Stanton "Stan" Carlisle is a mysterious and ruthlessly ambitious young man with a troubled past who works as a sleight of hand magician in a travelling carnival. Desperate to make more of himself and willing to do anything to make it happen, Stan seduces the carnival's resident mentalist and Fortune Teller, Madame Zeena, who subsequently takes him under her wing. Stan's efforts to spend time with the talented Zeena and learn her complex "code act" eventually leads to the accidental death of her alcoholic husband and Stan, now adept in the art of cold reading quickly grows bored and switches his focus to the sweet and innocent Molly, the carnival's "Electric Girl".
Leaving the carnival together, Stan and Molly later wed and make a success of their new team code act with Stan working as the mentalist and Molly as his beautiful assistant. But again growing bored and desiring more well heeled and influential marks, Stan reinvents himself as the Reverend Carlisle, an upstanding spiritualist preacher that offers to perform séances for his occult interested wealthy clientele in order for them to contact the spirits of their deceased loved ones.
The strain of leading a false existence soon begins to take a toll on Stan's already fragile mental state and he seeks the help of a mysterious and seductive psychologist named Dr. Lilith Ritter, not realizing that she is an even more duplicitous and ruthlessly manipulative con artist than he is and will be instrumental to his eventual downfall...
In 2019 it was announced that Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro would direct a new adaptation of the novel starring Bradley Cooper as Stan, Cate Blanchett as Lilith, Rooney Mara as Molly and Toni Collette as Zeena. The film aims to stick much closer to its source material and include the darker and more surreal, violent and sexual content of the novel that the original adaptation could not due to the restrictions of the time.
Nightmare Alley provides examples of:
- Accidental Murder: In an attempt to get Zeena's husband, Pete, to pass out drunk and allow Stan to spend time with her alone, he offers the drunk a bottle of spirit, not realizing at the time that the bottle actually contains wood alcoholnote . Pete dies as a result of ingesting it and Stan worries that he will be caught and accused of murder, but his fears never come to fruition as Pete's death is ruled as accidental. This plot point becomes important later on as Stan admits his crime to Lilith in a counselling session and she ends up using her knowledge of it to blackmail him.
- The Alcoholic:
- Zeena's husband Pete is a raging alcoholic, drinking heavily every night and sleeping throughout the day.
- Stan himself becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol throughout the book and the end falls into complete alcoholism and depression when he is on the run from Ezra Grindle's hired goons.
- All Psychology Is Freudian: Dr Ritter is very much of the Freudian school of psychology, which fits with the 1940s setting. She makes Stan lie on a Freudian Couch where he can't see her or make eye contact with her and she constantly implies that his present psychological issues are due to his childhood trauma and troubled relationship with his parents, even indicating to him at the end that he clearly wanted to have sexual intercourse with his mother and kill his father!
- Ambition Is Evil: Stan is a morally bankrupt and highly ambitious individual who will do absolutely anything to gain money and power, to the point where it's practically all he cares about."I'm on the make. Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough. When you get that you're the boss. If you don't have it you're the end man on the daisy chain. I'm going to get it if I have to bust every bone in my head doing it. I'm going to milk it out of those chumps and take them for the gold in their teeth before I'm through."
- Betty and Veronica: Stan's two love interests in the second half of the novel are the sweet and innocent Molly who fulfills the Betty role and the sexy and manipulative Lilith who fulfills the Veronica role. He is much more intrigued by Lilith and begins to neglect Molly, who he sees as a burden due to her incorruptible nature not being compatible with his increasingly criminal schemes.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
- Stan as the Reverend Carlisle presents himself as an upstanding member of society and a well respected spiritualist preacher while underneath he's a ruthless Con Man who cares about nothing but money and power.
- Lilith similarly outwardly presents herself as a professional and well-respected psychologist with a wealthy clientele whilst underneath she's a scheming and cold-hearted sociopath who has no respect for her code of ethics and uses the secrets she's obtained through her position to ruthlessly manipulate people. It's also heavily implied that Stan is not the only client of hers that she is sleeping with.
- Book Ends: The novel opens with Stan asking the travelling carnival's 'talker' Clem Hoately where geeks come from and Clem explains that they are made by the carnival owner finding an alcoholic bum and offering him temporary work with a steady supply of booze. The owner tells the bum that they only need to fake biting a chicken's head off by slashing its throat with a hidden razor and then pretending to drink the chicken's blood. After a week or so of this the owner threatens to replace the bum with a 'real geek' and the thought of losing their supply of liquor and sobering up terrifies the bum into biting the chickens for real. The novel later ends with a drunken Stan, who has been driven to alcoholism and homelessness through the events of the story, shambling into a carnival owner's tent to offer his services as a mentalist. The owner turns him down but as Stan is about to stumble back out, the owner calls him back and offers him a temporary position in the carnival sideshow, "— just until we get a real geek"...
