The middle of the 20th century saw of a period of shakeup in the normal course of Western life. As things used to be, we had childhood, devoted to growing, learning, preparing to care for oneself and others; and adulthood, devoted to being a contributing member of a social unit – a family, a workplace, a community, a church – and nurturing the next generation of children. Sometime after World War II, though, a new type of person emerged: the adolescent. Not quite a child, not quite an adult, this curious new creature flourished in the wake of a postwar economic boom that created a massive new middle class, lessening the pressure put on young people to either start contributing to the family finances or strike out on their own. Millions of people who’d suddenly moved up in the world wanted to make sure their good fortune continued and insisted that their own children ensure their stability by at least finishing high school, and preferably getting a college degree – a move that the rapidly technologizing and specializing economy all but demanded. There was time, now: time to exercise some autonomy, to test-drive identities, to figure out what you believe in and what you want out of life. A safe space to play-act as an adult without adult consequences.
All through the ’50s, during those wide-open, optimistic postwar years, millions of these so-called “adolescents” sprang into being as if by magic. They had known no Depression. They were only children during World War II. They could go where they wanted, thanks to the explosive growth of car culture. They had spending money, thanks to that aforementioned prosperity, and with that spending money came opportunistic businessmen looking to get at it. Movies, music, publications, fashions, and consumer goods began to be marketed toward the adolescent. Popular culture followed the money and started glamorizing youth and freedom in a way it never had before. Fresh young faces beamed from every television, on the covers of magazines and records. Adolescents began to have their own clothing styles, their own slang, their own social spaces distinct from those of the over-thirties, a fracture that would widen into a “Generation Gap” in another decade or so.
This rapid shift in the way humans developed didn’t arrive without ruffling any feathers. There weren’t any ready guides on how to fit this new life stage into our existing schema of development. When did adolescence start and end? How much autonomy was healthy and how much was asking for trouble? What if these kids never got out of this phase and decided to be like this forever? People got nervous. Moral panics broke out. For every new teen beach-party movie, there was a cautionary docudrama about aimless youths stabbing grocery clerks. For every glossy comic book full of lurid violence and sensuality, there was a tome by a child psychologist warning that dance music was a gateway to gonorrhea and mixed-race babies. And when all these newly footloose teens were given access to cars, a million treacly songs mourned young life cut down in the roar of an engine.
These birth pangs of this new sociological category were at their tail end in 1962, just as the protagonist of Carnival of Souls, Mary, is at the tail end of her own adolescence. When the movie begins, she’s in her early twenties, old enough to know a thing or two, but still young enough to get caught up in a drag race between her giggling girlfriends and a group of leering boys. The camera follows the car as the impulsive youths careen dangerously across a rickety wooden bridge. From the look on Mary’s face, we can see she’s having some reservations. How did I end up here? She thinks. Is this the sort of thing I should be doing anymore? Her train of thought is stopped when the guys’ car sideswipes the dames’ car into the black swirly depths of the river below.
The town’s police force impotently dredges the river for several hours. They’re about to give all three of the cars’ occupants up for dead when Mary climbs onto a sandbar, unscathed. Her emergence from the river, one of Carnival of Souls’s most enduring images, evokes a baptism in reverse: rather than being cleaned, her sojourn in the river has smeared her in mud from head to toe. What happened to her friends, how she got out of the car, Mary has no idea.
This sort of event played a frequent melody against the rhythm of the new mythology of the adolescent: the idea of the young adult years as a uniquely formative time in a person’s life. Everyone expects Mary to be shaken by her experience to the point of total collapse, to take stock of her priorities. Mary wishes to do nothing of the kind. In mere days after the accident, she’s off on her own, just as she had previously planned, climbing without flinching behind the wheel of an automobile, driving over the very bridge where her friends met their deaths, driving all by herself to Salt Lake City, where she’s taken a job as an organist in a church.
Clearly, this is not What People Are Supposed To Do. But it’s made equally clear that Mary’s coldness and reticence to open up to others isn’t a trauma response – she’s been that way for a while. And this new job of hers doesn’t represent Mary rushing to the comforting stability of religion in response to a new appreciation for her mortality. Playing for this church, she confidently asserts, is just a job. “Not quite the attitude for going into church work,” says her old organ instructor, which Mary meets with a look of barely concealed disdain, before telling him she intends never to return to her hometown. She has no friends or family keeping her there. We don’t even know if she has parents, or what happened to them. She’s free of any history, any ties, completely unmoored, as if her dive into the river has wiped her life story clean and set her back at square one.
