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Carnival of Souls: A Jungian Reading

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

"Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse." - Carl Jung, Collected Works Vol. 10

‘Carnival of Souls’ is a 1962 low-budget independent horror film directed by Herk Harvey. It follows organist Mary Henry who, after a traumatic car accident in which she is the only survivor, finds herself drawn to a mysterious abandoned pavilion on the outskirts of her new town in Utah. Its budget was a mere $33,000 – it utilised guerrilla filmmaking and relied heavily on non-professional and often unpaid actors - and is Harvey’s only feature film. The score is composed entirely of the sometimes sombre, sometimes carnivalesque organ music composed by Gene Moore, haunting in its eeriness, and its cinematography is often praised by film scholars for its foreboding atmosphere and sense of isolation.

The idea for the film was sparked when Harvey, who was making educational and industrial films in Lawrence, Kansas at the time (shoutout to my fellow 'Supernatural' fans), found himself drawn to an abandoned pavilion in Salt Lake City. Harvey approached a close friend and colleague of his, John Clifford, and asked him to write a screenplay with one condition: “the last scene [I told him] had to be a whole bunch of ghouls dancing in that ballroom; the rest was up to him”. Clifford finished it in three weeks.

The result was a mesmerising, German Expressionist-style art film which combined the schlockiness of 1950s B-movies with the dreamlike filmmaking style of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. It is highly reminiscent of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and its disorientating hyperreality has ensured it has had a cult following ever since.

Historical Context: Horror in the 1950s and 1960s

To understand and appreciate ‘Carnival of Souls’ we must dive into its historical context. Horror of the 1950s was dominated by present day stories about invasions from aliens, giant insects as the result of scientific experiments or radioactivity, grotesque creatures such as the ‘The Blob’, and even giant women (the horror). This was a far cry from the traditionally gothic horror of ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’, and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ that dictated cinema until the end of World War II (with the exception of Hammer Horror and various Roger Corman pictures).

The 60s was an era of major change and uncertainty, filled with social and cultural revolutions and the abandonment of traditional/conservative values. Free love, feminism and access to contraception was being promoted, the Vietnam war and racial segregation was being protested, and the materialistic, consumerist lifestyle of the 1950s was being questioned.

Cinema was also changing. Early Hollywood had been structured around the studio system, “a business model adopted by five Hollywood studios—Paramount Pictures, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Warner Brothers Pictures, 20th Century Fox and RKO—that combined all facets of film production with studio-owned distribution chains” (Hollywood Lexicon). As Hollywood broke away from this system and the studios lost their power over filmmakers and actors, more and more independent films were made. The relaxation of censorship (mostly sex or violence related), the increasing overlap of chillers and thrillers (a fantastic example is Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’), and the emphasis on aesthetics (pushed by Hollywood producer Val Lewton), consciousness and the afterlife as opposed to straight up visceral horror, resulted in unique films like ‘Carnival of Souls’.

Carnival of Souls: Through a Jungian Lens

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. He was an earlier follower of Freud and greatly admired his work in the field. Although the two soon became friends and colleagues, the pair split after Jung criticised Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex and his emphasis on infantile sexuality. Jung went on to develop analytical psychology with individuation as its core concept – “the lifelong psychological process of differentiation of the self out of each individual's conscious and unconscious elements” (Wikipedia) – as Jung believed it was the fundamental part of human development. His major contributions to the world of psychology include the idea of introverted and extroverted personalities, the collective unconscious, and archetypes. He was also particularly fascinated by the psychology of religion, and by extension death and the afterlife.

‘Carnival of Souls’ exploration of and emphasis on the consciousness, the uncanny (a sense unease and uncomfortableness in a situation that feels strangely familiar, but one cannot identify why) and disorientating dreamlike states makes Freud a great, and arguably obvious, way of analysing the film. Indeed, much of the scholarship on the film has been done through a Freudian lens. In this article, however, we seek to explore it through a Jungian lens.

