Analysis of ‘Carnival of Souls’

Carnival of Souls is a 1962 independent horror film produced and directed by Herk Harvey, from a story by him and John Clifford, the latter having written the screenplay. It stars Candace Hilligoss, with Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, and Harvey as the main ghoul who torments Hilligoss’s character throughout the film.

Carnival of Souls was shot on a low budget, using guerrilla filmmaking techniques, in Lawrence, Kansas, and Salt Lake City. It was Harvey’s only feature film. It has a unique film score, played solely on a church organ and composed by African American composer Gene Moore.

Though the film went largely unnoticed upon release, it has since become a cult classic, influencing such filmmakers as David Lynch and George A. Romero. Many movie lists include it among the greatest horror movies ever made. It is in the public domain.

Here is a link to quotes from the film. You can watch the whole film here.

The ending of Carnival of Souls seems to indicate that Mary Henry (Hilligoss) didn’t survive the car accident on the bridge at the film’s beginning, and that her nightmarish existence throughout the middle of the film has been her soul’s unwillingness to let go of her physical existence, comparable to the hell Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) goes through in Jacob’s Ladder. I, however, will interpret the car accident and her survival/’death’ metaphorically.

Racing as representative of the pressures of competition in society.

The film starts with her and some girlfriends in a car; they meet some young men about their age in another car, and these boys want the girls to race them. They reach a bridge where their cars are going neck-and-neck, crowding each other on the bridge, and the girls’ car falls off and into the river. Only Mary (so it seems) has survived the car crash; she emerges from the water not remembering how she’s survived.

One thing that is immediately apparent about Mary is that she’s unsociable. She has apparently always been this way, since the organ factory worker says, “She’s always kept pretty much to herself.” She drives out of town without wanting to stop to see her parents; in fact, when asked if she wants to see them, she reacts to the idea with considerable agitation. Right from the beginning of the race, Mary never smiles–her face shows only anxiety, and I don’t think this is just because of the potential danger of the race.

I consider the car accident to be symbolic of a deep-seated trauma, or many traumas, stemming from her relationship with her parents, especially her father (more on this later). A troubled relationship with her parents would explain how distant she is from other people, for our object relations with our parents, the first major people to come into our lives, are blueprints, so to speak, for our relationships with people in later life. If we don’t enjoy our parents’ company, we’re far less likely to enjoy the company of anybody.

This car race, with her bunched together with the other two girls, feels claustrophobic, especially with those boys’ car trying to ram past them. The sense of competition with others can be most distressing to someone as sensitive as Mary. So a near-death experience in such a social context can be seen as symbolic of trauma causing social anxiety.

Mary is a lonely, lost soul.

The water that Mary has fallen into is symbolic of the unconscious mind. The two dead girls in the car with her, engulfed in the water, just like the ghouls emerging from water later in the film, represent so many of Mary’s internalized bad objects. So the car accident represents the repression and the return of bad objects that WRD Fairbairn wrote about.

It’s fitting that these repressed bad objects that come back into Mary’s consciousness should do so in the form of ghouls, or evil spirits; for Fairbairn likens these returning bad objects to evil spirits that possess the suffering psychiatric patient (see page 6 [or 67, from the copied book] of the above-linked pdf, Part 5–‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects’).

Another symbolism for this water that kills, and from which ghouls emerge, is Lacan‘s notion of the Real, an undifferentiated mental state that cannot be symbolized (i.e., put into words–Mary can tell Dr. Samuels [played by Stan Levitt] about the main ghoul, but she cannot conceive of whom he symbolizes; could he be her father, or a minister, who may have sexually abused her when a child?), and thus is traumatic.

Her driving out of Kansas to start a job so far away, in Salt Lake City, represents her wish to get away from her trauma. She tells the organ factory boss that she’s never coming back to Kansas. She can try to run away from her problems, though, but she’ll never succeed, because her problems aren’t outside of her…they’re inside.

Mary the organist.

