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Houdini (1954), starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh
Houdini (1954), starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh
Harry Houdini, the world's greatest magician
Harry Houdini, the world's greatest magician
Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell
Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Cottingley Fairies Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle asserted that photographs of the Cottingley Fairies proved the existence of spirit beings.
Houdini and Photography, Lincoln
Houdini demonstrated that photography can be manipulated to show anything.

The Illusionist, Magic and Spiritualism

The Illusionist takes advantage of the connection between magic and spiritualism.
The Prestige, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman
In The Prestige, Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are warring magicians.
The Prestige, Magic and Spiritualism
The Prestige uses Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell, but goes way beyond it.


Four Films about Magicians that are Better Than Any Ghost Story

When I was a boy, Scholastic Magazine came out with a series of articles on Harry Houdini, the most famous magician that ever lived. Each article revealed the secret behind one of his famous tricks, while also engaging the reader in an interesting narrative about the man. It was fascinating, and I couldn't wait for the next article to come out.

Houdini wasn't just a great slight of hand artist: he had a deeply inquisitive mind that lead him into an investigation of spiritualism. He wanted to know what was behind supposedly paranormal activity, could someone jump the gap between the physical and spiritual realms, and where people's spirits go after they die. When his beloved mother, Cecilia, passed away, with whom he was extremely close, he intensified his search to discover what lay beyond the grave. The conclusion he came up with was that, even though there may be something beyond death, it is impossible to contact those who have died.

Thus, all spiritualist are deluded, all mediums are charlatans, and all seances are fake. From that point on, Houdini made it his calling to expose spiritualism for the false religion that it was. He used his own knowledge of how to fool people to bust many famous mediums that, up until then, had not only deceived the public, but the scientific and academic communities as well. He even offered a cash prize to any medium that could prove any supernatural abilities at all. The prize was never collected.

At the same time, another famous man, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was doing his own research. The author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, after suffering the deaths of many family members, including his wife and son, became obsessed with spiritualism, and eventually became its most ardent proponent. It's interesting how the loss of loved ones begins many on the road to spiritualism. I once saw a short film clip of Doyle explaining his interest in spiritualism. There is no logic or scientific proof behind it at all. It seems to be more wishful thinking than anything else.

Houdini and Doyle were friends before they began their investigations in the early 1920's. But as time progressed, and Houdini kept piling up more and more evidence that spiritualism was a hoax, Doyle turned against him and became his bitter enemy. Even though Houdini tried to show Doyle that his magic tricks were just that - tricks - Doyle was convinced that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist himself. It's interesting that Doyle never used the deductive reasoning that Sherlock Holmes exhibited in his exploits into spiritualism. He was totally subjective and unscientific about it.

There are two very interesting films about Houdini: one is called Houdini (1953), and stars Tony Curtis as the great magician and Janet Leigh as his wife, Bess. The film contains a lot of fictionalized material, but it's entertaining nonetheless, as Curtis has all the energy and showmanship of his character. One liberty taken by the writers is in how Houdini dies. Houdini used to challenge people to hit him in the stomach. He had such well-developed stomach muscles that, if he prepared himself, he could take any blow to that area. But one time, a college student, having challenged Houdini, but without giving the magican time to prepare himself, delivered several hard blows to his abdomen. Houdini's appendix ruptured and, on Halloween night in 1926, he died from peritonitis.

In the 1953 film, Houdini dies in his Chinese Water Torture Cell, one of his most spectacular tricks. Much is made of this trick in the film, suggesting that it would take true supernatural powers to perform, which he fails to do, and so dies. But the real Houdini did perform it, many times, without supernatural abilities. Nevertheless, how Houdini accomplished this particular trick remains a mystery to this day. I give this film 4 out of 5 stars.

Every Halloween night, seances are conducted around the world to try to contact Harry Houdini. Even his wife conducted an annual seance for ten years after his death, until she finally gave up, stating, "Ten years is long enough to wait for any man." Houdini was adamantly opposed to spiritualism of any kind. So, why do these people, who say they want to honor him, do the very thing he detested most? It's insane.

