Audio Terror: Carnival of Souls at HOME

There are several great cinema screenings and events at HOME over its opening weekend, but perhaps the most innovative is one in which the film has been removed from the equation. Welcome to the audio-only adaptation of 1962 horror Carnival of Souls

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 20 May 2015

If you made it to a cinema at the weekend it’s possible that you were treated to two of the year’s finest films: The Tribe and Mad Max: Fury Road. On the surface they seem very different. The former is a low-fi crime drama set in a boarding school for deaf teens; the latter cost millions, is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia where humanity hangs by a thread and takes the form of a live action Wacky Races. But both are exemplary examples of visual filmmaking. The Tribe features no spoken dialogue and instead relies on the gestures and movements of its actors to tell its yarn. Fury Road, meanwhile, lets its poetic camera work, breakneck editing and rich production design do the talking, while its players take the Robert Mitchum approach to screen acting and say as little as possible.

But what if your vision is impaired? Cinema, the most egalitarian and accessible of art forms, suddenly becomes a prohibitive space. Even with the most well-produced audio descriptive services, the magic of these two movies would be impossible to recreate. It’s with this in mind that Film Hub North West Central approached Cornerhouse/HOME's visual arts programmer Bren O’Callaghan to create a cinema experience for blind and sight-impaired audiences that improves on the practical but often dull delivery of audio description.

It just so happened that O’Callaghan had already had the idea to do something similar with an old horror movie after a lively conversation with his friend Euan Rodger (who would become the sound designer and composer for the piece). “We were at a Christmas party and we were bonding over a shared love of The Haunting,” explains O’Callaghan when we met at Cornerhouse back in February, adding quickly: “the 1960s version, not the Catherine Zeta Jones and Liam Neeson one.” He and Rodger were particularly enamoured with its elegant sound design. “[The film] achieves this sense of not so much creeping menace as in-your-face terror by using sound alone, you see almost nothing at all.” When The Haunting appeared to be tied up in copyright red tape, O’Callaghan turned his attentions instead to 1962 experimental horror Carnival of Souls.

Hark Harvey as 'The Man' in Carnival of Souls (1962)

Taking an old movie and giving it a new score is nothing new. You’ll find Dutch Uncles’ Robin Richards doing just that to Pal Fejos’ 1928 film Lonesome during HOME’s opening weekend. With Carnival of Souls, O’Callaghan inverses this trend. “I thought, ‘OK, what if rather than take away the soundtrack, you take away the film? What’s left behind?’” This train of thought led him to begin to appreciate the elements of cinema that often go unnoticed. “If you’re having a successful film viewing experience you don’t think about sound, you don’t think about dialogue. You only acknowledge the dialogue if it’s bad dialogue, but if it’s good dialogue, it just happens. If we take away the film then the focus will be thrown back upon all those elements that remain.”

Carnival of Souls seems like a strange choice for this approach. The eerie chiller was made for peanuts, but director Herk Harvey makes up for that with haunting visuals. It follows Mary (Candace Hilligoss), a disturbed young woman who miraculously survives a car wreck at the opening of the film. She’s trying to get over the trauma by moving to a new town where she’s found a job as a church organist. Mary’s new home seems placid enough, but slowly the supernatural starts to creep in. She begins to be stalked by a mysterious, hollow-cheeked man who only she can see. She also feels drawn towards an abandoned carnival on the edge of town. It’s a film of atmosphere and dread in which we’re very much placed in our lead character’s fractured psyche. Bringing such a film to life without images could be a tricky prospect. O’Callaghan was well aware of the predicament: “There is a question mark over the film whether any of it is actually happening,” he says. “It could almost be an internal monologue.”

For an adaptation to work in terms of sound alone, there had to be one significant tweak. “In the film it’s very much about one single character. In our adaptation it’s a dialogue between two characters.” Who becomes Mary’s companion in this two hander? That mysterious hollow-cheeked stalker of course. “It’s never quite clear if The Man [the name given to the character, played by director Herk Harvey, in the closing credits] is the villain or if he’s a figure who intends to help the lead female. But The Man doesn't speak. At all. So if we’re taking a character like him and trying to bring that across using an audio only experience, they have to speak, otherwise you’re not going to know. That was possibly the biggest challenge.”

"There’s no getting away from the influence of radio" – Bren O’Callaghan

O’Callaghan's passion for radio feeds into the adaptation. Throughout the interview he brings up his longtime admiration of HP Lovecraft, whose wild vision has often proved problematic for filmmakers but has worked incredibly well on the wireless, and his love for Lynchian podcast Welcome to Nightvale. “Even serials like Doctor Who, when they were out of favour, existed as radio adaptations as well, so there’s no getting away from the influence of radio and radio serials,” he says. The experience of Carnival of Souls will be much richer than listening to a radio play, however. Think of it as experiencing a 3D soundscape.

Like stereoscopic 3D, binaural sound, the technique used to create this effect, goes back decades. It first appeared in public use in around the 1880s in Paris, and was used to relay live opera down the telephone to people who couldn't make the performance. Later, in 1978, the ever-innovative Lou Reed released the first commercially available binaural pop record with Street Hassle. Essentially, the technique replicates the sensation of sound being present in the space outside your body. “You perceive stereo sound as happening inside your skull,” explains O’Callaghan. “Where as with binaural sound you perceive it as happening outside the skull in a physical space. You perceive it having qualities such as distance, range, proximity. It’s very good in terms of sounds that are happening above and behind the head, beneath your feet.” It’s this quality that will help recreate Carnival of Souls' uncanny atmosphere and approximate the feeling of immersion that we feel in the cinema space.

Most importantly, everyone in the audience will feel the same level of engagement with the material. “We're not saying we’re going to turn the audience blind, that would be crude and also impossible, but what we do want is for the whole audience to have a collective experience; someone who can't see can be sat next to someone who can, but they’ll both be accessing something comparable.”

More from The Skinny:

Keeping It Reel: HOME's artistic director of film, Jason Wood

Love in Troubled Times: Simon Stephens on The Funfair

Carnival of Souls screens twice over HOME's opening weekend:

23 May, 10pm

24 May, 6pm

Carnival of Souls had its world premiere at Cornerhouse on 27 Feb