Diss-Illusioned! Magic and the Supernatural

by Iain Ellis

23 April 2015

A new breed of magicians are self-consciously aware that their toolbox of trickery enables them to wield the potential power to affect beliefs—and thus behavior.
 

“It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”
—Harry Houdini

Magic, like religion, is ubiquitous, existent in all societies since the dawn of human civilization. Sometimes—in some cultures—the two phenomena have functioned interchangeably, indistinguishably, even in harmony. Since the emergence of monotheism, however, a schism developed as organized religions gradually separated miracles from magic, faith from legerdemain. 

Despite such doctrinal determinations, magic and religion (or the supernatural in general) have continued to cross paths, whether inadvertently or intentionally. In the process, proponents of the supernatural have often employed the skills of magic, invariably for profitable ends; adversely, certain magic practitioners have willingly exposed the illusions of their trade in order to unveil the trickery and deceit of those boasting supernatural powers. Such debunking has invariably arrived in humorous form, with “incongruity” humor used as the element of surprise to reveal technique and “superiority” humor deployed to ridicule intents and purposes.

This latter use of magic, for both critical and humorous ends, is nothing new. The English inventor, John Nevil Maskelyne, was renowned for outing fraudulent spiritualists in the mid-19th century by reproducing their tricks. Anglican prelate, John Tillotson, dates the magic and mockery marriage back further. In 1694 he made the claim that the nonsense term illusionists use to describe their deceptions, “hocus pocus”, emanates from the Roman Catholic liturgy “Hoc est corpus meum” (“this is my body”). The similar sounding magic term emerged as one of parody, he claims, as an imitative allusion to the “trick of substantiation.”

The modern wave of spiritual debunkers has as its godfather Harry Houdini, who spent many years publicly exposing spiritualists profiting from the grief and vulnerability of those that had lost loved ones during the Great War. Inspired by Houdini, James Randi has drawn from both science and magic in unveiling the fraudulence of myriad supernatural claimants. Randi came of age during the ‘60s and ‘70s, a period when extra sensory perception, alien sightings, and psychic readings were all the rage, and the likes of Uri Geller—Randi’s arch-nemesis—was an internationally beloved superstar. 

Today, so-called psychics like John Edwards and Miss Cleo are multi-millionaires, invited without question onto the day-time TV talk shows, there given free reign to showcase their “powers”. Some of these “mediums” started out as magicians before realizing there was more money to be made in a different guise. Not surprisingly, this flourishing field of fleecing has alerted detractors and debunkers, many of whom also come from the world of magic. 

Ascribing to Houdini’s famous adage that “it takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer”, modern magicians like Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, and Jamy Ian Swiss have spent much of their respective careers in open warfare with the spirit industry.  The most comically inclined of these, Penn and Teller, have been particularly antagonistic to “gospel magicians”, such as the members of the International Fellowship of Christian Magicians. “It’s always astonished me how any magician can be spiritual”, says avowed atheist Penn Jillette (God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. p.11).

Magician skeptics are often driven by a vigilance and moral righteousness that borders on political correctness. Always giving paranormal practitioners a presumption of innocence, Randi eschews the tag “debunker”, instead describing himself as a “scientific investigator”. Many of these magicians prefer to be called “illusionists”, too, to distinguish them from those who claim their performances to be anything other than just skillful deception. While some still prefer to maintain the aura that comes with the mystery of magic, Swiss openly proclaims “I’m here to fool you” and even holds workshops in which he decries and ridicules the “unethical mentalists”. Perhaps in homage to Randi, whose house bore the sign “Randi-Charlatan”, Swiss likewise comes clean by promoting himself as an “honest liar”.

Although spiritualists and psychics may constitute low-hanging fruit when it comes to debunking the supernatural, many of the magician mockers are openly atheist, and speak loudly and widely about how their profession lends itself to skepticism. Illusionist Joshua Jay explains how studying magic makes one aware of how religion can be used as a lure to belief, saying, “The more you understand about magic the harder it is to make a leap of faith” (”Magicians say their craft makes them see faith as just hocus-pocus”, by Kimberly Winston, USA Today, 11 April 2011). With its scientific and rational underpinnings, magic legitimized atheism for Jay.

Derren Brown also underwent a magic-al journey to atheism. Raised a Christian evangelical, Brown explains how he thought his way out of his faith by learning how paranormal industries work. His TV special, Messiah, exposed five different paranormal systems, including faith healing. For each, he used the trickery and tactics of the pseudo-“messiahs”, revealing how quickly and easily attendant observers can be persuaded to adopt certain beliefs. In an interview with him, conducted by Richard Dawkins (see below), Brown wittily (and rhetorically) inquires as to why psychics never ask any interesting questions during their cold readings. “What’s it like to be dead?” for example! The reason, of course, is that the “psychic” is only there to convince of his/her powers, not to really consult with the deceased.  For the susceptible and malleable, endorsement is achieved because, says Brown, “we all notice what supports our beliefs and disregard the rest… and the biggest placebo of them all is God”.

