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Skeptic noir

I had no premonition of any synchronicity coming on. There were no warning signs or vague impressions. Nothing portended any good fortune or impending joy. It was, after all, Friday the 13th, August, 2004. There was an OSSCI (Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry) meeting taking place but in true skeptical fashion, the triskaidekaphobia factor was being ignored.

I was not planning to attend this particular gathering, Course work had occupied most of my summer and I looked forward to a prolonged out of town respite. But the scheduled speaker, Benjamin Radford, was someone from CSICOP (Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) I had never met. That, combined with the fact that he was Managing Editor of Skeptical Inquirer, presented an opportunity that was not to be missed. So I interrupted my holiday to come back to Toronto for the weekend.

The meeting itself was more eventful for me than anticipated. As the last minute, Eric McMillan (OSSCI’s fearless leader) ran into delays at work and I was asked to fill in as Master of Ceremonies. The normally straightforward hosting was complicated by a miscommunication about the audio-visual equipment. Benjamin Radford brought slides, but there was no slide projector available. It is always stressful to inform a speaker that they are going to have to deliver their talk without accompanying graphics, but Ben was gracious and performed exceptionally well under difficult conditions.

One of the things he did to make up for his lack of visuals was to pass around a copy of Skeptical Inquirer that contained photos of his investigation into Champ, the Lake Champlain monster. By the end of the lecture, the copy was well thumbed and as he packed up before going to a late dinner with attendees, he offered it up to whoever was interested. I accepted it readily as it was an issue that I had missed.

After some delightful skeptical discussion—at Swiss Chalet one doesn’t have to be worry that exotic food will become the dominant theme—the group broke up and headed their separate ways.

Now many attendees take public transit to OSSCI events—it’s one of the reasons OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) is our chosen venue—and I’m no exception. I usually bring along something to read on the way but tonight I had neglected to pack anything so was grateful for the Skeptical Inquirer. My ride isn’t a particularly long one so I looked for a short column to read. I flipped a few pages and took a quick look at Notes on a Strange World, by Massimo Polidoro ( And my eyes fell on a particular phrase in his opening paragraph, “The story is classic noir”.

Now, I’m a noir fan from way back   Noir acknowledges the ultimate blurring of good and evil. It recognises that “heroes” are flawed and that life damages even the purest of heart.

And I’m familiar with a lot of noir, both written and on film. I know, for instance, that Against All Odds is actually a remake of 1947’s Out of the Past, that The Big Lebowski is a Coen Brothers take on the several incarnations (both written and filmed) of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (both AAO and TBL demonstrating admirably that great film noir doesn’t have to be in black and white), and that John Huston’s  The Maltese Falcon is actually the third attempt at bringing Dashiell Hammett’s essence of noir story to the screen.

So what really struck me was that Polidoro’s “classic noir” referred to a book, a film, and an author that I was not familiar with: “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham. Polidoro describes it as “One of the best (if not the best) ‘skeptical’ novels ever.”

Between skepticism and a love of noir, how had this title slipped by me?

But there was something else tugging at my consciousness. I devoured the rest of the column and was now determined to get my hands on a copy of the book, but how to see the movie? I’d check on the internet to see if it was available on DVD or cassette. But there was something familiar about that title and it was teasing at the fringes of my mind, dancing just beyond a full recollection.

When I got home that night, I sat down front of the TV to check the news before retiring. Hurricane Charley was heading for Florida and I was wanted to know how close it was going to get to some relatives who live there. I was idly flipping through channels when it hit me—

Now I really enjoy movies. Many of the cable channels I subscribe to are dictated by whether or not they show uncut movies. And one of the great advantages of digital cable is that you can search in advance to see what movies you might be interested in. As I explained, I had been out of town and one of things I did when I got back was to see what movies might be on while I was home for the weekend. My exploration had been pretty cursory as I had many other activities scheduled but suddenly, I remembered seeing the phrase “Nightmare Alley” at some time during that earlier search. I called it up to confirm and sure enough, there was the film Polidoro described and it was listed for the next night (Saturday, the 14th) on the movie channel Scream. I had seen the title but it held no special meaning and the description had elicited only vague interest.

