The Horror of Kansas: Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls

Boo!  Happy Halloween.

This week, cinephiles, horror buffs, and movie-lovers of all ages are descending on video stores, cranking up those Netflix queues, and scouring the Internet for suggestions for thrillers and chillers to watch in celebration of a holiday that is all about scares and dares—but in a fun way. The Movie Morlocks are here to help by blogging about offbeat, unusual, and obscure horror movies that have become personal favorites over the years. Perhaps more than with most genres, choosing a favorite horror film can be a very personal choice. One fan’s fright night is another’s sleep fest, because viewers tend to choose their favorites based on past memories, childhood fears, or other personal criteria. But, chances are you will find a movie or two that sparks your interest in our week-long blog-a-thon, which begins today and concludes on Halloween.

My choice for this week’s blog-a-thon is based on a childhood memory of a horror movie that truly scared me. Its haunting imagery lingered in my mind well into adulthood, affecting my behavior to this day, if only in a small way.  When I was little girl, I watched the horror movies on local Cleveland television stations presented by colorful TV hosts such as Ghoulardi, Houlihan & Big Chuck, and the Ghoul.  Or, I attended the Saturday afternoon creature features at the old Shea Theatre with my posse of friends, half watching the movie and half looking to see if the boys in our class were there, too.  Most of the movies were along the lines of the cheap-looking and hokey William Castle horror-fests. Sometimes, the TV hosts would trot out the old Universal classics, which were seriously creepy but did not scare me. One afternoon in the comfort of my living room, I turned the dial to Carnival of Souls—a movie totally unlike the other horror films I was accustomed to seeing.

CANDACE HILLIGOSS PLAYS MARY HENRY.

The story revolves around a young woman named Mary Henry, who crashes into the river in a car accident. Of the three girls in the car, Mary is the only one to climb out of the dirty river while rescue workers struggle to get the vehicle out of the raging waters. Shortly thereafter, Mary, who is a professional organist, leaves town for a new job as a church organist in another area. Mary, played by method actress Candace Hilligoss, seems unusually cold, distant, and uncaring, but because the story unfolds from her point of view, the audience sympathizes with her when a strange, frightening man begins to stalk her. The Man turns up everywhere—outside her window, in her boarding house, in the park, in the church.  As Mary tries to shake off the implications of her experiences, there is no escaping the relentless pursuit of the Man.

One recurring image in Carnival of Souls haunted me for a long time—and still does. Whenever Mary glances out a window, the stark white, ghoulish face of the Man stares back at her with sunken, piercing eyes. The most effective example occurs when Mary is driving cross country at night and looks out her car’s side window into the black void. The scene cuts back to a shot of her looking out the windshield; then returns to a shot of the side window. This time, the Man stares back at her in his first onscreen appearance. I remember that it was so startling to me when I first saw it that I stood up in my living room and walked a few steps backwards, unable to pull my eyes from the screen. For years, I avoided looking out a window at night for fear of seeing such a face look back at me. To this day, I close my curtains and blinds as soon as the sun goes down. I just don’t want to take that chance that someone—or something—is looking back at me.

THE FACE IN THE WINDOW THAT CAUSED ME MUCH CHILDHOOD TRAUMA!

Other reasons added to the fear evoked by Carnival of Souls, though I didn’t realize it at the time. The film was an independent effort directed in 1962 by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker from Lawrence, Kansas. Harvey shot the film in his hometown on a low budget of $30,000, using local actors in key roles. Harvey himself played the ghoulish figure known only as “the Man” who looked back at the protagonist from outside the window in the dark of the night. The location shooting in ordinary-looking places, such as department stores, garages, and diners, combined with the actors who looked like typical Midwesterners gave the film a realism that I was not used to seeing in horror movies. Carnival of Souls provides an excellent example of regionalist filmmaking long before the term was coined.

