How Nightmare Alley Conjured Real Occult Worship

The spiritual con at the heart of Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley is based on a story with a strange power and connections to the occult.

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

This article contains spoilers for both versions of NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

“Fear is the key to human nature,” the Great Stanton learns in William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley. That 1946 novel was a hit when it came out, even though it was banned and censored. And its spell lingered so long it was adapted by Academy Award-winning horror maestro, Guillermo del Toro, in 2021 with Bradley Cooper starring as the carny medium. This most recent adaptation, however, is just the second screen version, following in the footsteps of a 1947 cult noir classic starring Tyrone Power. Both versions struggled at the box office, and yet both seem to find their audiences, which might speak to the original text’s strange thrall throughout the decades.

Occultists couldn’t resist the novel or first film’s allure. It was like cotton candy at a carnival, right outside the house of mirrors where their deepest sins would be revealed. Esoteric artists had been trading fear for cash almost as long as traditional religions had been doing it. The book accurately captured the mentalism tricks and the serious studies which went into their often dubious art. 

Occultists are drawn to Nightmare Alley because, as unflattering a portrait as it draws about the pros and cons in the fortune-telling trade, practitioners recognize its truths.

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Prophets for Profit

To paraphrase the novel, chumps are “either too bashful to ask or too dumb to suspect,” but modern magic began as a bait and switch. Many talented seers used their gifts to prey on the most vulnerable. The spiritualist movement offered ever-elusive hope and passed the plate, while theosophists rigged their séance chambers with gimmicks as frightening as pop-up scares in slasher flicks. 

Horror movies regularly invoke images of dark arcane arts to sell popcorn. Nightmare Alley uses it as a dodge, a con, in a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of sleight-of-hand spiritualism. Gresham came up with the idea for the book while waiting to go back home after fighting in the Spanish Civil War. A man named Joseph Daniel Halliday told him about a carny attraction called a geek, an alcoholic so addicted he was subject to delirium tremens at the thought of a dry spell. The book calls these “the horrors.”

The horrors could drive a drunkard so low he’d bite the heads off chickens for money. The 1947 adaptation is not a horror story, it is a failed caper in a long con. It skims across that generation’s underground knowledge of otherworldly culture. Power’s rookie carny barker in the original movie saves the Ten-in-One show he works at by conning local law enforcement and passing himself off as a poor country boy with the Scottish gift of the second sight. He goes on to become “The Great Stanton,” a headlining spiritualist in black tails and a blindfold selling afterlife soft soap to suckers. He brings his spook act to the Spode Room, a ritzy nightclub in Chicago’s even ritzier Hotel Sherman.

Aside from Tod Browning’s classic horror Freaks, Nightmare Alley was the first glimpse the mainstream moviegoing world got of the carny subculture. It was also an early tease of the mystic arts and how they can be used for grifting chumps. This was before Long Island mediums, real housewives’ advisors, Madame Cleo, and ghost hunting reality shows made talking to dead people an everyday thing. The rules for psychic analysis were almost codified in Gresham’s novel. The phrase “cold reading,” appraising a subject based on visual evidence like body language or the state of one’s shoes, appeared for the first time in print in the fourth chapter of the novel.  Stan gets it from Pete the psychic’s notebook, a secret code for fortune telling, where the phrase “spook racket” also makes its print debut. The film captured the mystical feel, and drew in students of hidden arts.

A Devil’s Avocation

The biggest reason Nightmare Alley is claimed by occult aficionados, and associated with its study, is because of Anton Szandor LaVey, born Howard Stanton Levey. This founder of the Church of Satan based his own mythology on the film, and rearranged his life accordingly. In his written works, LaVey claimed he quit high school to join the circus and then gravitated to the carnival world, working with big cats and playing the calliope.  

“Beginning in his teenage years, when he first saw the original 1947 film Nightmare Alley, my father was quite obsessed with it,” says Zeena, a Tibetan tantric Buddhist yogini, and iconic occult authority. Zeena is the daughter of LaVey, and has disavowed and distanced herself from her father and his teachings.

