Carnival of Souls and Emergent Feminism in the Early Half of the Sexual Revolution.

This is a paper I wrote for a class on Hollywood and the sexual revolution, taught by Dr. Michael DeAngelis during the Fall 2013 quarter at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. This is yet another paper I will be revising and sending out for publication over the next few weeks. At this time, I know that I want to further explore how Mary Henry is repressed through the removal of her voice, and also through isolation, as she is often positioned apart from other characters through framing and editing. If you have any suggestions or feedback on other areas I could be looking at, I would greatly appreciate hearing your ideas. Also, because this paper is is not the final version of the paper and it is not currently published in any journals, I would ask that if you want to quote it or cite it in any way, please contact me for permission first. Thank you.



According to Diana Wallace (2004) “The ghost story as a form has allowed women writers special kinds of freedom…to offer critiques of male power and sexuality which are often more radical than those in more realist genres” (p. 57). Similarly, as Cynthia Murillo (2013) writes, “The female gothic has proved a convenient and suitable forum for challenging conventional gender roles and implicating an oppressive patriarchal structure” (p. 755). While both authors were writing about short stories or gothic novels, their assertions could just as easily be applied to the film Carnival of Souls (1962), despite the fact that the film was written and directed by men. Directed by Herk Harvey and written by John Clifford, the film centers on Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a strong-willed, independent, sexually liberated young woman who is being pursued and persecuted by a character known simply as The Man (Herk Harvey).

Thus the overarching theme of Carnival of Souls seems to be one of feminism emerging in the face of patriarchal power, and this becomes significant when taking into account the fact that the film was released in 1962, which is widely considered to be the beginning of the sexual revolution. That is why it is strange that so little scholarship has been devoted to the film, and that which does exist is mostly centered on the film’s Gothic themes and narrative subversions (Riley, 2007). This paper, then, represents an attempt to address the lack of scholarship surrounding Carnival of Souls as a site of female rebellion and sexual liberation, and an attempt to provide an answer for the following question: how is the main character of the film being positioned as a representation of emergent feminism and female liberation during the early years of the sexual revolution?

Following the structure of Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890), Carnival of Souls makes use of both Sigmund Freud’s conception of the uncanny and Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject to explore how strong-willed, independent women represent a threat to patriarchal societal structures, and therefore become a manifestation of horror for men. Indeed, director Herk Harvey “skillfully uses the Owl Creek Bridge plot to characterize a person who is struggling to discover the truth of her existence” (Walz, 1995, p. 2). While Mary Henry struggles with the idea that she may or may not be a ghost, she is struggles to establish her place within a world dominated by paternal law.

I will begin this paper with an exploration of emergent feminism and its relation to both Gothic literature and ghost stories, focusing specifically on how both are used to position female sexuality as a subversion of patriarchal hegemony. I will then argue that feminism represents a manifestation of carnivalistic life, primarily in how it can be used to upset the paternal status quo. I will follow this with a discussion of how feminism has been portrayed in horror films, drawing on the work of Barbara Creed to examine how strong women (and by extension feminism) have been positioned as monsters that men must fear. From there, I will argue that Carnival of Souls makes use of all these concepts to explore issues of emergent female sexuality in the early part of the sexual revolution. Finally, I will conclude by explaining why it is important to examine such important issues through the lens of a little known and largely forgotten horror film.


According to David Allyn (2000), a sexual double standard has existed since the beginning of civilization. During the nineteenth century, this double standard was supported by “bourgeois notions” about female purity that maintained women should not enjoy sex, but rather they should “tolerate [their husbands’] advances only for the sake of having children” (Allyn, 2000, p. 13). Meanwhile, it was believed that men required sexual release, and they were urged to visit brothels. This double standard situated men as being the arbiters of sexual decency, and this led to what Michel Foucault (1978) refers to as “a policing of sex,” in which the sexuality of certain members of the population (in this case, women) were regulated “through useful and public discourse” (p. 25). In fact, this discursive regulation of sexuality resulted in a “concept of ideal womanhood” which favored domesticity as the default position for feminine propriety, and dictated that “any individual who threatened this virtuous domain ‘was damned immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic’” (Murillo, 2013, p. 757). Thus, while sex itself was being regulated through discourse, female sexuality in particular was being outright repressed by patriarchal notions that favored male sexuality and sexual pleasure.