Another fitting thing about this films is its organ soundtrack music, which apart from occasional diegetic music makes up the vast majority of the music heard in the film. Its eerie dissonance provides so many of the atmospheric chills in the movie, and of course Mary is an organist. It’s as if she’s the one playing the soundtrack to her own story. The creepiness of the organ music, especially in the later scene when she’s in a trance, playing dissonant, “profane” music in the Utah church and she gets fired, represents her fear. It is thus a reminder that her problems stem from within (i.e., past trauma), not from without (i.e. literal spooks).

During her long drive to Salt Lake City, she looks at her reflection in the passenger window to her right. She looks there again, but sees the main ghoul, who looks middle-aged, old enough to be either her father or a minister of the church who may have molested her as a child. (Since this film was made in 1962, when the Hays Code was still censoring movies, indications of sexual abuse would have had to have been made most indirectly, subtly.) Seeing his face instead of her own in the reflection makes him a symbol of an internal bad object; seeing him again in front of her as her car is approaching him is her projection of him outside. The shock of seeing him makes her drive off the road and into a ditch, a traumatic reaction that parallels the other car falling off the bridge at the beginning.

She drives by a large pavilion near Salt Lake City that she is immediately fascinated with. What could this building mean to her? I suspect it represents in her mind a church, a cathedral she’d attended as a child. Its draw on her represents a wish in her to revisit her place of childhood trauma, to process those painful feelings and therefore cure herself of them. The place is on the shores of the Great Salt Lake–water, the symbol of her unconscious, where her bad internal objects lie, the Real, the centre of her trauma, which must be confronted.

The pavilion.

After Mary finds lodgings, she takes a bath there one night while waiting for the proprietress, Mrs. Thomas (Feist), to bring a sandwich and coffee up to her room. It’s interesting how, when she’s been in water again, a knock on her door reveals not Mrs. Thomas but the only other lodger, the lecherous John Linden (Berger), whom she’s embarrassed to meet with only a towel to cover her nakedness. Shortly after repelling Linden’s “neighbourly” ways, his thinly-disguised sexual advances, Mary goes out into the hall and is terrified to see the main ghoul looking up at her from the ground floor.

This juxtaposition of Linden, who ogles her through the door crack while she’s replacing her towel with a bathrobe, with the appearance of the lewdly smirking ghoul–a figment of her imagination and an internal object of hers–contributes to my theory that the ghoul represents someone who once sexually abused her. She is frightened of Linden’s lecherous designs, which have triggered the traumatic memory of another man’s lecherous designs.

Later that night, she can’t sleep, so she gets out of bed and looks out the window to see the pavilion so far off. Her fear of the main ghoul makes her want human company, so Linden’s appearance at her door again the next morning is welcome. He’s surprised to learn, as is her boss the minister (Ellison), that her work as church organist is purely professional, with no spiritual interest in it whatsoever.

Since Western society, especially American, was much more religious in the early 60s than it is today, we must wonder why not only is Mary not interested in meeting the congregation of the church she’s playing organ for, but isn’t interested in the religious meaning of the music she’s playing (small wonder some think her playing lacks “soul”). Such disparities reinforce my speculation that she feels somehow betrayed by the church, making her lose faith in it, while nonetheless staying near it as a professional organist–a nearness that suggests the traumatic bonding of one who was molested as a child by her minister.

Seeing the main ghoul.

She feels relatively safe in the daylight, during the waking hours when the conscious mind is dominant, but frightened at night, during the darkness of which the unconscious is given free reign. As she tells Linden, “It’s funny… the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.” During the day, she can repress her fears; but at night, the repressed returns, in forms she fears, because she can’t recognize their true meaning.

She isn’t, however, necessarily free in the daytime, either. After getting rid of Linden, she goes shopping and tries on a black dress. When changing back in the fitting room, though, we see what looks like a rippling of water before her eyes (water, symbol of her repressed unconscious, is bringing her repressed trauma back to consciousness for her); after this, she temporarily experiences a kind of derealization. She cannot hear anything, especially people’s voices, and these people don’t acknowledge her presence–she seems invisible to them.

The sense of disconnect from other people is a symptom common in sufferers of C-PTSD, caused not by one, but by many traumas. Since Mary is experiencing such a disconnect, I suspect her car accident is really a symbolic abbreviation of many traumas she suffered in childhood.

