Spookshow Sideshows – Night Tide (1961)

Spookshow Sideshows – Night Tide (1961)

-Karen Joan Kohoutek

I have long been interested in the films of the mid-1950s and 1960s that put horror in the context of wholesome small-town American life. The existence of these horror films reflects a shadow side of the post-war prosperity and simple, apple-pie values so often attributed to this time period in our country’s history, and this series will explore a particular aspect of “Americana,” in the symbolism of amusement parks and traveling carnivals.

The entertainment industry is both a shadow and a mirror, reflecting an image of America, but also its darker aspects. The idea of the American Dream includes freedom, leisure, and entertainment, so the fairground images of rollercoasters and merry-go-rounds, along with the games and the concession stands handing out cotton candy, are as red, white, and blue as the white picket fence. At the same time, there’s another layer of shadow, since society has often had a complex relationship to entertainment and the pursuit of pleasure. People enjoy it, revel in it, and seek it out, while still treating it as disreputable, and too often negatively judging the people who work to provide this entertainment. The carnival has always contained an element of seediness, with the possibility of danger and deception, and the allure of taking a walk on the wild side.

Carnivals and their related environments appear in works from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic, Freaks, to the multiple modern representations that appeared in 2019 (the TV series Stranger Things and the films Us and It: Chapter 2 all featured carnival settings, sharing dramatic scenes inside Halls of Mirrors). I’m going to look at a few favorites of the genre, starting in the mid-century period and extending into the 1980s (another fertile time for horrific archetypes), starting with the moody black and white classic Night Tide, the first full-length film by genre vet Curtis Harrington (of Ruby fame, among others).

Lonely sailor Johnny, played by a young, sensitive Dennis Hopper, wanders alone at an ocean-side amusement pier, searching for amusement and companionship in its panorama of carnival games, taverns, and jazz clubs, all variations on the culture of leisure. Winding up at a beatnik coffeeshop, he spots a pretty girl (played by Linda Lawson) sitting alone, and he tries to engage her in conversation: “It’s really a great combo, huh?” She dodges him like an old pro at being hit on, saying, “I’d like to listen, please.”

She gets spooked, however, when a strange woman comes over and speaks to her in a foreign language, an open nod to Cat People, and eventually gives in to Johnny’s uncomfortable pushiness. She invites him to breakfast at her place on the pier, and she explains that “I’m an attraction … a mermaid. Half-woman, half –fish,” advertised as “Mora the Mermaid, the Lovely Siren of the Deep.”

In Night Tide, the carnival environment is seen from the point of view of the people who live in the world, plus Hopper, who becomes integrated into it, and is treated as part of the community. Behind a façade of illusion, where people from the outside, everyday world go to indulge their fantasies and desire for novelty, lies a different everyday world. Even though “it must be pretty noisy living above a merry-go-round,” the carnival is depicted as the norm for its residents, who have friends and neighbors, with nothing unseemly about any of them. Luana Anders’ Ellen, the sensible girl-next-door type at the concession stand, and her grandfather, who runs the merry-go-round, could just as easily be running a small-town diner or general store.

There is an edge of melancholy at the amusement park, which looks rundown, and nobody seems to be making much money with their hard work. There’s also a bit of gossip about Mora, whose last two boyfriends mysteriously drowned, though “nothing’s been proved” against her. Her boss, a former sea captain, tells Johnny that he found her on an island, warning him that she’s a real siren, dangerous to anyone who gets close to her. “Where do myths come from? Do you think they’re just made up? … She’s a monster.”

The normal and rational Johnny doesn’t think this kind of story could be real, but Mora also believes that the other sirens are trying to lure her to “go with them to the sea.” The film’s central mystery is whether she has become mentally affected by her environment, coming to believe that fake stories are true, or is a real mermaid, working as a version of herself, the real pretending to be a fake pretending to be real.

Mora’s story suggests the existence of a mythic aspect of life, more full of wonder than the manufactured amusement park world, which offers facsimiles of the strange and unusual. She lectures Johnny that “Americans have such a simple view of the world. You think that everything can be seen and touched and weighed and measured. You think it’s the sum of reality. But you don’t even know what it is.”

He got involved in her drama because of a yearning, a desire for what the amusement park represents. In some ways he’s open to expanding his view of reality, but retains an idea of what’s practical and realistic, a fitting theme for this point in American history, as more people questioned received wisdom about American life and sought for new possibilities, but didn’t always knowing how to handle the consequences.

Reflecting the cultural shift, Night Tide is refreshingly accepting of the common reality that people have wants and needs beyond the ordinary, and is largely not judgmental about that. It reminds us that even a woman who performs in a circus sideshow, providing amusement for the public, wants to go to a coffeeshop and listen to jazz, seeking her own entertainment and escapism in other people’s art.

The inevitable conundrum is that the amusement park also provides an environment where more ambiguous fantasies, like the mermaid story, can take root and seem more real. A place that, to some extent, rejects the comforting conformity of the mainstream society can unwittingly become a refuge for criminal behavior, which threatens its own community.

In this case, the sea captain, in love with Mora, has invented the mermaid story, working on “her young, pliable mind.” Despite her belief in the legend, she had “an independent will,” insisting on living by herself and having boyfriends, whom he killed out of jealousy, then convinced her she’d done it in a trance state. The whole idea of the siren, a kind of black widow or femme fatale who is dangerous to the men who love her, is all a fiction created by a man who wants power over her, as a red herring for his own crimes of jealousy and possessiveness.

In the end, the “exotic” beauty, while an innocent victim, meets a tragic end, and her lover begins to appreciate the charms of the nice, normal girl who’s still there, proving that even in a more imaginative world, the conventions of the mainstream culture are still in force.

Night Tide was filmed in 1960 on location at the Santa Monica Pier and the Ocean Park Pier, as well as Venice and other SoCal locations. For anyone interested, there’s a whole book about the complex built at the Ocean Park Pier, Pacific Ocean Park: the Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier, by Christopher Merritt and Domenic Priore. Full of fabulous, full-color vintage graphics, it tells us that the pier was “a vibrant and gaudy mixture of carny rides, suspicious characters and games of chance that weren’t always above the board—but it was exceptional in its own sordid way” (page 254). The history of these seaside amusement parks seems to have been of perpetual upheaval, and the period of Night Tide’s filming coincided with the start of development to upgrade the area, from working-class to upscale, in a five-year process that began in 1959. The neighborhood contained “cheap hotels and weathered restaurants dating back to the early 1900s. Populated by working families and a large retired Jewish community … This was in direct contrast to the look the City of Santa Monica wanted …” (page 144). In interviews, former locals lament the loss of the kind of community seen in the film; in its own way, a part of restless and ambitious American life.