Come October, schools and churches love to throw carnivals (though public schools might do so in honor of Halloween and churches might do so in honor of "Harvest," just to keep it pure). One expects to find things like cake walks, bobbing for apples, darts at balloons, spooky organ music, ghouls dancing... Well, those last couple of things might more likely be found in "Carnival of Souls."
"Carnival of Souls" was a low budget horror film, the only feature film directed by Herk Harvey. Harvey directed a number of educational shorts such as "Why Study Industrial Arts?", "Manners in School," and "Pork: The Meal with aSqueal" as well as one segment on "Reading Rainbow." The film, initially playing as the bottom half of a drive-in double horror bill, went on to become a cult favorite counting among its fans David Lynch ("Twin Peaks") and George Romero ("Night of the Living Dead").
The movie tells the story of a woman who apparently survives a fatal car accident but begins to see ghostly apparitions; which is not, of course, why we're looking at it here in Movie Churches. "Carnival of Souls" is one of the only films that I know of that deals with the intriguing ecclesiastical issue of whether it is important for the auxiliary staff of a church to hold to the beliefs and doctrines of a church. Didn't see that coming as part of a Creature Feature, did you?
Mary Henry, the heroine of the film, has been hired as an organist in a church in Utah. We see her practicing at a factory which recently shipped off an organ to the church where Mary wants to serve. When a worker at the factory asks her about the position, Mary says, "It's just a job."
The worker responds, "That's not the attitude to have going into church work."
Mary said, "I'm not taking vows, I'm just playing the organ."
Which brings up the question: "Is leading worship in a church just a job?" Mary apparently thinks it is. And many churches seem to agree. Churches often advertise for a pianist or organist or a choir director and ask questions only about musical talent and aptitude, but nothing about the applicant's faith. Mary would agree with that process.
In further discussion at the factory, Mary admits the job doesn't pay much, "but it's a start."
The worker tells her, "It takes more than intellect to be a musician, it takes soul." See what they did there? "Soul" like in the title?
Mary is rather listless. One wonders if Mary is really alive, does she really have a soul? Can such a person worship? Should such a person be leading worship?
Mary goes to Utah and meets the pastor of the church where she'll be working. He describes their new organ as their pride and joy. He tells Mary they don't have the largest congregation in town, but it's a nice congregation. He asks Mary if she'd like a reception to be thrown in her honor so she can meet the people. "Can't we skip that?" Mary responds.
"You can't live in isolation from the human race," the pastor says. But it looks like Mary wants to give it a shot.
Initially, the minister is pleased with Mary's organ playing. He tells the congregation that "we have an organist capable of stirring souls." He tries to befriend Mary and takes her for a ride. She asks to stop when they come across an abandoned amusement park. She tries to convince him to go past the "Do Not Enter" signs, but he says "it would be unseemly of a minister to break the law."
Later we see Mary in an apartment entertaining a neighbor. He offers a flask; she says that it isn't "the recommended diet of a church organist." He is surprised a church pays someone to play the organ. "Some churches do," she says, "A church is just a place of business."
"That's a funny way to look at things," the neighbor says. Leaving he says, "See ya at church!"
Befitting a horror film, Mary begins to experience the macabre. She sees a ghostly man in various places. In her visits to stores and on the street, she finds that people go past her as if she's not there. But one of the strangest things happens to her in the church. She looks around the sanctuary and sees stained glass with writing: "Cast out the devil!" She sits at the organ to play and sees a vision of ghosts at the amusement park. She begins to play wild, strange music.
The minister comes in and puts his hand on hers. "Profane! Sacrilege! Why are you playing like this in a church? Have you no respect? No reverence? I feel sorry for you! Your lack of soul! The things in this church have significance. I assumed these things meant something to you. In conscience I must ask you to resign. I'm not abandoning you, nor do I want you to turn your back on the church. But now you must go!"
She doesn't come back. Because it turns out she's, well, you may have guessed.
It was foolish of the minister to assume spiritual things meant something to Mary without asking if they did. The minister comes a little late to see that the spiritual condition of the organist does matter.
I'm going to take a bold stand here and say I believe that anyone who leads worship in a church should be alive. At the very least, they should be physically alive, but probably spiritually as well. Mary's qualifications in those categories seem to be lacking. I do appreciate that in "Carnival of Souls" we finally have a film that deals with these important issues of church polity.
I give the church in this film Two Steeples.