The second film about Houdini that I find interesting is FairyTale: A True Story (1997), which, if I'm not mistaken, was co-produced by Mel Gibson, who makes an unbilled appearance at the very end. It stars Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini and Peter O'Toole as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. FairyTale is about a very famous set of photographs taken by two girls in England in 1917. Supposedly, they depict fairies; and not just blurred images, but crystal clear images of them dancing, playing instruments and involved in other activities. They're known as the "Cottingley Fairies," after the town where the girls lived. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced the photographs were real; but it's easy to see how they could have been faked.

These images created quite a stir in the press, even attracting the attention of Harry Houdini in America, who came to England to prove that they were fake. The film is not as interesting or entertaining as it could be, given the subject matter; but the battle between Houdini and Doyle is. 3 out of 5 stars.

Two recent films that build on the Houdini reputation are The Illustionist and The Prestige, both from 2006. The Illusionist is a very beautifully photographed film that delves deeply into the spiritualist side of magic, although the magician, played by Edward Norton, insists that his tricks are just tricks. It's difficult to see how they could be just tricks, given their spectacular nature, and the setting of 19th Century Austria. I'm not much of a fan of Edward Norton, so he was a detraction for me. The rest of the cast is quite good. Also, I found the plot to be a bit too pat and lean. It could have used more twists and turns, and more subplots. But what the film does, it does very well. 4 out of 5 stars.

A better film, I believe, is The Prestige. It has a superb cast and exciting story. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play opposing magicians who are driven by hatred: Jackman blames Bale for the death of his wife in a trick they once did together, and Jackman takes revenge by causing Bale to flub a trick and lose a finger. (Not really an even exchange.) The trick in which Jackman loses his wife? Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell.

From that point on, it's all-out war. Jackman goes on to bigger and better things, with the help of his engineer, played by Michael Caine. But Bale never seems to rise above the small time. He marries, has a child and takes on a mysterious assistant. Bale is constantly trying to come up with the ultimate trick, which he finally does in the form of dematerialization. Jackman determines that he will do the same trick, only better, which he does. But then Bale thwarts even that.

In his pursuit for the ultimate trick, one that Bale won't be able to copy, Jackman becomes interested in a new invention that also involves dematerialization. I won't go much further because I don't want to give away the plot. But I do believe it takes a turn toward the impossible at the end which could have been resolved in a more believable fashion. Nevertheless, this is an extremely interesting film, with excellent production values. 5 out of 5 stars. I almost want to drop a star because of the ending, but I'll let it stand. See what you think.

As long as magic stays within the realm of tricks, I like it. But once it starts venturing out into the realm of the Spirit, it becomes deceptive. There has been a lot written about Walt Disney and his support of the wrong kind of magic. Also, the Harry Potter novels are notorious for propagating witchcraft and wizardry, which I'm not wholly convinced they do. (You can read my review of the Harry Potter books by going here.) The truth is, magic is never mentioned in the Bible except in the context of paganism, because that is where it came from. It is the devil's version of miracles, if you will. It is what people turn to when they can't or won't turn to God. It is what King Saul turned to when God rejected him as king, and it destroyed him.

Just because a character in a film is cute or attractive, we should not believe that it's okay for them to use magic. And don't give me that, "Yes, but it's just Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice," or, "Look at those rosy cheeks on that fairy godmother," or, "Julie Andrews would never play anything wrong," (I'm talking about Mary Poppins). That last one was my dad's response after seeing The Sound Of Music. Right after that, Andrews played a seductress in two different films. Oh, how naive we are!

Magic never glorifies God, and always leads a person into self-destruction, whether that happens in a story or not. Now, I'm not talking about magic tricks. They're different. I'm talking about real magic, or spiritualism: seances, weegie boards, necromancy, witchcraft - activities in which the participants are trying to contact the dead or spirits, and calling on them for knowledge or power to do the supernatural. That is something God calls an abomination in the Bible, worthy of death, because it supposes to do what God alone can do. It is the worst kind of idolatry.

It's time we woke up to what's going on around us. Magic is not some innocent activity for kids, to keep them occupied on a rainy day. Nor is it something adults just grow out of. It's difficult to change from turning to something other than God once you believe that magic is real. Miracles are God's way of dealing with things supernaturally. Magic is not. It's time we got that straight.

If you'd like to read about Houdini's adventures in bashing spiritualism and debunking mediums, he wrote a book called, A Magician Among the Spirits.

Thanks, Kurt.

Waitsel Smith, October 28, 2009

Text © 2009 Waitsel Smith. Photos © Paramount, Touchstone Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
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