Commanding people and their beliefs is the ultimate goal for magicians; this control gives them awareness of how their skills can be used and abused. For these seasoned practitioners of deceit, for whom suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite requirement of their audience, questioning faith is perhaps a natural inclination.  As K.J. Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, comments: “Knowing magic does give you a leg up on how the mind works and how easy it is to be deceived. And from there, skepticism can be a fortunate result” (USA Today, ibid).

The contemporary illusionist most associated with religious skepticism is Penn Jillett. For him, atheism is more than just a (lack of) belief; it is, he says, “my whole life”, and a cause he publicly advocates on behalf of.  Like many of his like-minded peers, Jillette’s atheism is the product of his rational thinking, one that posits that claims must be supported by empirical evidence. In this regard, magic both informs and is informed by his atheism. “I came to magic because of being a skeptic”, he asserts. “I think that sharing the truth with other people matters. That’s all… It matters for aesthetic purposes, artistic purposes, emotional purposes and I think it matters for morality” (USA Today, ibid). Here, the skepticism of which he speaks goes beyond religion and spirituality to his very life and profession.

It was because of his disenchantment with the popular magicians of the ‘70s (like the Amazing Kreskin) who would present their craft as supernatural magic that Penn joined forces with Teller to form a new kind of magic act: one that would deconstruct, and in the process, ridicule, the medium itself. For them, the art had exhausted itself, had become a bloated beast celebrating self-important con-men like David Copperfield and Doug Henning. In rebellion, Penn and Teller fashioned, says Calvin Trillin, a “magic show for people who hate magic” (”A Couple of Eccentric Guys”, The New Yorker, 15 May 1989). 

Like Johnny Rotten in rock music, Andy Warhol in art, and Lenny Bruce in stand-up, Penn and Teller sought to bite the hand that feeds, acting as anti-magic magicians assaulting the tenets, traditions, and tactics that maintain the very pillars of the industry. They laughed at the pervasive self-seriousness and at those who made paranormal claims by “tipping the gaff”, unveiling how the illusions worked and how audiences were manipulated. As a result, their truth-telling elicited a sometimes angry backlash from within the magic community, as traditionalists saw their credibility and craft being jeopardized. But the young upstart duo just proceeded with their mock-magic, stripping the “Amazing” egotists of their authority while empowering audiences to be more (self-)aware critical thinkers—to be skeptics themselves.

Penn and Teller’s inspiration in taking this path of magic less traveled was James Randi who, like Houdini before him, has dedicated much of his career to exposing frauds and hoaxes, whether performed under the banner of magic or spirituality.  “Randi taught us that you could spend your life studying how to lie and use that to tell the truth”, explains Jillett (Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday! New York: Penguin, 2012. p.13). For these dissenters, magic should be performed, presented, and used for entertainment purposes, not as a stepping stone for claims of supernatural powers. Thus, just as Randi spent decades exposing the “woo woo” of Uri Geller’s spoon-bending and “psychic” antics, so Penn and Teller have waged a career-long war against “gospel magicians” and scam artists—like Kreskin—that claim to have E.S.P. and/or other super-powers (”James Randi, the Amazing Meeting, and the Bullshit Police”, by Michael Moynihan, Newsweek, 16 August 2013). Such a mission led Randi to forming the James Randi Educational Foundation, which offers a million dollars to anyone who can prove their paranormal abilities. No one has yet earned this reward, and such notables as John Edward and Sylvia Browne have declined invitations to have their “powers” tested under scientific conditions.

In contemporaries like Penn Jillette we witness a new breed of magicians that are self-consciously aware that their toolbox of trickery enables them to wield the potential power to affect beliefs—and thus behavior. Alongside contemporaries Derren Brown and Jamy Ian Swiss, as well as forerunners Harry Houdini and James Randi, Jillette recognizes how just a small step can take a competent illusionist from the entertainment field into the more lucrative arenas of “supernatural” deceit.

Seeing the resulting exploitation, financial and otherwise, of vulnerable victims, Houdini responded in his final years by putting on multi-purpose performances entitled “Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed”. Today, Jillette and others have gone further, penetrating “spiritualism” in all its forms, from tarot card reading to séances to religion itself. Moreover, they do so through parody replication, by employing the very same incongruity humor tricks that magicians have always used to shock and surprise audiences. Here, though, the punch line—or reveal—aims to expose rather than exploit, to tell truths rather than lies, to demystify rather than claim transcendent powers. 

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