Carnival of Souls is a 1962 independent horror film starring Candace Hilligoss. Produced and directed by Herk Harvey for an estimated $33,000, the film did not gain widespread attention when originally released, as a B film; today, however, it is a cult classic. Set to an organ score by Gene Moore, Carnival of Souls relies more on atmosphere than on special effects to create a mood of unease and foreboding. The film has a large cult following and is occasionally screened at film and Halloween festivals. It has been cited as an important influence on the films of both David Lynch and George A. Romero.
Harvey was a director and producer of industrial and educational films based in Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked for the Centron Corporation. While vacationing in Salt Lake City, he developed the idea for the film after driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion. Hiring an unknown actress, Lee Strasberg-trained Candace Hilligoss, and otherwise employing mostly local talent, he shot Carnival of Souls in three weeks on location in Lawrence and Salt Lake City.
Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is riding in a car with two other young women when some men challenge them to a drag race. As they speed across a bridge, the women's car plunges over the side into the river. The police spend three hours dragging the murky, fast-running water without success. Then Mary miraculously surfaces. She cannot remember how she survived.
Mary then drives to Utah, where she has been hired as a church organist. Odd things happen along the way. At one point, she can get nothing on her car radio but strange organ music. She passes a large, abandoned pavilion sitting all by itself on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. It seems to beckon to her in the twilight. Shortly thereafter, while speeding along a deserted stretch of road, a ghoulish, pasty-faced figure (The Man, played by director Herk Harvey) replaces her reflection in the passenger window and stares at her. When The Man suddenly appears in front of her, she swerves off the road. At a gas station, the attendant tells her the pavilion was first a bathhouse, then a dance hall, and finally a carnival before shutting down.
The Man appears in the car window.
In town, Mary rents a room from Mrs. Thomas; John Linden, the only other lodger, wants to become better acquainted with the blonde newcomer, but she is not interested. That night, she becomes upset when she sees The Man downstairs in the large house and retreats to her room. Mrs. Thomas, who kindly brings her some food, says she did not pass anyone.
Soon, Mary begins experiencing terrifying interludes when she becomes invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world, as if she simply is not there. When The Man appears briefly in front of her in a park, she flees, right into the arms of Dr. Samuels. Samuels, though he acknowledges he is not a psychiatrist, tries to help her.
Her new employer, the minister (Art Ellison), is a bit put off when she declines his suggestion of a reception to meet the congregation. When she practices for the first time, she finds herself shifting from a hymn to eerie music. In a trance, she sees The Man and others of his ilk dancing. The minister, hearing the strange music, denounces it as "profane" and insists upon her resignation.
Terrified of being alone, Mary agrees to go out on a date with Linden. When they return home, he talks his way into her room, but when she sees The Man in the mirror, she becomes upset and tries to tell him what has been happening to her. He leaves, believing she is losing her mind.
After talking with Samuels again, Mary believes she has to go to the pavilion. There, however, she finds no answers.
Other ghouls join The Man. Mary tries frantically to escape, at one point boarding a bus to leave town, only to find that all the passengers are ghouls. Then she wakes up, showing that she dreamed this sequence at least. In the end, she is drawn back to the pavilion, where she finds her tormenters dancing. A pale version of herself is paired with The Man. When she runs away, they chase her out onto the beach. She collapses, and they close in.
The minister, the doctor and the police are baffled. Her bare footprints in the sand (the only ones) end abruptly, but there is no trace of her.
In the final scene, the car is finally located and pulled from the river. Mary's body is in the front seat.
- Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry
- Frances Feist as Mrs. Thomas
- Sidney Berger as John Linden
- Art Ellison as Minister
- Stan Levitt as Dr. Samuels
- Tom McGinnis as Organ factory boss
- Forbes Caldwell as Organ factory worker
- Dan Palmquist as Gas station attendant
- Bill De Jarnette as Mechanic
- Steve Boozer as Chip
- Pamela Ballard as Dress saleslady
- Herk Harvey as The Man