By Stuart Mitchner
It is shuddersome and sinister. About it hovers the grisly something which we all fear in the dark but dare not define.
—James Huneker on Chopin’s Prelude No. 2
When a film is called Night of the Living Dead, you know what to expect. Same with The Walking Dead. Given the Hitchcock brand and half a century of shower-slaughter word of mouth, you know where you’re headed with Psycho.
Carnival of Souls is another matter. The film’s title alone has intriguing possibilities, with room for whatever or whoever you want to bring to the dance, if you don’t mind fox-trotting or waltzing to sinister organ music reminiscent of NBC’s Inner Sanctum, the old time radio precursor to The Twilight Zone. The horror movie genre it has been consigned to is less interesting to me than the title’s suggestion of a gathering of souls. In my preferred vision of the carnival, the doors are open to great souls like Kafka and Chopin, whose 211th birthday was March 1.
Keeping in mind the rhetoric Chopin’s sometimes “shuddersome and sinister” music has attracted — the “affinities with the darkling conceptions” of Poe and Coleridge in the Scherzo in C-sharp minor that James Huneker likens to “some fantastic, sombre pile of disordered farouche architecture” about which “hovers perpetual night and the unspeakable and despairing things that live in the night” — I’ve been thinking a lot about Carnival of Souls and its protagonist, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). Having survived an accident in which two friends drowned, Mary moves from Lawrence, Kansas, to Salt Lake City, where she has a job as a church organist. She’s in a department store buying a new dress when suddenly the world goes silent, sales people and other customers no longer see her, she can’t hear them, they can’t hear her, and after escaping outside she’s still in the silent spell until a bird’s song brings the real world back to life for her.
Going directly from that nightmare to the church organ, she begins to rehearse, but the sounds she’s producing soon veer into dissonance and discord that she’s helpless to control, it’s as if her hands have taken on a spasmodic life of their own, crawling and creeping over the keys, and when two large hands reach out of nowhere to cover hers, you think at first they belong to the ghoulish figure that’s been stalking her. But no, it’s the appalled minister putting a stop to the profane uproar before pompously firing her on the spot. A day ago he’d praised her playing, telling her to put her soul into it, and so she has but it’s not her soul.
The sequence takes only four of the film’s 80 minutes, and I’ve seen it several times on YouTube, trying to imagine the impact on the minister had certain portions of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata been translated into the language of the pipe organ, a sonata that Schumann says “begins and ends … with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances,” not to mention “the brief, astonishing finale, a coda to the famous marche funebre suggesting that the departing mourners were swept away by a tornado.” Scarily akin to the sight of Mary’s hands is a fellow pianist and composer’s account of Chopin at the piano: “It was an astonishing sight to see one of his little hands reach out and cover a third of the key-board. It was like the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit. In reality, Chopin was made of rubber.”
The first piece I associated with Mary’s trauma was the Polonaise fantasie in A flat major that Franz Liszt described in an 1852 monograph as “an elegiac tristesse … punctuated by startled movements, melancholic smiles, unexpected jolts, pauses full of tremors, like those felt by somebody caught in an ambush, surrounded on all sides.” To a critic of the period, “the piano speaks here in a language not previously known.” When he was working on the Polonaise, Chopin himself admitted he didn’t know what to title it until the end, confessing, “I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call.” He completed it in August 1846, three years before his death. more