Up to that time, horror movies conventionally involved mythic monsters in far-off places or distant times—the Old World locales and heavily made-up monsters of Universal, the exotic locales or characters of Val Lewton, the gothic world of Hammer films. In addition, all of these films and styles enjoyed the luxury of studio shooting by highly trained professionals, giving their films polish and sophistication. In the late 1950s, independents began churning out low-budget horror for the matinee or drive-in market, with some of them setting their movies in contemporary America in everyday locations, placing the haunted houses in our own neighborhoods. Herk Harvey’s low-budget, unpolished style, authentic locales, and ordinary-looking characters took that a step further. The small-town vibe of Lawrence, Kansas—where most of the film was shot—looked like my own small hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. The female characters in the film (most of whom were actors from local community theater) looked and dressed like my Mom and her friends. Relating so closely to the setting and characters made it seem like the horror could happen to me. What seemed natural and everyday was now supernatural and other-worldly; the normal became the paranormal.

AS 'THE MAN,' HERK HARVEY HAD NO LINES, BUT HIS MAKE-UP WAS STARTLING--AND INFLUENTIAL, ESPECIALLY ON GEORGE ROMERO.

Carnival of Souls may lack the lush visuals and the velvety chiaroscuro of studio productions, but it is a well-crafted film whose unpolished style services the material. Unlike Ed Wood and some of the other independent filmmakers of the time, Herk Harvey had extensive experience in directing. Harvey made industrial, safety, and educational films for the Centron Corp. in Lawrence. He had a B.A. and M.A. in theater from the University of Kansas and had once taught drama in the college’s theater department. At Centron, he gained experience in handling actors on film. Sometimes, well-known stars were brought into Lawrence to narrate or appear in Centron’s films, including Walter Pidgeon and Ricardo Montalban.

MUCH OF 'CARNIVAL OF SOULS' WAS SHOT IN LAWRENCE, USING REAL, ORDINARY-LOOKING LOCATIONS.

Recently, I watched a collection of old industrial and educational shorts on DVD, and one of the titles was a Centron safety film directed by Herk Harvey titled Shake Hands with Danger. The film featured an endearing off-screen narrator who spoke in a homespun voice, solid continuity editing, a country-flavored theme song that tied the episodes together, and exciting stunts by professionals. Though simple and overly sincere, Shake Hands with Danger seemed like Citizen Kane compared to the clumsy efforts by companies such as McGraw-Hill also included on the DVD.

Harvey conceived of Carnival of Souls in 1961 while driving home from Los Angeles. Outside Salt Lake City, he noticed an old, abandoned amusement park called Saltair, which was visible from the highway. Its Russian Orthodox-style towers and spires loomed high in the distance, emanating an eerie ambience. Originally built in 1896 as a salt-water bath resort, the amusement park seemed to have a cursed history. It was located along the Great Salt Lake 18 miles outside of Salt Lake City, accessible by train. In 1925, it burned to the ground, but it was rebuilt in the same Russian Orthodox style the following year. A huge dance pavilion was added so that the big bands of the era could attract an even wider audience. Sadly, the “Coney Island of the West” fell into disrepair after World War II and was completely abandoned by the late 1950s. When Harvey noticed Saltair, the buildings were standing firm but were in a dilapidated shape, with the rusted remnants of the old train cars scattered in the distance. Saltair sparked Harvey’s creativity, and he began conceiving of a storyline that would take advantage of this unique but real-life locale. He was convinced that he could make a feature film because another industrial filmmaker he knew from Kansas, Robert Altman, had produced and directed the feature film The Delinquents a few years earlier.

SALTAIR DURING ITS GLORY DAYS

At Centron, Harvey had befriended ad copywriter John Clifford. He asked Clifford to put his ideas into script form. Both Clifford and Harvey were not only literate and educated they were also cinephiles who regularly watched European films and were particularly fond of Ingmar Bergman. Harvey suggested to Clifford that Mary’s story should conclude at Saltair in a dance macabre, an idea borrowed from art history. The dance macabre, also known as the dance of death or the carnival of souls, was part of religious iconography from the Middle Ages. The dance macabre is a procession in which the living and the dead take part. The dead are represented as skeletons who dance with the living on the way to heaven or hell. The living are lined up in order of importance, with the clergy first, followed by royalty, then the tradesmen and merchants, and so on down the line.

