way horror can go. Undeniably I think it inspired Kubrick’s The Shining since it cut back and forth between dream/ghost sequences and real life. Back in the 90s a film called Jacob’s Ladder showed the journey in which a person takes when he is killed and his soul is taken to heaven and you could argue that the film uses the same tactic as Carnival of Souls since the character in the movie was dead the whole time. Romero has cited the movie as an influence for his zombie masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. Perhaps in Carnival of Souls the main heroine wanted to live but the ghosts prevented her because it was her destiny

Before Night of the Living Dead came out, this was probably one of the first low-budget movies that mainstream audiences knew about. Most of it’s infamy came from the fact that the film only cost $30,000 to make however some sources have stated that it was $17,000 (Brian’s Drive-In Theater). It was also known for having a cast that weren’t professional actors and actresses. It became a cult classic once the film was released, since it dipped under the radar and wasn’t brought to the public again till the 1980s. But before I get into anything I should tell what the story is about.

The film starts off with a group of girls that decided to have a drag race with a group of boys but end up falling off a bridge when they loose control of the car. Mary, one of the girls in the car, survives and is immediately found but for the moment she is frazzled from the incident. The film then jumps a few weeks and she gets a job as an organist at a church, however, while living in her new rented room and employed by the church she begins seeing haunting visions of a ghostly man in black but that’s not all. She starts hallucinating things, walking around as though she was a ghost and unable to hear anything. Soon she discovers that the root of all this is at an eerie structure near her residence that was once uses as a carnival back in the old days. Now she must discover who the ghostly man is and save herself from going insane, but she doesn’t know the dark secret the surrounds this whole problem. In the end we realize that Mary was dead all along and that it was her soul’s journey through life and death and ultimately to hell. The movie makes several points about morals, specifically Christian morals, and the power of the mind and imagination.

Nobody knows how Mary survived the accident, especially since no other person was recovered from the scene of the crash. She walks right out of the dirty water stunned while the rescue team stares at her in curiosity. Once the film jumps a few weeks after the fact, we notice that she is taking up her organist job at a church in Utah and here is where we get an in depth look at Mary’s character. Her organist teacher is sort of taken aback by the fact that Mary considers the job at the church as just another job to get money. He quickly dismisses this but her neighbor Mr. Linden then questions her about the morality of doing such a thing. Mary’s view of the church is “just a place of business. I’m a professional organist and I play for pay, that’s all.” Linden replies, “Thinkin’ like that, don’t that gives you nightmares?” considering the time period in which this came out in (early 60s) people were still religious fanatics. Mary is the type of woman who is not religious at all and most people find that very unconventional and rebellious. Morally she is polluted and even after her employer, a priest, fires her then urges her to “saver her soul,” she ignores it and continues on her way. Perhaps one can see Mary as a person who is way ahead of her time and even though the Hippie Movement was right around the corner it was still during a society that didn’t except who they were whereas now we do. While Mary is talking to a psychologist he also voices his concern for Mary’s view on religion; once more throwing out the fact that she is not the type of person that society wants her to be and perhaps she knows this and her soul is feeling a little regretful.

Another immoral thing that was brought to Mary’s attention by the psychologist was the idea that she never really wanted to be in a relationship with anybody. This would explain why she felt very disconnected with Mr. Linden and why she sort of passed him off as just another person. While she is talking to the psychologist he asks why doesn’t she want to be with anybody and she answers, “I have no desire for the close company of other people.” He then says, “Don’t you want to join in the things that other people do, share the experiences of other people?” Again, this was also something that was very unheard of and he goes on to state that she is a very strong-minded person… almost giving her this free sprit personality that was viewed as immoral by most Christian and religious groups. During the bar scenes when Mr. Linden confronts her about why she hardly talks to him during their date she, almost in a guilty sorrow-stricken manner, assures him that she wants to be with him and that she is enjoying his company. If we really believe that this is her soul, perhaps she is has some sort of regret not being with a person and maybe she is trying to rectify it. Though, you can argue that the ghostly figure that torments her is the way that Mary sees the men in her life. “As a figment of her imagination, this spectre manifests all of Mary’s repressed fears of the opposite sex, personifying them as a dark and malevolent force she cannot communicate with, touch or understand” (Rose, Carnival of Souls). She has already expressed that she doesn’t feel that she connects with anybody of the opposite sex; it would make sense that she feels frightened by the ghost but in the same way she really is connected with him in a morbid way. One can sort of see this ghost as an incarnation of Dracula but I will touch base on that soon. During the scene in which she leaves the abandoned theme park she looks back at the building, cut to the ghoul in shadow looking back at the car in which marry is driving off in. He then looks away as he tilts his head down in sadness and then Mary looks away towards the road in sorrow. “Their movements and expressions are perfectly matched. It’s like there’s an unspoken compact between them: we’ll meet for that eternal dance soon” (Singh, Jabberwock).

