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“Ah, the carnival. The great American celebration of freedom, fun and food.”
- Susan B. Chick
“Ah, the carnival. The great American underbelly of fear, fraud and freaks.”
When I was a kid, there was a carnival that would travel through my hometown and set up shop for two or three days in the big parking lot of a nearby mill. It was an annual, magical event. It was as if, well, it was as if the carnival had come to town.
Sidebar: I have never understood the concept of "running away to join the circus." The whole point of the circus, or a carnival, or a fair, is that they travel from town to town. They come to you! Then again, I guess it's not as dramatic to say, "I can't take it anymore! I'm going out front and wait for the circus!”
Anyway, I have very distinct memories of the carnival that used to set up in good ol' Hopedale, Mass. One of the most vivid recollections I have is of seeing an elephant urinate for the first time, which is an impressive display. I can also recall, so clearly, the smell of cotton candy and popcorn, seeing whatever the Giant Rat Of Borneo was, watching the elephant urinate some more and being terrified that The Moon Bounce would become untethered and float away with me inside it.
And that is the magic of the carnival. I have fond memories, but the indelible ones things that shocked, confused and, in the case of the Moon Bounce, downright terrified me. For the storyteller, carnivals are a jackpot; brightly colored microcosms of the American experience, an aspirational wonderland of bright lights and instant riches where, in reality, the games are all rigged. The glitzy entertainers are freaks and weirdos and the audience a gullible gaggle of marks and suckers. The carnival is a traveling fantasy bubble, a haven for outcasts and a place of magic, both wondrous and terrible.
Over the years, some of the movies' greatest creepfests have been set along the midway. In the next few installments, we’ll take a look at them, including the original Nightmare Alley, Herk Harvey’s hypnotic Carnival Of Souls, and the Citizen Kane of all things carny, Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Last month saw the release of director Guillermo Del Toro’s 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley, a star-studded, generously-budgeted remake of the 1947 original starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Both versions are faithful adaptions of William Lindsey Gresham apocalyptically noir 1946 novel.
The novel, Nightmare Alley, published in 1946, tells the story of Stanton Carlise, a drifter ('natch) who finds work at a “ten-in-one” sideshow, beginning as a roustabout and working his way up to a phony psychic, or mentalist, act. Along the way, Stanton encounters the cream of society, the old money swells who believe he really does possess psychic abilities, and hire him to speak to their dead and ease the guilt of their past misdeeds. He also meets societies lowest, represented by the man performing the carnival’s geek pit.
A geek show is a turn-of-the-century carnival staple where a man pretends to be feral, usually billed as “The Wild Man Of Borneo” or something similar (it’s always Borneo), who comes out a grunts and growls in front of the crowd. The act concludes when the geek bites the head off a live chicken. This was a real thing. During Prohibition, a geek was more likely than not to be an alcoholic or drug addict who had signed up to work with the carnival and were now being paid in booze. It was considered a dark and shady deal, and many carnivals made it a point of pride that they did not employ geeks. Others, not so much.
So omnipresent is the fear of the geek pit in Nightmare Alley that the novel opens with a long, laboriously detailed description of how one goes about finding and grooming a potential geek. How to lure someone into this rock bottom of rock bottoms. Be warned! Geeks aren’t born, they’re made. A man who has fallen on hard times, a rummy who has gotten so lost in the bottle that he will do whatever it takes to keep it, will eventually find himself in the geek pit. Or, as Greshem puts it, so succinctly, "He'll geek."
Of the novel, Michael Dirda of The Washington Post said, “I was utterly unprepared for its raw, Dostoevskian power....it's more than just a steamy noir classic. As a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.” The London Times called it, "Brilliant and horrific."
As spectacularly dark as the rise and fall of Nightmare Alley's Stanton Carlisle is, it’s a shadow upon the real life story of its author, William Lindsey Greshem. The stories for Nightmare Alley came largely from Greshem’s friendship with Joseph Halliday, a former sideshow employee. In addition to Nightmare Alley, Greshem wrote a non-fiction study of the carnival world called Monster Midway. According to the New York Review Of Books, Greshem was, “a tortured mind and a tormented life, and, seeking to banish his demons, he lost himself in a maze of what proved dead-ends for him, from Marxism to psychoanalysis to Christianity to Alcoholics Anonymous to Rinzai Zen Buddhism.” There was also a purported brief dalliance with Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbarb’s early precursor to Scientology.
Greshem had a difficult path. According to the Wheaton College Archives, he divorced his first wife, married her cousin, became an alcoholic, tried repeatedly to get sober, suffered deteriorating health, and eventually committed suicide.
Again, the carnival analogy is unavoidable. There's wealth and fame, but just around the corner, lies the pit.
Next time, Tyrone Power reads Greshem’s novel and wants to make it a movie, but his boss, 20th Century Fox's Darryl Zanuck thinks he’s nuts. Thoughts??