"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision." — Salvador Dali
Surrealism can be defined as an art form, written or visual, that is supposed to unravel the potential of the unconscious mind. In visual arts, it is depicted through the erratic combination of uncorrelated images to form a single one. Surrealism in film has existed since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Most audiences today are aware of the genre through filmmakers like David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky, who have showcased their works to audiences worldwide.
What most are oblivious of is the fact that the surrealist movement had already become a part of mainstream movies by the '40s. It was merely scattered in bits and parts, like the famous dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. French filmmaker Jean Cocteau had already created his Orphic Trilogy by 1960 and Europe was witnessing a rise in portraying the unthinkable on screen. In America, Herk Harvey tried doing something similar in 1962, but did not succeed. He finally saw some success in the '80s when revered filmmakers started citing his work as an influence.
The film Carnival of Souls was looked upon as more than just a B-grade independent feature, but a marvel of early psychological #horror. Though the surrealistic elements are not inclined towards an artistic side like The Holy Mountain, it still deals with complex themes through bewildering imagery.
(Warning: If you've yet to see the mind-bending Carnival of Souls, this post dives into deep spoiler territory.)
Carnival of Souls sought inspiration from Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge" and borrowed the concept of "dreams during death." Many would argue over the story's impact on these films, but understanding and adapting are two very different things. To adapt a story, you need to visualize it, and even the greatest directors have failed at this stage. This is where Carnival of Souls has a far greater impact than the short film adaptation of the novel that was presented on The Twilight Zone. Now, I'll be dissecting the themes, symbolism and the influence of this atmospheric horror.
Dreams Within Dreams Or Alternate Reality?
A big question that plagues audiences is: "Is the whole movie a sequence of multiple layers of dreams or a re-imagination of an alternate reality?" It is both, in fact. What we see are dreams of an alternate reality going through the protagonist's mind during her death. Carnival of Souls takes things to another level by delving into multiple layers of dreams, a concept movies like Inception have been praised for recently. Film enthusiasts call this "the film that never dies," and it's quite an apt description for a movie whose presence is felt in most horror movies to date.
The main idea is focused on the psychological escape right before death. In many cases, the victim is aware of his/her future and the build-up to the demise is so emotionally excruciating thatthe mind creates an intense delusion to break free from reality. In Carnival of Souls, when Mary Henry's car crashes and falls into the water, it's the shock of the fall and the pain she faces while drowning that makes her conscious slide into an alternate reality, which is presented to her and the viewer.
"This is the real magic of fantasy: it can feed souls and change lives" — David Gemmell
The dreams within dreams sequence is another reality created in an already existing alternate reality as death looms closer for Mary. She is on the verge of a breakdown when the dream takes place, and the horror of The Man's presence makes her dream about the possibility of an inescapable situation. Contextually, it's the terror that causes a nightmare, but symbolically it represents the nature of death: death is imminent. This is observed in many surrealistic movies as characters dive deeper into their fantasies to escape from the ongoing one. Maybe sometimes we need fantasy to survive the reality, and maybe the burden of death can be lessened by accepting a force that you cannot help but succumb to.
Carnival of Souls is cited to be a major inspiration for George A. Romero and David Lynch, and the techniques and imagery are noticeable throughout their respective filmographies. It has also inspired a variety of films that have followed a similar concept, not only in terms of narrative but also visual and audible techniques. Here are a few films that have a considerable amount of similarities.
1. Though the zombie sub-genre had already been in existence since the '40s, Romero's versions revolutionized the industry with "ghoulish" figures. These were dead humans with mechanical movements, dark eyes and drooping figures. In Mary's dream world, the ghouls can be interpreted as zombies since they have risen from the dead.
Their appearance and mannerisms inspired Night of the Living Dead to a great extent, especially the attack at the end, which carries the same shock value as the graveyard scene from NLD. Judith O'Dea's Barbara is also characterized like Mary — a lean and timid physique, blonde hair and hysteric behavior.
2. Intentional or unintentional, The Mystery Man from #DavidLynch's Lost Highway resembles The Man with his hauntingly lifeless complexion, captivating stare and a smile only the devil would wear. Our imagination is a product of our environment and artists too aren't exempt from this. Herk Harvey's sinister portrayal set a striking image of fear that was used by many ardent horror film directors. Harvey's look itself is borrowed from the German Expressionist era.
3. An iconic shot from Jacob's Ladder features Tim Robbins in a bathtub, which is ripped right from the pages of Carnival of Souls. In the latter, this scene creates the same visuals of Mary emerging out of the water. Since the ghouls are synonymous with death, this foreshadows Mary's fate. In Jacob's Ladder, his body rests in water while his head stays on the surface. This can be interpreted as Jacob's presence in two different realities — his mind lingering around in a different reality while his body's in Vietnam.
4. Both Donnie Darko and Carnival of Souls have been adapted from the same source material, hence I will not be considering the similarities between the car and plane crashes. Instead, I'll focus on the two supporting characters: The Man and Frank. Both of them reappear throughout the movie, and though they may have different roles, they are the personification of death. The Man is a reminder of Mary's fate while also serving as the "fall in the dream," which wakes Mary up. Frank interacts with Donnie and similarly leads him to the end while also causing Gretchen's death, triggering the apocalypse.
5. Lynch's debut film Eraserhead manages to create a very similar cerebral atmosphere with its black and white cinematography and reverberating sound design. Though the stories might differ, the atmosphere surely looks to have been inspired from Carnival of Souls, with the dazed protagonist forced to face a surreal experience. There's a scene in particular — when Henry Spencer has sex with the Beautiful Woman and it turns into a nightmare — that is similar to the scene where Mary sees The Man when Linden tries to seduce her.
It is arguable that sex is considered as both a taboo and fantasy, and this could have been a reason. However, in both the movies the physical contact is with a person who lives across the hall. It's also an interesting role reversal, with Spencer being intrigued by the Woman's presence.
6. While Lynch's magnum opus, Mulholland Drive, is a far superior movie, it cannot help but reference Carnival of Souls. The cause of the dream in the former is a visit to Mulholland Drive (the bridge of the movie) in a "car," where Betty's life changes completely. Though she doesn't die there, the events do act as a catalyst.
Lynch personifies evil, probably because the concept of surrealism requires the artist to portray universal themes through images. Lynch's placement of the Bum signifies how death is right around the corner. Moreover, the man behaves like Betty's mind, aware of its presence but also forced to face it. Harvey places The Man in pretty peculiar places too — at the bottom of the staircase or the opposite window of a moving car or underwater — which are quite dangerous spots.
Carnival of Souls serves as a perfect template for a horror movie, with its use of both horror cliches and groundbreaking ideas. The movie has been openly referenced in around 70 movies and videos, apart from lending techniques to many others. The relevance of this B-grade, low-budget horror film more than half a century later proves how powerful the influence of visual arts can be.