Features and Occasionals

Carnival of Souls

By Stan Clawson

It’s easy to imagine how Herk Harvey conceived of Carnival of Souls, his 1962 cult classic movie, as he drove past the old Saltair a year or two earlier. At the end of the pier reaching out into Great Salt Lake, the abandoned amusement park and dance hall, which burned down three years after filming, must have looked like a lost soul herself. What better place for a carnival of souls? Did Harvey, an educational film producer from Lawrence, Kansas, with no past, or future, in low-budget horror movies, venture out past the dilapidated chain link fence and explore what was once the “largest dance floor in the world”?

The story starts in Kansas, with a joy ride, a car chase and a fatal crash into a muddy river. The authorities drag the river with no results; passengers Mary Henry and her two friends are presumed dead. Then Mary emerges from the water, apparently alive and well (though muddy and looking rather stunned). Mary decides to proceed with plans to take a job as a church organist in Utah.

She drives across the Utah state line and nears Saltair in the night to the soundtrack of eerie organ music. A ghostly man, played by Herk Harvey himself, appears in the road and at her car window as she drives along the lake. Yes, she’s pretty freaked out.

Mary wanders around our city, haunted by the phantom man. She is also suffering bouts of invisibility, which is equally unnerving. We see her by Temple Square; in the Union train station; walking down Second South, and all over Washington Square.

She is obsessed with Saltair, and returns a few times. The last time—well, we don’t want to spoil it for you. Let’s just say the highlight of the film is seeing the grand Saltair ballroom, once the grandest in the land, in its doomed glory.

The film’s final scene situates us back in Kansas as the car is pulled from the river. All three women occupants, Mary included, are dead.     —JdJ

Photographer Stan Clawson, Eric Cadora, Erickson Lyons and CATALYST staffer Sophie Silverstone restaged several of the scenes from the movie at their original locations. Click here to download the PDF of this story to see the then-and-now photos! Enjoy!

This article was originally published on October 2, 2016.