“It’s funny. The world is so different in the daylight. But in the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight, everything falls back into place again. Let’s have no more nights” – Candace Hilligoss, Carnival of Souls (1962)
I have really been enjoying writing these “midnight movies” posts. When I decided to write about Carnival of Souls, I knew I had to include it in this collection. I watched this film for the first time about a year ago. Upon rewatching it for this week’s post, I found that I had forgotten so many scenes…almost like the whole movie had been a dream, which is appropriate.
The movie opens on the traumatic incident that happens to Mary Henry, the protagonist, while riding in a car with some friends. The driver chooses to participate in a drag race with another driver who pulls up to them. When the two cars reach a bridge, the other car knocks Mary’s friend’s car into the side of the bridge and over into the water below. Mary escapes the car and swims to land. She is found soon after by a group of locals acting as a search party. No one else emerges from the water.
Mary attempts to leave the accident behind as soon as possible. She leaves for a job as a church organist in Utah only a couple of days later. Once she leaves home, she begins seeing a strange man everywhere she goes. He never says anything, but she is convinced that he is coming after her to take her somewhere. Other strange things happen to Mary. More than once, she suddenly becomes unnoticeable to the people around her, as though she has become a ghost. She begins experiencing things that end up not being real shortly after, making her unsure of her reality.
Furthermore, Mary finds herself returning to an abandoned carnival near her new town. She cannot explain why, but she is drawn to it again and again. Her new colleagues and neighbors cannot tell her much when she asks about it, so she eventually investigates for herself. She walks alone through its barren grounds and forgotten attractions. Still desperately trying to outrun her not-so-distant past, Mary becomes enchanted by the mysterious carnival and the forces that reach out to her.
I have a feeling Carnival of Souls was one of the first horror films to deal directly with trauma. Mary’s entire experience in the film, including how she interacts with others, is influenced by the trauma of the accident and the death of her friends. This is a script I would expect more from a modern horror film (think Hereditary by Ari Aster), so it was intriguing to see it in a film from an earlier generation.
Something major I noticed about the movie is its relevance to women’s issues. I noticed some inspiration (intentional or otherwise) from Psycho (1960) with regards to female agency and the way women were depicted onscreen. This was especially evident with the scene featuring Mary in *gasp* a bathtub. Also, Mary is one of the earliest female leads I have seen who has no true interest in a romantic relationship or traditional, domestic life. She is openly career-oriented and even lives alone, which further supported her statements in the film about having no desire to connect with people.
The movie also deals with believing women, which is an issue we address more openly in the present time. Mary encounters a lot of gaslighting situations in addition to no one taking her claims about what is happening to her seriously. Everyone she confides in about the man she keeps seeing makes excuses for what she observed instead of listening to her concerns. This was especially frustrating to watch as a woman, because that is a familiar phenomenon when women stand up for themselves instead of being docile or compliant. There are so many horror films that are often included in feminist discourse, and this should definitely be among them.
Carnival of Souls is the definition of atmospheric horror. The music, lighting, and cinematography choices enhance the surreal experience of Mary’s story. Viewing it is like standing in a strange dream; when it’s over, it feels like waking up. After watching it once more and absorbing more of the story, it surprises me that it is not more popular. I enjoyed it so much for its artistic choices and relevance to real-world issues. It embodies so much of what I love about horror films. It demonstrates real-life pain known by many, and it translates it into a cinematic dream. Carnival of Souls reminds us that nightmares can be beautiful, too.
Until next time,