There are also other times during the film in which Mary feels like a ghost but I want to focus on something that she said to the psychologist that perfectly describes who she is and why she is looked at as being immoral. Mary immortally says, “I don’t belong in this world,” and I personally think she is right. She is a woman of power, strength and free and in those times… she isn’t right for that world. She belongs in the not too distant future. During the scenes, that feel like something out of the Twilight Zone, where she temporarily becomes invisible to those around her and where she couldn’t hear anything visually shows us just how out of place she is. It’s rather frightening and it’s her soul realizing for the first time just how un-ordinary she really is. Considering the fact that she is immoral and that most people frown upon her, it would make sense that she would go to hell for being this way. Once she finally confronts the ghost that beckons her, she sees all the souls of the ‘underworld’ so to speak. In probably one of the most frightening chase scenes in horror history, we see Mary being chased by her tormentor as well as a couple dozen people only to see her trip in the sand. The souls then circle around her and grab her and she disappears, representing her soul being dragged to hell for how she spent her life. Her journey as she discovers who she is, reflects on past film works. Paul Kesler states, “Fundamentally, Carnival of Souls is a visual exploration of death, which, in the course of this exploration, sees death from a subjective point of view that is at times reminiscent of Carl Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’” (The Neurocritic).

While explaining the vampire novel Carmilla, Weiss describes the narrative vampire: “Within the narrative, the vampire represents the threat of violence as well as of sexuality. Usually the vampire seduces rather than attacks her victims” (Weiss). I found this to be true in most cases of the vampire. They are very sexual and in fact, vampirism in modern days is the act of drawing blood for sexual pleasure. As obscure as it may sound, I’ll argue that the ghost in Carnival of Souls is a Dracula-like vampire of sorts. This is because of many things but first I want to elaborate on the emotional/sexual part of the myth. The first time that Mary sees this ghostly figure she is frightening, but after visiting the abandoned them park she becomes obsessed with it only to find out that the ghost is connected with it. In a way, the ghost has seduced Mary into becoming obsessed with him and the theme park. She becomes so obsessed that she begins to think irrationally. Also, considering that Mary always thought of men as a gender that she never had a connection with, it’s rather ironic and it makes the ghoulish figure sort of an anti-sex symbol. To explain that more clearly, Mary doesn’t really like men that much and it’s ironic that the only guy she feels connected spiritually with is a ghost. Furthermore, the ghost is tormenting her and it only strengthens her views that men are a brutish gender. Mary seems to be the Mina Harker of this film and the ghost is the spitting image of Dracula and perhaps this ghost does want her for his own sexual needs and this is marked by his constant persistence and the smirking face that he often has. Going past the symbolism, even the physical elements the ghost has bares an uncanny resemblance to Dracula. He is dressed in a black suite with a white under shirt, much like how Dracula wears a black suite and cape and has a white vest and shirt under it. They both have pale white faces showing that they are dead and their hair is slicked back to show that they are out of the ordinary. But perhaps the biggest attribute they both have is their presence and how each one of them can lure and control unsuspecting people into their world. Dracula has those commanding eyes and the ghostly man… well; he has the same frightening dead looking eyes.

Carnival of Souls maybe a very obscure film and I wouldn’t doubt that most of the general public would pass it up but it really set a standard for the way psychological thrillers and horror films are made. It’s really one of the best interpretations of the journey of life and death to ever be committed to film. It’s a character study and it really puts Christian morals into perspective and begs it’s view to ask, if something happened to us and we died, was I a happy person with the decisions I made? Like Dracula himself, this film has stood the test of time and really is immortal.


Weiss, Andrea. "Lesbians in Film: Vampires and Violets." Penguin Books. (1992): 84-108. Print.

Walker, Brian J. "herk harvey (1924-1996) ." BRIAN'S DRIVE-IN THEATER (2009): n. pag. Web. 09 Oct 2010.

KELSER, PAUL. "Carnival of Souls." Neurocritic (2006): n. pag. Web. 09 Oct 2010.

Singh, Jai Arjun. "Carnival of Souls: zombies, piano players, 'normal' people." Jabberwock (2010): n. pag. Web. 09 Oct 2010.

Rose, James. "Carnival of Souls." Electric Sheep: A Deviant View of Cinema (2009): n. pag. Web. 09 Oct 2010.

Harvey, Herck, Dir. Carnival of Souls. Dir. Herk Harvey." Perf. Hilligoss, Candace. Herts-Lion International Corp: 1962, Film.


Chris Regan said...

That's fantastic - I love this film and have seen it several times, but you've brought up a couple of points I'd never really thought of before. Also, you had a vampire/zombie film class? That's awesome!

MarkyJ said...

great one

Post a Comment