Carnival of Souls, 1962

Carnival of Souls poster (color).

Carnival of Souls poster (color).

Oh, wow. Carnival of Souls is something.

It starts with a deadly drag race and ends… well, it goes places.

Without giving too much away: A car goes off a bridge during a drag race, and Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is the only survivor. Shortly thereafter, she leaves town to take a job as a church organist in Utah. On her way there, she starts seeing a mysterious and—given that he shows up in unexpected places, like the reflection in her car window or in the middle of the road or, later, outside her second-story window—terrifying man.

Once she gets into town, his appearances become more frequent and she becomes borderline-obsessed with a huge abandoned pavilion on the lake—she’s drawn to it, somehow, and feels that maybe she’ll find answers there?

As I said over at Letterboxd, I realize that the following wasn’t the movie’s intent—and I know that FOR SURE after watching some of the special features, including a conversation between the writer and director—but more than the Mysterious Scary Man, for me, this movie was TOTALLY about how scary it can be to walk through the world as a woman.

In ADDITION to the Creeper Apparition, there is:

  • A man in her roominghouse who won’t take no for an answer, who pervily watches her get dressed through the door crack, who keeps trying to push his way into her room, who finally gets her to go out with him and then gets aggressive and angry when it turns out that she’s not a boozehound. (NOTE: According to the aforementioned special features, the director and writer saw these scenes as—I kid you not—COMEDY.)

  • A paternalistic priest who FIRES her when he catches her dreamily playing Not Church Music on the church organ—even though it was quite clear that there was something wrong with her, and you’d think that the whole Be Decent To Each Other thing would, you know, extend to employees.

  • A paternalistic therapist—I mean, they’re both older dudes in the early 1960s, so their paternalistic attitudes are not surprising, just obnoxious and entirely unhelpful—who meets her randomly in a park shortly after she’s had a HUGE scare and is CLEARLY in distress and rather than trying to gently talk her down, BODILY GRABS HER and SHAKES HER and yells, “You've had a fright. Hysteria won't solve anything. Now control yourself!!“

Anyway, it was all A LOT.

And I loved it.

I loved that within the first few minutes, I thought of the very beginning of Twin Peaks, with Ronette Pulaski staggering across the bridge—and you’d better believe that I was VERY SATISFIED with myself when one of the special features noted that David Lynch has cited this movie as being hugely influential on him.

I loved the visuals, like this one of tiny little Mary playing this big huge organ IN AN ORGAN FACTORY—it was made on a super low-budget, so basically they wrote in places that they had access to—and I loved the organ music throughout, even though it really did truly make me wonder about people who listen to organ music, like, on purpose? (If you have recommendations, let me know, because currently I Do Not Get The Appeal?):

Carnival of Souls  still: Candace Hilligoss (as Mary Henry) practicing organ in an organ factory.

Carnival of Souls still: Candace Hilligoss (as Mary Henry) practicing organ in an organ factory.

I loved this behind-the-scenes detail from one of the special features: Candace Hilligoss did method acting, so when the director told her she had to cross the street during rush hour for a scene, she was like, “So what’s my motivation?” and he was like (I’m paraphrasing), “Your motivation? I dunno, just don’t get hit.”

I loved that the team behind the movie didn’t really have an explanation for anything or really any Grand Plot Ideas, they just saw a cool place they wanted to make a movie in and worked backward from there. It’s amazing to me that they basically seat-of-their-pants-ed the whole thing, and it WORKS. It’s claustrophobic and creepy and WEIRD, but with enough real-life stuff that you can’t just brush it off—it sticks with you.

And finally, I’m including this still purely because it’s awesome and I love it and I feel like I might make that face—complete with hand gestures—at least 85 times a day:

Carnival of Souls  still: Candace Hilligoss (as Mary Henry) freaking out in her car.

Carnival of Souls still: Candace Hilligoss (as Mary Henry) freaking out in her car.

I watched Carnival of Souls on the Criterion Channel, but it’s also available to stream/rent via Amazon.