I immediately rearranged plans so I could see it. And I went online with the Toronto Public Library to reserve a copy of the book.

I then took a moment to reflect upon this chain of coincidences; from my original intention of not coming back to town to attend the meeting, to winding up MC’ing and getting the missed issue of Skeptical Inquirer, then not having anything to read and discovering Nightmare Alley on the way home, to finally having a vague memory that pointed to a showing of the film the very next evening. This showing, to the best of my knowledge, has never been repeated on any available cable channel that I’m aware of and it’s now been 2 ½ years.

As it turns out, neither the book nor the movie rise to the level of great noir. Gresham never comes near the power and bite of Chandler or Hammett, and the film—which is well paced in the beginning, rushes what should have been a stunner of an ending. But both live up to Polidoro’s characterization as “classic noir”. And both contain a cornucopia of discussion points for skeptics.

Nightmare Alley begins at a carnival.

Now, I’ve taken my son to the Canadian National Exhibition on occasion and walked along the midway while marvelling at the bright lights and faux glitz of the timeworn attractions. But while all the games of (no) chance are still present, this is not the carnival atmosphere of my youth. Back then the annual county fair brought the “real” carny to town, with wondrous and forbidden displays of five-legged calves, two-headed lambs and various other freaks of nature.

But even this was a generation removed from Gresham’s description of carnival reality in the 1930’s. At that time it included the exhibition of a wild man-creature. It was billed as a captured and caged subhuman that could be observed crawling around in its own filth and killing a chicken or other small animal by biting its head off. Gresham, however, describes this bloody performance as being done by a “geek”, though in truth this was usually an alcoholic or junkie who would do this lowly job for drinks or drugs.

Throughout the rest of this 1946 novel, Gresham lifts the veil off secrets practiced by every flavour of knowingly fake fortune-teller, Spiritualist, mentalist, or religious healer. His presentations of cold reading, misdirection, and the playing on people’s deepest hopes and fears are as clear, concise and convincing as any in modern skeptical writing. His story is entertaining and accessible to the widest audience.

Yet sixty years later, people still fall for the same old tricks.

Gresham himself, as knowing as he was about the carnival, in later life embraced at one time or another the I Ching, Tarot, and even Dianetics. He also sought comfort in psychoanalysis, Zen, and eventually, Protestant Christianity under the influence of C.S. Lewis.

Whatever the carnival represents, exposing its secrets doesn’t end its attraction. Likely it’s because the carnival doesn’t really fool us. It merely reflects that we are full of hopes and dreams and every time we are emptied, we immediately fill up with new ones.

The carnival today is everywhere. The fortune-tellers are now psychics who practice in storefront shops and the spiritualists have been re-branded as psychic mediums that can speak directly to the dead in broad daylight without need of a séance.

And what about the “geeks”?  Time, technology, and culture have changed the usage of the word. But you can still find echoes of Gresham’s carnival geek. According to an observation made by Steven Schiff in a New Yorker article some years ago, we see them on TV all the time. They are the participants on the reality shows. They’re the guests on the lurid daytime talk shows. They humiliate themselves in front of an audience of millions for something even more transient than alcohol or drugs but seemingly more powerful. They do it for their 15 minutes of fame.

If there is any direct moral to be taken from Nightmare Alley, it is not to judge the carnival geek too harshly. As Gresham, a man fully acquainted with the tricks of spiritualism, wrote about the exposed charlatanry of medium D.D. Home, “We never know what burdens another person bears. Nor do we read the weather map of the soul and the storms that sweep across it. In short we cannot honestly condemn anyone for anything.”

I have great sympathy with Gresham’s observance here, especially with his comparison of the soul (psyche) to the chaos of weather. The storms the soul must face cannot be predicted.

As for my relationship with Nightmare Alley, it sent me on quite a quest. I own a copy of the book and even discovered and acquired a worthwhile graphic novel of the same name. And I still muse over the synchronicity surrounding my viewing of the never rescheduled film. I didn’t tape it originally because I figured it would be shown again or that a cassette or DVD would be available somewhere. Though I’ve got dealers on alert to let me know when it shows up there has been no word. If the synchronicity holds, I’ll get it the day before this article is printed.

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