The most popular interpretation of ‘Carnival of Souls’ is that as Mary slowly drowns in the lake after her friend’s car crashes through the bridge, her soul is in purgatory and Death (represented by the ghoulish man stalking her) is dragging her back to where she is supposed to be – i.e the afterlife.

It is possible that Mary’s soul is stuck in purgatory – “the condition, process, or place of purification or temporary punishment in which, according to medieval Christian and Roman Catholic belief, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for heaven” (Britannica) – because the car crash was so violent and so sudden that her soul and her psyche/subconscious didn’t have time to process the event and accept her death. Indeed, Bernice M. Murphy notes in her essay “Wheels of Tragedy”: Death on the Highway in Carnival of Souls (1962) and the Highway Safety Film that car crashes shake “the foundation of what is reliable” and that the “violence and suddenness of car accidents so violates our sense of order that they constitute as assault on our basic trust in the world”.

To cope, Mary’s subconscious guides her through a dreamlike state to accept her fate, albeit in a frightening and disorientating way. Where Jung comes in is his idea of the collective unconsciousness, archetypes, and dreams.

Freud believed strongly in the personal unconscious, which is “the unconscious mind is defined as a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of conscious awareness. Within this understanding, most of the contents of the unconscious are considered unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. Freud believed that the unconscious continues to influence behaviour even though people are unaware of these underlying influences” (VeryWellMind). Jung, on the other hand, asserted that human beings have a shared unconsciousness, a collective unconsciousness, which is populated by shared instincts and archetypal figures such as The Shadow (the unknown side of consciousness), the Great Mother (representations of feminine power that are prominent in all the major religions and/or mythologies around the world, including Christianity’s Virgin Mary, ancient Egypt’s Isis, and Hindu’s Kali), and the Wise Old Man, a masculine figure of knowledge, wisdom and power. Jung argued that because these archetypes exist in all cultures, under various names, human beings as a species must share some basic ancestral heritage; how else is it possible that cultures who didn’t interact for thousands of years had similar archetypes in their religions and mythologies?

In the context of ‘Carnival of Souls’, The Man who stalks Mary could be interpreted as a Wise Old Man, representing knowledge that Mary’s subconscious knows but doesn’t want to process (the inevitability of her death). Power represented in the fact that he seems to be the only one able to push Mary towards the realisation that she is no longer part of the conscious world, and wisdom, as acceptance is Mary’s only way forward. He could also be interpreted as a psychopomp, another archetypal supernatural figure prevalent in ancient mythology who guides spirits to the afterlife (examples include ancient Egypt’s Anubis and Osiris, ancient Greco-Roman’s Charon who ferries souls across the River Styx, and the medieval period’s Grim Reaper).

As Mary’s soul is in purgatory, where she is neither alive nor dead, the only way The Man can communicate with her is through her dreams, which Mary perceives as reality (as dreams often feel like at the time). Unlike Freud, who asserted that dreams were instinctual, animalistic repressed sexual memories which manifested themselves in abstract languages that one had to decode to understand their meaning, Jung believed that dreams were an attempt to lead an individual towards wholeness through a dialogue between the Ego (the conscious mind which is comprised of thoughts, feelings, and memories a person is aware of) and the Self (the point at which the conscious and subconscious merge, thus completing a person’s psychological development). The Man, as a psychopomp, is a mediator between the conscious and subconscious and thus is the figure who guides Mary to this actualisation of Self, which Jung called Individuation. “Psychopomps”, Jung said, lead “the soul to the stars whence it came… On the way back out of the existence in the flesh, the Psychopomp develops such a cosmic aspect, he wanders among the constellations, he leads the soul over the rainbow bridge into the blossoming fields of the stars” (Carl Jung, Visions Seminar).

