Carnival of Souls (1962)

"Carnival of Souls", 1962, directed by Herk Harvey.

"Carnival of Souls", 1962, directed by Herk Harvey. by Adam Lafferty

In 1947, University of Kansas alumni Russell Mosser and Arthur Wolf founded the Centron Corporation, a small Midwestern movie studio which specialized in making hygiene films that they used to show in classrooms to get kids to brush their teeth, keep clean and neat and avoid the dangers of communism. Based in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, Centron shot their films at various locations around town, particularly Lawrence High School, and employed local scriptwriters, technical crews and over 3,000 residents, many of whom were children, as actors. Throughout its history, Centron produced these kitschy, conformist educational shorts as well as some industrial safety films for John Deere, Caterpillar and General Electric.

It's been more than twenty years since Centron closed its doors for good. Their old building on Ninth Street, constructed in 1955, is now the main facility of the KU film and media department, while their legacy is forever preserved in the Prelinger Archives and old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

As well as one of the best-known public domain horror films of all time.

Herk Harvey, another KU graduate, was hired by Centron and directed over 400 of their instructional films. While coming home from a location shoot in California, he came across an abandoned amusement park near Salt Lake City, and the desolation and spooky atmosphere was so enchanting that it inspired him to make a movie about it. And so he brought in Centron scriptwriter John Clifford to come up with a movie script, hired an unknown actress named Candace Hilligoss, and used various locations in and around Lawrence (as well as a few in Salt Lake City) with Lawrence-based actors and a Lawrence-based crew, shooting it all in five weeks' time and on a $30,000 budget.

And so we have Carnival of Souls, a horror classic that barely made a whisper in theaters on its first release, but thanks to a successful run on the late-night TV circuit gained a tremendous cult following and inspired the likes of David Lynch and fellow public domain movie icon George A. Romero.

Nowadays we throw the GOALPOSTS in Potter Lake after winning football games. ...Of course, we've also stopped winning football games.

Nowadays we throw the GOALPOSTS in Potter Lake after winning football games. ...Of course, we've also stopped winning football games. by Adam Lafferty

So the film starts out with something you usually see in movies from this era: a hot rod drag race. Two guys randomly pull up next to three women in a car and challenge them, and the women quickly accept. The two vehicles race out of town, through some country roads and finally to a bridge, where for some reason the car with the three women in it suddenly swerves over the side and falls into the river beneath.

That's the Kaw Bridge in north Lawrence they've driven off, incidentally. Though since then it's been replaced by one made of concrete.

As local law enforcement try and fish the car out of the river for three hours with no luck, a survivor named Mary Henry (Hilligoss) emerges out of the water with no memory of how she escaped or what happened to the other two women.

Some time later, Mary decides to move on with her life and take a job as a church organist in Utah, after stopping off at Lawrence's downtown pipe organ factory (since relocated to the northeast part of town) to try one out. She settles in at a boarding house run by a nice old lady and meets her lecherous next door neighbor, and then introduces herself to the minister of her new church (the Trinity Episcopal Church in Lawrence, in fact, at least in the exterior shot).

If he starts saying "giggity-giggity", I'm leaving.

If he starts saying "giggity-giggity", I'm leaving. by Adam Lafferty

Along the way, strange things starts happening. On her way out of town Mary starts picking up strange organ music on every station on the radio, and then starts seeing a ghostly white-faced man (producer/director Harvey in makeup and a suit) in her windows which causes her to run her car off the road. This man starts appearing in front of her in random places at various times of the day--in mirrors, in windows, at the foot of the stairs of her boarding house, you name it.

Meanwhile, she takes a peculiar interest in an abandoned pavilion out in the middle of nowhere. The minister explains that the building used to be a bathhouse, then a dance hall, and was finally used as carnival grounds before it closed down.



Then one morning during a shopping trip (probably at Weaver's, the department store in downtown Lawrence), a ripple effect in the dressing room renders her invisible to the rest of the world for a few minutes, coupled by an unbearable silence and yet another sighting of the mysterious ghost-faced man. By sheer coincidence she becomes visible again at just the right moment to run panicking into the arms of one Dr. Samuels, a professor of sorts who offers to help her with her strange condition.

Even though he mentions to her that he's not a psychiatrist.

Frankly I'd have gone to see someone who actually IS a psychiatrist. This guy could be any type of doctor.