- Break the Cutie: Stan subjects this upon the sweet-hearted and naive Molly, after they leave the carnival he begins neglecting and mistreating her, and things only get worse when he starts cheating on her with Lilith.
- City Noir: The second half of the novel is set in 1940s New York with its shadowy back alleys and dens of iniquity.
- The Con: The biggest con in the book is concocted by Stan at the suggestion of Lilith. Between them they plan to scam an extremely wealthy auto tycoon named Ezra Grindle who is desperate to contact the spirit of his lost love Dorrie who died during a botched back-alley abortion that he convinced her to get. A very reluctant Molly poses as Dorrie during a series of phony séances aimed to convince Grindle that they are contacting the girl's spirit so he will part with increasing amounts of money for Stan to continue.
- Con Man: Stan is a consummate one with many tricks up his sleeve. His most despicable con has to be his stint as the 'Reverend Carlisle', a so-called spiritualist preacher who stages phony séances for wealthy clients with an interest in the occult who wish to try and contact dead loved ones.
- Crappy Carnival: The first half of the book is set in one, the main characters all work for a travelling 'Ten-in-One' carnival.
- Daddy's Girl: Growing up Molly was incredibly close to her father as her mother died when she was very young and he raised her single-handedly. She constantly reminisces about him throughout the story.
- Destructive Romance: Two heavily one-sided destructive romances appear in the book: firstly, between the innocent Molly and the manipulative Stan who constantly mistreats her and manipulates her into criminal acts she doesn't want to take part in; secondly, between Stan and the evil psychologist Lilith who mentally and emotionally manipulates him to the point where he becomes completely obsessed with her and his mental state deteriorates significantly as a result.
- Downer Ending: After the con against the wealthy auto tycoon Ezra Grindle goes horribly wrong and Lilith reveals her true colors and threatens to lock Stan up in an institution, he is forced to go on the run from Grindle's hired hitmen and gradually falls into depression and alcoholism, sinking even lower still when he discovers that Lilith has wed Grindle through a newspaper article. His lowest point comes when right at the end of the book, a carnival owner offers to give him temporary work as a geek, the one thing that Stan could never envision sinking as low as.
- Eccentric Millionaire: Stan and Lilith's ultimate mark is an eccentric and extremely wealthy tycoon named Ezra Grindle who has a skeptical interest in the occult.
- The Freakshow: The main characters in the first half of the book all work for a travelling sideshow. Stan is the Stage Magician, Bruno is The Strongman, Kenneth is the tiny person, Zeena is the Fortune Teller (aided her by her husband Pete) and Molly is the 'Electric Girl', a glorified show girl in a skimpy outfit who can seemingly take large electrical currents through her body in a replica of the Sing-Sing electric chair.
- The Ingenue: Molly is young, beautiful and almost painfully naive and trusting, something which Stan preys on and manipulates relentlessly. Growing up she was very close to her father after the death of her mother when she was very young. Since her father's sudden death she has been forced to work at a carnival for money and lodging. Compared to the rest of the carnival folk, she is very sheltered and innocent of the ways of the world.
- Love Martyr: Molly is this to Stan, no matter how badly he treats her she never seems to even consider leaving him as she believes that she can change him and that one day he will stop his criminal behaviour and settle down with her. She believes this right up the point where their big con goes horribly wrong and instead of helping her escape, he punches her in the face and leaves her to fend for herself.
- Madame Fortune: The resident Fortune Teller, Zeena, styles herself as 'Madame Zeena'.
- Manipulative Bastard:
- Stan is a handsome and ruthless charmer and Con Man who presents a Nice Guy front to manipulate women such as Zeena and Molly for his own advancement and pleasure, but cares very little for them underneath and quickly bores of them once he has achieved his goals. His ruthless and manipulative nature takes him from a small time Stage Magician in a travelling carnival to a big-time spiritualist preacher with a very wealthy clientele in New York City.
- Lilith Ritter is even more manipulative than Stan is, to the extent that he has no clue that he's being Out-Gambitted by her until the very end of the book. She psychologically and sexually manipulates him by blowing hot and cold, one minute playing the passionate lover and the next an aloof and distant Ice Queen who withholds sex so that Stan has no idea where he stands and therefore becomes increasingly infatuated with her until it completely clouds his judgement.
