There’s a marvelous irony to the Official Houdini Seance. The magician spent much of his later years debunking psychics, mediums, and mysticism, and after his death (on Halloween, no less) has been the subject of a seance dedicated to contacting him each year for the past 89 years.
This year, with the help of Wonderfest, the Bay Area Skeptics, the Bay Area Science Festival, and more, producers Robert Strong and Tucker Hiatt put on an expanded event, including magicians, lecturers, panels, and more. On Saturday night, the seance was laid bare in front of 350 observers in the form of dual rituals, one by psychic medium Terrie Huberman, and a second by magician Paul Draper.
In truth, the show was more about education and entertainment — it involved lectures from historians and neuroscientists and a healthy level of skepticism about whether death is the end, along with a few explanations for how mediums have created the spooky lights and sounds that were supposed to come from spirits.
A medium, historically, was adept at creating effects in a darkened room, and slipping out of hand holding or even restraints to actuate those effects, and they tied those effects to the religion of mysticism. A magician or an escape artist, then, is like a secular medium. But in both cases, the actors rely heavily on tools, often homemade, to create the tricks. And Houdini was a master at both figuring out how they work and inventing them himself.
“A badge of honor for magicians is to have created their own effects, their own illusions,” says Hiatt. Houdini commissioned a special shackle that he used in his escapes, and in a successful seance, his spirit is supposed to unlatch the shackle. (It hasn’t happened yet.)
“Magicians have a way of thinking that is very similar to Makers,” says Strong, who is a professional magician and comedian. “No group of magicians will sit around saying no, that’s impossible, you can’t do it, there’s no way. They roll up their sleeves and they go, okay, let’s solve it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s never been done, or it doesn’t matter if the technology isn’t available yet. They just keep racking their brain and racking their brain until they solve it.”
“The difference is, Makers probably really want to showcase how cool what they created is, and magicians want to hide what they made — they want the audience to see a very specific illusion,” he says.
Sometimes that illusion is visual, like the ones that involve sleight of hand or a specially-designed prop. Sometimes it’s a trick that relies on a tendency for our brains to draw patterns or other connections, as with most of the “contact” made by modern mediums. And Zeke Kossover, an educator at the Exploratorium who hosted a science and physics demo in between shows, brought a couple of unusual illusions — tactile and auditory.
One used wires, strung inside a wooden frame, to deceive the hands. When rubbed against each other over the wires, a participant’s hands felt a velvety sensation instead of metal. Another used an Arduino with Adafruit’s Music Maker shield to create a Shepherd Tone illusion, in which harmonic frequencies, sounded at the push of a button, seem to rise continually. Both required a knowledge of physics and a purpose-built device.
“The world looks mysterious in many ways,” says Kossover. “But when you drill down to it, you can figure out what’s happening. But then, sometimes it’s even cooler after you sort out the physics of it.”
Being a magician, especially a professional one, means being part of a small community. It also means a near-constant quest for new material. Between these, you wind up having to invent a lot of stuff, or at least adapt stuff, finding new ways to refresh it or make it relate to the theme of your show.
“If someone wants to levitate, and they want to do it on a cruise ship out in the open, there’s nothing off the shelf that will do that,” says Strong. “What we have to do is, we’ve got to either build something from scratch or adapt something that already exists.”
To see the official Official Houdini Seance video, check the Wonderfest website this coming weekend.