Carnival of Souls: the weird, the haunt and the already-dead
23 Jun 2008

There is either an infinite amount of death in this universe … or infinite dreams of life.


Herk Harvey’s 1962 movie Carnival of Souls is certainly among the weirdest movies of cinema but strangely enough its weirdness is disquietingly elusive. The film starts with a title screen whose graphical power is reminiscent of Saul Bass’s title sequence for Psycho where the horizontal splitting motions across the word psycho herald an ominous turn even in terms of Hitchcock’s overtly exaggerative style. If psycho, by definition, already denotes a deepening fracture then what are these miniature seismic lines which break the word into moving fault lines? Do they simply reiterate the definition of psycho and abide by the reductive definition of psychosis as split personality? Or they are the indication of internal schisms and that there is something deeply wrong with the psychosis of the psycho?

In contrast to the somehow flashy title sequence of Psycho, the title of Carnival of Soul is static despite its seemingly dynamic and wavy expression. The words in the title have crept in from the corner of the screen, spread out and grown in size from the last to the first; so that only one word dominates the screen: Souls. The title of Harvey’s movie is a grimace of the already-dead. The ripples of the words signify a lively animation or vitality of some sort, but surely not of the living. For these are the undulations of inert plasticity of wraiths, specters, shades, souls and spirits. Even the frozen ripples of the word carnival – its superficial waves of liveliness – have failed to express themselves; they are inferior and behind the lifeless plasticity of souls.

Carnival of Souls begins with a car accident the sole survivor of which is Mary Henry, a young organist played by Candace Hilligoss. Miraculously the only survivor among her friends who all instantly died in the accident, Mary has developed a cold and emotionless life which has overshadowed her musical talent. After the accident, Mary decides to move to Salt Lake City and takes a new job as a church organist – a symbolical move suggesting an escape to religion in order to evade the trauma within. Upon her arrival she notices a deserted pavilion that invitingly beckons to her; she also encounters a deformed apparition of a man who sinisterly appears to her as her own reflection. Her life in the new place is accompanied by increasing moments of terror as her reflection is replaced by the image of the ghoulish man. At times she herself becomes invisible and inaudible to people. She succeeds to avoid these dreadful moments either through religion or by immersing herself in the new job; yet she only gains transient moments of salvation before succumbing again to the state of sheer terror. In a famous scene, Mary – possessed not by trauma but the horror prolonged by her survival – undergoes a drastic metamorphosis. While playing the organ, she falls into a trance similar to a catatonic seizure. Once she resumes playing, her music suddenly changes from religious to a demonic melody to which Mary sensuously sways. The sequence is overwhelmed with sensuous references mixed with lengthening shadows in the church. As she falls deeper into trance, she sees a crowd of dead people or ghouls emerging from the water and dancing to her malevolent music on the deserted pavilion’s ballroom. They move toward her while she is transfixed by the sight, her fingers spasm as she reaches the climax of horror overlapped by her previous carnal desires. After the trance, she is confronted with ghouls more often. Her plan to escape the city is thwarted once she realizes that passengers on the bus are all dead people. She is drawn to the haunted pavilion for the last time, where the ghouls chase her down and surround her. People cannot explain Mary’s mysterious disappearance as her footprints end abruptly in the sand and don’t lead anywhere. We see, in the final scene, that the car in which Mary was riding is dredged up from the water. Mary’s lifeless body is in the car next to her friend; she has been dead all along. Nothing has been a dream (Mary’s or anyone else’s), for death has been dreaming of itself all the while.

In Carnival of souls, we begin to see all manifestations of the weird and the haunt after the accident. The crowd of ghouls, the haunting reflections of the living as the dead, the metamorphosis, the derailment of desires toward something demonic, weird sensuality and the beckoning night are all repercussions of Mary’s survival. The climatic horror throughout the movie could not be culminated if Mary didn’t survive. Only through survival and insistence in life – even involuntarily – Mary is exposed to horror of the trauma that is survival out of death. Yet what makes these horrors weird is neither the persisting ghouls nor the beckoning haunted place but the hauntological nature of survival. Survival is the intensive death that belongs to no one and the living is the already-dead. If all horrors (including Mary’s trauma) in Carnival of Souls, more than being plainly haunted are weird, it is because their victim or host – the living human – is already-dead.

The horrors of Carnival of Souls are divided into two categories characterized by their modes of culmination and reference points:

First category includes the horrors immanent to the living being, to the subject of survival, the human or in this case Mary. Throughout the movie we see the manifests of such horror in the forms of lurking cadavers and reflections of dead things fixed upon the living being. Mary’s reflection is a corpse, her voice is the dead silence of souls and her desires belong to something rotten, the ghoul. These are horrors which prey upon the living being and are culminated on the traumatic experience of survival. Mary’s survival (as a living being) enables her to see the horror qua illusion, experiencing this horror under the heading of trauma. In this sense, the first category is the horror for and of someone. It is horror qua illusion, for first it can illusively be experienced and second it is constructed upon the illusion of survival in the form of a trauma. The horror for and of someone is culminated according to the degeneration of survival or the decay of the surviving subject; the closer the subject of survival comes to its precarious position, the more it is seized by trauma, the more it is exposed to horrors which are outside its domain. The supposed necessity of survival can only communicate with the outside contingently, that is to say, X in its ontological necessity can not live (extend beyond itself) other than by submitting to the contingency entailed by not-X or that which is outside X. For the living being, the contingency imposed upon the self-preserving necessity of survival shapes the first category of horror: I exist but I cannot live without that which does not belong to me. My necessity is undermined by the contingency of the outside (not-X), such is the horror that is ensued by the nature of my miraculous survival.

