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Excerpt from essay on the 1962 horror film, Carnival of Souls

Monday 8/29/22

Fear is a highly personalized emotion, which is a key component of what makes fear fear. A person may be ravaged by fear, as if their entire world and all they care about is coming down inside of them and life will never be the same, nor even livable again, while someone standing two feet away—a friend, relative, spouse—has no indication anything is wrong. In that same moment the companion might feel joy, or be looking forward to an activity later in the day. Fear has a devilish knack of feeling tailored to us. One goes to the ballpark, the local team rallies from a deficit and surges into the late-contest lead, and joy is shared. This is not earth-shaking, life-changing joy, but rather the small variety that ambulates human life, gets us from one evening to another morning, whereas fear separates us. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there’s never the same love twice, a useful turn of phrase that could be transposed to the personalization of fear, which isn’t the same as the privatization of fear.

Fear may be communal, whether that’s in a region where war is a possibility, or at the cinema for the annual summer screening of Jaws. The fish rises from the depths, approaches the next victim, and the audience is held in shared abeyance. This is a fear born of entertainment, which often is a fear heavy with expectation. Jaws has a rise and fall, patterns of fear, what one might term riffs. We know when we are due to face all-out alarm once again. That’s part of the fun of this form of fear, and the community that comes with it. To watch Jaws with people on all sides of you is like going into the haunted house at the fair with the next group of kids. You don’t necessarily know what’s to come, but you do know what you’re getting into.

But what of the haunted house that stands alone, with no queue of eager children awaiting ingress? The house that emerges through a thicket of trees in the woods, after dusk has given way to night, and options for shelter for the wanderer are scarce? Fear has a knack for pinpointing the lost wanderer, and we all can be labeled thusly in life’s grand sense. This wanderer is desperate, with limited options. There isn’t anyone to share in the burden of the fear, which is when fear commands its greatest efficacy. The idea that there’s no one to help with that burden need not even be based in reality; it’s enough for someone to feel that way.

An increased pulse rate rapidly becomes a lower-tier concern. Communication is a massive issue and a further source of fear, the idea that there’s no one to tell this story to who will understand what you’re experiencing or what has been done to you. Why you’re unsure that you’ll be able to carry on, and why you’re increasingly certain you won’t be able to. Fear divides and conquers. Some of the most intense ghost stories in fiction don’t feature individuals in isolation, but people who are isolated within a community, and the living person becomes another form of ghost. The place that was previously the happy spot devolves into a terror zone. We must look away, quell the potency of a once happy memory that is now something else. Fear thus becomes total, has its way with us, overrides us, and it can become who we are.

“She lived in fear,” we might read, and we know that that woman never had any peace so long as this was true. Others didn’t live in fear with her; she was alone, and everything she encountered heightened the horror of the experience.

There’s little wonder that anxiety over another possible attacks can stalk us as it does and that the monster that is trauma can give even the worst bogies the willies. We wish to avoid a reprise or reminder of the horror because we realize that that could be the start of a potentially bottomless descent. I mention Jaws because it’s the fun side of fear. Certainly it frightened people, and as a kid I recall neighbors who made certain all was clear in their swimming pool before taking summer dips. They weren’t exactly clowning around—Jaws got into people’s heads—but fun was still of the essence.

There’s this disclaimer of an irony with horror films that most horror film fans accept. You want mood, creepiness, some skin in the game—as if what befalls a character could befall you, without proper precaution or an ability to flee fast and flee well—and to be transported to a spaces beyond your own life. You want to be invested in a darker vein, a key, mood, zone. The look and feel of that horror setting is crucial. They may riff on the familiar, but with a sole detail that renders them devilishly askew.

Think of the hike in the forest. There you are, on your own, having gone off the trail because you’re confident you know your way around, and after a mile or so someone starts walking from the other direction. That’s horror. They could be Fred Rogers, but it doesn’t matter when they’re 200 yards away and coming your way. It was just you, and now it’s you and them.

The paradox with horror movies is that we don’t actually have to be scared to love them. With a comedy, you need to laugh to love that film, in all probability. There are different varieties of laughs. One laughs, for example, in a different style with a Buster Keaton feature than a Buster Keaton short. The former has a higher slapstick quotient, whereas the later utilizes absurdism and magical realism, with a resonant internal component.

But any lover of horror—I mean someone who lives for the stuff, explores the history, treasures the richness of its manifold offerings—isn’t really scared by Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1942), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and those are quintessential horror films, are they not? Films that shaped popular culture in every which way it related to the horror film. They are to the genre what Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are to jazz, or Vincent Van Gogh’s impasto-piled wonders to post-Impressionism, the Beatles to British beat.

We love them for what they embody, not what they bring off, at least not in inducing terror. They have “legs” beyond themselves, if you will, with characters and archetypes that become separated from the films in which they live in the best undead fashion possible, and so are talked about and remembered in non-cinematic ways. Bela Lugosi’s Count has long been displaced from the movie to which we may always return, as if Dracula and us are meeting at the old earth box hidden beneath Carfax Abbey.

But we are here to discuss a film that is not some pop culture symbols of what fear means—though it is well-stocked with symbolism—but rather an acute distillation of this real and potent form of fear that everyone knows, which pulls us aside and calls upon us to question how we might ever again move forward, or be whole. Survive the long emotional night—just one of them.

I’ll see a favorite horror film on TV, and like most horror film lovers, I’m happy it’s on. We are chummy. That’s how horror hosts work. They don’t put viewers on blast with fear, then return to the screen to try and talk you through what you’ve just seen, with reminders that it’s not “real,” and we can get through this together. Those movies can become part of the background of our lives. I’ve seen Lugosi in Dracula probably fifty times, but I’ve had it on hundreds.

I can’t do that with Herk Harvey’s 1962 film, Carnival of Souls. When it appears on the TV in the middle of the night, I am on the defensive. I know that this is a movie I need to be ready for, and when I’m done watching it, the transition to sleep will not be seamless. I’ll have to take steps. I’ll watch a couple episodes of a benign, mindless situational comedy. Three’s Company works well. Carnival of Souls is the one horror film that actually terrifies me in every sense of that film. Certain movies frighten me because of their ideological implications. Island of Lost Souls (1934), for example. Many horror films are discomfiting, but they are still pleasing terrors. This isn’t to say that watching Carnival of Souls is a pleasureless undertaking, some feat of viewing endurance, which is how a series like the Hostel pictures work. I enjoy Carnival of Souls, but it is a dark form of enjoyment, with high stakes, because the enjoyment is predicated on me being able to shake myself free of the film after it is over, and that can be a struggle. It’s the viewer’s version of having to survive a film themselves.

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