Old tricks appeal in a high-tech age

Magic is hot, but not in the way it once was. A few centuries ago, being a great magician might have gotten you burned at the stake. Today, it might land you a permanent gig in Las Vegas.

For proof of magic's resurgent popularity, look no further than your local cineplex, where a magic-based movie, The Prestige, has been topping the box office charts. That follows on the heels of another successful magic movie, The Illusionist.


And those films come after years of our culture creating superstars of magicians like David Copperfield, David Hemmings and Penn and Teller. And then there is the phenomenal appeal of novels about a youngster growing up in a magical world, Harry Potter.

Odd, isn't it, that in this day when we can send space probes to the outer edges of the solar system and map the human genome that we would still be so astounded by those who can make us think we see something that we don't?


For Johns Hopkins English professor Simon During, the relationship that a civilization has to magic says something profound about its culture. He made his case in the 2002 book Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic.

"My thesis is that a kind of shift happens when magic stops being connected to religion," says During, a New Zealand native. "Magic had been treated as something that showed an illegitimate relationship to the supernatural.

"But, beginning in the17th and 18th century, when it stops being seen as something from the devil, something dangerous and bad, it becomes available to be fictionalized," he says.

When a culture can look at magic, be amazed and charmed by it, but know that it is not real, something profound happens. "That relationship of a culture to fiction - movies, novels, magic shows - is only possible when magic stops having its great connection to religion," During says.

His argument is that you cannot have a make-believe world until you acknowledge that there is such a thing as make-believe, until you realize that magicians, like novelists and moviemakers, are creating illusions, not revealing another form of reality.

In his book, During traces magic back to the earliest days of recorded history. Early in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there was an attempt to make a distinction between miracles and magic - one the work of God, the other of the devil.

Church leaders dismissed claims that when Moses threw his staff on the ground and it turned into a serpent, he was merely performing a magic trick. At the same time, they banned those who practiced magic. Such people were sorcerers and witches, those who were hanged or drowned or burned or imprisoned, laws that remained enforced up until about 1800.

"Religion still has a problem with magic," During says, pointing to denunciation of the Harry Potter books by some church leaders. "That sort of stuff lingers." But so, for many, does that uneasy separation between miracles and magic.


"Some evangelical religions, then and now, obviously still use these forms of magic," he says. "But the big established churches are all afraid of magic. They would want to say that there are real miracles, but would be down on people claiming to have any sort of supernatural power. Still, there is always a slippery line there."

In some cultures, belief in the constant presence of the supernatural remains widespread. There are those who see, for instance, lightning strikes not as random acts of nature, but as the conscious work of witches. They seek out those who are to blame and kill or banish them.

During notes that European powers who had come to terms with magic used this understanding when colonizing nations, hiring magicians to woo the indigenous crowds. "There was a real history of this," he says. "The French certainly did it in Algeria, where it took on anti-Islamic tones."

The bottom line for During is that until a culture comes to grips with magic, it will not be able to embrace modernity. The ability of a culture to create works of fiction and to recognize them as such is a part of that process. And, at its base, that is what a magic trick is, a work of fiction, making you believe something happened that didn't.

Freed of its religious trappings, magic became the most powerful form of entertainment. In a very real way, magic formed the foundation of what grew into the modern entertainment industry.

"In the period between about 1860 and 1920, magicians were huge stars," During says. "They were making more money than anyone else, more than movie stars."


Houdini, who named himself after the 19th-century French magician Robert-Houdin, was the biggest of these stars, but he was not the conventional magician, creating the appearance of something that wasn't really there.

Houdini's escape-from-certain-doom acts often used illusions, but that was not all they were.

"Most of his were daredevil acts, done in real time," During says. "They weren't completely illusions, as some involved real skills, though Houdini did do magic."

Houdini might be compared to those who now walk the line between daredevil and performance artist, people like David Blaine, an accomplished street magician who made it to prime time television by doing things like encasing himself in a block of ice or trying to hold his breath longer than Houdini.

Both The Illusionist and The Prestige are set in the late 19th century as magicians were taking their place in the nascent world of celebrities. The growth in science and industry was giving magicians tools that allowed them to create more and more elaborate illusions.

During says that optics was one of those. "It allowed a whole new type of magic to develop, concealing people," he says.


Electricity, which plays a big role in The Prestige, was another. "A lot of early scientific stuff was first used in magic shows," During says. "Electricity was used in magic shows in the 18th century, very early electric devices. People had never seen it before."

Magic became popular not just as an entertainment, but also as a hobby. Magic shops opened in every city.

"This huge culture of amateur magic developed, something that has really died away," During says. "People from the upper classes, the middle classes, the working classes, all listed magic as a hobby. It was huge from about 1860 to 1930. The Depression really kills it."

Though magic never disappeared, after that it remained on the entertainment sidelines, something for kids. Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom promised a world of illusion for the young.

Adults were too busy staring in wonder at the burgeoning creations of modernity - atomic bombs exploding, rockets heading into space, televisions bringing pictures into the home. No longer did magicians mediate science - science brought us its magic directly.

But as science lost its grip on the imagination, magic regained its appeal. It came in many forms. the spectacle of a David Copperfield show, the faith healing of a TV evangelist, the post-modern revelation of the trick in the midst of the illusion of Penn and Teller. Then there are magicians like Ricky Jay who hark back to the glory days of magic.


The interesting irony of magic showing up in the movies today is that movies themselves came out of magic. As During points out, it was magicians who first experimented with the whole idea of projecting pictures and making them move. Such tricks are behind the illusions central to The Illusionist.

"The first people to show films in France and Britain were magicians, showing it as part of a magic show," During says. "All of the things we now think of as standard film stuff, cuts and fades and shots and reverse shots, started as magic tricks. They all used to be considered special effects."

French filmmaker George Melies was one of the first of these magician filmmakers, pioneering techniques in films he showed at the Robert-Houdin theater in Paris.

That tradition of magic in films lives on in the more and more elaborate special effects, convincing us that we are seeing something - dinosaurs or battling space ships or exploding bombs - that is not really there.

"It goes back to the move that happened in the Enlightenment whereby magic became demystified, thereby available in a fictional form, which became one of the forces that developed film," During says. "Film maintains that by continually feeding off the power of creating amazing special effects.

"But even in our own time, effects that once made us go 'Wow,' we now don't even notice," he says. "What was once a special effect is now part of the vernacular."


So, to rediscover the magic, Hollywood went back to magicians.

For the record

In an article in the Ideas section Nov. 5 about the history of magic -- "Old tricks appeal in a high-tech age" -- magician Doug Henning was misidentified.The Sun regrets the errors.