Carnival of Souls: One of the eeriest little movies ever made

Carnival of Souls directed by Herk Harvey horror movie reviewsCarnival of Souls directed by Herk Harvey

George A. Romero was not the first industrial filmmaker to release a landmark B&W horror picture in the 1960s. Romero, after churning out commercials for TV and those industrial films for Pennsylvania-based The Latent Image, came out with the seminal Night of the Living Dead in ’68, but Herk Harvey had beaten him to the punch by a good six years. Harvey, in 1961, was working for Centron Films in Lawrence, Kansas, also cranking out industrial and educational films, before coming out with a film the following year, Carnival of Souls, that has been chilling the blood of baby boomers and later generations for over 50 years now. All Harvey needed, as the story goes, was one glimpse at the derelict Saltair pavilion near Salt Lake City (built in 1893, rebuilt in 1926, closed in 1958) to inspire his use of this site as the central locus for a horror movie. Writer John Clifford was given the task of coming up with some kind of a screenplay, $30,000 was raised, a cast of “no-names” was hired, and the film was shot in Lawrence and Saltair in just six weeks. Released in September 1962 on a double bill with the long-forgotten Devil’s Messenger, the film has since become a cult favorite, leading to a 1989 director’s cut rerelease and a deluxe Criterion double-DVD package, loaded with a staggering roster of fascinating “extras.”

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A seeming mash-up of Ambrose Bierce‘s famous short story from 1890, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” as well as the 1/22/60 episode of The Twilight Zone, the one entitled “The Hitch-Hiker,” Carnival of Souls introduces us to Mary Henry, a young woman who, when we first meet her, is involved in an automobile accident. The car in which she and two other young gals are passengers falls off a bridge and into a river. Three hours later, Mary emerges from the water, seemingly unhurt, and drives to another town to begin her new life as a church organist. But who is that ghoulish-looking man (played by Herk Harvey himself) who keeps following her? And why does she find herself slowly becoming invisible and inaudible to those around her? And finally, why does that ghostly pavilion by the lake seem to be drawing her to it?

Mary, it must be mentioned here, is played by the one and only Candace Hilligoss, who became a cult figure herself by dint of this one film. Possessing an off-kilter kind of beauty and an alternately tentative and grating charm, Hilligoss is just perfect for this role of a woman who is losing contact with life and reality (although it must be said that Mary, antisocial and nonreligious as she is, only had half a contact to begin with!). What a shame that she only made one picture after this one, Del Tenney’s excellent Curse of the Living Corpse (1963). I’m not saying that Candace deserved an Oscar for this film — 1962 had a plethora of great female performances, including Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Lee Remick in The Days of Wine and Roses (she would’ve been MY choice) and that year’s winner, Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker — although I WILL say that her performance was at least as memorable as those other nominees’.

In addition to her wonderful presence, Carnival of Souls also features another fine acting turn, by Sidney Berger as Mary’s lecherous boardinghouse neighbor; a truly creepy score by Gene Moore (appropriately enough, all on organ); and some wonderfully effective B&W cinematography by DOP Maurice Prather. This combination of inspired direction, perfect script, memorable acting, chilling music and gorgeous visuals has made Carnival of Souls well deserving of the appellation “The Movie That Wouldn’t Die.” It’s been creeping this viewer out ever since he first saw it on NYC TV’s Supernatural Theatre over five decades ago, and continues to do so today. Those who have not experienced this low-budget wonder should pounce, and prepare themselves to witness one of the eeriest little movies ever made…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. Everything converged here to perfectly create that terrifying sense of slowly unmooring from reality. A very creepy movie indeed. I’ve had the book lying around for six or seven years now, and never read it.

    • sandy ferber /

      What? There was a BOOK of “Carnival of Souls”? I always thought that the film had an original screenplay. Are you sure a book by the same name didn’t come later, perhaps, Marion?

      • Possibly, but I bought the book (six or seven years ago, when I saw the film in the 1970s) because it was the same story as the creepy movie.

  2. Ah, Centron films, makers of fine educational pieces such as “Coal: The Rock That Burns,” “How to Read a Book,” and my favorite, “Buying Food.” :)

    There are some definitely creepy moments in Carnival of Souls, and the dialogue is good, but I wish there’d been more of it; there’s an over-reliance on music, to my mind, and neither the actors nor the score were good enough to make that seem like a good directorial choice.

    • sandy ferber /

      Hmmm, neither the music nor the acting in this film have ever posed a problem for me, Jana. For me, everything meshes perfectly into one ubercreepy whole….

    • Wait, are you saying there is a BIOPIC about COAL, and I missed it?

      How could this have happened?

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