Sunday, July 10, 2011


Many of the best ghost movies are firmly rooted in a specific location. Hill House is the soul of THE HAUNTING (1963), The Overlook Hotel is the main character in THE SHINING, and The Great Saltair is the wandering spirit of the 1962 cult classic CARNIVAL OF SOULS. In fact, director Herk Harvey conceived CARNIVAL on a late afternoon drive along the outskirts of Salt Lake City, when he saw the abandoned pavilion silhouetted in the setting sun. He called up his writing partner John Clifford, who invented an intricate story about a church organist who suffers a near-fatal car accident, and subsequently leaves her hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, for Salt Lake City. There, she is inexplicably drawn to the old “bath house” on the banks of the lake, and haunted by a ghoulish, pasty-faced stranger.

I first saw the film in the mid-1990s on a cheap public domain DVD, where it was paired with the equally impressive HORROR HOTEL, a Lovecraftian chiller starring Christopher Lee. (I note that the film was originally released on a double bill with THE DEVIL’S MESSENGER, starring Lon Chaney Jr., but I haven’t seen that one.) The film stayed with me the way many episodes of the original TWILIGHT ZONE (rerun every afternoon on a UHF station in my childhood home) stayed with me… like a half-forgotten dream. A few years later, I saw the restored version released by The Criterion Collection and began to think of CARNIVAL OF SOULS as a film in the same league with Val Lewton’s films at RKO and George Romero’s breakthrough NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Despite some pretty abysmal acting, CARNIVAL has atmosphere to spare - enough for for two or three movies. I attribute much of this to The Great Saltair itself.

Saltair first came to life in 1893, when Mormon investors completed their family-friendly version of Kubla Khan, and it quickly became the Coney Island of the West. Business was booming, until a fire destroyed the pavilion in 1925. In less than a year, Saltair was completely rebuilt, using roughly the same designs and incorporating the world’s largest dance hall. In the following years, it continued to be plagued by bad luck. Fires in 1931 and 1933 were followed by a long drought that left Saltair high and dry, necessitating the construction of a railway to carry visitors from the pavilion to the lake.

After World War II, the owners added a rollercoaster and a carousel (which I like to imagine played Gene Moore’s alternately playful and funereal score), but Saltair never quite rebounded and was finally closed to the public in 1958. It had been abandoned for a few years when Herk Harvey re-discovered it, and turned it into a magnet for lost and lonely souls. Roughly ten years later, the second Saltair burned to the ground, only to be rebuilt for a third time (with less extravagance) in the 1980s.

It’s not at all hard for me to imagine being drawn to this place. In fact, when I was planning a recent trip to Salt Lake City, the first thing I wanted to see was Saltair. Why? Perhaps for the same reason that Mary is drawn to it… The same reason that any of us are drawn to crumbling reminders of the past… There is a sadness in their beauty. Once upon a time, Saltair was the most popular resort west of New York. Just imagine all the families that spent their vacations on its shores… and all the happy memories that outlasted the first two pavilions. I’d venture to guess that the third reincarnation of Saltair exists because of those memories. Someone simply wasn’t willing to let the place die.

That also seems to be Mary’s problem in CARNIVAL OF SOULS. She isn’t willing to die, or isn’t aware that she’s dead. Her “carnival of souls” is a kind of limbo between dimensions, the pasty-faced stranger is her guide through the underworld, and the Great Salt Lake is her River Styx. I could go on about the appropriateness of this metaphor, given the lake’s reputation as the Western World’s “Dead Sea,” and probably tie in some Mormon beliefs about resurrection, but I don’t want to get too heavy-handed.

What’s significant to the story is the fact that Mary doesn’t seem to hold any religious beliefs. She says that the church is “just a place of business” and that playing the organ in church is “just a job.” She is even more isolated from the world of the living due to her lack of interest in physical intimacy. At times, she reminds me of Catherine Deneuve’s character in Polanski’s REPULSION. Both women fearfully imagine being smothered by ghoulish attackers. But Deneuve’s problem is purely psychological; Mary’s is spiritual. Deneuve turns homicidal while Mary cowers and pleads, “I don’t want to me left alone!” She can’t assert herself, which makes her a figurative ghost as well as a literal one.

In the years since THE SIXTH SENSE was released, many viewers have cited CARNIVAL OF SOULS as its forerunner. I tend to think of it more as a descendant of Charles Williams’s excellent novel All Hallow’s Eve. In my opinion, the novel has one of the best opening chapters in the history of horror. It follows a London woman to the realization that she has been killed by a plane crash during the WWII Blitz. Lacking any beliefs about the afterlife, she wanders the city in desperate confusion. Like Mary, she finds that the living often cannot see or hear her. Her reality is tenuous and her psychological isolation is maddening. For that reason, you could also say that CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a forerunner of “rubber reality” horror movies, in particular LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) and JACOB’S LADDER (1990).

What makes CARNIVAL resonate for me is not just the technical achievements of the filmmakers and the haunting history of Saltair, but also the oblique religious message. I can’t help feeling that the final scene – when Mary goes to Saltair to meet her fate – is as disturbing as the finale of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? In both films, the characters are utterly defeated by the world they live in, and their horrific "dance of the dead" seems never-ending.

My own take on the film is rooted in a revealing line of dialogue delivered early in the film. One of the characters says of Mary, “If she’s got a problem, it’ll go along with her.” This echoes a passage from one of T.S. Eliot’s earliest poems:

This word is true on all the paths you tread
As true as truth need be, when all is said:
That if you find no truth among the living
You will not find much truth among the dead.


  1. Great look at this underrated ghost story, Joe. Back in the late-80s, right before I got married, I found this gem. I watched it late one weekend night and it scared the crap out of me. Plus, I'm a long-time admirer of b&w photo-/cinematography. Herk Harvey captured some startling images. Saltair leaves an indelible, haunting impression upon the viewer.

    I've recommended it to friends, but many have only half watched the film during the daylight hours. They've been only somewhat impressed. I then tell them to re-watch it alone and at night, and get back to me. Their tune sure does change afterwards. Works every time.

    Thanks, Joe.

  2. Mike - I agree with you about the black and white photography. I don't understand viewers who are put off by B&W, especially in thrillers... It adds such an otherworldly feel by reducing life to basics: light and shadow. Watching movies at night (or in the theater) does the same thing... My fondness for so many horror classics is related to the fact that I saw them for the first time alone in the dark.