And thus she goes West, in accordance with both the American mythology of Manifest Destiny and the adolescent mythology of striking out on her own. She goes West, following the path of the Beat Generation, as the characters in On The Road did, as the hippie generation would soon follow, trying to evoke a spirit of hope and romance which seems so absent from her life. She keeps her heart buoyed up on the drive with jolly classical music she pipes in on the car’s radio, but when the sun dips down below the mountains she begins to hear an eerie organ tune, an atonal and reverberant drone that won’t stop playing no matter how far Mary turns the radio dial. It was the same music that was playing during the fateful car accident, and its swirling arrangement evokes the dark chaotic waves of the river. Her vision blurs and when she refocuses, she sees a ghoulish figure, a tall grease-painted man in a dark suit and a face pale as death, first reflected on the inner window of her car, then standing in the road in front of her, causing her to swerve and crash.
Before–and after–her crash, Mary’s eye is drawn by a huge temple-like structure she sees out beyond the highway, in the middle of an empty lot on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, backlit by the setting sun. A gas station attendant calls it “the pavilion,” and tells her the building originally served as a lakeside bathhouse, before becoming a dance hall when the lake receded, and finally, a carnival. Like Mary, the building never seems able to find a purpose.
Once in town, Mary’s landlady and her new employer both make overtures of friendship which Mary politely but firmly rebuffs. She refuses the pastor’s offer of a reception welcoming her to the congregation. “I don’t know what the ladies will say,” says the pastor, and she replies “If they say I’m a fine organist, that should be enough, shouldn’t it?” Similarly, she has as little contact with the woman who owns her boarding house as possible. Her only neighbor is John, a single man in her own age group. John’s a stereotypical product of the new American adolescence: unattached, off on his own, a lover of frivolous pleasures, who only wants to put in his hours at his undemanding warehouse job so he can clock out, drink, and chase skirts. John takes an immediate liking to Mary and begs to take her out on a date, with increasing aggression and creep factor, no matter how icily Mary responds to his pickup lines.
The only thing that ever seems to bring Mary out of her shell is thinking about the big pavilion out in the desert. She visits it in her mind frequently, and trespasses upon its grounds whenever she can. Her visits seem to fortify her spiritually the way a church service is supposed to. She walks alongside empty benches, intricate trellises, trails her fingers along murals depicting smiling young people engaging in the frivolous, hedonistic leisure activities of postwar America. It looks empty, but it makes her feel the opposite. All the while she walks through its ruined hallways, the organ score persistently pumps in the background like a church processional. But it’s not church music. It doesn’t move to an orderly tempo, it doesn’t have reassuringly precise intervals reflecting the clockwork construction of God’s universe: it swirls around and around like the thoughts of an obsessive. It crescendos on a sting like a horrible realization. It’s full of strange duplets that walk up and down chromatic scales like a train of intrusive thoughts methodically plodding on to an illogical conclusion. It’s the music of insanity. And it’s the music of Mary’s soul, which seems to be divided, like that of the House of Usher, between Mary, the pavilion, and The Man.
Mary’s choice of instrument is thematically significant. She plays the pipe organ, an instrument with a number of preexisting connotations in Western culture. The organ has long been a staple of churches, who favor its booming yet ethereal timbre as a means of inducing a worshipful frame of mind in their congregants. A major advantage to the organ’s use in churches is its ability to produce a loud, lush, orchestral sound with only a single trained musician, and the person who can operate this majestic device normally holds a place of esteem in the congregation of a church. More recently, in the 1950s and ’60s, the organ – in a slimmed-down electric form – had found a place of esteem in the new medium of television, where soap operas and other cheapo TV programs famously used organ stings to punctuate moments of intense domestic melodrama. These television programs, popular among the stay-at-home wives of the new middle class, relying on the omnipresent profane drama of human life – affairs, treacheries, domestic turmoil – as their story hooks, favored the organ for the same reason churches did: to produce fittingly large music on a budget.
Thus, the main musical accompaniment of Carnival of Souls comes from an instrument belonging to two spheres: the public sphere, the sphere of communal worship and social activity; and the private sphere of marriage and family, of personal loves and passions. Neither of these spheres has any place for Mary. She is deaf to the call of God in the sacred music she plays and equally insensate to the social life of the human animal. When we first see her play the organ, she is playing a sacred processional in the over-practiced manner of the shy student: her music is technically proficient and pleasing to the ear in its fashion, but there is nothing of her here. It lacks soul. It lacks something of Mary’s, something which she and only she can contribute to it, a strong individual identity, that very thing which, according to the new cult of the adolescent, she was supposed to have been spending the past decade cultivating. Only the pavilion seems to be able to unlock her – but it unleashes The Man as well.
