What a man sows, so shall he reap. The choices he will make and the sins he will commit, will not only shape his present but also his future. ‘Nightmare Alley’ is a melancholic depiction of one such tragic man who is the architect of his own doom. Stanton Carlisle, the protagonist, is the perfect portrayal of the Greek tragic character, Icarus. Stan, like the folklore, tries to escape the labyrinth of his childhood or the void it creates. But he gets so blindly passionate about his hustle that he ignores the warnings of his loved ones. Ambitiously, he decides to fly too high, too close to the sun, only to find himself hitting rock bottom in the end.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, “Nightmare Alley” is the second film based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name. In 1947, Edmund Goulding adapted the book that followed the man’s tragic journey and his hustle to escape poverty. Guillermo del Toro’s version of the narrative is similarly set during World War II. However, his vision of the set design and subtle psychological layers in the character do make a difference. Let’s explore further.
‘Nightmare Alley’ Plot Summary
The tale, set in 1939, opens with Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who drags a dead body to a large hole made in his midwestern house. After a moment of thought, Stan lights up a matchstick and burns down his house, along with the dead body buried inside it. Stan walks away from the house with the intention of leaving behind his past, unaware that the horrors of his sins will haunt him forever.
Stan takes the bus ride to travel to a nearby town to start a new life. At the bus stop, his eyes catch the lights on a ferris wheel and a carnival that lies ahead. Stan enters the carnival and visits a “Human Freak Show” created by Clement “Clem” Hoately (Willem Dafoe), the owner of the carnival. With no money in his hand to pay for the show, Stan tries to sneak out of the back of the tent when the muscle man, Bruno (Ron Perlman), catches him and inquires if he needs a job. Stan, who needs both money and food, helps the carnies to relocate the carnival due to an upcoming storm and soon befriends Clem, who asks for Stan’s help to catch the “geek” who escapes his cage.
The following morning, Stan notices a house offering baths at 10 cents each, where he meets the residents, a clairvoyant, Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette), and her husband, Peter “Pete” (David Strathairn). Stan sparks a sensuous relationship with Zeena and makes Pete his mentor, who teaches Stan about clairvoyant techniques and makes him a part of his act at the carnival. Though Stan becomes a full-time carnie and earns enough bread and coffee to survive the day, his ambitions blind him with greed. Stan wants to star in his own show and escape poverty as soon as he can. However, the path he undertakes to fulfill his dreams turns him into a beast whose effect he realizes only after it is too late to rectify the sins.
Also Read: ‘Nightmare Alley’ Review
Major Spoilers Ahead
What Killed Pete?
Pete designed the mentalist act with the help of coded signs and word systems where each word had a number and each number led to a different word. For the act, Pete stood blindfolded on stage while his wife Zeena would give him clues through this word system, which helped Pete accurately guess the object or queries of the audience. When Stan learned about this act, he eagerly asked Pete to teach the techniques as well. Pete kept a diary of all the signs and codes of his system, and once in a blue moon, he shared one or two techniques with Stan. However, like a curious kid, Stan wanted to know it all at once.
Pete was an alcoholic, and his wife Zeena tried her best to keep him away from the bottle. Stan knew that Pete secretly traded bottles of moonshine with Clem, who used to brew the alcohol to exploit the carnies. One night, when Pete asked Stan for the incentives for his teaching, Stan sneaked into Clem’s tent and brought him a bottle. At the same moment, Stan tried to look into Pete’s secret book, but before he could catch a glimpse, Pete woke up and sent Stan away. The next day, Pete died of poisoning because he had accidently drank wood alcohol instead of moonshine.
While in Edmund Goulding’s film, Stan confesses that he accidentally handed wood alcohol to Pete. In the 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley,” it is subtly hinted that Stan orchestrated Pete’s death to steal his book and learn his technique.
What Did Pete’s Character Symbolize?
If Stan was an archetype of Icarus, then Pete definitely portrayed his father, Daedalus, the great inventor of the labyrinth. Pete, like a father-figure, warned Stan that the book of codes could be misused. He hinted that the act of mentalism and spooky shows to trick people was a labyrinth of lies that could trick a man into believing that he had power that was equal to God’s.
