Its original theatrical release in 1962 was a box office failure. Subsequent airings on late-night television helped it gain it a strong cult following. It's now regarded as a landmark in psychological horror.
According to director Herk Harvey, one reel of footage for the film was ruined during processing. He said it was a long series of shots that was supposed to take place just before Mary sees the "souls" dancing in the ballroom. In the shots the ghouls were supposed to slowly appear from behind the rotting dock pylons on the salt flats and slowly walk across the prairie to the ballroom, where they would begin to dance. Sadly, the footage was overexposed during processing and couldn't be included in the film.
Portions of the movie are tinted in a manner similar to silent films. Whenever Mary is in one of her altered mental states, the picture has a faint cyan tint, while all the "real" scenes are in pure black-and-white. Later in the film, the tinted segments also have distorted sound and picture.
According to star Candace Hilligoss, the river water she was submerged in for the film's finale was frigid. She said she had to be placed in the water for several hours to get the final shots. One of the actresses lying next to Hilligoss is trembling from the cold water.
The bridge used in the opening of the film is called the Lecompton Bridge, named after the nearby town of Lecompton, KS. The Kaw River runs under it. The iron bridge was replaced with a concrete one in 1970.
The Saltair amusement park that appears in the film burned down in 1967. It was rebuilt, on a smaller scale, in the 1980s. Soon after, the Great Salt Lake rose and flooded it. In 1993, the building was remodeled and reopened. It is mainly a small venue for musical acts.
This film was shot on location in Salt Lake City, UT, and Lawrence, KS, with interior shots at the Centron Studios in Lawrence. Centron was an industrial film company, producing industrial and educational films and "social guidance" short subjects from the 1950s into the 1960s. Most of this film's technical staff, including director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, were Centron employees.
When Mary goes shopping, it is at the famous Z.C.M.I. store in Salt Lake City. When she walks out of the store you can see the State Capital behind her. When she comes to and she meets the psychiatrist, she is wandering the City Hall grounds.
The scenes in the department store were shot after the filmmakers asked the manager if it was okay to shoot there. Herk Harvey paid the saleslady in the store $25 not to notice the filming taking place there.
When director Harvey finished the film, he went back to his original work of making industrial and training films, travelling to South America. Upon returning he asked the film's distributor Herts-Lion for his royalty check. The check bounced and the distribution company folded in 1964.
Sidney Berger, who plays John Linden, has a role in this film's remake - Carnival of Souls (1998) - as a policeman. He was also a drama teacher at the University of Kansas and later, the University of Houston.