As Foucault points out, however, “the tightening up of the rules of decorum likely did produce, as a counter effect, a valorization and intensification of indecent speech” (1978, p. 18). This led to the rise of “scattered reformers” who attempted to “dismantle the double standard,” but their writing was banned and they were “dismissed as strange bohemians or dangerous radicals” (Allyn, 2000, p. 13). Nevertheless, the double standard began to wane, and the concept of female sexual pleasure began to gain mainstream acceptance. Furthermore, as Murillo (2013) points out, the rise of industrialization and urban development began granting women opportunities outside of domesticity, and this effectively change perceptions of female sexuality in the early 20th century. More importantly, though, as Allyn (2000) notes, the rise of modern contraceptives finally allowed women to take control of their own sexuality, and by extension, they began to take charge of their own lives as well.

Yet the sexual double standard did not disappear completely, and this led to “considerable conflict between the True Woman and the New Woman, her sexualized and revolutionary counterpart” (Murillo, 2013, p. 760). Indeed, New Women dared to venture outside of the home, educate themselves, and get jobs, and as a result, they were viewed as “a revolutionary demographic and political phenomenon” (Smith-Rosenberg, 1985, p. 245). True Womanhood, on the other hand, was associated with patriarchal notions of the home, and women who did not conform to this paradigm “embodied…not only independence, but a fierce sexuality that threatened the patriarchal standard of ideal domesticity” (Murillo, 2013, p. 761). Thus, during the first part of the 20th century, members of the New Woman movement were still struggling against the repression of both their sexuality and identity (Fig. 1).

    Fig. 1: Feminist reformers in the early part of the 20th century attempted to change perceptions of female sexuality and equality.
Fig. 1: Feminist reformers in the early part of the 20th century attempted to change perceptions of female sexuality and equality.

By the 1960s, women increasingly rebelled against the repressive patriarchal discourse that kept the sexual double standard in place, in an attempt to break “the infinite serfdom” of women (Rostow, 1962, p. 385). In particular, Helen Gurley Brown nearly singlehandedly launched the sexual revolution with her book Sex and the Single Girl, which challenged notions of female propriety. In the book, Brown admits to “a long history of casual contacts,” and she “gently urged other women to follow her example” (Allyn, 2000, p. 10). Despite the widespread embrace of Brown’s book, however, there was still a stigma attached to female sexuality into the early part of the 1960s; women were expected to conform to a certain standard, and those who didn’t often “acquired a reputation for being ‘fast’ or ‘easy’” (Allyn, 2000, p. 14; p. 16). Women continued to struggle with repression, despite the fact that the sexual revolution was now under way.

This struggle for control over female sexuality often manifests itself in fiction, particularly the ghost stories and Gothic literature of the nineteenth century. Perhaps it is because the struggle for feminine equality is unsettling to members of the patriarchy, and that in many ways feminism can be considered a manifestation of the uncanny as described by Sigmund Freud (1919). Indeed, it is not difficult to see how women could be considered frightening or uncanny by members of the patriarchy, particularly if, as Freud notes:

“We also call a living person uncanny, usually when we ascribe evil motives to him. But that is not all; we must not only credit him with bad intentions but must attribute to these intentions capacity to achieve their aim in virtue of certain special powers.” (1919, p. 14)

Feminism often positions women as attempting to achieve an aim of equality alongside men (or sometimes, dominion over them), and they often do so by asserting control over their own sexuality, which then becomes a special power. Furthermore, feminism represents a “hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it” (Freud, 1919, p. 15), and thus it becomes a manifestation of the uncanny. This, then, could be one reason why ghost stories and Gothic literature are a popular site for exploring issues of feminism and female rebellion.

