The Secret Link between Magic and the Occult
By Corey Francis
A lot of people I have met over the years that either are or claim to be paranormal investigators or have a strong interest in the field have very little knowledge and experience in an area of study, which to me should be a prerequisite to any one who wishes to study the field seriously.
For ghost hunters, paranormal investigators, demonologists, channelers, mediums, and scientists alike, regardless of their beliefs, there is something to be learned in one of the oldest and most secretive arts in the world. I am referring to magic. Not black magic, white magic, Voodoo, or Wicca, but the theatrical art of sleight of hand, illusions, and the psychology of deception as a form of entertainment or otherwise.
Now, before anyone jumps to any premature conclusions, let me say that I am not inferring that all paranormal investigators should be magicians, but I believe that a good working knowledge of the craft is indispensable when investigating claims of the paranormal and in helping form a better understanding of this confusing and complex topic. Why? We will look at several reasons, starting with the most obvious; that magic has its roots deep in paranormal folklore and study, and vise versa. They share much in common and have depended on each other over the centuries to both evolve into separate entities that ironically share much common ground.
Reginald Scot, disgusted by the persecution of supposed witches, wrote an expose on the topic in 1584 entitled The Discoverie of Witchcraft. This is known to magic historians to be the first and most important magic book ever written. Scott tells how his investigations into witchcraft unveiled something other than unexplained forces. He explained how items could be made to disappear or transform miraculously, how dead animals could appear to be brought back to life, and how the living could appear to communicate with the dead. He also told how it can appear that one man could seemingly read the mind of another, or ascertain secret information that seemed impossible. Scot then explained that all this was accomplished by all using basic principles in magic such as psychology, misdirection, optics, specially designed apparatus, and most importantly, the people’s will to believe. Scot’s discoveries have stood the test of time, and more than four centuries later some effects in his book can still be bought today in local magic stores. Scot insisted that witchcraft and ritualistic magic should be rejected by science, reason, and religion and that manifestations such as ghosts and apparitions are fraud, illusions, or mental disturbances in the observers.
Magicians of yesteryear played heavily on occult beliefs. Most portraits of early stage magicians show them with Demons and Imps resting upon their shoulders and spirits and ghosts whisping around them in mystical fogs. Performers of this time cloaked their image and patter (the story told during the performance of a trick) around dark and mysterious unseen forces. When spiritualism began in the mid 1800s, The Davenport Brothers conjured spirits to play musical instruments, the Fox Sisters communicated with the dead with strange raps and knocks (confessing many years later to have cracked their toe and knee joints) and Hellstrom demonstrated to thousands to have a sixth sense. Harry Houdini always had a great interest in the occult. The master magician and escape artist who could not be held by any earthly bond truly believed in the possibilities of spirit phenomena. When his beloved mother passed away, Houdini, stricken with grief, turned to spiritualism in hopes of receiving a message from his deceased mother, desperately wanting to believe. When he easily recognized that mediums and psychics were constantly employing conjuring methods, Houdini became disgusted and turned on spiritualism with a vengeance. He debunked them by the dozens, disguising himself and exposing them in mid séance. There was nothing Houdini saw that he could not duplicate himself with trickery, yet he still had faith in the possibilities of prove of an afterlife. He hunted fraudulent ghosts, duplicated spirit photography, and put some of the world’s leading psychics out of business, but still continued to have faith.
When his friend and admirer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle claimed that Houdini’s occult powers must be genuine because there was simply no other explanation, Houdini had to prove to him that it was all mere trickery, and even then, Doyle was not completely convinced. How ironic the man who created Sherlock Holmes believed all that he saw and heard without considering the possibilities his fictional character would have considered.
When Houdini died on Halloween, 1932, he had a pact with his wife and left her a secret message that he would try to relay to her after his death. Houdini figured that if anyone could come back from the dead it would be him. Even on his deathbed, Houdini had faith. But he never came back. The message was never given. Although many attempts were made and a séance was held every Halloween for over sixty years (many of the fraudulent), there was never a single word from Houdini and his silence became the apparent ultimate victory over the spiritualists.
Through the decades, many performers have claimed to have genuine magic or occult powers, and sadly they were able to swindle the public easily using the skills and knowledge of a magician and the charisma and charm of snake. Uri Geller, Kreskin, Jean Dixon, Kudda Bux, Dunninger and hundreds of others captivated their audiences and seemingly performed miracles, when in the eyes of magicians it was all routine stuff. Ultimately, the ones that managed to reach true celebrity status such as Geller and Kreskin have since admitted they were simply talented conjurers.
