Carnival of Souls (1962) was partially filmed in Lawrence, Kansas, by a local crew and actors. Produced on a shoestring budget, the film is inventive and original. Yes, the production values are generally of low value, but the theme and originality make up for the modest look. It was the locally-produced film that made good.
The film has an eerie quality both in look and the accompanying organ music. Think low-budget Bergman, or Night of the Living Dead. Filmed in Lawrence, outside of Lecompton, Kansas, and in Utah, this is 1962, and very much a black & white world.
Carnival of Souls is the story of Mary Henry, a church organist who is involved in an accident, the car she is riding in goes off a country bridge into the river. All of the occupants are presumed dead, but somehow, Mary emerges from the water, dazed and confused.
Mary leaves her job and moves away, to be the accompanist at a new church. In the photos below, she is in the organ factory that built the organ for her new church. The location was the Reuter Organ Company of Lawrence, Kansas. Mary is almost trance-like, and the music she plays seems a bit odd to the factory workers. When asked about her new church job, she deflects it, saying it is only a job. There is no joy or sense of excitement to her.
On the road, Mary sees a ghoulish figure in her car window, and continues to see him in other locations, without understanding what it means.
Mary rents a room in a rooming house, where the landlady is nosy, and her neighbor, a hipster-type, takes an immediate shine to her, repeatedly trying to get close to her.
Mary doesn’t return his affection and he believes she is a bit weird for rejecting his advances. He continues to ask her out and use his charms on her. At her job, she doesn’t really impress the minister, he doesn’t quite know what to think of her. She’s fine organist but she doesn’t seem committed to her work. She does talk him into taking her out to the abandoned amusement park by the lake. The ghoulish figure is seen watching her.
While Mary out is out shopping, at a store she begins to feel that something is wrong, people do not respond to her and she can’t interact with the real world. She flees to a park where she runs into a doctor who wants to help her.
At her new job, Mary plays music that the minister feels is dark and inappropriate for the congregation. He senses something terribly wrong with her, and asks her to resign. Her landlady also senses something strange about Mary when she suddenly announces she is moving out.
All the while, Mary sees the ghoulish figure, while shopping and in the reflection of her car mirror, it scares her, not knowing what it means. Mary decides to leave town, but after her car begins making a strange sound, she needs to have a mechanic look at it. While her car is on the service lift, she experiences the ghoulish figure again and flees. She decides to take a bus and encounters a group of ghouls inside. Totally, confused, she then goes to see the doctor again, but it turns out he is actually the ghoulish figure.
Mary is drawn back to the abandoned amusement park, she feels the answer is there.
Mary arrives at the amusement park, where she is confronted by people dancing to music and chasing after her. They all have painted, ghoulish faces, and surround her on the ground outside of the amusement park. The next scene is the doctor, minister and police at the amusement park, trying to figure out where she is, her car is abandoned there, but there is no sign of her, only footprints and a hand-print in the sand.
The film returns to the river where the car fell into at the beginning of the film. Workers have found the car and are pulling it to shore. In the end, she has really died in the car accident, as the camera shows her in the car with the other victims.
Besides the scenes filmed in and around Lawrence, the amusement park scene was filmed at the Saltair Amusement Park, near, Magna, Utah. Some scenes were film around Salt Lake, City.
The film’s budget was between $30,000 and $33,000. Some scenes were filmed without permission using a hand-held camera secretly placed to record the actors.
Years after the film’s release, the surviving cast and crew gathered in Lawrence, Kansas at an event honoring the film. KTWU, the Topeka public television station, produced a program of the event and a look back at the film.
The film was written by John Clifford, who worked at Centron, a Lawrence company that produced industrial and education films. He passed away in 2010. Herk Harvey, who also worked at Centron and taught at the University of Kansas, produced and directed the film. Harvey, who originated the film’s idea, cast himself as the ghoulish figure in the film. He died in 1996.
Local students made up the cast. The film’s assistant director was Reza Badiyi (listed here as Raza Badiyi), [film credits] who would eventually become a television director in Hollywood. Besides directing shows, he developed the famous opening credits to Hawaii Five-O and The Mary Tyler Moor Show.
Candace Hilligoss starred as Mary. She would have a few acting credits and would marry actor Nicholas Coster. She was an actor in New York when she was cast for this role. She is still living. Sidney Berger played Johnny Linden, Mary’s hipster neighbor and suitor. For many years, Linden was the chairperson of the acting/drama department at University of Houston, and also the Director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival. He passed away in 2013.
You might think this little, inconsequential film is barely worth the notice. If you grew up around Lawrence, Kansas, you get a special feeling about this film, made when the town was small and life was simpler. It is fun to see the locations around town, how they used to look, and how different thing are almost 60 years later.
2 thoughts on “Carnival of Souls”
I never saw this film, but always wanted to. After reading your blog, I checked and saw that it is available on Amazon Prime, so I hope to get it watched in the near future. Diane and I are at the airport in Seattle, awaiting a flight to Dallas to visit her daughter. Trying to keep an eye on the Chiefs-Titans game. Hope that you had a good birthday yesterday! TJ
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Have a good trip!