Drawing upon the work of Mary Anne Doane, Patricia White (1999) suggests that Female Gothic in particular can be considered “a genre that as a whole is concerned with heterosexuality as an institution of terror for women” (p. 64). Indeed, stories in this genre often illustrate that “the fear of the male Other…is intensified because of the material power men have over women in a patriarchal society” (Wallace, 2004, p. 66). More importantly,  such stories provide the means by which to challenge “conventional gender roles and implicating an oppressive patriarchal structure” (Murillo, 2013, p. 755). All of this is applicable to the ghost story, which is rooted in and encompassed by Gothic literature (Wallace, 2004). Often these ghost stories are used to further repress female sexuality and identity, as they depict the “destruction of the female monster, which threatens a patriarchal structure” (Murillo, 2013, p. 756). However, the ghosts that inhabit these stories can also be interpreted as representing the New Woman as these stories represent both the repression and embracing of female sexuality (Murillo 2013). Thus, they become a site of the uncanny for both men and women.

In the case of women, the power of patriarchal institutions represents the uncanny, as they are responsible for the repression and oppression of female sexuality, while feminism becomes a site of rebellion, because it upsets the dominance of these institutions. Thus, feminism could also be said to exist within the realm of the carnival and the carnivalesque, as described by Mikhail Bakhtin (1998), who writes that “the laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary…life are suspended during carnival,” including “everything resulting from sociohierarchical inequality or any other form of inequality among people” (p. 251). In other words, carnival is a ritual that by its very nature upsets the social status quo, similar to the way that feminism upsets the patriarchal order that would repress or oppress female sexuality and identity (Fig. 2). Carnival reminds those in power are that their authority is fleeting, and that they can be stripped of power at any time. If feminism does indeed represent a threat to the patriarchy because it serves to highlight the ephemeral nature of patriarchal power, then it becomes a manifestation of carnivalistic life.

Fig. 2
Fig. 2: According to Mikhail Bakhtin, carnival is a ritual that is designed to upset the status quo. This is similar to how feminism upsets the patriarchal status quo.

For members of the patriarchy, feminism then becomes something to be feared, and thus, it could be considered abject. Abjection is defined as “the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other” (Felluga, 2011, online). Because feminism is an attempt to establish women as equal to men, it therefore follows that a loss of distinction between men and women would result in a sense of abjection. According to Foucault (1978), those who control the discourse surrounding a subject gain control over that subject. This becomes important when considering that Jacques Lacan argues that “paternal law structures all linguistic signification, termed ‘the symbolic’, and so becomes a universal organizing principle of culture itself” (Butler, 1989, p. 104). Feminism, then, is an attempt to wrest the discourse from the domain of men, and grant women control over their own sexuality and identity. If women are no longer subject to paternal law, they therefore become a threat to the patriarchy. Indeed, if culture is “fully subsumed under the ‘Law of the Father’, and that the only modes of non-psychotic activity are those which participate in the symbolic,” then feminism represents an attempt to validate experiences “that permit a manifestation of the borders which divide the symbolic from the semiotic” (Butler, 1989, p. 110). By attempting to break down these borders and establish their equality within society, women (and by extension feminism) become something to be feared by members of the patriarchy, and thus they become a manifestation of the abject.

Horror films become a way to deal with this abjection. In horror films, women are often tormented by male monsters as punishment for asserting control over their sexuality, and as E. Ann Kaplan (1983) explains, the male viewers is often positioned so that he identifies with the killer or monster in a horror film. Carol J. Clover (1989), however, argues that there is a limit to this identification, and she points to the slasher film as a site where male viewers are made to identity with a female victim-hero (Fig. 3). While Clover’s interpretation has merit, it does not take into account the fact that horror fans tend to admire the slasher characters themselves rather than the “final girl” who dispatches them. This is evidenced by the continued popularity of characters like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Meyers. Furthermore, rather than making the male viewers identify with the female characters, “the presence of an intelligent and effective woman triumphing at the end of a horror film excuses the guilt a man might otherwise feel from his vicarious enjoyment of watching women be terrorized, tortured, and murdered” (CdMScott, 2006, online). Thus, if feminism is indeed a site of abjection by threatening the status quo of patriarchal institutions, then strong-willed, independent women become a manifestation of the abject, what Barbara Creed terms the “monstrous-feminine” (1993, p. 1).

