“Carnival of Souls” 60 Years Later – A Masterpiece Ahead of Its Time

Made for a shoestring budget of $30,000 (about $300,000 in today’s money), Carnival of Souls was sadly not much of a box office success.  In fact, due to the same lack of copyright error that plagued Night of the Living Dead, Carnival of Souls was entered into public domain, and thus never made much money.  However, in the 60 years since its release, it’s gained a cult following and many horror fans have come to appreciate it for the groundbreaking piece of psychological horror that it is.

Surreal Nightmare
After being the sole survivor of a watery car wreck Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) begins to have horrific hallucinations of terrifying ghost-like people who seem to exist in an abandoned carnival.  All the while these visions haunt her, she seems drawn to it.  Everyone around her thinks she’s crazy, including her doctor, neighbors, and the priest who hires her as the church organist.

These silent, pale faces must have been even more terrifying to audiences in 1962, who were far less desensitized than we are today.

And ultimately, nothing is ever really explained in regards to this.  Are there really ghosts at the carnival?  Or is her own PTSD and survivor’s guilt manifesting?  The fact that the movie never tells us makes it all the more intriguing.  It trusts its audience to come up with their own conclusions, something which most movies/TV series are afraid to do today.

Inspiring a Generation
|George A. Romero himself cited Carnival of Souls as a major inspiration for Night of the Living Dead. It would also inspire 1984’s Sole Survivor, which in turn went to inspire the original Final Destination.  In addition, the creepy pale-faced ghost was said to inspire the “Mystery Man” in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, as well as many of the ghosts in the Further from Insidious.  M. Night Shyamalan also cites the film as having inspired parts of The Sixth Sense.

You can really see the resemblance in David Lynch’s Lost Highway

In many ways, Carnival of Souls was ahead of its time, almost feeling like it was made a decade later than it was.  In the previous decade, most horror films were either B-movie creature features or spooky gothic pieces starring people like Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, or Peter Cushing.  With its much more subtle, eerie, and surreal approach, Carnival of Souls definitely feels more like a psychological horror film from the 70s, or even today.

The fact that it didn’t catch on until much later is further evidence of this.  Perhaps audiences simply weren’t ready for it in 1962, but as horror evolved to become more like Carnival of Souls always was, fans began to appreciate it.  This resulted in the movie getting a restoration and re-release in 1989.

Much like those gothic haunted house movies, Carnival of Souls makes great use of its locations. However rather than feeling like just a setting, it almost feels like a character here.

Early Feminist Horror?
Horror has always been the genre that features far more female protagonists than things like action, drama, or comedy.  Many horror films have also dealt with themes of women not being listened to or taken seriously by the men around them.  Some films do so in a not so subtle manner and feel like they’re beating the audience in the head with a message (we’re looking at your Black Christmas 2019).

However, Carnival of Souls serves as an excellent precursor to films like 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and 2020’s The Invisible Man, where a woman very real terror is just chalked up to trauma and know one believes her.  All of these films convey this theme in a very effective way, but do so without ever taking away from being a good horror film either.

Part of what adds to Mary’s terror is that the doctor wants to commit her, her neighbor won’t stop hitting on her, and the priest fires her for daring to play an instrumental piece that isn’t church music (while she’s by herself).  Is it really any wonder that she’s drawn to this dark and mysterious carnival, when her own world only wants to judge her?

Candace Hilligoss gives an amazing performance that’s simultaneously frightened, brave, and by the end,

It’s a brilliant film that’s both genuinely creepy and miles ahead of its time.  It’s also one that sadly most modern horror fans probably haven’t seen.  If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth checking out!

What did you think of Carnival of Souls?  Let us know in the comments!

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