It was a pivotal ride in the history of horror films: In 1961 Harold “Herk” Harvey, an industrial filmmaker in Lawrence, Kans., was driving through Salt Lake City when he happened upon the abandoned Saltair pavilion. “It was the spookiest place I’d ever seen,” recalls Harvey. After deciding to capture the park’s supernatural lure, Harvey pulled together several friends and $33,000, and in three weeks made his first—and last-feature: Carnival of Souls (1962), an eerie black-and-white flick that briefly played drive-ins.
Harvey, however, would live to see his Souls attain another incarnation. The movie was wrenched from the obscurity of late-late TV by Panorama Entertainment and rereleased last spring—this time to art houses and critical acclaim. “Carnival of Souls has the power to…put you in the middle of its own distinctive nowhere,” wrote Terence Rafferty in the New Yorker. After earning $1.2 million with showings in 47 cities, Souls soon will make its video debut. All of which was cause for a Souls reunion, and last November, in the lobby of Lawrence’s Liberty Hall, blond Candace Hilligoss, nearing 50, displayed the ethereal beauty she brought to the film. Standing nearby was Harvey, 65, in the white makeup he wore when he stalked Hilligoss in 1962, and Sidney Berger, 53, who played a leering neighbor.
“It was my first experience making a major motion picture,” joked Hilligoss, who had studied at the Actors Studio (“Marilyn Monroe and I were the two blonds”). She remembered shooting a scene in which her body is pulled from a river: “The crew was in parkas, and I’m in a gingham dress.” Such moments were so effective that fright-flick luminary George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) claims Souls as inspiration. Still, Hilligoss did not become aware of her cult status until last year, when she spotted a review of the movie in the New York Daily News.
Why all the fuss? The simple plot: A church organist (Hilligoss) apparently survives a car plunge from a bridge. For the rest of the film, she drifts in a netherworld between life and death—an unreality that is heightened when she is drawn to the carnival. Though studded with errors—the sound of Hilligoss’s footfalls are out of sync with her steps—the movie has skin-prickling power.
After Carnival’s fade-out, Harvey went back to industrial films—with no regrets. “I’ve made movies all over the world,” says Herk, who lives in Lawrence. Berger now heads the University of Houston drama department, and Hilligoss, who has two daughters by her former husband, actor Nicholas Coster, toured in road shows before semiretiring in 1969. She made only one other film: 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse.
Harvey and his stars are taking the belated acclaim in stride. Hilligoss pinpoints the pull of Carnival’s simplicity, compared with the excesses of today’s horror movies: “It forces people to put their imaginations to work,” she says, “and that’s more frightening than a mechanical head shooting across the room.”
—Tim Allis, Grant Pick in Lawrence