Macabre, haunting, and unique, Carnival of Souls is horrifying from beginning to end. It plays out rapidly, with Mary (Candace Hillgoss) slipping, after a brief respite, ever so steadily back into death. Due to the movie’s overwhelming visual and aural aspects, it’s good that the plot is kept simple.
Mary’s a reluctant participant in life; “It’s as though I didn’t exist…as though I had no place in the world” she reflects. She’s not really comfortable with anyone. “I have no desire for the close company of other people” she tells the doctor. These comments come in her more lucid moments, not when she’s hallucinating about the ghostly figures that pursue her.
Carnival of Souls explores mental illness and alienation, using the horror to illustrate what it might be like to live like Mary. Many have commented that everyone seems a bit off in this story. We can see that a delusional mind would see reality as skewed. To go along with the supernatural theme, either the other characters are ghosts too, so they act unnaturally; or, they merely seem otherworldly from her ghost’s perspective.
The scenes where Mary can’t hear anything, and is ignored by everyone else, would indicate that she’s really not there. At other times, she relates, however awkwardly, to those around her. Two scenes highlight her disconnect from society–at the roadhouse with John (Sidney Bergen), and at the beginning when she’s stuck in the car racing with the two guys.
Both are spontaneous situations, fun, but risky. In other words there’s no conventions of the workplace, home, or business to shield her. A drag race and a date are casual activities, but she’s incapable of acting casual, being herself. Hillgoss gives such a distant, uncomfortable vibe to her character that she looks like she’d rather be anywhere else but in that car and in that club.
At the same time, she’s right to want to avoid dangerous situations. After all, the race ends fatally; and, later, her date proves he’s the boring jerk he seems to be. The minister, from the other end of the spectrum, is nonetheless as judgmental as John. The landlady’s the most sympathetic character, but she has to deal with Mary’s descent into paranoia. She ultimately ‘betrays’ Mary, as everyone else does.
Carnival of Souls works as a psychological drama as well as a ghost story. If the movie began with Mary leaving her hometown for the church job, so that there’s no car wreck, and no moon-faced ‘souls’ bugging her, this would still be a interesting study of an isolated person losing touch with reality.
In a way, the creepy atmosphere masks the intensity of the psychological theme, entertaining the viewer with manifestations of horror, while relegating the actually more disturbing psychological stuff to the background. Most of what we see is nightmare, but we also glimpse the person who creates such a nightmare.
The decrepit amusement park is one of the greatest settings in all of the horror genre. The attention to detail with the zombie-like ghosts: their looks, behavior, movements, are orchestrated so well that they seem to belong to the setting.
There’s a bit of a continuity issue after the car wreck/drowning. If Mary dies in the river, then everything that happens up until the car is recovered couldn’t happen. One explanation is that this what we see is literally an example of life-flashing-before-your-eyes. The ‘souls’ become more relentless and ultimately overwhelming because Mary is dying.
Carnival of Souls has unforgettable images and scenes. To explore all of its facets, it’s worth many viewings. 10/10.