Clifford incorporated an updated dance macabre to conclude the story, but he was also inspired by An Occurrence at Owl Street Bridge and, according to an article in the online journal Images, an old radio play called The Hitchhiker. This radio play, written by Bernard Herrmann’s first wife Lucille Fletcher, had once been performed by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air, but it is likely that Clifford saw Rod Serling’s version in a 1960 episode of Twilight Zone.  Whatever their influences, Clifford and Harvey fashioned a haunting horror film made original by its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar and the everyday frightening.

Sadly, Carnival of Souls turned out to be the only film that Herk Harvey ever directed. He made a deal with an independent distributor, Herts-Lion, which released the film to the thriving drive-in market. The head of Herts-Lion pocketed the profits from the films distributed by his company and promptly left the country. Harvey and his group of local Lawrence investors never saw a dime. Disappointed with the experience, he never attempted to direct another feature. Herts-Lion sold its films to local television stations, and Carnival of Souls showed up as small-screen fare in the mid-to-late 1960s. In 1987, the film was resurrected by another distributor and given a limited release on the art-house circuit. This sparked renewed interest in the film, and it received several video and DVD releases, finally giving Harvey the recognition he deserved for his one-of-a-kind movie.

35 Responses The Horror of Kansas: Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls
Posted By Carol E. : October 25, 2010 3:09 pm

Interesting background story. I watched this film just a couple of weeks ago and thought it looked much more expensive than its actual budget. Special features on the DVD were good, too.

Posted By Carol E. : October 25, 2010 3:09 pm

Interesting background story. I watched this film just a couple of weeks ago and thought it looked much more expensive than its actual budget. Special features on the DVD were good, too.

Posted By debbe : October 25, 2010 4:11 pm

wow. the one film that affected me in the way this affected you was the original children of the damned. enough said. I met the director when I was in my thirties… but the creeped out feeling didnt really go away. I met Candace several times- before I had ever seen the film, and then I saw the film. Its a classic. I am so glad you wrote about it. It is amazing. I didnt know that much about saltair… thank you for so much information. This blog is a classic!!!

Posted By debbe : October 25, 2010 4:11 pm

wow. the one film that affected me in the way this affected you was the original children of the damned. enough said. I met the director when I was in my thirties… but the creeped out feeling didnt really go away. I met Candace several times- before I had ever seen the film, and then I saw the film. Its a classic. I am so glad you wrote about it. It is amazing. I didnt know that much about saltair… thank you for so much information. This blog is a classic!!!

Posted By Arthur : October 25, 2010 4:32 pm

Thanks for putting this classic in context, and for tracking down its link to the Twilight Zone episode starring Inger Stevens about a mysterious hitchhiker. I could tell that the TZ episode and Carnival of Souls were telling the same basic story, and I had suspected the two were connected, but I did not know how.

Posted By Arthur : October 25, 2010 4:32 pm

Thanks for putting this classic in context, and for tracking down its link to the Twilight Zone episode starring Inger Stevens about a mysterious hitchhiker. I could tell that the TZ episode and Carnival of Souls were telling the same basic story, and I had suspected the two were connected, but I did not know how.