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Says Zeena, “He believed there was a ‘magical link’ between the Stanton Carlisle character and himself, as his middle name was also Stanton and already at such a young age, he apparently felt a kinship with the cynical role model portrayed in the film. He also had a similar fixation on the horror author Howard Phillips Lovecraft for the same reason; because his first name was originally Howard, before changing it to Anton.”

In the novel, the protagonist rechristens himself Rev. Stanton Carlisle, Pastor of the Church of the Heavenly Message, as he rises to radio acclaim and settles in New York. Many of the early mystics similarly landed in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen at the start of the spiritualist boom, and much of the conjuring parlor parlance became local patter. Writers for the Lower East Side film comedy troupe The Bowery Boys, made by Monogram Pictures, the icon of B-Movie studios which sat on Hollywood’s “poverty row,” regularly referenced the latest fads in then-supernatural chic.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Bowery Boys writers had similar backgrounds and associations as Gresham,” Zeena tells us. The Nightmare Alley author had strong connections with the subject matter. The novelist did a deep dive into the hidden knowledge shrouded in sideshow spook shows.

The Major Arcana and the Penny Arcane

A long-tortured and restless soul, Gresham was a firm believer in psychoanalysis, which he hoped could placate his inner demons, according to Nick Tosches’ introduction to the New York Review Books edition of the novel. This changed when Gresham was writing Nightmare Alley and he became fascinated with the hustlers, freaks, geeks, and confidence games of the carny world. He wrote a non-fiction exposé called Monster Midway, but also found himself drawn to the mystical arts performed in and around the tents. He dove deep into the writings of Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky. His character Stanton recognizes the esoteric arts as a prime dodge, anybody can say anything about immortal realms and miraculous extensions in space. “Who the hell knew what the fourth dimension was, anyway? Chumps. Johns.”

Gresham ultimately traded in the analysts’ couch for cartomancy, even writing an introduction to Charles Williams’ novel The Greater Trumps about the quest for the original Tarot deck. Occultists note how Gresham used the tarot to structure in Nightmare Alley. Every chapter begins with a card above its title. The NYRB edition of the novel uses the Waite-Smith deck, which set the standard and is the most popular.

The tarot deck is made up of 56 cards divided into four suits of wands, cups, swords, and pentacles, and 22 trump cards. Also known as the major arcana, 21 of these figured cards are numbered, the Fool has no number. It is the first chapter of Nightmare Alley. The other card which is not named is Judgment, which illustrates the chapter Resurrection of the Dead. The chapter named CARD XVIII Time, features the Temperance card at the top, probably because booze is a character in the book.

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“What is interesting is Zeena [played by Joan Blondell in the 1947 film and Toni Collette in 2021 adaptation] makes a point to say these cards are absolute magic, in contrast to the con of mentality,” says Ashley Ryan, also known as Pythian Priestess, a practicing occultist and host of the upcoming podcast The Occult Unveiled who chatted with Den of Geek. “Her statement shows us that in Nightmare Alley, magick and occult sciences exist but only to those who know how to see.”

Gresham’s shuffle pulls the Hanged Man as the last card on the page. “Do not mistake tarot as ‘fortune-telling,’” Ryan tells us. “Tarot reflects the receiver’s subconscious. Tarot Cards are used to foreshadow Stanton’s fate. The Hanged Man card represents a pause in the receiver’s life because they are out of alignment with the Universe causing misfortunes, ill-health, and mental breakdowns. When the Hanged Man is upside down, the receiver needs to find a new perspective.”

Besides the tarot, The Great Stanton also exhibits knowledge of yoga, leads chants of the primordial cosmic vibration “Hari Aum,” a Sanskrit mantra which connects practitioners with universal consciousness, and references Ramakrishna, a 19th-century Indian Hindu mystic. 

