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Carnival of Souls,
Poster by David Blandy
Text by Mark Gubb:
Every time I watch 'Carnival of Souls', through its haunting melancholy is also
a haunting familiarity. The motif of the derelict pavilion has an undeniable seasidiness to it. I'm transported back to any one of the twenty-one off-seasons I spent growing
up at the seaside; those months of October through May when the life-blood of
a seaside town is residing elsewhere in its many tiny urban fragments, scattered across the country. The beating heart of the place is gone and those of us that remained were an icy trickle through its veins, keeping it barely breathing through those grey winter months.
'Carnival of Souls' is set somewhere in Utah. Utah is very much not a seaside place. Believe me, I've just googled it to check. On one side you have the very dry trio of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico and on the other Idaho ('Famous Potatoes!'), Wyoming and Colorado. It's of little consequence that you know that, it's just interesting that
for a film set nowhere near the sea it has, for me, such a powerful resonance with
an off-season seaside town. I grew up in Herne Bay, in Kent. It's unlikely you'll have heard of Herne Bay but you may have heard of its neighbours, Margate and Whitstable. Whitstable has become Hoxton-on-Sea in recent years and everyone's heard of Margate because of either Chas n Dave or Tracey Emin.
There's something uniquely bleak and grey about an off-season seaside town. Aside from the ghoul that keeps appearing at Mary's window, the mood, look and feel of 'Carnival
of Souls' is probably the closest thing I've ever seen to capturing it. It is, quite literally, grey and whilst everything might not be boarded up, a significant part of the town pulls down its shutters and hibernates until the first sun of the new year. It feels bare. Where there were previously noises and colours and people and smells, there's now space. Emptiness waiting to be filled back up again, hoping to be filled back again, which for some towns never happens. The absence that descends just never lifts, leaving that icy trickle of people to somehow become the sole life-force of the town. A peculiar type of cryonics that can befall a town without any future intent of revival.
The seaside themes keep appearing; Mary checks-in to a cheap boarding house,
the soundtrack is almost entirely played on a church organ which sounds more end-of-pier than end-is-nigh, water laps at the crumbling foundations on which the pavilion stands, albeit a sizeable lake. This pavilion that looms so large in Mary's life
reminds us of other films: the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, best known for being the site
of a series of vampiric attacks by a bunch of lost boys; even 'The Wrestler' in a scene when Mickey Rourke's character is in the process of re-connecting with his daughter by breaking into a similarly dilapidated pavilion for a look around. Rourke is drawn by the same lure of the unknown and decaying as Mary, the lure that used to draw me and
my friends into the dereliction of 'The Old Grand Ballroom' on Broadstairs seafront;
a chance to explore, get frightened and smash things without ever really doing any harm. What directly connects all of these, beyond the pavilion itself, is that all of these people, including Mary, are lost souls, some more literally than others. But what is it about this landscape and architecture that draws film-makers back again and again? Why is it such a perfect backdrop for the lost, frightened and dispossessed? Maybe there's an inherent understanding and connection with the off-season
in all of us.
If you grew up outside of a major city, seaside town or not, you'll probably have felt
the need to get away. Not necessarily to the city, but to get away nonetheless. Everyone has their own reasons, but to pretty much all they touch on the feeling that there's a bigger and more exciting world to explore, or a desire to 'make it' in some way. What's interesting about Mary is that we can't really see where she's going. She leaves one small town and arrives in another. She's not striking out for the big city lights of LA or New York, she's just going where the work is: a job as an organist for a church. She's not even interested in religion, she says on several occasions that it's just a job.
I was talking with a friend about where we all end up, how its almost an inevitability that you move away from where you grew up and, by default, your family. He'd just become a Dad and so was thinking about it in practical terms of support with his newborn. Both sets of grandparents lived more than 100 miles away in different directions. He started talking about community: the traditional idea of community, where neighbours talk to each other over the fence and there's help just around the corner, in whatever form that might be. At one end of the scale there's 'everyone knows your business' then at the other end of the scale there's the anonymity that comes with living in a city or moving on. I guess we've all probably wanted both at various points
in our life but, certainly, to have one – when neighbours become good friends – requires giving up something. Maybe it means giving up the drive that pushes us to see what's round that next bend or over that next hill. And with that drive comes an inevitable
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anonymity. It's not so much that people can't see you, they just don't see you. Cities aren't set up to be hot-beds of organic social exchange. They're places where you can get what you want if you go out and get it, but they're rarely places people migrate towards for want of a closer community. That anonymity is a self-inflicted anonymity; maybe the undesired outcome of a desired situation.
Who are the ghouls dancing in the pavilion? Are they a malevolent presence? Are they a welcoming community that we are running away from; their ghoulish form the psychological representation of what we think we don't want? I've lived in cities for almost as much of my life as I ever lived in towns. I love Herne Bay. I love Margate. But as Mary says on her way out the door, 'Thank you. But I'm never coming back'.