- Meaningful Name: The most truly despicable and ruthless character in the whole book is a female seductress named Lilith Ritter.
- Mentor Archetype: The kindly Zeena is this for Stan in the first half of the book, teaching him how to do a complex mentalist "code act" and cold read people.
- Oedipus Complex: Lilith states that Stan is suffering from this, and it's even implied that she may not be far from the truth. When he was a child he witnessed his mother having sex with another man who wasn't his father, an event he often flashes back to, and it's stated that his mother used to spray perfume on her pillow. When he first meets Lilith, he gets a whiff of her perfume and instantly feels shame but is also immediately sexually attracted to her. This is the first of many subtextual inferences that Lilith, a woman that Stan becomes sexually infatuated with, reminds him in some ways of his mother who abandoned him as a child.
- Out-Gambitted: Lilith does this to Stan, firstly by seducing and controlling him and then, once Stan has began conning the wealthy Ezra Grindle at her suggestion, by keeping the cash results of their con in her safe where she secretly replaces the five hundred dollar bills with singles. When Stan takes the money back, discovers what she's done and attempts to confront her, she tells him he is deluded and is projecting his sexual feelings for his mother onto her and then tries to have him committed to an institution. He narrowly manages to escape and has to go on the run as a result of her duplicity, sinking into alcoholism and depression.
- Phony Psychic: The mentalist Zeena isn't really psychic, she and her husband use a complex system of visual and verbal clues that allows her to accurately answer audience questions. She teaches this ability and Cold Reading to Stan who later uses it in his own acts.
- Psycho Psychologist: Dr. Lilith Ritter, a ruthless seductress who cares nothing about her code of ethics and sleeps with her patients as well as using the confidential information she gains in their sessions against them for coercion and blackmail. In the introduction to the 2010 reprint by New York Review Books, the journalist Nick Tosches even called her "the most viciously evil psychologist in the history of literature".
- Rape as Backstory: During a conversation with Stan, Lilith rather off-handedly reveals to him that she was gang-raped when she was 16 years old. This could perhaps provide some kind of explanation for her cold and sociopathic behavior, but at the same time could also be a fabrication and yet another way by which she is manipulating his emotions to control him.
- Reluctant Fanservice Girl: The sweet and innocent Molly, as part of her stage routine as an 'Electric Girl', wears what is effectively a metal bikini (a nonsense explanation is given to the crowd that the garment has to be metal to help her conduct electricity). She hates wearing it and seems completely oblivious to the reactions it gets from male patrons. At one point she is almost arrested for public indecency, but Stan manages to distract the local sheriff by giving him a cold reading.
- Scam Religion: Stan pretty much builds one of these around himself as the 'Reverend Carlisle', holding actual religious services to help reel his wealthy clientele in.
- Spooky Séance: This is Stan's main trade as the phony spiritualist minister, 'Reverend Carlisle'. Of course, they're all a sham designed to part his wealthy clientele from their money.
- Tarot Motifs: Each chapter begins with the image and description of a different tarot card of the Major Arcana, there are 22 chapters just as there are 22 cards. Each card relates in some way to the events of the chapter, for instance the chapter when Zeena first starts teaching Stan her mentalist act is represented by 'The High Priestess' card, symolizing 'hidden knowledge, wisdom, female mystery and magic'.
- Tarot Troubles: Numerous characters are given tarot readings throughout the book and Stan sometimes draws the cards himself, the cards that he draws often seeming to have a symbolic meaning. Directly after he speaks to Lilith for the first time on the telephone he randomly draws 'The Lovers' card, foreshadowing his later 'having to choose between two women, symbolizing the crossroads and the need to make a choice' and 'the danger of temptation and desire'.
- The Three Faces of Eve: The three primary female characters in the book fall into these roles. Zeena is the mature, steady and motherly mentor figure, Molly is the sweet and innocent child-like ingenue and Lilith is the sexy, scheming and manipulative seductress.
- The Vamp: Pretty much immediately after Stan comes to her as a client, the psychologist Lilith Ritter seduces and begins controlling him through sexual and emotional coercion. Within weeks Stan is so infatuated with her that he is willing to do literally anything she wants to ensure that she continues their secret relationship. It's later revealed at the end of the book that Lilith was conning Stan all along. She steals a majority of the money they have swindled together and when Stan discovers her betrayal and confronts her, she tells him he is deluded and attempts to have him committed to an institution, a fate he very narrowly escapes.