Fig. 3: Carol Clover argues
Fig. 3: According to Carol Clover, men who watch slasher films are made to identify with the plight of the “final girl,” who suffers at the hands of the villain but ultimately emerges triumphant.

For the purposes of this paper, the question then becomes, how does Carnival of Souls use both the abject and the uncanny to represent the sexual double standard and the struggle of feminism in the early 1960s through the Gothic tradition of ghost stories? The analysis that follows considers how the character of Mary Henry is positioned as a representation of emergent feminism in two distinct ways. First, Mary is positioned as a victim of patriarchal repression, particularly in the way she is situated as an object in relation to the male gaze as defined by Laura Mulvey. Mary subverts this oppression and becomes a manifestation of female empowerment through her embrace of the carnival and the carnivalesque, which in this film represents a site of emergent feminism that challenges the dominance of the patriarchy. Secondly, Mary becomes a manifestation of the monstrous-feminine, particularly because she is a representation of the abject or the uncanny. Thus, she represents a threat to patriarchal power because she exerts control over her own sense of sexual agency, and therefore must be repressed.


In Carnival of Souls Mary Henry is a “tough minded” church organist from a small town in Kansas. After surviving a car crash that occurs during the opening sequence of the film, Mary takes a job at a church in Utah. During the trip there, she drives past an abandoned amusement park, and she is confronted by a spectral figure known only as The Man. Dismissing the encounter as a figment of her imagination, Mary drives on. Upon her arrival, Mary moves into a boarding house run by the matronly Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist). The only other tenant is John Linden (Sidney Berger), who assures Mary that he is “just an ordinary guy who works in a warehouse.” The next day, Mary accompanies her new boss, a minister (Art Ellison), to the old carnival pavilion. Soon thereafter, Mary is plagued by visions of dead men and women dancing at the pavilion, and she sees The Man everywhere she goes (Fig. 4). After consulting Dr. Samuels (Stan Levitt) about her deteriorating mental state, Mary decides to leave town. On the way out, however, her car breaks down, and while Mary is waiting for it to be fixed, The Man reappears and chases her out to the abandoned pavilion. Once there, Mary discovers the horrible truth about her condition: she died in the car accident and has been a ghost the entire time.

Fig. 4: Mary Henry is haunted by visions of dead men and women dancing throughout the carnival.
Fig. 4: Mary Henry is haunted by visions of dead men and women dancing throughout the carnival.

It is important to note that while the film effectively mines horror from both the spectral presence of The Man and the sight of animated corpses romping through the ramshackle carnival pavilion, the film is equally concerned with the horror that results from female oppression. As Christine Sellin (2012) writes:

“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.” (online)

Thus, the true horror emerges when Mary’s sexual independence is oppressed. Indeed, Mary is repressed in a number of other ways, primarily through the use of symbolic language, but also by the male gaze and the suppression of her own voice.