"Well, I can't just call you 'Not-a-Psychiatrist' Samuels, or 'Dr. Samuels who is not a psychiatrist'!"

"Well, I can't just call you 'Not-a-Psychiatrist' Samuels, or 'Dr. Samuels who is not a psychiatrist'!" by Adam Lafferty

At this point you need to know something about Mary - in less polite conversation she would be thought of as a "wet blanket" or a "party pooper". She's very strong-willed, but doesn't always feel comfortable around other people, doesn't want a boyfriend, and isn't keen to join in on activities with others. She admits that she only took the organist job because it was just a job and has no interest in joining the church that is hiring her. She's also not interested in having a relationship with her lascivious neighbor, though that may be his fault more than hers.

The next day, while practicing the organ at the church, Mary goes into a trance and starts playing something particularly eerie while hallucinating about the old pavilion and the white-faced man standing in a dance hall surrounded by other white-faced people dancing. The minister overhears it, calls it "profane" and "sacrilegious", and asks her to resign, all the while worrying about her mortal soul and asking her to join his church.

Okay, THIS part was DEFINITELY filmed in Kansas. Maybe not Lawrence, but still...

Then she goes out with her neighbor to drink and dance...or NOT drink and NOT dance as she's just not into those kind of things. He eventually leaves, fed up with her when he tries to put the moves on her and she sees the white-faced man in the mirror and freaks out, despite her constant pleas for companionship.

On the plus side, there's no lines.

On the plus side, there's no lines. by Adam Lafferty

Driven to her wits' end and convinced she does not belong in this world, Mary finally decides to leave town, but not before stopping at a service station across the street from the masonic temple in downtown Lawrence (the masons have since moved and there's a contemporary-style church there now). When the white-faced man reappears as a shadow in a doorway she flees to a bus depot desperate to leave town, where another screen ripple makes her invisible again, and the only bus she gets on is full of eerie white-faced people who all get up out of their seats and move in her direction. Finally she returns to Dr. Samuels' office for help only to learn she's been speaking to the original white-faced man in the chair.

She turns out to have dreamed this.

No, the movie doesn't end there. Heaven forbid.

It ends when she drives out to the empty pavilion, where everything she saw during her freak-out at the church is waiting for her, including the white-face man dancing with a white-faced version of herself. Then they all start chasing her outside laughing and finally catch up to her when she inevitably trips and falls in that special way that movie heroines do...

The next day, the minister, doctor and the police observe her footprints outside the pavilion which end abruptly with no explanation.

Back in Lawrence, the police have finally pulled the car from the start of the film out of the water, with Mary's body inside.



I'll agree with Herk Harvey on one thing - if there's anything that creeps me out more than Lawrence Welk reruns, it's wandering around in an empty amusement park. Nobody in the booths or running the registers at the gift shops, the roller-coasters and bumper cars totally motionless, no music, no babies crying, no guys earning minimum wage and college credit by walking around in hot, sweaty cartoon animal costumes...I could see why he chose one as the backdrop for a horror movie, particularly one as isolated and remote as Mary is from human society. I could easily tell there was a message in there about social withdrawal and lack of human interaction, though hopefully the creepy-looking monsters in the makeup will give her someone to finally talk to.

Atmosphere is one thing that Carnival of Souls does well, from the empty pavilion scenes to Mary's momentary lapses of existence. No special effects, no CGI, just an abandoned fairground, some makeup and a creepy organ soundtrack. If you enjoy a move that makes good use of atmosphere, you will most assuredly enjoy Carnival of Souls. It's one of those movies that proves that less is in fact more. My only gripe with it was that it drops us into the opening drag race too abruptly, and we don't get a lot of background on Mary apart from she doesn't always get on well with others.

It's a real shame this film is in the public domain, because had it done well in theaters, it might have put my town on the map. That is, if being a progressive college town in an infamously red state with a great arts and music scene and home to one of the best college basketball programs in the country wasn't enough. To be honest, I think the only other film that Lawrence is famous for is The Day After, which implies that there's actually a worthwhile reason to drop a nuclear bomb on Kansas.

Remember, kids: brush your teeth, keep clean and neat, and communism is bad!

Remember, kids: brush your teeth, keep clean and neat, and communism is bad! by Adam Lafferty

Adam Lafferty also likes to talk about movies, among other things, on his other blog,


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