The many traumas that result in C-PTSD make the sufferer feel as though he or she is completely, irreconcilably different from everyone else, and this in turn results in the sufferer’s withdrawal from society and into isolation, since he or she feels safe only without others around. Hence, C-PTSD can be an accurate diagnosis for Mary, who feels so different from others that, on this and again towards the end of the film, she can neither hear others nor be acknowledged by them.

Mary in the department store.

Terrified by her temporary deafness and invisibility, Mary leaves the department store and ends up in a park. Standing under a tree, she hears the chirping of a bird, symbol of freedom, and so she’s back to normal…by her standards, at least.

She goes to a fountain for a drink of water, and she hallucinates that the ghoul is standing before her. She goes into hysterics and runs into Dr. Samuels, who offers to help her. She goes with him to his nearby office…him with his hands creepily around her.

He isn’t a psychiatrist, but he seems to have dabbled in psychoanalysis, for he hints at some insights as to who the ghoul may be–Mary’s father, or some kind of guilt (i.e., shame associated with having been raped) she has buried deep down in her mind. Her vehement denial of these interpretations should, if anything, help convince us of their correctness, for her denial, calling such ideas “ridiculous,” is a typical example of the patient’s resistance to insights that uncover a deeper pain.

She has her resistances and denials, but also a conflicting desire to cure herself, and her fascination with the pavilion is part of that desire. So she runs out of Samuels’s office and goes straight there.

Now, facing one’s trauma is crucial to curing oneself of it, but one should be guided by a therapist. She thinks she’ll rid herself of the stalking ghoul by entering the pavilion and exploring it; but there’s still that part of her that doesn’t want to face the darkest of her pain, so when she looks around the place, it’s a generally peaceful experience.

Mary looking around the pavilion.

The main ghoul is sleeping in the water, symbolizing how her trauma is still there, however hidden it may be. At one point during her walking around, she sees a mattress gliding down a slide. There’s no reason for it to be there, much less slide down by itself, so it must symbolize something in her unconscious–perhaps a mattress on which she was once sexually abused.

The association of her trauma with water is again reinforced when she passes a sign saying, “Salt Water Bathing,” shortly after having seen the mattress on the slide. Maybe as a child, part of her seduction by her father, or by a minister of the church (maybe her father was the minister), involved bathing her, then bedding her.

My point in all of this is that the whole film could be seen as an extended dream, chock-full of symbols related to her trauma, but presented in a distorted manner that makes them unrecognizable to her conscious mind. The root of the trauma is still buried, like the ghoul sleeping under the water.

She goes back to her rooming house and agrees to a date after work with Linden because she doesn’t want to be alone at night. When practicing the organ at church, she goes into a trance, for night has fallen, and the ghouls are seen coming out of the water of the Great Salt Lake.

Recall that all these ghouls represent the bad internal objects hiding in Mary’s unconscious (i.e., sleeping in the water) during the day, but coming out at night, when the unconscious mind is freer. These internal objects would be not only her molester (the main ghoul we always see), but also family and community members who either turned a blind eye to the abuse she suffered, or perhaps even participated in it. Their dancing, in this connection, is symbolic of sex, pairs of men and women holding each other and moving around to a rhythm.

They only come out at night.

This reliving of her trauma makes her play creepy dissonances on the organ (which she cannot hear, as with her temporary deafness in the department store scene) that her employer, the minister (whose hands grab hers, making her stop playing, and happening immediately after she, in her vision, has seen the main ghoul approach her, his hands out to grab her), regards as “profane, sacrilege,” so he dismisses her. She leaves the church and goes with Linden to a bar for drinks.

He’s drinking while she just sits there, still practically in a trance. He’s annoyed at her unsociability: she won’t drink, talk, or dance. After having just had a vision of the ghouls dancing in the dark pavilion, how could she dance? Young men and young women dancing in a pub aren’t necessarily planning to be sexual, but in the context of dating, they are exploring sexual possibilities. Such possibilities are scary enough for Mary.

They go back to the rooming house and into her room. Linden’s hopes of getting some with Mary are dashed when he realizes how “off her rocker” she is. She looks in the mirror and sees the main ghoul again, who, recall, is a projection from her own mind onto the external world. Such hallucinatory projections are what Wilfred Bion called bizarre objects.