It is significant that Carnival of Souls was released in 1962, the same year as Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Brown’s book served as a rallying cry for women to reject the oppression of the sexual double standard and take charge of their own sexuality, which is exactly what Mary does throughout the film. Mary is repeatedly accused of having no libido, and that she “dates without desire” (Kawin, 2000, online). Diegetically, this is because Mary is a ghost: she exists apart from the living, and thus she cannot feel desire or anything else resembling human emotions. Symbolically, this lack of desire indicates that Mary is simply taking charge of her own sexuality; she is choosing whether or not she wants to be sexual, regardless of the desires of the men around her. Thus, Mary represents a threat to patriarchal power, which results in men attempting to oppress her through discursive means, such as when John accusingly asks Mary if she is afraid of men. Later, he angrily accuses her of needing to “thaw out,” implying that she is frigid. Additionally, John and his friend, Chicken, actively dehumanize Mary, referring to her alternately as “doll,” “pig” and “mouse.” They do this to strip Mary (and by extension all women) of her humanity, and reduce her to the status of an object. Thus, John is using language as a way of suppressing Mary’s sexual agency, and situating her within the confines of paternal law, which linguistically structures culture as it “delimits maternity as an essentially pre-cultural reality” (Butler, 1989, p. 106).

Mary’s heterosexuality is also called into question, and this is another way she is being oppressed through language. For example, after she has rebuffed his advances yet again, John implies that Mary “don’t like for a man to hold you close.” By specifically indicating that Mary does not enjoy the company of men, John appears to be implying the inverse: that she might prefer the company of women. Thus, John is implicating Mary of being a lesbian, and by extension he is accusing all strong-willed, independent women of being lesbians. In this way, John is attempting to suppress the entire feminist movement, primarily because paternal law situates lesbianism as a “site of irrationality” (Butler, 1989, p. 112). Indeed, John’s implication is significant, because the “…feminist movement was filled with women who bristled at the thought of being branded a lesbian” (Allyn, 2000, p. 250). By asserting that Mary is a lesbian, John is once again attempting to suppress her sexuality and to situate her, and by extension the entire feminist movement, within the confines of paternal law.

More importantly, though, Mary is repeatedly oppressed by the male gaze, which Laura Mulvey (1999) describes thus:

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order by which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” (p. 834)

Therefore, the gaze is another way to situate women within paternal law and to subjugate feminine sexuality, and Mary Henry experiences this throughout the film. First and foremost, Mary is subject to the gaze of The Man, who stares intently at Mary through the window of her car during his first appearance (Fig. 5). Mary reacts with horror, and she immediately speeds up, as though she is attempting to outrun this oppressive heterosexual act. This is significant when considered alongside Mary’s assertion that The Man is standing in the way of her sexual liberation and feminine independence. She tells Dr. Samuels that it is as if The Man is “trying to prevent me from living. He’s trying to take me back somewhere!” Diegetically, The Man is attempting to return Mary to the land of the dead. If, however, Mary does indeed represent emergent feminism in the early part of the sexual revolution, then it could also be argued that The Man becomes a manifestation of patriarchy, hegemony, masculinity, and heterosexuality, and that he is attempting to put Mary (and by extension, all women) back her in place by situating her within the confines of paternal law through the oppression of the male gaze.

Carnival of Souls The Man
Fig. 5: The Man subjects Mary Henry to the oppression of the male gaze.

It is not just The Man who subjects Mary to the oppression of the male gaze, however, but rather all the significant characters within the film. Most prominently, Mary is subjected to the gaze of John Linden, who lasciviously peeps at her through the crack in her bedroom door. The gaze manifests in a close up shot of Linden’s eye, which is contrasted with a point of view shot of Mary as she wriggles out of her towel (Fig. 6). If mainstream film does indeed code “the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order,” then John’s gaze represents that of the male viewer, who is engaged in the act of sexualizing Mary while simultaneously oppressing her own sexuality (Mulvey, 1999, p. 835).

Fig. 2: John Linden as a literal manifestation of the male gaze.
Fig. 6: John Linden as a literal manifestation of the male gaze.

Mary is also subjected to the gaze of her boss; when Mary first arrives at work, she plays the organ beautifully, and the minister gazes at her contentedly. It could be argued that he approves of Mary because she is conducting herself in a fashion that is reverent to the church, and by extension to patriarchal institutions in general (Fig. 7). However, later in the film, after Mary has visited the carnival pavilion, she plays the organ with wild abandon as she dreams of the carnival. She is embracing her sexual independence, and this in turn causes the priest’s gaze to change. Now he views her as “profane” and “sacrilegious.” Therefore, while his gaze is no longer sexual, it is still being used to oppress Mary by situating her within paternal conceptions of right and wrong. Thus, the gaze in Carnival of Souls represents the controlling and curious gaze of the patriarchy, which attempts to suppress Mary’s independence and strong will, and place her under the control of paternal law.