Gresham even namechecks “Men of the caliber of Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, and Sir William Crooke.” Each renowned for updating the western world works on paranormal research, cult worship, and the “soft, greenish spark called the psychic breeze.” These were the first people to believe many spirit possessions were misdiagnosed as mental illness.

Religious Repression and Cultural Regression

On its surface, it appears Gresham wrote Dr. Lilith Ritter, played by Helen Walker in 1947 and Cate Blanchett in 2021, as a vendetta against the growing science of the mind, making it seem like psychoanalysis is just another grift. Dr. Ritter is the one who tells Carlisle: “You were never cut out to run a spook racket solo.”

But the consulting psychologist character has another role in the book. The difference between Dr. Ritter and the “spook racket” is the difference between magick and magic. She is not just a femme fatale; she is a fiercely independent spirit, and a horribly wronged woman, coldly relegated to the commonplace sexual indignities of her time. Not only did she have to “shake hands” regularly with the old judge who set her up in practice when she “was a court psychiatrist on a city salary,” but she remembers “shaking hands” with “five boys in her neighborhood” in a vacant lot when she was 16. “I think each came back twice,” she tells Stan.

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For occultists, Dr. Lilith Ritter also symbolizess the “superior woman” needed for sex magic, as written about by 19th-century American occultist Paschal Beverly Randolph. “The Dark Goddess Lilith, in Jewish folklore, is the first radical feminist,” argues Rebecca Halladay, an occult writer, scholar, and witch. “She is Adam’s first wife, and was created from the same earth, which to Her, makes them equal.”

According to Jewish folklore’s “The Alphabet of the Ben Sira,” Adam’s first mistake was insisting on the dominant position, with him on top, during sex. It is because of this, “Lilith leaves him and goes to the sea,” Halladay explains. “Adam’s God then demonizes Lilith for not going ahead with his plan. The submissive Eve replaces the rebellious Lilith. Her sleight-of-hand magick of giving Adam an apple and eating from the Tree of Knowledge led to their expulsion from the Garden and their eternal damnation. Eve needed the Serpent for inspiration, but Lilith needed only Herself.”

The literary Rev. Stanton, Pastor of the Church of the Heavenly Message, doesn’t make the same mistake. In the novel, Dr. Ritter takes a very dominant role in his spiritual development, sexuality, and psychological breakdown, occasionally within the same brush stroke. In the chapter CARD XII, The Star, Dr. Ritter makes Stanton paint her toenails, and her admission of a traumatic sexual past triggers a childhood memory in him. He gouges himself in the forehead, repeatedly, with the nail scissors. It is a revelation.

Ritter is also the character who stacks her bookshelves with volumes of arcane knowledge. The psychologist weaponizes trance against the glorified sideshow trance medium. Her brain is “always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider’s silk. It sent its charges into his mind.”

The Secrets of Madame Zeena

In both films it is Molly, played by Coleen Gray and Rooney Mara, respectively, who seems to conduct the currents as Mamzelle Electra, the girl who defies the lightning. But it is Zeena who is the true draw for occultists who discovered the movie.

“It was uncanny how Zeena could fish out things just by watching the person’s face,” the book reads. “Stan got a sudden thrust of cold fear. Of all the people in the world for him to hide anything from, it had to be a mind reader.”

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Gresham keeps to old-school esotericism by casting a woman as the oracle and the man is her wand.  In America’s southern states, Zeena skips horoscopes and cards, and peddles John the Conqueror root. In her hands, a crystal ball is erotic, especially when replaced by a whiskey bottle. Zeena is a victim of her former charm. In the 1947 film, Pete’s death is a predestined accident, foretold in the cards. Stan stashes real moonshine in Zeena’s stage trunk, but hands over an identical bottle of wood alcohol to the inventor of the secret code. It could be interpreted as a sacrificial rite of passage because the poison passed through Zeena’s trunk. It gives birth to the Great Stanton.