Stan fell into the labyrinth when he started doing spooky acts for money and encountered Judge Charles Kimball and his wife Felicia. The parents lost their only son, Julian, in the war and had thus been yearning for closure. Stan made them believe that he could talk to Julian’s spirit and gave them hope that they would reunite with their son in the afterlife. Stan thought he was helping the parents by giving them false hope and curing them of their pain. But in reality, his act of playing god backfired against his will and Felicia shot Charles and herself to reunite with Julian sooner.
In simpler terms, Stan created a realm of lies that sparked a chain of events that probably might not have occurred if Stan hadn’t lied to them in the first place. When that realm broke, God was staring at Stan, who was accountable for the Kimball tragedy, the murder of Ezra Grindle and his muscleman, Anderson. Stan flew too high toward the sun, but the weight of sins threw him so low that he descended into madness from which he would never really recover.
Why Did Psychologist Lilith Ritter Betray Stan?
Lilith Ritter had a deep scar on her chest, though she never explained how she got it. However, she subtly suggested to Stan that the world closes in on you when you upset people in authority. Probably, because this scar not only left a physical but also a mental scar on Lilith, she started hating powerful men in authority or men who thought that they were better than the common lot and could exploit or harm people in whatever way they wanted. When Lilith tried to expose Stan during his “Great Stanton,” Stan outwitted Lilith and humiliated her in front of his audience. From that moment on, Lilith swore to take revenge on Stan and started digging out his weaknesses to use them against him.
Stan was so blinded by greed that he couldn’t read the signs dropped by Lilith, but Zeena tried to warn him. She did a reading of his future through her tarot cards and warned him of his downfall when Stan pulled an upside-down card of “the hanged-man.” But Stan, in his ignorance, flipped the card and invited his doom.
It can also be speculated that the predator who inflicted harm upon Lilith was none other than the rich and powerful Ezra Grindle. At the end of “Nightmare Alley,” he confessed to Stan that he hurt many young women after the death of his lover, Dorrie. He explicitly explained that he hurt them to get rid of anger in his soul, and Grindle was once a patient of Lilith’s too. She revealed to Stan that Grindle was unstable and unpredictable, and maybe she used Stan to get revenge on him.
After Lilith conned the con-man, she told Stan that she was never looking for money, hence, it was definite that whatever she did, it was either out of humiliation or revenge.
Why Did Stan Kill His Father?
The recurring metaphor in “Nightmare Alley” was the booze that played an important role in the protagonist’s life. Stan’s father was an alcoholic who was given a white ribbon when Stan was only ten years old. Because of the addiction, Stan’s mother left him and ran away with a preacher named Humphries.
It was minutely suggested that Humphries inappropriately touched or abused Stan, and when he looked upon his old man to protect him, he only found a weak man shaking under the influence of alcohol. Stan blamed his father for not protecting him and letting his mother leave with Humphries, and thus, during his last days, he opened the window and let his old man die in the cold. Later, he buried his body in a hole and burned down the house.
What Did The Enoch Symbolize?
Inside Clem’s tent, Stan saw a baby figure called Enoch, locked inside a jar. Clem told him that he murdered his mother during childbirth, and his eyes seemed to follow you around like museum portraits. The Enoch reminded Stan of his own sins of killing his father, and the figure symbolized that no matter how hard Stan tried to get rid of his sins, they would forever haunt and follow him forever. It was the reason why, at the end of “Nightmare Alley,” Stan noticed Enoch and his father’s radio were placed inside the office of the owner of Amberson’s Carnival, where Stan went to get a job.
How Did Booze Play An Integral Role in Stan’s Downfall?
After his father’s death, Stan found a mentor or a father figure in Pete, but tragically, he was an alcoholic too, and died because of it. So far in his life, Stan has witnessed two deaths caused by alcohol, and learning from their deaths, Stan decided not to end up like his father, i.e., become an alcoholic. He despised the booze, and during his therapy session, Lilith figured out that alcohol would indeed become the reason for Stan’s downfall.
Stan’s house of cards slowly fell into pieces when he became a chronic drinker and made reckless decisions in his life, like conning Grindle for money and killing him later. The substance amplified Stan’s greed, shunned his rational thinking and destroyed his conscience, which had earlier protected him from committing the sins of his father. The booze was the end of it all. The booze was the poison that turned a man into a “human geek,” and even Stan knew it, but he couldn’t escape it. He manically laughed at the irony in the end, because he could see him lying at the bottom of the pit from where there was no way out.