Fig. 3: The minister as a representation of patriarchal oppression through the act of looking.
Fig. 7: The minister as a representation of patriarchal oppression through the act of looking.

It is important to note that Mary actively attempts to thwart this oppression by embracing the carnivalesque. The first time Mary visits the abandoned carnival, it is alongside her boss, who forbids her from entering the carnival. Mary points out how easy it would be to simply step around the barrier, and the minister gazes at her with disapproval.  Therefore, this scene represents another attempt by the minister to suppress Mary’s independence and agency through the male gaze.  It is unsuccessful, however, since Mary is determined to satisfy her curiosity, and assure herself that “the place is nothing more than it appears to be.” It isn’t until later, after another terrifying encounter with The Man, that Mary finally enters the carnival, and it is at this point that she becomes a threat to the characters who represent paternal law.

The morning after she meets John Linden, Mary goes shopping for new clothes. When she emerges from the department store fitting room, Mary discovers that no one can hear her. She has been stripped of her voice, and thus in Lacanian terms, she has been stripped of her power and her agency. Confused and fearful, Mary flees the store and wanders into a nearby park, and has a brief encounter with The Man. She recoils and bumps into Dr. Samuels, and it is only once she has submitted to the protection and knowledge of a patriarchal institution, that Mary discovers that her voice has returned. Dr. Samuels takes Mary to his office and she tells him what has been happening to her. Dr. Samuels concludes that these strange events are tied to “that old pavilion out by the lake,” and that Mary associates her predicament with it. Mary leaves Dr. Samuels’ office, and journeys out to the carnival pavilion.

It is after Mary’s visit to the carnival that her true horror begins, as she begins to truly assert her sexual agency and becomes a threat to the patriarchy. The carnivalesque represents the establishment of female equality, because in “…carnival everyone is an active participant,” implying that everyone involved is equal (Bakhtin, 1998, p. 250). Thus, within the carnival, the patriarchy loses its power, and women are at last liberated. However, as the film makes explicit, the carnival is only a temporary reprieve, as paternal law is always lurking in the shadows, waiting to reassert itself (Fig. 8). Indeed, The Man is waiting for Mary at the carnival, and he directs his oppressive gaze at her and once more strips her of her sexual agency. Nevertheless, Mary’s embrace of the carnival is precisely what positions her as a threat to the patriarchy, and this is when she (and by extension feminism itself) becomes abject.

Fig. 4: The carnival represents a reprieve from paternal law, albeit a temporary one.
Fig. 8: The carnival in the film represents a reprieve from paternal law, albeit a temporary one.

Kristeva (1982) writes that “abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory” (p. 5). The film constantly reinforces this notion by demonstrating that Mary cannot connect with other people, that she feels disconnected from the world itself. This is because she is a dead woman who still haunts the world of the living. At the same time, however, it could be argued that this also represents her status as a strong-willed, independent woman living in a patriarchal society.  Therefore, her inability to forge connections with other people results from her inability to allow herself to be subjugated either to paternal law or the domestic ideal. Thus, Mary is positioned as a manifestation of abjection, and she becomes something that the men in the film learn to fear.

According to Clover (1992), “It is no wonder…that horror should worry the nature of the masculine: what it is, what it should and should not be” (p. 65). Carnival of Souls is no exception, as it often positions men as inferior to women, particularly in the relationship between Mary and John Linden. Mary is smarter and more competent than John, and she asserts her intelligence over him at different points throughout the film. Similarly, Mary is firmly in control of her own sexuality, and this represents another threat to paternal law.  Mary continually rejects John’s sexual advances, and she seems to take delight in rebuffing him (as evidenced by her beatific smile immediately after she sends him on his way after their first meeting). Thus, Mary is positioned as a threat to the patriarchy because she is intellectually superior, and she does not subject herself to the phallic oppression.

