Films That Haunt Me: “Carnival of Souls” (1962)

Directed by Herk Harvey
Starring Candace Hilligoss

A brief explanation – I’ve decided to start a series of reviews centered around horror films that I find to be pure, beautiful examples of the genre – films that haunt me. To begin, there’s no better film to discuss than “Carnival of Souls.”

I first saw this film when I was 14, during a time when all I watched were horror movies. Being in the public domain, this was an easy one to find, and the semi-underground buzz around it made it intriguing enough. Though I was watching it on a tiny computer screen in broad daylight, this film had an undeniable effect on me, and I’ll never forget the atmosphere that so completely immersed me in the experience. 

For those who don’t know, “Carnival of Souls” follows a young woman who is plagued by visions of a strange, ghoulish man after she almost dies in a car crash. She finds herself drawn to an abandoned carnival near her small town, which soon begins to consume her life. The story is certainly influenced by the Twilight Zone, but the imagery and the oozing atmosphere are what set this film apart. It engulfs your psyche and dunks it into the woman’s world, which becomes increasingly nightmarish as the story nears its disturbing conclusion.

Watching this film, to me, is like wandering through an empty building at twilight. Everything is a little bit foggy, a little unreal, and the whole time you feel as if something is following you. The film is so low-budget that it almost feels as if it isn’t happening – the imagery is that disjointed and distinctive. It feels as elusive as the haunted carnival itself, evoking that unique feeling of walking through an empty, forgotten place. Though the sound is poor and the acting unusual, the flaws add up to a massively unsettling whole, and by the end it’s hard to remember exactly what happened – except for the singular moments of horror throughout. (In particular, the organ scene – fans of the film will know what I’m talking about.)

So, why is this such a perfect example of horror? It’s all in the images. This film, though lesser known, influenced such genre giants as “Night of the Living Dead” with its portrayal of ghouls and the undead. The spectral photography of the abandoned carnival, either empty or filled with these creatures, is stunningly creepy. Few films have utilized a natural location so well as this one. The film conjures images of poetic dread which, coupled with the eerie organ score, are impossible to shake away after the running time has ended. The simple story becomes more than it appears to be because of this – the very frames of the film feel haunted. 

Though it isn’t a great film in the traditional sense, “Carnival of Souls” ranks for me at the top of celluloid nightmares – films that make you feel, somehow, that you dreamt them. It is a master class in unsettling atmosphere and terrifying imagery. Watch this film on a calm summer night, just as the sun is setting – I guarantee you’ll never forget the experience. 

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One Response to “Films That Haunt Me: “Carnival of Souls” (1962)”

  1. […] For the previous installment of “Films That Haunt Me,” CLICK HERE. […]

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