Nightmare Alley


There are many interesting aspects of this film, Nightmare Alley, but one of them really grabbed me.

Years ago, I read a wonderful book by Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s finest writers at the time.  The book is Fifth Business. Frankly, I read it so long ago I don’t remember much about it. Yet that book had one very disturbing scene at the end that has haunted me ever since. It really was a nightmare scene involving a geek. I had never heard of geeks before, and I am not sure I heard of them again until recently when I watched the film called Nightmare Alley.

A character in Davies’ book described a geek this way:

“Geek…That is what carnival people call them. They are not an advertised attraction, but word that a geek is in a back tent is passed around quietly, and money is taken without any sale of tickets. Otherwise the Humane Societies make themselves a nuisance.  The geek is represented as somebody who simply has to have raw flesh, and especially blood.  After the spieler has lectured terrifyingly on the psychology and physiology of the geek, the geek is given a live chicken: he growls and rolls his eyes, then he gnaws  through its neck until the head is off, and he drinks the spouting blood. Not a nice life, and very hard on the teeth, but if it is the only way to keep yourself in morphia you’d rather geek than have the horrors. The rubes loved it; Willard (the geek) was something even the most disgusting brute could despise…people like to be in awe of something.”


After the geek bites off  the head of the chicken  he swallows it. I keep thinking what sort of people like this?  Now I don’t want to scare anyone off.  You don’t see this on the screen, but it is suggested. And the scene is brief. That is bad enough.

The film is a film is based on a 1946 novel of the same name written by William Lindsay Gresham. An earlier film version was made in 1947. The film was directed by Guillermo del Toro and stars Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchette, Willem Dafoe , Rooney Mara, and Ron Perlman and other outstanding actors.


In the film the geek escapes and his “owner” hunts him down in the dark alleys of the carnival. When he is caught, he keeps saying, “I’m not like this.”  A sign near by says, “Take a look at yourself sinner.”   The viewers really are looking at themselves and they probably are sinners. The “owner” says, “Folks will pay good money just to make themselves feel better.”  To the public he asks, “Behold one of the wonders of the universe. Is he man or beast?”  That is a question one should ask of the patrons instead.

The men are able to exploit the geek by taking advantage of his addiction to drugs or alcohol. The geek wants them so bad he will geek to get them. Can you imagine how desperate a person must be to do that?


Stan, is played by Bradley Cooper, a charming but overly ambitious carnival worker. He is shady mentalist. He is successful because he understands “People are desperate to tell you who they are. Desperate to be seen.” He uses that knowledge to lead people astray.  He seduces Molly by promising her, “I’ll give you the world and everything in. it.”  How can she fall for that?


The problem for someone like Stan is that he must be careful not to believe his own lies. That becomes dangerous. Stan forgets what Lilith knows, that he is “ a man who thinks he is high above the common man,” but actually is “nothing but an Okie with straight teeth.” He finds out how high he is.


Like the geek, he is a “poor soul.”


Leave a Reply