Mary is thus positioned as a manifestation of the monstrous-feminine solely because she is a strong-willed, independent woman who has taken charge of her own sexuality, and rejects the law of patriarchal institutions such as religion and medicine. Mary represents the interstitial, which are impure things that “cross the boundaries of the deep categories of a culture’s conceptual scheme” (Carroll, 1990, p. 32). Diegetically, Mary represents an interstitial site that exists between the worlds of the living and the dead. Symbolically, however, Mary becomes an interstitial site that exists between womanhood and the form of paternal law that existed during early years of the sexual revolution.  Mary is a strong-willed, independent, sexually liberated young woman attempting to establish herself as equal to men in a world dominated by paternal law. Indeed, it is Mary’s status as a ghost who occupies a “liminal position between the spheres of the living and the dead” that affords her an “outsider perspective, a vantage point from where dominant ideological structures can be interrogated and deconstructed” (Riley, 2007, p. 15). As a result, Mary becomes something monstrous in the eyes of the patriarchy, and she – and by extension feminism as a whole – becomes abject. This is why the patriarchy fears her (and other independent women), and work so hard to suppress both her sexuality and her agency.


Carnival of Souls follows the tradition of Gothic literature, in that Mary Henry is fleeing the oppression of patriarchal heterosexuality itself, and moving toward the liberation of her own feminine sexuality. As a result, Mary is continually punished and repressed in a number of ways, including through the suppression of her voice, which allows the patriarchy to once again assert control over her. As Christine Sellin (2012) notes, “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” (online). Ultimately, Mary’s struggle mirrors of that of all strong-willed, independent women who fought for equality during the early years of the sexual revolution.

All of this becomes important when considering the impact media have upon the audience. As Aviva Briefel (2009) writes, “The grueling experiences we encounter in the dark world of the theater may deeply influence our relationship to our own world” (p. 95). This is important when considered alongside Stuart Hall’s (1980) assertion that cultural codes are often “so widely distributed in a specific language community or culture, and…learned at so early an age, that they appear not to be constructed” but rather that they occur naturally (p. 132). This applies to notions of feminism within the sexual revolution; for as Allyn (2000) discusses, since bourgeois notions of female purity became the norm during the latter half of the nineteenth century, then each subsequent generation of women became indoctrinated into the patriarchy’s discourse concerning female sexuality. Therefore, the sexual double standard that positioned female pleasure as subordinate to male pleasure is perpetuated and becomes a part of everyday life for women and girls.

If, however, audiences are indeed able to counter cultural codes by appropriating the messages conveyed by the media they consume, then films such as Carnival of Souls that feature messages of female empowerment and patriarchal oppression, become important artifacts when looking at how notions of feminism can be used to upset patriarchal oppression. As an independent film, Carnival of Souls exists outside of mainstream Hollywood cinema, which at the time was often used to promote and reinforce the domestic ideal of the True Woman, particularly in the wake of the Hays Code. Therefore, much like Mary Henry, the film enjoys an outsider status, and is thus able to interrogate and deconstruct the dominant ideology of paternal law, and thus promote a message of feminine equality.

The film was not a hit upon its initial release, however, and was largely “forgotten until it was released on video in 1990” (Walz, 1995, p. 262). This serves to undercut the film’s power to subvert dominant patriarchal ideologies, and impart lessons about feminism and female sexuality during the time of the sexual revolution. The very fact that it was released on video, however, and later on DVD — at which point it achieved some small amount of cultural cache thanks to its inclusion in the prestigious Criterion Collection — the film has been given a second life with which to unsettle viewers while shaping the way they interact with the world. This is important, considering that over 50 years after the start of the sexual revolution, the sexual double standard still exists, and women continue to fight for control of their own sexuality.

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