I Sold My Soul for a Bunch of Card Tricks

Posted on 07/24/2019
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So, magic. We’ve all seen at least one illusionist or magician act, whether live or on TV, Youtube, or a particularly weird dark web page. And probably, as most people do, we dismissed the video as entertaining, but “fake” or “elaborately staged”. However, it wasn’t always like that. Society has had a long and complicated relationship with anything close to magic, and entertainers of today would have been much, much more controversial figures even a hundred years back.

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  What we consider magic has changed quite a lot since the inception of the term, which was pretty much at the dawn of human history. Divine acts, miracles, rituals, communions with forces unknown. All of those tie in neatly with our desire to know the unknowable. Going from the ancient pantheons having gods of thunder because how else would thunder exist, then to the burning tree that somehow still proves to a subset of Christians that God exists, we, as a race, love indulging the magical, no matter how much we believe in it.

  So, naturally, the people who call themselves magicians, or in recent years, illusionist, sit square on the intersection of explainable and mysterious. Using a mix of sleight of hand, elaborate machinery, and plain showmanship, men and women around the world astound and astonish with their performances. As usual, amazement is followed by close scrutiny. 

  There are countless videos, articles, even straight-up books dissecting the art of magic, explaining at length the usual tricks and common misdirections performers use to pull off their tricks. Even the more elaborate, almost unbelievable tricks are for all points and purposes, solved. However, that does not stop believers from believing, and as elaborate as the tricks themselves are, they pale in comparison to the scenarios people can think of.

  The most usual, and very much the oldest of them all is, of course, a deal with the devil. It might seem a bit outlandish, but if you take into account that it is a trope as old as Christianity, and there was even a Pope rumored to have done the same, the context becomes more clear. It ties in neatly with our need to explain everything, peppered with religious fervor.

  So we go to 17th century Germany, where we have one of the first portrayals of something akin to modern tricks, namely a game of cups. You know, the one where you try to guess under which cup lies the ball? Yeah, it’s that old. 

 

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Notice how the noble turns away the doctor, who at the time and place, was often the priest first and only moonlighting as a healer. Yeah, the message is obvious. Tricks without explanation became equated with acts of magic, and if you weren’t wearing a cross, then your magic was bad magic.

Next up, a bit later, and on another continent, we have Ellen Armstrong, who, after her father John died, inherited the family business, incidentally becoming the first, and for a long time, only black woman with her own show (still a rarity in the magic industry). So naturally, claims of voodoo and other assorted misogynistic and racist statements found their way to her. 

 

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  Sensing a pattern already? What’s really interesting about most of the assertions of infernal bargains and eldritch debauchery is that they usually come from two types of people, either uninformed or outright malicious.

  Compare the above with Satanic Panic. For the uninitiated, Satanic Panic was a decade long mass propaganda event, that rippled from the US into the rest of the world, caused by a fictionalized biography whose main selling point was a correlation of child abuse, then still a relatively new concept for the general population, to satanic rituals. 

  Apples and oranges? Not quite. Both movements gained momentum by declaring something that isn’t very well known is harmful. Magicians naturally keep their trade secrets close to the chest, because most of the appeal is in the unknown. Add to that the fact that early on a lot of acts directly advertised themselves as using abilities out of this world, and it’s easy to see how the myth perpetuates itself. 

  Now, there’s a lot of history between the age of Ms. Armstrong and the 21st century (even taking into account that she died in 1970), but the reason I’m glossing over it is that most of it are a rehash of maliciousness and ignorance noted above. However, everything changed with the turn of the century. 

  The first decade of the millennium brought a new generation of artists, and with the Church not having that much sway with regular people anymore, they could embrace the weirdness and turn it into a part of their showmanship. None went as far as Chris Angel. 

 

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  Leaning, or better yet, diving headlong into the emo/scene/metal aesthetic that was prevalent during the ’00s, he single-handedly jumpstarted the new wave of decrying magicians as devil worshipers. Choosing the stage name that he did, Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos and his brand “Mindfreak” were the cause of pearls being clutched all over the country as well as general outrage being had.

  Ironically enough, Chris himself is a big opponent of mystifying that is egregious in his profession. Most notably, he was challenging his contemporaries, Uri Geller (a self-proclaimed psychic with a “mystical aura”) and Jim Callahan (a “paranormalist” whose website wasn’t updated since 2008) to prove they actually had supernatural abilities by guessing the contents of two envelopes Chris had prepared earlier. So far, neither of the two has succeeded in doing so.

  In that sense, Angel is following the well-trodden path set by the probably most well-known stage artist of the 20th century, Harry Houdini himself. Houdini was very dedicated to both his craft and to debunking what he saw as fraudulent, which incidentally earned him the enmity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer, and spiritualist. While Doyle didn’t believe that Houdini had a standing arrangement with the Devil, he did believe that Houdini was a strong medium himself and that he was using his abilities to “block” the people he publicly discredited, which he saw as cowardly and duplicitous.

  So, that’s West. The East, China to be exact, has its own mindbending performance style. Bian Lian, or face-changing, has funnily enough also been linked with satanic proclivities, seeing as the masks sometimes have horns and they change really fast AND it’s a really guarded secret. Let’s all try to ignore the fact that it’s a centuries-old tradition that’s a part of a completely different art form. There are horns and it is scandalous and downright evil.

 

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  Of course, a cursory investigation gives you some easy insight into the various techniques performers use to change masks seamlessly, quickly and unnoticeably. It’s actually really simple to spot if you slow down a recording and know where to look at.

  If you haven’t noticed by now, I really don’t believe that people are actually selling their hypothetically immortal souls for yes, fame, but in a very roundabout way. It’s fun to speculate and imagine, though. Some of them just might have, but I would hope they had a better plan than a tenure on the Vegas Strip. Magic or not, hellish or mundane, watching them do what they’re best at is still really, really entertaining. As long as the tricks are fresh.

Author: Nemanja Nastasić; Copyrighted © mysticfiles.com
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