Posted By AL : October 25, 2010 6:14 pm

(I expect this to get LOTS of negativity/outrage, etc.): This is one of my favorite films. LEGEND FILMS has put out a DVD that includes a gorgeous restored print AND (brace yourself) an absolutely awesome COLORISED version with surround sound. This small Santa Monica company has perfected the old colorization process to an astonishing level. RAY HARRYHAUSEN is working with them & has supervised the colorization of all his early B&W films, which now have new documentaries and commentary by Ray. Check it out…

Posted By AL : October 25, 2010 6:14 pm

(I expect this to get LOTS of negativity/outrage, etc.): This is one of my favorite films. LEGEND FILMS has put out a DVD that includes a gorgeous restored print AND (brace yourself) an absolutely awesome COLORISED version with surround sound. This small Santa Monica company has perfected the old colorization process to an astonishing level. RAY HARRYHAUSEN is working with them & has supervised the colorization of all his early B&W films, which now have new documentaries and commentary by Ray. Check it out…

Posted By Lorrena : October 25, 2010 6:48 pm

Sounds like an awesome movie! What a shame Herk got scammed and didn’t direct any additional films! The window scene reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode w William Shatner, where he sees something on the wing of the plane. (I think that scene was also mentioned in the screenwiter blog you did last week, either by you or John Kestner). That would freak me out for sure!
Great movie review, thanks so much for sharing!

Posted By Lorrena : October 25, 2010 6:48 pm

Sounds like an awesome movie! What a shame Herk got scammed and didn’t direct any additional films! The window scene reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode w William Shatner, where he sees something on the wing of the plane. (I think that scene was also mentioned in the screenwiter blog you did last week, either by you or John Kestner). That would freak me out for sure!
Great movie review, thanks so much for sharing!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 25, 2010 7:13 pm

Nice write-up! I first saw this one rainy afternoon under similar circumstances. It played on the Monster Matinee show that I used to watch every weekend when I was a kid. It absolutely terrified me. I was haunted by the movie for years and too afraid to watch it again until I was in my 20s. It’s a favorite and I still think it’s one of the scariest movies ever made.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 25, 2010 7:13 pm

Nice write-up! I first saw this one rainy afternoon under similar circumstances. It played on the Monster Matinee show that I used to watch every weekend when I was a kid. It absolutely terrified me. I was haunted by the movie for years and too afraid to watch it again until I was in my 20s. It’s a favorite and I still think it’s one of the scariest movies ever made.

Posted By JK : October 25, 2010 9:13 pm

One of the films that’s slipped through the cracks. Never saw it. We had Double Chiller Theatre on Friday nights and I don’t think it ever played there.

Great article! You give us what we’d like to know about the film without giving away everything in the film.

Posted By JK : October 25, 2010 9:13 pm

One of the films that’s slipped through the cracks. Never saw it. We had Double Chiller Theatre on Friday nights and I don’t think it ever played there.

Great article! You give us what we’d like to know about the film without giving away everything in the film.

Posted By michaelgsmith : October 26, 2010 1:25 am

I just caught up with this for the first time and was mightily impressed; I love smart, resourceful, low-budget indies of any stripe.

Posted By michaelgsmith : October 26, 2010 1:25 am

I just caught up with this for the first time and was mightily impressed; I love smart, resourceful, low-budget indies of any stripe.

Posted By Dan Oliver : October 26, 2010 8:00 pm

I met Herk Harvey once in 1980 when he was still directing at Centron and I was a film student at the University of Kansas. Very nice man. He took the time one evening to watch a film I had made and offer comments and advice. There were at least 3 film students present that night, one of whom worked part-time at Centron as an assistant editor, which is how we met Herk in the first place. None of us had seen ‘Carnival of Souls,’ although we all wanted to. In those pre-DVD, very early VHS days, it was nearly impossible to see the movie unless it happened to be part of a local syndication package.

He had a poster on the wall from a college screening — at either Harvard or Yale, I think — and we asked him a lot of questions about the movie. He was quite modest and downplayed it, but not in phony way. I think he was just a bit embarrassed by the attention we were giving it. He told us that he and John Clifford had written another script together, a western that they came very close to selling to Gordon Douglas, but he opted for another project instead and their script went by the wayside. After that he concentrated on working at Centron.

My friend and roommate who worked at Centron got Herk to act in one of his student films, playing a dad who gives half-baked advice to his lovestruck son. Later, when this same friend was working at an ad agency in Topeka, he often hired Herk to act in commercials for him. Herk was quite a good actor as well as a solid director.

