I bought a copy of Carnival of Souls in high school.  The age of VHS — magnetic tape, we called it.  Video rental stores were as plentiful as trilobites, and brontosaurus-sized Blockbusters lumbered across the land.  I had mastered taping movies right off the TV or making tape-to-tape duplicates.  At the time, I thought taping at EP or SLP instead of SP meant that I could fit more movies onto a single tape, thus ‘saving tape,’ but I didn’t learn until later how that degraded the picture quality.  Watching the tapes repeatedly, as well, wore out the tape, and, over time, the movies became ghosts of themselves, shaky and speckled, one image bleeding into the next.

I owned very few horror movies on VHS.  In the 80s, videotapes of movies were expensive — priced for rental, not ownership, and the film was a staple on PBS; on Halloween night, I could count on either Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead playing (much in the way that I could expect falling snow during trick-or-treating).   Nevertheless, I bought my copy from the Aurora Mall Suncoast Video.  On the cover, a dazed, muddy Candace Hilligoss clambers out of a river, and the title whirls its way out the home for psychedelic fonts.

Cynthia Freeland, in her book The Naked and the Undead, suggests that horror movies work by the processes of fusion and fission.  Fusion, she explains, is the conflation of discrete entities:  the distinct states of being of ‘living’ and ‘dead,’ for instance, merge into ‘living dead’; the physical distinctions between ‘man’ and ‘beast’ blur into the form of a werewolf (or, if you prefer, a sexed-up humanoid cicada).

Fission, on the other hand, is the separation of a conceived-of whole.  Killers with split personalities exhibit fission, as do most slasher films (separation of head from body, viscera from stomach, fingernails from fingers).  Carnival of Souls, then, is all about the fission:  from her godless organ playing to her sangfroid with a potential suitor, Mary’s soul seems detached from her body.

Watching the movie so long after abandoning my VHS tapes to the dusty ignominy of my parent’s basement, I feel a similar fission.  It’s the process of growing up; the theory-addled academic can no longer be the giddy teenager walking out of the mall, though he remembers the smell of ozone from a hot VCR player; the crinkling as he removes the cellophane; the shaking hands as he inserts a new videotape into the player, waiting for phantasmagoric images to flicker into life.  He still enjoys the movie on an aesthetic level:  the atmospheric shots of the abandoned amusement park, the oblique camera angles.  But he wonders when the white-faced ghouls will catch up, dragging him, kicking and screaming, back to the decrepit Saltair pavilion.

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