Carnival of Souls (1962)

Director: Herk Harvey
Composer: Gene Moore

Released in 1962 Carnival of Souls is a macabre independent horror film that was largely overlooked until the 1980s when late night television airings and the proliferation of VHS allowed it greater viewership. Since its release the film has acquired a cult following, continuing to intrigue and inspire filmmakers such as George A. Romero, whose zombies for Night of the Living Dead (1968) clearly drew influence from ‘Carnival’. There is something utterly magnetic about Carnival of Souls and I find myself re-watching it at least once a year. It is not only the film’s visuals and subject matter that stay with the viewer long after the film ends, much of Carnival of Souls haunting aesthetic is created by the atmospheric, organ-driven score composed by Gene Moore.

Candace Hilligloss plays Mary Henry, a woman who has survived a car crash that killed her two fellow passengers. After the traumatic event she moves to Utah, perhaps in a bid to escape the memory of the crash, where she takes up the position of organist in a church. What follows is the plight of a disturbed woman grappling with a reality that is fragmenting. Is the visage of a ghoulish man that appears to be haunting her supernatural in origin, or is it the product of her unraveling psyche?

“It takes more than intellect to be a musician…put your soul into it a little!”

The decision to make Mary an organist was one that came about after locations for the film were established in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aside from an abandoned amusement park being utilised for key scenes in the film, screenwriter John Clifford also discovered the Reuter Organ Company, which gave him the idea of making Mary an organist. The organ has been long associated with the gothic in art in literature (e.g. Phantom of the Opera), no doubt rooted in its usage in funerals and in the church, and its likely that Clifford immediately made this connection for the film.  Aside from the instrument’s relationship to the church, the organ can also serve to connote the ‘carnivalesque’, and within the film’s narrative the instrument serves to underscore both the sacred and the secular for Mary. This seemingly random location thus proved to be incredibly important to the film, playing off audiences pre-established associations with the instrument and subsequently contributing a large part to the film’s ‘spooky’ feel.


What is immediately noticeable about the film’s score is the lack of a discernible melody or motif. Instead there is an almost improvised feel to the music, with a downward, atonal movement that lacks resolution and keeps the listener/viewer in a state of unease.

This harmonic ambiguity also helps create an unsettling mood, and its disconnection mirrors Mary’s mental state within the film. The film’s soundtrack is not merely a result of the diagetic sound onscreen when Mary is shown playing at the organ: the music is a projection of her rapidly disintegrating hold on reality and at times it appears that only she can hear it. When Mary is driving to Utah she attempts to access the local stations on her car’s radio. Initially she is able to hear cheerful instrumental music, but this music soon disappears in a static wave and gives way to a jarring organ piece. Unable to tune back in to the original music she is then confronted with the first appearance of a ghoulish man who continues to haunt her throughout the film.


“I don’t belong to the world.”

The appearance of the atonal organ music throughout the film not only intones doom but marks a shift between worlds for Mary. In one scene she is shown trying on a dress in a change room at a boutique and when the music appears she becomes visibly confused. Leaving the cubicle, she struggles to get the attention of the shop attendant and cannot hear the sounds of the world around her, with street construction and people’s conversation muted. All that exists sonically for her is the sound of the dissonant organ. After walking about in a daze, there is a shimmer of light and the sound of a bird chirping, and once again she returns to the noise of the outside world.

Cast out devils

As the film progresses in becomes unclear as to whether the ghoulish man and the disconnect from reality exists only in Mary’s mind, and there is an implication that they are more sinister in origin. Whilst Mary is playing the organ in the church she is employed at in one scene, the music she plays begins innocently enough until she suddenly breaks into a dissonant cadence and stops to stare at her hands in bewilderment. This follows with her entering a trance-like state as she resumes her playing whilst gazing around the church, focusing in on a stained glass window that bears the words “CAST OUT DEVILS.”

As she plays, images of ghostly figures dancing at the abandoned carnival are evoked until she is interrupted by the church’s minister who then condemns Mary of sacrilege and subsequently fires her. Western liturgical music has long associated dissonance with the devil and malevolent forces, an example being the tritone interval (an interval comprised of three adjacent tones) being nicknamed diabolus in musica or “the devil in music”. Though the film is set in the 20th century we see this antiquated notion on display as the minister, who is clearly very upset, accuses Mary of having no respect or soul and it is implied that demonic forces may be at work.

Gene Moore’s creepy score adds much to the mysteriousness of the film. We are never quite sure if Mary is haunted by supernatural forces –  herself perhaps a zombie not long for this world –  or is simply a traumatised and deeply disturbed woman. Moore’s score plays to either of these conclusions, and Carnival of Soul’s power to haunt viewers is all the more strengthened by his memorable organ music.


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