Feminprisonment: Defending a Damned Damsel
Welcome to the Carnival of Souls – deserted by day, and a dance floor by night. Tossing and turning around in the endless circles of a waltz are the spectral forms of pale persons, completely void of thriving personality and purpose. Dancing with one man is a tall, blonde beauty – independent and vivacious only moments before (or what seemed like moments – time holds no importance when one is entrapped in a dance). She is the sad state of an ostracized woman of early 1960s America. Waltzing away until dawn, she is both the terrified and a terror of her time, morosely manifested.
The description above is near the ending of the independent horror/suspense film Carnival of Souls (1963). Filmed in black and white, its script was very colorfully written – and its underlying religious, psychological, and even sexual messages show through with just as haunting of a hue. Although the film may have provided corny scares (literally – it was a low-budget Midwestern cornfield flick) to unsuspecting audiences, I have found that it is much more intelligent than what may have been intended in its creation. The carnival of souls is the prison of feminism and its muse – the “liberated woman” – making each and all wallow in a waltz of purgatorial punishment, clinging to that which has terrorized them the most: man.
The true horror in this movie is not a result of scary souls trying to kidnap and imprison a dead woman in denial of her ceased existence, but rather the figurative concept of an attempted imprisonment of a feminist woman who only wants to live as she chooses to – not based on religious, social, or sexual societal norms – by various men. The dominance and power that men in her society hold over women make them more horrific than the souls of the carnival plaguing her imagination – with the one specific, spectral male that consistently haunts her imagination symbolic of all the men that have tormented her spiritually, psychologically, and sexually.
In a discussion of the males and their influence of power in the film, the concept of “the male gaze” recurs multiple times, and on multiple levels. With each man that the female character comes into contact with, their “gaze” changes – though all clearly remain dominant, powerful, and horrific as a result.
The first important male figure to point out is the priest that hires the woman to play the organ for his church. When she decides to play “devilish music” instead of the required church hymns, the priest’s “gaze” penetrates her morality fiercely, believing that she favors atheism. over theism. The second male figure, a psychiatrist, constantly looks at the female with disapproving eyes because she favors her imagination over reality. When he observes her in his office after she went “mad” in public, his “gaze” penetrates through her psyche, and he concludes that her imagination is detrimental to her chances of marrying. The last male figure, her sexually aroused neighbor, quite literally “gazes” at her with hungry, lustful eyes, disapproving of her when she rejects his sexual advances.
In one way or another, each man is likened to a prisoner warden, keeping an “eye” on the female not only physically, but morally as well – which connects to my past “imprisonment/prisoner” interpretation. When one torments her physically, two of them do so mentally and morally. It is no coincidence that the spectral male that appears in her imagination and frightens her is present when she interacts with all of the priest, psychiatrist and neighbor. The horror that lies in her imagination directly coincides with the questionable reality of men’s roles in her society, and whether she lives or dies, she is never free of their influence.
As Carnival of Souls is certainly more than just a ride in the amusement park of the mind, there are other questions that one could consider answering. Are the woman’s experiences in the film factual excerpts of her life when she was living, or are the situations a faction of her imagination? Does this film really provide intelligent commentary on societal issues (particularly feminine) of the 1960s, or is it less than what we make it out to be? If the concept of the “gaze” is so important in this film, what role does our gaze play (the viewers)?
— Christine Sellin, Art & Design Editor
Editor’s Note: Christine Sellin is a senior undergraduate English major and Film Studies minor at Lewis University and the Art & Design editor for Jet Fuel Review. She enjoys bizarre and psychological literature and film, and is a budding buff of both.