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The historical reality behind the psychics and swindlers in ‘Nightmare Alley’

As the best-picture nominee depicts, show business has long blurred the line between entertainment and psychic scam.

Guillermo del Toro attends the 27th Annual Critics Choice Awards on March 13 in Los Angeles. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association)
7 min

Guillermo Del Toro’s 2021 film “Nightmare Alley,” one of the nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, covers a topic that has long fascinated the public: performing psychics.

For centuries, psychics have had remarkable staying power in American culture, despite the efforts by many — including stage magicians like Harry Houdini — to call out phony “psychics” who make their money by manipulating vulnerable people’s beliefs and emotions.

“Nightmare Alley” explains how easy it is to blur the line between entertainment and scam. In its depictions of life on the road with a traveling carnival, the film shows two types of “psychic” performers: those who acknowledge that they are entertainers playing a fictional role and those who never break character, trying to convince others that they possess real paranormal abilities.

While “Nightmare Alley” is set in the 1940s, the history of stage psychics really began in the mid-19th century. The technology that fake mediums have relied upon for their tricks has drastically changed over the years, but the basic principles behind their acts have remained largely the same. A look at the history of spiritualist scams helps to explain why even now, supernatural cons persist.

Del Toro’s film is the tale of a con artist psychic getting his comeuppance. Based on the 1941 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, the movie depicts the rise and fall of con man Stanton Carlisle, a stage mentalist with a traveling carnival sideshow. After perfecting his act, Carlisle moves on to the “big time” show business circuit, eventually abandoning the stage to instead host private séances for high-paying clients. This dark and gritty noir film depicts what happens when Carlisle, drunk on his own power to manipulate, takes one con too far.

The film captures a historical reality: that psychics found a profitable niche in the budding capitalist society. In part, this comes from a religious movement from the mid-19th century called spiritualism. In 1848, three Fox sisters invited people to come witness their ability to commune with spirits. The sisters claimed to receive messages in the form of “spirit rapping” and would host séances where guests would hear ghostly knocks tapping out messages. They attracted scores of interested spiritual seekers, but just a year later, a debunker published an exposé detailing how the sisters’ “spirit rapping” was nothing but them popping their joints. The article was accurate, but did little to stop people from joining the spiritualist movement and sincerely believing in the possibility of communicating with the dead.

As spiritualism spread across the United States, scores of people began advertising themselves as mediums, hosting séances that would supposedly offer irrefutable proof of communication with the dead — for a fee, of course. As the movement grew in the late 19th century so, too, did the ranks of anti-spiritualist skeptics eager to debunk those claims. Some of the most passionate anti-spiritualists came from the world of show business.

World famous magician Harry Houdini desperately wanted to expose fraudulent mediums. Houdini had experimented with spiritualism following the death of his mother, but after he figured out the tricks of the psychics who claimed to communicate with her, Houdini made it a mission to prevent others from being defrauded as he had. Being a stage magician versed in sleight-of-hand and illusion, Houdini would attend séances and then call out mediums for their deceit. He dedicated much of his later life to publishing articles and giving speaking engagements about these hoaxes, even testifying in Congress to support legislation to criminalize fortunetelling.

Likewise, the Parent Assembly of the Society of American Magicians, which touted itself as an organization of legitimate entertainers, also waged war on fortune tellers, not only for fraud but for stealing and distorting trade secrets. As one frustrated magician wrote in the 1930s, “many of [the psychics’] tricks were the inventions of stage magicians who used them for honest entertainment.”

That stage magicians were dedicated to calling out these swindlers reflected their sincere effort to challenge negative stereotypes of traveling amusements shows as lowbrow, dangerous and deceitful. Figures such as P.T. Barnum hailed their traveling shows as safe and fun for the whole family. Barnum was well-known as a humbug, or trickster, but not a dangerous crook. Historians describe Barnum’s aesthetic as “playful fraud” or “artful deception,” noting that part of the fun of many popular Gilded Age amusements was the debate it provoked about authenticity in entertainment.

Unlike mediums who guaranteed that their performances were authentic, entertainment purveyors like Barnum proffered their wares with a wink and a nod. Both types of showmen would happily take audiences’ money, but what gave Barnum a more positive reputation was that audiences expected they might be fooled, whereas believers expected truth from psychics.

These tensions appear in “Nightmare Alley.” Carlisle learns the secrets of a stage mentalist from carnival old-timers Pete and Zeena. In Del Toro’s film, viewers are treated to a backstage look at exactly how Pete and Zeena operate, showing how supposed psychic messages from spirits are all the result of elaborate tricks. Early in the film, after one particularly successful reading in front of a crowd, Zeena is approached by a woman who was told during the show that her late brother was giving her a message. Although the woman is desperate to know more, Zeena refuses, trying to explain to the woman that what she heard during the show was not an actual message from beyond but merely a cold reading, a series of educated guesses.

Carlisle questions Zeena’s actions, noting that Zeena could have made good money by charging the woman for a private psychic reading. Zeena and Pete are adamant that they are not running a “spook show.” They view themselves as entertainers, eager to keep audiences guessing “How did they do that?!” but not out to prey on people’s sincere beliefs in the afterlife.

Carlisle, however, has no such qualms. The film shows him leaving the carnival business and eventually venturing into giving private readings for anguished clients eager to communicate with lost loved ones. Del Toro’s film emphasizes the harmful impact of fake messages from the beyond in a more visceral way than Gresham did in the novel, adding a scene in which a woman commits a murder-suicide after a psychic reading with Carlisle. But in real life early 20th century anti-spiritualists did warn that fake mediums or “spook crooks” could “ruin many of their victims, cause the suicide of others, even drive some of them insane.”

Calling attention to the consequences of believing a fake reality is even more important in the 21st century as modern media has only further blurred the line between entertainment and psychic scam. Performers such as Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, appear on reality TV. There are still plenty of self-proclaimed psychics today eager to exploit vulnerable people desperate for communication with lost loved ones, charging enormous fees for nothing more than a trick. The decline of organized religion in recent years has led many to turn to alternative spiritual practices, lending a sense of legitimacy to psychics. Although the “spook crooks” today have access to more updated technology than Carlisle does in the film, they use many of the same cold reading techniques that “Nightmare Alley” details so well.

IfNightmare Alley” and the history of performing psychics have a lesson to teach us, it’s to be wary of spiritualists claiming authenticity — there may be a lot of humbuggery happening behind the scenes.