A Close Look at the Mysterious Horror Film ‘Carnival of Souls’

If you’re a fan of eerie, unsettling horror films, chances are you’ve heard of the 1962 cult classic, ‘Carnival of Souls’. This low-budget, independent film has garnered a dedicated following over the years, with many cinephiles drawn to its uniquely unsettling atmosphere and eerie, dreamlike visuals. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this mysterious film, exploring its history, themes, and enduring legacy.

A Brief Overview

Directed by Herk Harvey and written by John Clifford, ‘Carnival of Souls’ follows Mary Henry, a young woman who survives a car accident that leaves her friends dead. She subsequently moves to Utah and takes a job as a church organist, but is haunted by a series of eerie, inexplicable events. As she becomes increasingly isolated and begins to experience disturbing hallucinations, Mary begins to suspect that she may be tethered to a nearby abandoned carnival and its sinister, garish figure.

The Making of a Cult Classic

‘Carnival of Souls’ was made on a minuscule budget of just $33,000, and initially received a lukewarm response from critics upon its release. However, it was rediscovered by a new generation of horror fans in the 1980s, when it began to be shown on late-night television and gained a reputation as a terrifying, offbeat classic.

Part of the film’s enduring appeal lies in its unique blend of horror and surrealism. Director Herk Harvey was a prolific director of industrial films, and his stark, black-and-white visuals are deeply haunting and unsettling. The film’s characters are frequently shot in stark relief against lonely, deserted landscapes, while the abandoned carnival gives off an eerie, foreboding aura. The film’s unsettling imagery has since become iconic, inspiring countless horror directors and cinematographers in the decades since its release.

Theories and Interpretations

One of the most fascinating aspects of ‘Carnival of Souls’ is its ambiguity. The film is open to a variety of interpretations, and fans have debated its meaning and themes for decades. Some have interpreted the film as a commentary on female sexual autonomy, arguing that Mary’s increasing isolation and disorientation represent a loss of control over her own body and desires. Others see the film as an exploration of mental illness and alienation, with Mary’s haunting visions representing a manifestation of her own internal struggles.

Perhaps the most compelling theory, however, is that ‘Carnival of Souls’ is a meditation on death and the afterlife. Mary’s experiences are frequently juxtaposed with scenes from the abandoned carnival, with the implication that she may be caught between the world of the living and the dead. The film’s famous ending – in which Mary joins a ghostly procession of the dead and dances her way towards the camera – is both chilling and deeply ambiguous, leaving viewers unsure of whether she has transcended death or has simply lost her mind.

The Legacy of ‘Carnival of Souls’

Despite its low budget and minimal critical attention at the time of its release, ‘Carnival of Souls’ has gone on to inspire countless horror films and directors in the decades since. The film’s haunting visual style and dreamlike, unsettling atmosphere have made it a cult classic and a favorite among genre fans.

One of the key ways in which the film has impacted horror cinema is through its emphasis on mood and atmosphere. Rather than relying on gore or jump scares, ‘Carnival of Souls’ builds its scares gradually, using its eerie visuals and haunting sound design to create a sense of unease and foreboding. Many horror directors have since taken inspiration from this approach, seeking to create horror that relies on subtlety and psychological terror rather than cheap thrills.


‘Carnival of Souls’ is a true cult classic, with an enduring legacy that spans decades. Its eerie visuals, surrealistic atmosphere, and ambiguous themes have made it a favorite among horror cinephiles, inspiring countless filmmakers and spurring on endless debates and interpretations. While it may not be for everyone, for those with a taste for the eerie and the unsettling, ‘Carnival of Souls’ remains a must-see classic of the horror genre.