Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 4: Carnival of Souls (1962)
Every 31 Days of Halloween column, a new challenge: To find a horror film that’s equal parts deserving of your attention and terrifying (in a multitude of ways). This year I wanted to try something a little different. While I don’t exactly find Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls to be so frightening that it’ll make you jump out of your pants, it’s an efficient and thorough exercise in “less is more.” The score is comprised of wailings from an old church organ and some sound effects hastily thrown over the action on-screen creates something deeply unsettling. The attempt to make the worldly otherworldly is what drives the plotting. Histrionics get overplayed and end up exposing the banal for all of its terrifying worth. Something as simple as a drive past an old amusement park becomes a major set piece. Forgive me for sounding cliché, but in this, the real horror is the mundanity in life. No matter how much we dig to find something that better suits our own twisted vision of reality, one where there’s a darker ulterior motive to everything in the world, there’s nothing to be uncovered. Maybe that creepy guy with caked-on makeup is just that, and not some murderer.
Carnival of Souls follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) after she survives a car crash that kills her friends. She rises from the river in which the car took a dive, rising from the ether physically unscathed. Not emotionally unscathed, though, and that takes the forefront of the narrative as she tries to escape her trauma, only to become subject to visions of a man stalking her. Mary believes something is amiss, and this brings her to an abandoned amusement park.
Herk Harvey looks like he was given about five whole dollars to make Carnival of Souls. While its black and white cinematography is something wonderful to behold, his commitment to aesthetic cheapness is something that separates this from so many other horror films. Even his blocking of scenes is deceptively simple. At every moment we think Mary’s visions are going to give way to something much nastier, forcing her to deal with her own trauma, yet we get usurped and put right back into reality. And to be truthful, that reality not giving way to one’s own projections is even more terrifying.
In one particular scene, Mary breaks down into hysterics after a perfectly fine night out with someone she’s boarding with. She screams “I don’t want to be alone!” The score swells and Harvey switches over to close-ups. There’s empathy behind his gaze at a woman failing to keep her deepest anxieties internalized as the viewer and Mary are both forced to come to terms with the unavoidable. A deep, existential hurt isn’t played off as a quick jolt to the system. It’s instead laid bare for the main character to deal with. Mary’s visions of the creepy man not showing back up during something this crucial to her unraveling is telling.
I regard Harvey as a genius not only for that sequence but for another: A simple zoom shot of the undercarriage of Mary’s car, his focus on it is surgical even though it holds no discernible purpose to the plot. It’s a metaphor for life, really. The longer we hold up something under a lens, there’s a very good chance it reveals nothing but the simplicity and unfussiness of life.
That’s all I’ve got for my first Halloween-related piece this October. If you couldn’t really tell from the preceding words, I hold Carnival of Souls in very high regard. You should check it out. Or just continue on with the mundane tasks that overtake our lives. It’s up to you. Terrifying either way.