Dust Bowl Rejects
When HBO canceled Carnivalé after two seasons, American film and TV sank into a brief ignorance of an important aspect of its past: circuses and carnivals. While circuses — in the popular notion of them — tended toward animal exploitation, carnivals relied on the exploitation of the most desperate people in the country. As one might imagine, the images of carnivals coalesced and have remained in the 1930s and the Great Depression.
Carnivalé uses its Dust Bowl setting to highlight the need for escape. Some people join for the showmanship, but many others joined because they were running from something. Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) is the keystone of the series: a man who can heal with his hands, but at a cost to the land surrounding him. It’s a powerful metaphor. As the nation tries to heal from economic collapse, the land itself continued to suffer. Hawkins and company are met with religious opposition, but Clancy Brown’s Brother Justin Crowe soon reveals himself to be a different shade of the dark side, whereas the carnies are the good guys.
This paradigm doesn’t always hold true. In both the film and novel versions of Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury explores the attraction of the carnival. Mr. Dark’s carnival is a place to give in to sins — lust, greed, vanity, and pride primarily — but it’s also in which those sins are punished by apparent eternal damnation.
Suffering for sins is often the outcome of running away from them. Enter Nightmare Alley’s Stanton Carlisle. Bringing 21st-century cinema to the world of geeks, electro-girls, and con artists, director Guillermo del Toro reminds viewers that we can never escape our pasts, and the darker they are, the more we will eventually pay for them. Nightmare Alley’s early carnival scenes do not explicitly take place in the American Midwest, but our imaginations and our history take us there. There is an “Americanness” to those scenes that we don’t get in the later Art Deco scenes set in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is cold and snowy, but the cold somehow doesn’t seem as harsh as the wind that blows on the plains, covering everything in dark brown dust. Fields that grew wheat and corn are good only for tents and rides.
Perhaps it is because the first real look into these tents came in 1932, and we continually return to them. Tod Browning’s Freaks may have been lost for decades, but I don’t believe it ever left the American consciousness. I heard the chant of “gooble gobble, one of us, one of us” long before I’d found a DVD copy of the film that might as well be a documentary of the carnival shows of that era. Sure, there are some special effects, but for the most part, those are real people.
We would often prefer such people not to be real. Reality tends to let us down in ways that fiction doesn’t. When we know we are witnessing or participating in an act, and that act’s secrets are revealed, we aren’t torn up about it. We expect it; we, as Americans with the Dust Bowl behind us, expect to be let down. Sometimes, though, people buy into the act. P.T. Barnum, in the 1800s, set us up for this. We’re all suckers. Sure, he had some of those real people in his shows but that’s always what it was, just a show. And even though Hugh Jackman looks great in The Greatest Showman, we know the musical is not real. While elements of Barnum’s real life are in the movie, much of it is fictionalized. Print the legend, as they say.
Yet sometimes life imitates art. Nightmare Alley is based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsey Gresham, first adapted in 1947. In that film, Stanton Carlisle, he of the sins of the past, learns to cold read, an act in which someone purports to connect to the spirit world in order to relay information to patrons. He uses initials and small details to read people and tell them things they want to hear, usually to be comforted by their dead loved ones.
If you had the Sci-Fi channel in the early 2000s, this act would have appeared rather familiar. The “medium” John Edward spent three years conning people on cable TV with this exact same act. He even went so far as to conduct sessions with family members of those who died in the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Nightmare Alley plays both sides. The carnies aren’t one-dimensional: some of them are good, some of them aren’t, just like the people who come for the show. Stephen King’s 2014 novel Revival plays there, too. The “faith healer” Charles Jacob has been a tent revival preacher healing by the power of God and a carnie, healing people with electricity. He had a few more choices available to him than Ben Hawkins or Stanton Carlisle did, but he regularly makes the wrong choices, wallowing in his own tragedy instead of facing it.
Welcome to America, right? We’re all running from something, rejects from the Dust Bowl, always hoping to see some geek who has it worse than we do. As long we haven’t sunk to the level of eating live chickens and poisoning ourselves with 100 proof alcohol, we’re doing all right. The real truth is that we are always going to be looking for a healer, whether in a church tent or a carnival tent. 🩸
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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