“He always reminded me that he named me after the mentalist Zeena, in a similar reverent way to what I suppose Catholics are told of their saint-name namesakes,” Zeena says. “Years later when my son was born, my father insisted that the boy be named Stanton. I’d thought it was only as a tie-in to the same story that my name came from, because I never knew my father’s birth name until well after I’d left the Church of Satan. He’d kept his birth name a well-hidden secret until Lawrence Wright, in his 1991 exposé on my father, ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ for Rolling Stone, ordered his birth certificate and revealed that detail in the article.”

The 1947 film was a box office failure, even though it gave Darryl F. Zanuck’s studio 20th Century-Fox a masterful American response to the Italian neo-realism movement. The movie afforded Power, who fought to get it done, a chance to play something more than swashbucklers and bullfighters. It had a screenplay by Jules Furthman, an ex-newspaperman who wrote the scripts for hard-hitting classics like The Docks of New York (1928), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Using naturalistic settings, black and white photography, mundane carny sets, and soft-focus edits as visual metaphor, Nightmare Alley influenced films from Roger Corman’s The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).

The film ultimately found its audience, and a cult formed, which was just as rabid as the Rev. Carlisle’s in the book. In the LaVey household, the movie was a perennial.

“He also kept a huge cinema poster for the film in our kitchen and at least a couple of times a year we’d watch the film in celluloid on our home projector,” Zeena tells us. “The story line served as a sort of Dark-Triad template for him, it fueled a misanthropic passion to ‘build a better mousetrap,’ erroneously believing he could succeed at ‘bilking the rubes’ in ways that the fictional Stanton had failed.”

In the novel, Carlisle admits to Dr. Ritter that “I’m a hustler, God damn it. Nothing matters in this damned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.” The notebook teaches he “can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of,” and he puts it to use rigging a house for séances. “I can gimmick it up from cellar to attic,” Stanton says in the book. “I can give ’em the second coming of Christ if I want to.” Then he does, establishing his radio pulpit, and attracting the worst kinds of wealthy sinners willing to bet cold cash on a shot at redemption.

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Zeena points out the head of the first satanic congregation had the same game plan. As an FBI report on LaVey from 1980 reads, “LaVey stated that he is well aware that most people associated with the Church of Satan are in fact ‘Fanatics, Cultists and Weirdos.’ He stated his interest in the Church of Satan is strictly from a monetary point of view.”

Zeena explains, “The FBI report makes clear that the Church of Satan founder never intended his new ‘religion’ to be anything more than a money-making scam, exactly as Stan Carlisle was a shrewd charlatan.” The carnival is a traveling freak show, a world of curtains, shadows, and garish marquee posters. In the book, when the Rev. Stanton can’t afford the spiritual solitude of the Himalayas, he says he can make do in the Catskills.

Gresham’s novel is not about crime and punishment, sin and retribution. Morality has nothing to do with it. “The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors,” the book reads. “But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they are afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key!”

Conflicting reports say Goulding, the original film’s director, died either on the operating table or by suicide in 1959, following a life of sexual adventurism and the resultant public scandal. After publishing a biography of Houdini which producers were trying to turn into a musical, Gresham checked into the same Times Square hotel room where he wrote the first draft of Nightmare Alley, swallowed a fistful of sleeping pills and died on Sept. 14, 1962.  Zeena adds that her father died seven years to the day of a curse she placed on him in response to his admission that he sent someone after her (with intent to kill her). The doctor who was present at LaVey’s death told Zeena he’d “never seen a heart so thoroughly rotted and beyond saving.”

In November 1947, the Nat “King” Cole Trio made a record called “The Geek,” Billboard’s carnival section rans ads with disclaimers like “No geek or girl shows.” Goulding’s Nightmare Alley originally ended on the same scene which concludes del Toro’s adaptation of the novel. The geek is the final stage for carny hustlers who mess with the occult, and Stanton will geek until he drinks himself to death. The studio insisted a new ending be tagged on, offering hope of redemption for Power’s geek. The film’s new concluding lines mocked how the process marred the very promise of what the film was trying to do. “How can a guy get so low? He reached too high.” As above, so below, reversed.