‘The Alley of Lost Souls’: the terrible Spanish true story that gave rise to Guillermo del Toro’s film

A Civil War brigade member and an alcoholic who devoured live chickens are the ingredients of this true story that ended up becoming the film by the Mexican director that now hits theaters eight decades later.

A Civil War brigade member addicted to mentalism and magic, and an alcoholic willing to do anything to get his dose, are some of the ingredients of the story in which William of the Bull was inspired to create The Alley of Lost Souls, the film noir that hits theaters this weekend and stars Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper. Because although it may seem incredible, the dark history of fairs and lies traced by the Mexican director has its roots in the deep Spain of the 1930s.

And it is to that desolate landscape of the Civil War that a young William Lindsay Gresham, who had not even turned 30, traveled from the US to join the international brigades of the Republican side.. It was in the middle of the war that he met Joseph Daniel «Doc» Halliday also a volunteer and with whom he worked in healthcare for the wounded. They were both fascinated by the world of traveling fairs, Doc had worked in some of them, and Gresham had been an assistant to some shows in Coney Island when he was just a kid.

During his time at the front, Doc and William shared spooky storiesDoc had even worked in several of those fairs, in Spain.

In them, shows were used in which live animals such as snakes or chickens were used, which were released so that a supposed human-monster could devour them in public. In reality, the monster was just an addict, usually to alcohol or opium derivatives, who, upon returning from the war, had found an outlet for his addiction in this way of life.

These shows, which in English was called ‘geek’ (which means addicted) were celebrated both in Spain and in the US. They were one of the most popular shows of the time in the traveling fairss, although in some places both in Spain and the US they were officially prohibited.

One of the scenes in the movie at a time when the ‘geek’ escapes from captivity.

And that powerful image of human despair, of an alcoholic willing to devour a live chicken or a snake in exchange for his shot of alcohol, was the trigger for the novel about the descent into hell of a mentalist, inspired by his own life , which William Lindsay Gresham would write on his return to the US. The novel was a success, shortly after it would also become a movie The Alley of Lost Souls, and included among its cast actors such as Tyrone Power.

Guillermo Del Toro’s version, which has now reached theaters, returns to the origins of the novel and also shows the shows geeky, that both director and screenwriter Kim Morgan researched in order to write their version of the story.

The film plunges into the invisible life of the fair where Stanton Carlisle learns the eccentric traditions of traveling fairs, until he gets his own show as a mentalist, as the author of the novel did in real life. That will open the doors to New York high society, but when it seems that he has achieved everything, it is never enough.

Del Toro and screenwriter Kim Morgan explain in the film’s production notes that those shows were the biggest draw of a fair and the most lucrative.

“It was important that this film was set right after World War I, because at that time a lot of men were coming back from the war with addictions,” explains del Toro.

“Some of those addicts who became geeks they were willing to eat live animals in exchange for their favorite substance.” In the hierarchy of the fair, the geeky he was the lowest in the social pyramid, vilified and pitied even by the carnies themselves. «The ‘geek’ emerges from the darkest alleys in the dead of night and is everything Stanton fears he is,» explains the director.

‘The alley of lost souls’. Guillermo del Toro: «Film noir arises when the US questions itself»

the darkness of the soul

In an era before television, traveling fairs and circuses represented the form of entertainment for the masses. They transformed the muddy terrain of lost towns in the middle of nowhere into a place to dream, bewilder and provoke with tricks, or monstrosities.s and allowed to escape for a few hours from the hard life that its inhabitants led and illuminate them with a little magic.

Although they offered the public attractive fairy tales, beneath the bright colors and sequins, the artists also suffered from exploitation and inhumane situations. PBut they were also alternative communities for the disinherited, the extramural, the mentally ill, or the disabled, who would otherwise have been left on the fringes of society.

REVIEW: Unhealthy Vanity Fair

Del Toro was captivated by that world of human contrasts and wanted to delve deeper. “The fair is an incredibly close-knit, hermetic society. It is a place where people keep their secrets and where many take refuge to flee a life of crime or have a past they want to leave behind. However, they form a strong partnership. It is almost like a microcosm of the world. Everyone is there to scam everyone. But at the same time, they know they need each other and they protect each other.”

The Alley of Lost Souls hit theaters on January 21.

If you don’t know what to see and want to receive the premieres in your email, sign up for our Newsletter