“I have noticed that dreams are as simple or as complicated as the dreamer is himself, only they are always a little bit ahead of the dreamer’s consciousness. I do not understand my own dreams any better than any of you, for they are always somewhat beyond my grasp and I have the same trouble with them as anyone who knows nothing about dream interpretation. Knowledge is no advantage when it is a matter of one’s own dreams.” - Carl Jung on dreams.

In order to prove to Mary that she no longer has a place in the conscious world, the Man stalks her to remind her of the inevitability of death, creates highly disorientating time shifts (Harvey’s use of editing is fantastic as it is a very concrete representation of dream logic), and even silences the world around Mary. This is evident in the shopping centre scene where no-one can see or hear her (it is telling that one of her first instincts is to check her pulse on her neck) and the bus full of zombie-like figures who look her in the eye and smile as she tries to flee the town.

Mary’s social and personal life are also revealing. She works as a church organist and treats it as nothing more than a job, a concept her religious employers find bizarre: “it takes more than intellect to be a musician”, her previous employer tells her, “put your soul into it a little more”. Although this is perhaps a very basic reading of that scene, it could be implying that Mary cannot put her ‘soul’ into it as it no longer has a place there. The only time her organ playing has any semblance of ‘soul’ is when she goes into a trance while practicing. The scene cuts between Mary’s erratic playing (with close-ups of her terrified face as she realises her actions are no longer her own) and various shots of dancing corpses at the pavilion, the Man rising from water, and the religious figures on the church’s stained-glass windows. Mary is fired for her “profane" and “sacrilegious” playing, and she shows no emotion when the minister asks her “have you no soul?” She turns her back on his offer of help within the church, perhaps her first step towards death acceptance.

In regard to her social life, Mary chooses not to say goodbye to her parents when she leaves, she constantly pushes away Mr. Lindon who is staying in the room across from her in the boarding house (to be fair, I can’t blame her as he’s a pervy, misogynistic weirdo), and tells a doctor after the shopping centre incident that she felt she “had no place in the world. No part in the life around me”. She says “something separates me from other people” and that she has “no desire to be in the company of other people”. She is truly alone as she is in purgatory and not actually interacting with real people, so therefore she is not drawn to them and cannot form a genuine connection with those she does speak to. The Man cannot tell Mary that she is dead, that’s not how he is able to communicate, so he has to guide her to that realisation on her own.

The fact that she is drawn to the abandoned pavilion outside town is also crucial. Not only is it a visually creepy place that works well in this Expressionist-like story, it also utilises contrasting lighting and as it is located near water it recalls both Mary’s place of death and the idea of souls being ferried across water to the afterlife. The fact that it used to be a carnival is also very telling. Carnivals, according to Mikhall Bakhtin, were rituals designed to upset the status quo. From an anthropological/historical point-of-view, carnivals stripped society of the class roles assigned to them and they became temporary microcosms where anything was possible; the lowest ranking person in the city could be King for a day. The souls Mary sees dancing there upset the status quo by being dead in a place where the living are meant to be (in Mary’s mind anyway) and their bizarre dancing is reminiscent of the Danse Macabre, a medieval art movement that often depicted the universality of death through dancing.

A common feature in this kind of art was the "protesting mortal", represented here by Mary.

Death was a crucial part of Jung’s work and he wholeheartedly believed that it is not something to be feared, that it was a goal rather than end, so if your subconscious is leading you towards accepting your own death then you should let it guide you:

“Death is psychologically as important as birth, and like it, is an integral part of life… As a doctor, I make every effort to strengthen the belief in immortality, especially with older patients when such questions come threateningly close. For, seen in correct psychological perspective, death is not an end but a goal, and life’s inclination towards death begins as soon as the meridian is passed.” - Carl Jung on death, 1957.

‘Carnival of Souls’ is a nightmarish, dreamlike disorientating experience but one that is perhaps most realistically representative of dream logic and a visual representation of how the subconscious works. Its lack of explicit answers leaves it open to a variety of interpretations. It is a fascinating study in death, dreams, and psychology and its status as a cult classic is well-deserved.

- Victoria Brown

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