Why Did Molly Leave Stan?
In Edmund Goulding’s “Nightmare Alley,” Stan flirted with Molly but was never sure about marriage. But when Molly’s guardian, Bruno, found out about their romance, he forcefully got Molly and Stan married. Later, Stan found out that Molly knew a few techniques of Zeena’s act and could possibly help him arrange his own show, and thus greedily used Molly for his benefit. Molly, on the other hand, was blindly in love with Stan and worshiped him, which Stan cherished, and thus he never committed adultery.
However, in the 2021 version, Stan was pulling all the strings and Molly was just a puppet in his grand scheme of things. She was easily replaceable, which probably gave Stan the freedom to cheat on her. Stan told Molly that he drew things that were on his mind, and in his sketchbook, Molly found a half-finished sketch of Lilith, which made her certain that Stan was romantically involved with the psychologist.
Not only was Stan cheating on her, but he had also turned into a man, which she failed to recognize. For the spooky act to swindle Grindle, Stan convinced Molly to dress up as Grindle’s dead lover, Doris Mae Cable. She was a commoner who got pregnant with Grindle’s child, and he forced her to have an abortion that led to her death in May, 1901. Even minutes before the performance, Molly exorsed her unwillingness to be a part of this con and exclaimed that she had enough to save his life. Stan compelled her to perform. When things went haywire, Stan killed Grindle to protect Molly and himself, but Molly knew that the man she once loved had turned into a beast who neither deserved to be loved nor would be able to love anyone else. Hence, she walked out of Stan’s life without a second thought.
In 1947’s “Nightmare Alley,” when Stan turns into a human freak (geek), Molly finds him and comforts the tragic man in chaos with a promise to cure him of his mental illness or alcoholism. Their reunion symbolizes the tragic relationship of Zeena and Pete, but in the 2021 version, no one comes for Stan’s rescue.
‘Nightmare Alley’ Ending Explained: How Do You Ever Get A Guy To Be A Geek?
At the end of “Nightmare Alley,” when Molly walked out of Stan’s life, he visited Lilith’s office to get his money to run away again and start a new life somewhere else. However, Lilith unleashed her revenge on Stan and tried to hand him over to the police for his delusions and madness. Though Stan hid himself on a cargo train to escape the police chasing him, he was never able to get back to his life together.
Throughout “Nightmare Alley,” Stan had been running away from his father’s shadows, but in the end, he met the same fate. Stan harbored eternal remorse in his conscience and held himself responsible for his father’s death. The ending sequence screened a parallel of how, after the downfall of the Great Stanton, he had transformed into a feeble and impoverished man, smelling of booze just like his father. Fortunately, for his father, there was a son, but for Stan, there was none.
Stan, now living as a homeless person, sold off his most prized possession, i.e., his father’s watch, to get booze, which simply explains his addiction. He picked out a poster of Zeena’s horoscope show, which suggested that she turned into a full-time tarot card reader in the end. Stan, too devoid of any money and possessions, decided to revisit the profession he once excelled in and approached the owner of Amberson’s Carnival to perform his act of mentalism.
The owner of Amberson’s Carnival didn’t want a mentalist, but looking at Stan’s physical appearance, he was certain that he would become a perfect freak. He used the same tactics that Clem revealed to Stan at the start of the film when he inquired, “How do you ever get a guy to geek?”
The secret was to pick up a homeless alcoholic from a nightmare alley and spike his drink with opium. When Stan took the bait, the owner lured him with words and told Stan that the geek act was just a temporary job until they got a real geek. Clem explained to Stan that when one emphasizes the words “temporary” and “real geek,” it makes the addict insecure about his position and his talent. He gets a sense of fear that he is not performing his job efficiently and that his daily supply of moonshine will soon be over. Hence, he starts acting monstrously to pull a crowd towards him, and that is the perfect recipe to push a man off his rails and turn him into a geek.
When the owner of Amberson’s Carnival tried to trick Stan with the same formula, Stan understood its irony and laughed at his misery, claiming that he was born to become a geek, which probably wasn’t true, but yes, Stan designed his doom for himself and now it was impossible to escape the cages of a geek. It was the only thing left for Stan to survive on until he could.
‘Nightmare Alley’ is a 2021 Drama Thriller film directed by Guillermo del Toro.