Saltair and the Carnival of Souls

Saltair
Saltair III on an overcast March evening.
Photo: Nina Zumel

I was in Salt Lake City all this past week, on business. It’s a beautiful area, the Salt Lake Basin, and the weather was fantastic. It’s too bad I had to spend most of my time indoors, in meetings and working sessions. Being able to see the snow-frosted peaks of the Rockies in every direction whenever I did step outside almost made up for that — but only almost. One of these days, I’m going to take an extra weekend after visiting our Salt Lake client, to hike and really see the Great Salt Lake, but this trip I had to make do with a quick trip to the Saltair Pavilion, on the shore of the lake, before heading to the airport for home.

It was after hours (and off season, of course), so the gates to the pavilion were closed. The clouds had thickened, and a chill settled in after a week of unseasonably warm weather. The lake stank of sulfur. I didn’t want to scramble through the fence in my business clothes, so I contented myself with a few snapshots from the road while a few curious roadies (Saltair is a concert venue now) looked on.

I still want to see it (and the Lake) close up; but I confess, the Pavilion was a bit disappointing. Of course this is Saltair’s third, and least ambitious incarnation. The original Saltair was built in 1893 by the Mormon church. It had salt water bathing, a ferris wheel and other rides, and the “largest dance floor in the world” — though Coney Island claimed the same thing.

773px Saltair Pavilion 1900
The original Saltair, circa 1900.
Photo: Library of Congress (via Wikipedia)

The resort was intended to serve two purposes: first, to be a “wholesome place of recreation” for Mormon families and young people; and second, to be the “Coney Island of the West”. They succeeded at the second goal — Saltair became one of the most popular family resorts west of New York — possibly at the expense of the first. Contrary to Mormon doctrine, Saltair not only served coffee and tea (and according to Wikipedia, alcohol), but it was also open on Sunday.

The original Saltair burned down in 1925. It was rebuilt, and did fairly well for a while, but never regained its former success. The resort shut down in 1958, and the building burned down in 1970.

What I know Saltair for is its appearance in the 1962 horror movie Carnival of Souls. Carnival is the story of a church organist, Mary Henry, who survives a terrible car accident. Soon after, she moves to a new city for a job, and finds herself hunted (or haunted?) by a mysterious man. She is also obsessed with the ruins of an old amusement park on the shores of the lake just out of town.

It’s a strange film, kind of a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone, crossed with a Fritz Lang silent movie, crossed with a public service short. In fact, the director, Herk Harvey, worked for a company that made public service films (Centron Productions), out of Lawrence, Kansas.

I watched Carnival again last night (it’s in the public domain, and available on archive.org). It’s a great movie, but not a good one, if you know what I mean. The dialog is stilted, many of the performances are wooden, and it verges on the cheesy in spots. On the other hand, the lead actress, Candace Hilligoss, is terrific. Her solo scenes — the wordless emotion — reminded me at times of Sigourney Weaver’s solo scenes towards the end of Alien. I wonder why she didn’t go on to a bigger career. The guy who plays Mary Henry’s slimy lecherous neighbor is pretty good, and there are some genuinely creepy scenes scattered throughout the film.

The cinematography is well done, too. I wish that I had a better quality print than the one that is available on archive.org, because the framing of the shots and the use of geometry and of light and dark is especially strong in the Saltair scenes. There’s one shot that Francis Ford Coppola definitely stole for Apocalypse Now. There’s another that Matthew Dessem argues Kubrick stole for The Shining, though I’m less convinced about that connection.

Saltair souls
A scene from Carnival of Souls: the ballroom of Saltair, overlooking the salt flats.
Photo from The Criterion Contraption

Beyond its supernatural twist ending, Carnival is a movie about alienation. Mary Henry is seen as distant and stand-offish by her neighbors. She’s a queer fish who doesn’t fit in, and doesn’t have quite the same values or life priorities as the community around her. She pretends (even to herself) that she doesn’t need anyone else. I’ve felt like “that weird girl”, the strange outsider, on more than one occasion in my life; there’s a scene where Mary is on a date with her neighbor, and her utter inability to connect with him, though she tries, was a little too familiar. It wasn’t hard for me to empathize with Mary, even with her thin characterization. Judging from the film’s cult status, I’m not the only one.

This is the only feature-length movie that Herk Harvey ever made; he continued to make educational and industrial films for the rest of his career. Don’t expect Night of the Living Dead, but if you are in the mood for a quiet tale of the weird, and you like old, abandoned buildings, give this one a try.


More Links:

Carnival of Souls, at archive.org

A much better review of the movie, by Matthew Dessem at The Criterion Contraption. Yes, Carnival of Souls was re-released by Criterion, which tells you something. Dessem has a nice discussion of other directors who have been influenced by this film, including Coppola.

A short history of Saltair, from utah.gov. Be sure to check out the photo gallery.

Web site for the present-day Saltair.

4 thoughts on “Saltair and the Carnival of Souls

  1. That top picture is just wonderfully desolate. As you can probably guess, I’m a fan of abandoned buildings, and will probably seek this film out. Thank you for bringing it to light here.

    • Thanks! It was a desolate evening, on that trip out there. There’s a geothermal plant on the other side of the road that was almost as grim. The smell and the clouds and the chill and the almost complete lack of people all around — I was happy that the snapshot went as far as it did at capturing some of the mood of the moment.

      The Saltair scenes are some of the most interesting in the film, I think you will like it.

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