Thursday, October 27, 2011

Being-Unto-Death: Carnival of Souls

I first saw Carnival of Souls (1962) in 2004 and it has haunted me ever since. While the acting leaves a bit to be desired, the story line does not: made several years before Night of the Living Dead, in a lot of ways it is more sophisticated, more bite to the storyline, probably because NOTLD gives us several characters whereas Carnival of Souls gives us just one: a normal woman living an average life, and that is what's so haunting about it; it had a "trick ending" before Hollywood started doing trick endings. NOTLD leaves you startled and disturbed with how it ends but Carnival of Souls makes you see the mysterious dimensions of what "death" is and what happens when we don't understand death, why the ending could not be any different than what it is.
The opening establishes why everything else in the film happens: there is a race between a car with some boys and a car with three girls, and the car the girls drive crashes through the guard rail. Turning onto the bridge, was a sign that the road was under construction. This tells us everything we need to know and the rest of the film fills in the ghoulish details. The drag race the girls enter into symbolizes the nuclear arms race engaged in between the United States and Soviet Union; why is this important? It gave people a false sense of death and a false sense of living.
The girls' car driving through the guard rail and into the river below.
There was a continuous threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that constant state of being anxious about death mis-led people in their understandings of what life is and what the purpose of life is. This, in its own turn, also distorted people's understanding of what death is. Carnival of Souls directly confronts this issue in the vapid personality of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) because, in trying to forget about her experience with death, and go on with her life, she loses her life. Philosopher Martin Heidegger would say that in not having any "being" towards her death, she doesn't have any "being" towards her life, either.
The sole survivor to emerge from the car crash.
The symbols in this fast-moving opening sequence are clear and simple: the car symbolizes the Holy Spirit (please see, for example, My Favorite Zombie: Night of the Living Dead for more on how symbols of the Holy Spirit are vehicles). That they are entering into a drag race illustrates that they are mis-using their souls and gifts because cars have to be specially fitted out for racing, and neither the girls' nor the boys' cars are prepared for this kind of race; the Holy Spirit prepares us to run the race St. Paul speaks of, and to focus on a race for which we have not been prepared is to falsely understand one's identity, hence to falsely understand your life, hence to falsely understand your death. Everything, then, truly depends upon knowing what it is we are uniquely called to do in life, and this is prevalent throughout the film.
One of the boys inviting the girls to race against them.
So the girls have entered into a false race and they have turned down a road marked "under construction." Very simply put, the road is the "road of life" and for each of the young people involved, their road on life's journey is under construction, it is still being worked out, but they are on this road for the wrong reason, at the wrong time and--literally--in the wrong identities for each of them. They are not racers, and they are not to be racing each other. As I mentioned, this idea of the race invokes St. Paul's command, "Run the good race," to win the crown, but who did he want us to run that race against? The devil, the one who is trying to outrun our virtues with temptations to sin; in Carnival of Souls, the girls and the boys are acting the devil against each other, instead of anticipating each other in acts of love. Given all the problems with this situation, it's to be expected that the girls lose control of their steering (the car is out of control) and it crashes through the guard rail.
At the organ after the "accident."
Literally, the guard rail is protecting people from falling into the muddy river below, and symbolically, the guard rail protected the girls from "falling" into the "mud." The guard rail signifies the social and religious convention of not engaging in sexual activity but the girls "fall" anyway, crashing through, and drowning in the filth of the river below (water is always either a symbol for grace--that which gives life--or a symbol for sin--that which destroys life; because the girls die in the river, it symbolizes sin, and because Mary's neighbor is actively trying to get her into bed, the river bed becomes the sinful bed).
This is a great shot: remember in Dracula and The Mummy how the same up-close shots on the eyes were used for the old horror films? Mary, supposedly, is the heroine in Carnival of Souls, but the fear and strangeness of her eyes communicates the fear and strangeness of her life after her accident, and if we want to carry the analogy to Dracula and The Mummy to its conclusion, her soul has become sufficiently darkened to be the villain and the only thing for the narrative to do is let Mary make her own bad decisions with their inevitable conclusion.
When Mary emerges from the bed covered in mud (we're still in the very first moments of the film), read it symbolically as her soul is covered with sin, even though she didn't intend for it to happen that way, she was just going along for the ride. Most importantly, she's been under the water for 3 hours when she suddenly appears on the river bank; the 3 hours invokes the resurrection of Christ, especially since, during the rolling of the credits, the camera focuses on "dead wood" and tree stubs sticking up out of the muddy water, signifying the wood of the Cross and dead faith in religion. The scene invokes Frederico Fellini's 1957 film Nights of Cabiria : Cabiria, a prostitute, is attacked by a man who steals her purse and she's plunged into a muddy river, unconscious. A group of boys see that she's drifting towards the sewer and if she gets that far she'll be lost. Undoubtedly connecting the two women, Carnival of Souls insinuates that the loss of Mary's and Cabiria's souls are both connected to their sexual activities.