After Linden leaves in frustration, she tries to use the furniture of her room to block all entrances, in a futile attempt to keep the ghoul outside. Of course, she cannot succeed at this, because the ghoul is in her head; no matter how hard she tries to project him outside, he’ll always return, for he is a bizarre object she’s created.

Try as she might, Mary cannot run away from him.

The next day, she packs her things and leaves the rooming house. She’d leave Salt Lake City, too, imagining that leaving the city, just as she’s left Kansas and isn’t going back, will rid her of her trauma. Of course, that will never happen, because her trauma is within, not without.

She drives her car to a mechanic, staying in her car as it’s raised up; she nods off a bit. She then experiences the following set of terrors. First, she imagines someone, the ghoul, presumably, entering the mechanic’s garage and lowering her car back down to the ground. After running out of the garage and into a bus station, we see those waves on the screen again, as in the department store fitting room: she goes deaf again, unacknowledged by others, until hearing the chirping bird in the park; she also sees the ghouls in a bus she hopes to take to escape from the city.

Next, she is in Samuels’s office, but sees the main ghoul instead of the doctor in his chair. It’s interesting how the ghoul tends to stand for men who are at least a potential threat to her: either middle-aged men in authority positions, or father-figures, like Samuels or the minister; or lecherous men like Linden. She screams and runs away.

She wakes up, though we’re not sure if she really went to sleep at first, or just put her head back and closed her eyes for a few seconds. If this moment was a nightmare, could the rest of the film be a long nightmare, too? Could this moment have been a dream within a dream?

She must confront him.

There’s nothing left for Mary to do now but to go back to the pavilion and face her demons. She drives over there just as the clouds are obscuring the evening sky. The inside of the building, accordingly, is much darker than the last time she was there.

Because night is about to fall, all those ghouls sleeping in the water of the Great Salt Lake are waking up and emerging; that is, all the internal objects of her unconscious are returning to her conscious thoughts. As I’ve said above, these aren’t just representatives of the molester(s) of her childhood and/or adolescence; they also represent her family, neighbours, and members of her congregation who, out of a wish to avoid scandal, would never sympathize with Mary or hear her cries for help.

She stands there in the shadows, frowning in her attempt to confront her tormentors. That eerie organ music is playing alongside what sounds like a calliope, or steam organ (what would be heard in a circus or carnival), implying the link between her organ playing, as traumatic bonding, with the abusive church of her childhood that the carnival symbolizes.

Again, we see pairs of male and female ghouls dancing to the calliope music. Since, as I said above, their dancing is symbolic of sex (remember that the film censorship of the time meant that sexual deviancy could only be implied, expressed symbolically), all of them dancing symbolizes the deviancy of an orgy. People with authoritarian, fundamentalist religious beliefs, in their prudery and repression, tend paradoxically to let their sexuality out in the most perverse ways, such as pedophilia, ephebophilia, and hebephilia.

Ghoul-Mary.

Finally, Mary sees, among the ghouls, herself as a ghoul dancing with the main one! Ghoul-Mary has a sad, dazed look in her eyes, the kind of look a victim of sexual abuse might have, a look of helpless resignation. Meanwhile, the smirk on the main ghoul’s face seems one of lewd satisfaction. He dips ghoul-Mary, like a lover, and she is grinning ear to ear, as if tricked into thinking she’s enjoying satisfying his lust.

Mary has thus confronted her trauma. She has remembered what was repressed for so many years, and the horror of it makes her scream and run away. As we all know by now, though, running from her trauma won’t save her; it’s always in her mind, so the ghouls all chase her outside.

Wherever she tries to hide, a ghoul’s face pops up in front of hers. Finally, she runs out and falls on the sand, screaming. The ghouls crowd around her and get down close, as if to gang rape her. To confront trauma, we can’t do it alone. Mary should be facing this with a therapist.

The film ends with Samuels, the minister, and a cop following her footprints in the sand where they unaccountably end. These men, as father figures, would seem to want to help her, but they can’t. After all, weren’t the church community represented in the ghouls just trying ‘to help’ her?

The discovery of Mary’s body in the car represents how trauma kills us all psychologically, for after enduring its horrors, we can never be the same as we were.

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