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If the horror for and of someone is contingently correlated to survival, then its deployment is also extensive in regard to the surviving subject. The direction of this horror is from the contingent outside to the supposed necessity of survival, namely, the inside. The extensive or outward deployment of X according to not-X is the horror that illusively belongs to someone qua the living being; its vector of perpetuation is the price that survival should contingently pay. Yet this belonging is only effectuated as a subtractive (negative) correlation that registers itself as a trauma, for every moment of living or contingent openness to the outside envenoms and bites at the survival of the living being. The existential horror of being is but a survivalist remedy once we realize that to live is to not-to-be. The first category of horror in Carnival of Souls manifests as ghouls and the dead reflections which haunt Mary’s survival from the beginning to the end, they are coming from the outside but are fastened to Mary’s insistence on survival (escape from the haunters of without).

The second category of horror in the Carnival of Souls is sharply contrasted with the first, that is the horror belonging to someone and is ensued by survival. The true horror is generated not by survival’s precarious position in regard to the outside but by its radical inaptitude to posit its own necessity from within. The second horror is the precariousness of survival in positing its necessity, even in a subtractive (negative) correlation with the contingent outside or the exterior haunt. If the necessity of survival has never been established, then the correlation between the assumed ontological necessity of the living being and the contingency of the outside falters. The medium of trauma, accordingly, breaks apart and is replaced with a new horror. It is the faltering of such correlation and the collapse of such medium (or at least the illusion of it) that makes the horrors of trauma and of the contingent outside twisted and above all weird. Once trauma loses its point of reference and cannot be – by any means – reconciled with either its victim or its origin, it turns into a weird horror, a horror that itself is a ghost but is not hauntological. It cannot convey the horror of ghosts. If survival narrates the farce of the already-dead, then survival is essentially hauntological. Estranged by humans or living beings whose survival and vitality is the source of the haunt, the horrors of outside and terrors of trauma are rendered weird.


There is nothing stranger than to be estranged from the haunt of the outside while you yourself are already a ghost. The function of survival is to make the living estranged from the world while the living is that to which the rest of the universe is estranged. Mary’s moments of dread while she finds herself inaudible and invisible (haunting) to the rest of the world reminds us of Lovecraft’s Outsider who in a ghastly terror finds itself the source of alienage for the petrified audience. For Mary whose survival is the very source of the haunt and she herself is already-dead, ghosts of the outside cannot be correlated to the vitality of the living and hence cannot establish their haunting enclave or enact their ghostly laws (which should be distinguished from those of the living). The inability of the horror-engorged contingency of the outside in demarcating its boundary in regard to the living whose ontological necessity has never been posited gives a new direction to the influx of horror in the universe: ghosts heave forth from the supposed living – that is from the inside rather than outside. The living being is the Styx by which dead things are carried and eventually dumped into the universe, the outside. Since the living is already dead and survival is the intensive binding of death, ghosts of the outside fail to become the source of the haunt for the living; instead they become elusively weird.

Confronted by the already-dead, the horror of the Outside does not haunt or belong to someone qua the living because the living itself is already-dead, or more exactly, it belongs to no one. In Carnival of Souls, the second category of horror is the horror of the living as the already-dead or survival as the source of the haunt. It detaches ghosts of the outside or horrors of contingency from their assumed hauntological horizon (with reference to the supposed living). Ghosts and dead things separated from their hauntological purview – by the virtue of their correlation with a living who is already-dead and haunting – then assume a new position – the weird as the twilight of specters. The second horror is that of a hauntological chain that leads nowhere, ghosts of the outside that cannot belong to or haunt the living, and a living being whose survival belongs to the intensive death or the already-dead qua the living, and for that reason it belongs to No One.

The second horror is the retrogression of the haunt where ghosts retreat from the outside to the inside and from the living to no one. Retrogression of the haunt unifies ghosts with nothing, not even the dead; it brings forth a simultaneously haunted and haunting Nothing, that is the weird. The retreat of ghosts to two weird influences:

1. The living and survival become inextricable from the haunting and the haunt, and therefore, become weird. Human, in this sense, is unimaginably weird.
2. Ghosts of the outside lose their haunting capacity in regard to the living (viz. the already-dead), their hauntological horror is replaced by the weird.

It is the twist from hauntology of the outside (the lurking ghouls) to the hauntology of the inside (the already-dead living) that makes the ultimate weird.

Between the two deaths and two ghostly crowds – survival (or the intensive death) and perishing of life or death – the former is favored over the latter; for after all, death is too promiscuous to be loved.