It still goes on today with the likes of John Edward, Sylvia Brown, James von Praage and others. Any serious conjurer recognizes their techniques because they are right out of classic textbooks, cold reading being only one of many psychological and deceptive methods they employ. Add in television editing to increase accuracy and a host of other methods I will not divulge and presto, you appear to have a genuine psychic. An interesting thing to note is that out of all performers who have claimed to have genuine powers, none of them stood the test of time and almost all of them were proven fakes (many of them self-admittedly in the end). But think of the influence on the masses they had and the impressions they left on generations. Is that why so many people are so inclined to believe in the paranormal today without having the chance to examine all the facts?
True story. I remember when I was young my Grandfather telling me the story of how one day Orson Wells did a live television broadcast. Orson asked the listening audience to find an old watch that was broken and clearly not working anymore and bring it to the TV set. My grandfather complied with an old timepiece. Orson said a few magic words and concentrated, and presto, to my grandfather’s astonishment his old watch was ticking away as good as new. He told me how the phones in Orson’s TV studio lit up like crazy with hundreds of callers who said the same thing happened to them. He had witnessed a miracle. My grandfather was a wise man, and he told that story many, many times. He died in 1988, believing it I assume. Too bad my grandfather never had a chance to find out that the trick (and it almost always is a trick) was marketed and sold to magicians long before Orson ever even performed it on TV. The basic secret can now be found for less than five dollars in many magic books. Imagine my disgust and amusement when I saw Uri Geller perform the same trick on television just several years ago in a pathetic attempt to get back in the limelight.
Another true story. Early 1996. I was hired to entertain audiences with strolling magic at the Pre Magi Juvica, a large annual magic gathering held in Berlin, Germany. Now, I was familiar with all sorts of magic, being totally immersed in it for several years. I was lucky enough to have learned a lot from great stage and close up magicians, as well as at the magic store in which I worked. Although mind reading was personally not my thing because I believe it doesn’t suit my comedic stage personality, I was quite familiar with methods employed by mentalists and psychics. I, along with my partner, even assisted Ted Lesley, Germany’s premiere mentalist with his act, which included information gathering and audience monitoring (we even sold the bugging units with the ear piece at the magic store, a step up from a makeshift baby monitor to extract information from audience members by stooges who mingled with the audience before the show and collected information).
But I was not prepared when an older Russian gentleman approached us after the gala and asked to speak with me. Both his English and his German were very poor, but it was clear he wanted to show us something. In a darkened corner, this aged gentleman took my hand and looked into my eyes as my partner and others looked on in curiosity. After a mystical trance, which was starting to spook me, he began to reveal information about me. He started off slow, and then started warming up. The information appeared to come to him painfully, and then he started getting hit after hit. He was not cold reading, he barely asked me any questions. This man could not possibly know me, he had not spoke to any of my German friends, he was not at the show, and obviously was not employing any method I was familiar with. He eventually got my name, my mother’s name, my wife’s name and what she looked like, and the names of family members. He told me where I lived, where I was from, how old I was, what I weighed, and why I came to Germany. He told me things no one, not even me, could know for sure, with 100% accuracy, including my social security number, which I quizzed him about and he spit it out slowly and painfully, digit for digit. I remember the awesome feeling of revelation that maybe, just maybe, after all the cons, fakes, and phonies I have seen, I was finally getting the real thing. I so badly wanted to believe, and for a brief moment I did. I didn’t reveal my true feelings at that moment and I tried to be cool, looking over to my friends who looked as baffled as me. This was something we have never seen.
I asked him, “how much?” He looked confused. “How much for your method, I would like to purchase it,” I told him.
“No money,” he said. He pointed to my suit jacket pocket and gestured towards it. The only thing I had in there was my playing cards. “What, you want my cards?” I took them out and offered them to him. He didn’t want them. What did he want? He nodded his head and said “You show me how you palm card, I show you trick.”
It all began to come clear. He wanted an exchange of info. I had really no time to ponder his method so I demonstrated several card moves that only magicians would understand without truly revealing the exact method. “Tell me how you know all this about me and I will teach you what you want to know,” I told him.