When she has that building clear in her mind, Mary seems like a whole different person. She has the wherewithal to navigate social interactions like those with her landlady or boss like a human being. She can even engage in a cup of coffee and sexually charged banter with John – and keep her wits about her enough to resist his advances. But the trade-off is steep: before long, Mary begins suffering attacks of nerves, strange nightmares, further hallucinations about The Man visiting her at her house and at work. Before too long, she’s having woozy fugue states in which she imagines that no one else can see or hear her, and she wanders ghostlike through town yelling fitfully to try to attract the attention of someone, anyone. And always, she feels the presence of The Man, who shows up when she least expects it, beckoning to her, trying to grab her, for what nefarious purpose she has no idea at all. Soon he’s joined by others, just as pale, with smiles just as sickening, their arms extended in beckoning gestures.
Mary tries to open up to a doctor about these strange hallucinations she’s been having. “It was as if I had no place in the world,” she says of one fugue state, “no part in the life around me.” But the doctor, though well-meaning, proves unable to relate to her, and everything he says just makes her feel more isolated. “I’m a realist,” Mary insists. “I’m not given to imagining things.” “Hogwash,” he says, “all of us imagine things.” The doctor appeals to Mary’s sense of fantasy, nurtured in a fecund youth which she seems to have missed out on entirely. Her self-image is of a jaded rationalist not given to flights of fancy, and everything the doctor says about fantasy being a totally normal part of life only serves to unmoor her further from her senses.
As Mary’s derangement continues, the walls between the carefully compartmentalized areas of her life begin to crumble. One night at rehearsal, while plonking soullessly through a hymn, Mary allows herself to slip into a trance and lets loose with the bizarre, creepy music running through her mind. Her pastor angrily denounces her music as profane, a mockery of the congregation’s shared ideals, and demands that she resign her post, even as he begs for her to embrace the support of the church so she can get right with God. Similarly, a date with John made during one of her periods of ebullience goes sour, but the persistent young scamp refuses to let up his assault on her virtue. Only when Mary sees The Man in the mirror and screams does John run away. “That’s all I need, to get mixed up with a girl who’s off her rocker.”
Director Herk Harvey (who also plays “The Man”), was a producer of industrial and educational filmstrips by trade; Carnival of Souls was the only feature film he ever made. His industry flourished during the 1950s, when the average person’s years of formal education grew, and the rules of social conduct were more and more taught not by parental and community figures, or by lived example, but while sitting at a school desk. The direction of Carnival of Souls befits Harvey’s background: lots of wide, static shots, composed with an eye toward simplicity and visual clarity, lots of puzzle-piece expository dialogue put in the mouths of amateur actors. One could just as easily imagine our characters teaching America’s children how to budget money or know if they’re ready for marriage. Harvey turns this sensibility to his advantage and displays a keen eye for recognizable cultural artifacts, somehow turning his own era into a nostalgic cultural allusion. He’s also clearly influenced by European films of the various New Waves and displays a deft hand for turning the long shot of a filmstrip into a drawn-out scene from Antonini with a swoop of his camera, for mottling a bright diagrammatic palette with the brooding shadows of Bergman. Carnival of Souls’s specific blend of psychologically heavy art cinema, B-horror gothic schlock, and the cultural detritus of mid-century suburban Americana, is a clear forerunner to both George Romero and David Lynch, both of whom have acknowledged the movie as an influence, and the latter of whom also frequently tells stories about rootless, naïve post-adolescents wandering into terrible trauma.
The cultural anxieties about America’s new, unprecedented generation coming into its own form the beating heart of horror in Carnival of Souls. We feared that inventing “the adolescence” was a mistake. Life had an ancestral rhythm and we’d interrupted it. Nothing could come from allowing young people to grow up so insulated, so self-absorbed, so wrapped up in the ephemeral fancies of youth, so cut off from tradition and shared social reality. To put youth on a pedestal was to sever it from its natural place in the human lifeline, to turn it into a shriveled dead thing. To raise children that way was to feed a generation to the dead.
And, in a culmination of this nightmare vision, Mary meets this fate, scooped up by the ghouls outside of the pavilion, after seeing herself as a pale ghoul, dancing with The Man. Her footsteps disappear from the sand, and a thousand miles away, her hometown sheriffs finally fish her lifeless corpse out of the river. Her death finally arrives, a week after her body gave its ghost to the dark water. But it was never dying in the river that scared Mary, nor the prospect of joining the ghouls in their eternal dance. It wasn’t death that Mary couldn’t accept, but the realization that this has always been her fate, that her whole identity was built on sand, that she couldn’t get over her trauma because there was nothing to get back to, that she was always dead to the world, no human connection, no human feelings, her lifeline sterile and starved; that she had never learned to belong, could never have learned to belong because she’d only ever belonged to the dead. ★