This is the tale of two towns.
One is a real town, the other is a fake town. On screen, they both play towns that are somewhere between real and fake. If that doesn’t make sense, try to stay with me.
In addition to being featured in two of my favorite movies, the towns are located just a three-hour drive apart in the southern United States, only minutes off our planned road trip route.
Seaside, aka Seahaven from The Truman Show
The Truman Show tells the story of a man whose entire life has been broadcast as a reality TV show – unbeknownst to him. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in “Seahaven”, an island town built as a set in a giant dome. All the Seahaven’s residents are actors, and every product they use is an advertisement.
Building an entire town from scratch would be stretching the budget for the movie. Instead, the location scouts found a real place that only looked like it‘s fake.
Enter Seaside, Florida.
In 1981, Robert and Daryl Davis turned an 80-acre plot of gulf-front scrubland into an idyllic beachside community. The building code says that every home must have a sloped roof, a porch, and a white picket fence. Their architectures draw from many styles, including Victorian and Antebellum, but the overall flavor is “quaint”.
On our visit, we rent beach cruisers at our campground and ride for 10 miles along highway 30A. We’re soon humming down the quiet, red-brick roads of Seaside. It’s a pastel, Rockwellesque dream world.
Each home in Seaside features a placard with the house’s name and the names of their current residents, most of them Southern vacationers escaping reality for a week. On Natchez Street, you’ll find a small yellow residence labeled “The Truman House”. It doesn’t have the lawn that Truman mowed (only native plants are allowed in the yards), but the rest of it looks as it did on screen twenty years ago.
Just across the street, an artsy pavilion leads to the beach. This stretch of the gulf between Destin and Panama City is known as the Emerald Coast, famous for its blue-green water and fine white “sugar” sand. The beaches are unreal, and Seaside’s is no exception. (We took these pictures that evening in nearby Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.)
To rest our legs before biking back, we grab a table in Seaside’s town square, share an expensive grilled cheese from an Airstream food trailer, and listen to live music. As Nash browses Facebook on his phone, he sees a post from his cousin Ann. It announces the grand opening celebration happening that night for the clothing store she works at. Nash blinks at the name: Seaside Style. Ann lives somewhere in Florida… could it be?
Nash searches the store’s location on Google Maps, and the red marker springs up right next to his little blue dot. He raises his eyes from the phone and finds himself staring directly at Seaside Style.
A comical series of near-misses follows. One of Ann’s coworkers says she won’t be there until later, but we have to cycle back before dark. When Ann sees us riding our bikes, she isn’t sure she believes her eyes.
The phone numbers Nash and Ann have for each other are both out-of-date, and Facebook messages go unread. Finally, just before leaving town the next morning, we get in touch and end up having a delightful breakfast at The Perfect Pig.
It feels like a series of coincidences you’d expect to happen in fiction. Maybe that’s just the kind of place Seaside is.
Jackson Lake Island, aka Spectre from Big Fish
In Big Fish, Edward Bloom (the young version played by Ewan McGregor with a terrible southern accent) loves to spin tall tales, to the annoyance of his pragmatic son.
One of these fables is about the unnervingly perfect town of Spectre, where they steal your shoes to convince you to stay forever and ever, eating pie in rocking chairs and dancing barefoot on the green lawn.
In the movie, Edward’s son discovers that Spectre is a real town, though it’s not quite the same as his father painted it. The town had fallen on hard times, and Edward had saved it from the bank’s clutches.
The set of Spectre still stands, long abandoned, on a little piece of land just south of Montgomery, Alabama known as Jackson Lake Island.
We pay $3 per person to drive out onto the island. The site is like a caricature of the South, where cypress trees drip with Spanish moss and fishermen ply the bayou to bring home their own big fish tales.
Within ten minutes of walking around, I discover the island hosts another common southern resident: fire ants. My sandaled foot bursts into flames, and a nearby goat rolls around bleating. (Oh yeah, did I mention there’s a herd of goats on the island?!) Spectre’s fictional barefoot residents must have tread carefully here.
Little remains of the the twinkly-lit paradise seen in the beginning of Big Fish. First, the film crew artificially aged the town for later shots in the movie, and then 15 years did their work on what was never intended to be a permanent installation.
Several of the main street buildings burned down or collapsed. Four pillars are all that marks the site of Jenny’s house, and only two trees still stand in the enchanted forest.
Outside the shots used on film, the buildings are empty shells. The back of the elaborate church is bare plywood, and the trees are made of styrofoam.
Still, the legend of Spectre lives on. Visitors have added their own shoes to the line strung across main street, as if to say they would like to stay and dance barefoot for a while.
As a story-obsessed child, I loved how The Truman Show and Big Fish showed that fiction can be a vehicle for truth. Truman’s life was a contrived spectacle, but his emotions were genuine. Edward exaggerated his memories, but they showed the depth of his relationships with friends and family.
Exploring Seaside and Spectre in person made me see these movies through a different lens. I began to understand how the filmmakers shaped reality into fiction. These towns are indeed real places with expensive rental prices and bothersome insects. However, they also ooze with that surreal, almost-too-perfect atmosphere that made their films so memorable.
If you ever find yourself in this part of the United States, I suggest taking a look yourself. You’re certain to walk away with your own stories.
- Seaside, FL Official Site
Learn more about Seaside, Florida to satisfy your curiosity or help plan your visit there.
- Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
For a less expensive alternative to the Seaside rental homes, check out camping here or at nearby Grayton Beach State Park. They offer both pristine beaches and dunes with great facilities and a constant stream of events and activities.
- The Timpoochee Trail
This is the bike trail we took to Seaside, which features a number of other awesome stops along Highway 30A.
- Jackson Lake Island Facebook Page
Keep up to date with what’s going on at Jackson Like Island, complete with events and prices. At the time of this writing, you call the number at the gate for the code and pay $3 per person cash.