Debunkers and believers in a Salem witch trial etching

Believers vs. Debunkers

What would you respond? Believe it or not, I’ve received emails and phone calls out of the blue to either ‘heal’ or ‘curse’ a particular person. This has happened despite what I think is unmistakably clear messaging on my site. It explains that I offer magic entertainment – nothing more miraculous or sinister than that. Yes, even when I perform a ‘seance’ it’s clear that this is theatrical entertainment at work. I wonder how many calls would I get if I actually professed to hold secrets of the dark arts?

People have different comfort levels with regard to not knowing the ‘secrets’ in play in a magic show. Everyone tends to fall in one of three categories as they respond to the ‘magic’ they just saw. It’s a sort of continuum with believers on one side and debunkers (skeptics) on the other. Generally speaking, I tend to meet three types of people in my audiences…

Here’s a little personality test. Which one are you?

1. “i have to know the secrets!”

Regardless of how beautiful or entertaining a magical feat can be, lurking behind the sets is always the basic question: how did the magician do that? For some people in the audience, it’s an especially dark cloud that won’t release its grip on them.  If this is you, your rational mind can’t cope. You HAVE to know. You’re a puzzle solver, a scientist, a rational mind that won’t rest until at least a vaguely-plausible explanation is on the table. You run on evidence and doubt rather than what seems to be at first glance.

2. “THERE MUST BE SECRETS, BUT THAT’S AWESOME”


These are the perfect audience members for those magicians who hope to create drama, illusion, fantasy, comedy or beauty with their magic. If you’re like this, you want to lose yourself in it all. It feels good to forget you’re being ‘tricked’ and just have fun with that feeling of not knowing. One of my favourite magic historians wrote about this:

Usually the deception in a magic show is a negative element, the hole in the middle of the performance. The performance is a sort of inadvertent dance around this hole, with the hope that each spectator will be coaxed to slip through it.”
-Jim Steinmeyer

Most magicians focus on luring spectators through that hole because to make a show all about figuring out secrets to a puzzle that the magician already knows isn’t a very entertaining prospect!

3. “I HAVE TO BELIEVE!”

This is the man who wanted me to curse someone for him. It’s also the woman who once grabbed my arm during a performance and in all sincerity said ‘I saw the glow when you were reading my mind’.’  If this is you, you don’t like asking questions. You may want to escape from some uncomfortable reality by holding onto illusions instead. I might be a London magician clearly peddling in entertainment but if this is you, you see something real instead.

Debunkers and believers in a Salem witch trial etching

Believers, meet the Debunkers

The most fascinating secrets that magicians understand are how people are led to believe things that aren’t true. Which is probably why some magicians get hot under the collar when they see people touting myths as reality. Famous magicians who have taken to debunking fraudulent ideas include James Randi, Martin Gardner, Harry Houdini, and Penn & Teller who have all made it a personal mission to ‘get real’.

“One of the things that Teller and I are obsessed with, one of the reasons that we’re in magic, is the difference between fantasy and reality.”
– Penn Jillette

Magic as entertainment is a celebration of the thrill of a good mystery but in the wrong hands it can be twisted into deception of the foolish. In fact the first ever known book on magic grew out of the need to debunk and protect the poor souls who had been getting burned at the stake having been accused as witches or sorcerers.  Reginald Scot published Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584. He wanted to disprove the popular belief that witchcraft was real.  In the book he revealed secrets to what essentially were conjuring tricks; what the ‘witches’ had been doing to pave their way to a burning stake.

Witchcraft and spirits

dangerous life of a debunker

And history repeats in a contemporary believers vs. debunkers story. This time, it’s not about a witch but instead about a miracle.  Sanal Edamaruku is a modern-day Reginald Scot. He fled from Mumbai to Helsinki in 2012 to escape a warrant for his arrest for having debunked on television what a Catholic church had touted as a miracle. Water dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus had been publicised as a miracle and hopefuls flocked to capture the water professed to heal the sick.  

Sanal investigated and discovered a blocked drain had been the source of the water.  The grounds for his arrest: a colonial era Section 259A of Indian penal code for “deliberately hurting religious feelings…” Sanal told me, “I became a resident of Finland to avoid the possibility of indefinite pre trial imprisonment and a possible murder attempt against me in jail.”  Open church group discussions online plotted to have him killed. For the people who ‘had to believe’, a person who revealed the secret behind the illusion posed an existential threat.

So my believers and debunkers, whether you want to know how the magic works or not, as a magician I’m here to tickle that sense of mystery and the unknown, to tap into that sense of wonder. I won’t reveal any secrets though, but then I think you knew that already.  And by the way, if you email me for curses or miracles, special rates may apply. – CH

Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

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