As directed by Herk Harvey, “Carnival of Souls” is a cult classic. A strange, atmospheric and unforgettable low-budget horror film that focuses on young church organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) who is haunted by visions of a ghoulish netherworld after surviving what appears to be certain death when a car in which she is a passenger, plunges over the edge of a bridge into the river below.
Amateurish in many ways (the film does include some stilted performances, bad lip-synching, clunky editing and a few continuity errors), “Carnival of Souls” nevertheless continues to exert a strange fascination for many viewers. Not a conventional horror or ghost story, “Carnival of Souls” explores the psychological state of Mary Henry after she emerges, apparently unharmed, from the murky depths of the river. Moreover, “Carnival of Souls” raises a number of perplexing questions that relate to the existence of Mary Henry, without providing any definitive answers. Has Mary really survived what appears to be certain death? Is she already dead? Does she exist in the real world or some parallel universe? One plausible interpretation of Carnival of Souls is that the film represents a hallucinatory dream –or nightmare– that Mary is experiencing in the split second before the car plunges into the river and she plummets to her death.
Significantly, Carnival of Souls was the only feature film to be directed by industrial and educational filmmaker Harold (Herk) Harvey. After completing “Carnival of Souls,” Harvey was to return to making industrial and educational films before retiring in the late 1980s (he died in 1996).
The initial inspiration for Carnival of Souls came when Harvey, while driving through Utah in 1961, spotted the ornate ruin of Saltair amusement park located on the arid shore of the Great Salt Lake. Dating from the 1920s, the massive carnival pavilion, with its imposing Eastern European turrets, had once housed a salt-water bath resort and then a carnival. However, changing times, shifting tastes, as well as a receding lake had put the resort out of business. By the early 1960s, Saltair had become dilapidated and condemned, a crumbling landmark rising like a spectre outside Salt Lake City.
Interviewed in 1989, Harvey remembered first seeing the old amusement pavilion, “It was sunset and I was driving to Kansas from California when I first saw Saltair. It’s an amusement park located at the end of a half-mile causeway out into the Great Salt Lake. The lake had receded and the pavilion with its Moorish towers stood silhouetted against the red sky. I felt I had been transported into a different time and dimension. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I stopped the car and walked out to the pavilion. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. The stark white of the salt beach and the strange dark quiet of the deserted buildings made it the spookiest location I had ever seen.”
Harvey returned to Kansas and enlisted the services of his friend John Clifford, a co-worker and writer at Centron Films, to develop a script with the Saltair amusement park as the central premise. As Harvey later explained: “The last scene, I told him (Clifford), had to be a whole bunch of ghouls dancing in that ballroom; the rest was up to him. He wrote it in three weeks.”