I’ve since seen ‘Carnival of Souls’ a number of times (thank you, Criterion), and once got to hear John Clifford talk about the making of it. If you have not seen it, check it out. It’s a good movie. And Herk Harvey was a good guy.

Posted By Dan Oliver : October 26, 2010 8:00 pm

I met Herk Harvey once in 1980 when he was still directing at Centron and I was a film student at the University of Kansas. Very nice man. He took the time one evening to watch a film I had made and offer comments and advice. There were at least 3 film students present that night, one of whom worked part-time at Centron as an assistant editor, which is how we met Herk in the first place. None of us had seen ‘Carnival of Souls,’ although we all wanted to. In those pre-DVD, very early VHS days, it was nearly impossible to see the movie unless it happened to be part of a local syndication package.

He had a poster on the wall from a college screening — at either Harvard or Yale, I think — and we asked him a lot of questions about the movie. He was quite modest and downplayed it, but not in phony way. I think he was just a bit embarrassed by the attention we were giving it. He told us that he and John Clifford had written another script together, a western that they came very close to selling to Gordon Douglas, but he opted for another project instead and their script went by the wayside. After that he concentrated on working at Centron.

My friend and roommate who worked at Centron got Herk to act in one of his student films, playing a dad who gives half-baked advice to his lovestruck son. Later, when this same friend was working at an ad agency in Topeka, he often hired Herk to act in commercials for him. Herk was quite a good actor as well as a solid director.

I’ve since seen ‘Carnival of Souls’ a number of times (thank you, Criterion), and once got to hear John Clifford talk about the making of it. If you have not seen it, check it out. It’s a good movie. And Herk Harvey was a good guy.

Posted By Lisa Wright : October 26, 2010 11:19 pm

Suzi, I love reading your personal experience with the film and can easily understand why it freaked you out! We all have personal reactions to certain films and it’s refreshing and interesting to read about it, for me, anyway. Thanks for illuminating a horror film worth seeing and the background of the filmmaker who could’ve been lost in obscurity. Thanks, too for the additional comments by Dan about Herk Harvey…. sounds like he was a great filmmaker and a great guy.

Posted By Lisa Wright : October 26, 2010 11:19 pm

Suzi, I love reading your personal experience with the film and can easily understand why it freaked you out! We all have personal reactions to certain films and it’s refreshing and interesting to read about it, for me, anyway. Thanks for illuminating a horror film worth seeing and the background of the filmmaker who could’ve been lost in obscurity. Thanks, too for the additional comments by Dan about Herk Harvey…. sounds like he was a great filmmaker and a great guy.

Posted By idawson : October 27, 2010 10:49 am

This post has sparked a great interest especially around this time of year; in the past on my own blog I have spoken or made reference to movies that I personally consider to be rather scary, terrifying or frightening. Hopefully between now and Sunday I will have a moment to catch this and post a reaction to it on my blog.

Thanks suzidoll!

Posted By idawson : October 27, 2010 10:49 am

This post has sparked a great interest especially around this time of year; in the past on my own blog I have spoken or made reference to movies that I personally consider to be rather scary, terrifying or frightening. Hopefully between now and Sunday I will have a moment to catch this and post a reaction to it on my blog.

Thanks suzidoll!

Posted By Deborah : October 27, 2010 1:28 pm

I watched this film for the first time on Halloween, waiting for kids that never came to my new house in the country. To me, one of the creepiest things about it is the never-ending organ music. And, of course, Saltair.

Posted By Deborah : October 27, 2010 1:28 pm

I watched this film for the first time on Halloween, waiting for kids that never came to my new house in the country. To me, one of the creepiest things about it is the never-ending organ music. And, of course, Saltair.

Posted By suzidoll : October 27, 2010 4:00 pm

Dan: Thanks so much for the personal anecdotes about Herk Harvey. In my research, I formed an opinion about Harvey as a nice guy who loved filmmaking, and you confirmed that for me. Happy Halloween to Herk from all of us.