Ingres and Bather and the Surrealist parody by Man Ray.
The interesting part of Mary is that she is an organist, a Church organist. In the history of art, a woman's body has always been compared to a musical instrument, and in Carnival of Souls, the comparison holds. Mary's body, in symbolic terms, belongs to the Church, but she's willing to give it to anyone to let them "make music" on it as they want (her leering neighbor). Music, the sacred and the blasphemous, are in a death struggle over Mary's soul: she is a Church organist, but it's the dissonance of the carnival music that lures her and attracts her, and this is the whole point of all these posts I have been making. It comes down to a false understanding of what life is. Just as Renfield eats bugs to get the life force of them for himself, so Mary is wanting to have life that she's never had and giver herself to the carnival in order for it to give her life, but it can only give her the same type of life that the drag race at the beginning of the show gave her: death.
As she's driving to a new job, she passes an abandoned carnival and begins seeing the reflection of this... "ghoul" in the window. Over the course of the story, the ghoul increasingly replaces her own reflection in mirrors and she's drawn to the abandoned carnival in her thoughts and actions.
Very often, when someone has had a near death experience, or perhaps they are facing death due to a terminal illness, they consider all the things there hasn't been time to do and what they still want to do to experience life. "Go to Italy, watch whales swimming, skydive, go to the Super Bowl, meet a celebrity, take cooking classes, etc." and that's a bad sign. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things, but it is wrong when doing something is the definition of life, instead of "being" being the definition of life. Hamlet questioned himself, "To be or not to be," and "not to be" is, literally, not to have being; like Barbara in Night of the Living Dead, Mary in Carnival of Souls isn't strong enough to seek out a strong faith, so she just goes along and allows her faith to die a slow death without recessatating it. This is the inauthentic existence: claiming to be a Christian but not living the life of a Christian or living up to its calling is living a lie; this lie blurs Mary's identity enough so that she can't retrieve it (the blending of her reflection and the reflection of the ghoul's symbolizes this process).
The ghoul who accurately reflects what Mary's soul is becoming.
This process, the losing of identity, is discussed in Decoding the Decoding: Scream: the loss of the identity of whatever victim Ghostface or Jason or Freddy or Michael is about to kill is seen in the "mask" of the killer, i.e., the accumulation of sin which the victim has willingly participated in has destroyed their identity so they have nothing within themselves left to fight the identity-less killer because that killer is their very own nothingness which has finally caught up with them. In the pale, white and expressionless face of the ghoul of Carnival of Souls, we see Mary's own lost identity and, as she joins in the dance of the macabre, we see the souls who also have lost their identity and how willingly they gave it up just so they could dance to this morbid tune. 
Examining her hands is a moment of the deepest reflection for Mary: her talent, her unique identity is in the music her hands make; while practicing the organ one day in church, she suddenly stops playing the regular, sacred music of the organ and enters into playing the deathly tune of the carnival that she has heard in her mind. Employing her hands for the work of the profane instead of the sacred also translates to her giving her body for pleasure instead of the sacrament of marriage.
The film makes a brilliant comparison of what it is she's really doing: after the accident, Mary surveys the river from the bridge, then gets into her car; as she's reaching for the ignition to turn the key, the film immediately turns to her being at the organ, pulling on the instrument's knobs. Visually conjoining the ignition of the car to the music of the organ amplifies the importance of Mary playing music and her role as a church organist; when she profanes that role by playing the dance of death instead, referencing back to this quick visual commentary reminds the audience of the duty to which she was called, and the duty which she intentionally denies doing and how foul, literally, the phantom life she longs for is in comparison to what Christ wants to give to each of us.
Mary's face whitened like Michael, Jason and Ghostface.
In conclusion, Mary's false attitude towards her death reflects her false attitude towards her life; her lack of devotion to her religion causes her to seek out a life that is really only death. By not seeking out to be authentic in her religion, she's accepting an inauthentic life because she can't value anything which has genuine worth, only the fleeting moment of pleasure, and this is what most of the works we have examined up to this point have centered upon: the philosophy of evil that replaces the abundant life Christ wants us to have with the empty, "carnival" life that our appetites want. I don't want to give anymore away because I am hoping you will watch it; it's not only on Netflix instant streaming this month, but there are numerous places on the internet where you can watch it for free (like here at Internet Archive since its public domain).