He paused for a moment and reached into his pocket and pulled out….my wallet! A sinister grin grew across his face and I heard my friends roll with laughter. A pick pocketing phony psychic, now I had truly seen it all! The method was so simple, yet I was blinded by his beautiful act and his disarming sincerity. I was so taken that I didn’t even notice that he had taken my watch of my wrist while holding my hand in a supposed trance, which he proudly now displayed in his other hand. He had indeed observed my performances at the show, watched me, learned my mannerisms, waited for the moment to pick my pocket and corner me outside. I was naive and learned a great lesson that day.
I suppose you are wondering what my point is, and it’s this; had he had walked away and said nothing, I would have wondered and believed that he indeed displayed genuine psychic abilities for years to come (and don’t think he couldn’t have returned my wallet just as easily as he had taken it. Pickpockets have some amazing skills that are harder than acquire then some difficult sleight of hand is). Just as a thought, throw an accomplice into this mix with a laptop, Internet connection, and an open public record account and what do you have? The possibilities for fraud are shockingly vast.
Today’s magicians have an unbelievable arsenal of weaponry to help deceive people, and certainly not only the realm of psychic powers. They have, among thousands of other things for the right price, floating apparatus to make almost any object appear to levitate right under a witnesses nose, ways to levitate your own body in front of your audience, self exploding wine bottles, everyday household objects that move, creep, or fly on their own accord, ways to make a person feel an icy touch with no one around them, tables that float, Ouija boards where the planchette moves by itself and is totally under your control, smoke, fog, and fire that materializes from nowhere, sound emulators that can be rigged up invisibly almost anywhere and thousands of diabolical ways to obtain hidden information under almost impossible conditions.
Most interestingly, magic teaches you about the power of belief. For a while I was performing metal bending (such as spoons, keys, etc). I was intrigued by James Randi’s proven claims of being able to easily deceive even the most intelligent people with this age-old dodge that requires no real physical or mental skill. Randi’s test project, which involved taking two magic students and exclaiming their powers to be genuine, proved to thousands that simple trickery could be used to fool dozens of scientists even under test conditions. I thought I could add it to my show with little effort. It didn’t take long to find how right Randi was. People believed it. It spooked them. For younger people it even made them question the entire world and everything they thought they knew about the laws of nature. I would go to parties and bend spoons and keys and people literally freaked out. It was fascinating to see how easily people believed in occult powers when you performed such feats in that type of light. But fascination turned to concern, for every real magician must be willing to ultimately admit that it is all smoke and mirrors, for magic without representation is charlatanism.
Most important of all, magic teaches you something very important about human nature and how people perceive things. Magic focuses equally on psychology and dexterity in levels and ways that are too deep for the scope of this essay. Magic makes you think outside of the box, and forces you to explore all possibilities, like trying to solve a difficult puzzle. You are able to read people by their speech and body language and are better equipped to evaluate truth from fiction in a more discerning manner. You are less susceptible to fraud and your senses are sharpened and tuned in a way that no other field of study can give you.
This is certainly not to say that I believe that all paranormal phenomena are phony magic tricks. I also don’t mean to imply that psychics and others may not have an unexplainable gift. The probability that paranormal phenomena exists outside the realm of magic is certainly plausible, but certainly not to the extent that the television and Internet would like us to believe. So you may be wondering what all this has to really do with being a paranormal investigator. I would like to think that by you reading this, you were able to make the connection yourself. I’m not saying you should start carrying around a magic wand and a deck of cards, but I am recommending that all those who take studying the paranormal seriously to at least educate yourself on some of magic’s history and basic principles. There are many books to be found in magic that approaches the paranormal in ways many ghost hunters never even heard of, and there is an enormous amount of useful information that is invaluable to you in your quest for finding truths in this ever illusive field. Magic is much deeper and far more complex than the David Blaine or Criss Angel special on TV or the magician who came to your cousin’s birthday party. It is rich with alternative thinking, untold history, and fascinating things about a world very closely related to that of the paranormal that has by the true magician’s code; been closely guarded secrets. You will not be sorry if you decide to take up magic as a hobby because most of all, it’s a lot of fun.
I will be glad to recommend books or answer any serious inquiries, and I sincerely hope that you take away a little something from the reading this and are able to put it to use for yourself in a positive way. Continue to seek truth and understanding in the world of the unexplained, but arm yourself with some knowledge that could mean the difference between believing you have found the real thing or you have been cleverly and purposely deceived. The future of a better understanding of the paranormal deserves it. Good luck.
Corey Francis can be reached at email@example.com