Posted By suzidoll : October 27, 2010 4:00 pm

Dan: Thanks so much for the personal anecdotes about Herk Harvey. In my research, I formed an opinion about Harvey as a nice guy who loved filmmaking, and you confirmed that for me. Happy Halloween to Herk from all of us.

Posted By Courtney : October 27, 2010 5:18 pm

I am also a graduate of the University of Kansas film school. We were very proud to be using the same studio (Oldfather Studios) that Carnival of Souls used. Though many other films have been shot in and around Lawrence since, Carnival is always thought of fondly as the first by residents.

Posted By Courtney : October 27, 2010 5:18 pm

I am also a graduate of the University of Kansas film school. We were very proud to be using the same studio (Oldfather Studios) that Carnival of Souls used. Though many other films have been shot in and around Lawrence since, Carnival is always thought of fondly as the first by residents.

Posted By morlockjeff : October 29, 2010 3:38 pm

My first impression of this movie was not a good one due to a lousy, washed-out 16mm print with warbly sound and an audience of college students who mocked it and jeered every time the pasty-faced ghost would appear. Then I saw the Criterion edition of it years later and was struck by its beauty and poetry. It’s got a Cocteau like quality and I love that creepy organ music.

Posted By morlockjeff : October 29, 2010 3:38 pm

My first impression of this movie was not a good one due to a lousy, washed-out 16mm print with warbly sound and an audience of college students who mocked it and jeered every time the pasty-faced ghost would appear. Then I saw the Criterion edition of it years later and was struck by its beauty and poetry. It’s got a Cocteau like quality and I love that creepy organ music.

Posted By rhsmith : October 30, 2010 3:03 am

I got to see Carnival of Souls at the time of its re-release in 1990 or so, at a midnight screening at the Angelika in downtown Manhattan. I still savor that memory, of fighting sleep (from a long day, not disinterest) while this dream-like film unspooled in front of me. I’ve owned the movie on VHS and own the Criterion double DVD; I have the graphic novel (which looks like a Jack Chick comic) and the soundtrack. If there were Carnival of Souls pajamas, I’d be wearing them.

Posted By rhsmith : October 30, 2010 3:03 am

I got to see Carnival of Souls at the time of its re-release in 1990 or so, at a midnight screening at the Angelika in downtown Manhattan. I still savor that memory, of fighting sleep (from a long day, not disinterest) while this dream-like film unspooled in front of me. I’ve owned the movie on VHS and own the Criterion double DVD; I have the graphic novel (which looks like a Jack Chick comic) and the soundtrack. If there were Carnival of Souls pajamas, I’d be wearing them.

Posted By Kathryn : November 1, 2010 7:35 pm

I’m a graduate from the film department at the University of Kansas as well. An original “Carnival of Souls” poster signed by Harvey still hangs in Oldfather Studios (formerly Centron Studios) where the film department is housed.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this is one of my favorite films and a gem I discovered while studying film at KU, so I’m happy to see it’s been getting so much love from horror buffs of late!

Posted By Kathryn : November 1, 2010 7:35 pm

I’m a graduate from the film department at the University of Kansas as well. An original “Carnival of Souls” poster signed by Harvey still hangs in Oldfather Studios (formerly Centron Studios) where the film department is housed.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this is one of my favorite films and a gem I discovered while studying film at KU, so I’m happy to see it’s been getting so much love from horror buffs of late!

Posted By David Nicol : October 22, 2013 10:33 pm

The Saltaire pavilion is still standing and hosts rock bands on weekends much like it hosted all the great swing orchestras of the big band era. Saltaire also had a giant wooden roller coaster that burned down in the 1950′s. The Great Salt Lake passed under the pavilion which was on stilts and people enjoyed floating in the salt water (couldn’t sink). I’ve always thought of this movie as a “Utah” horrow film and appreciate the background info. Many of the city shots were of 1960′s Salt Lake City.

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