I know I could be lighting a huge powder keg with both magicians and laypeople by bringing this up, but I want to share my opinion and find out yours. And the topic is this: Is it okay to reveal magic secrets – or not? Should we chide and censor people who make this knowledge readily available, or have they really done nothing wrong?
Exposing magic secrets is nothing new. In fact, one of the earliest magic books ever was really an exposé of the conjuring art. THE DISCOVERIE OF WITCHCRAFT was first published in 1584 by an Englishman named Reginald Scot. The book, which discusses witchcraft and shows detailed drawings of magic tricks and their secrets, was actually put out because Scot wanted to show that prosecuting people for sorcery was irrational, and there were real-life explanations for their “powers”. Ironically, the book became an early instruction manual for performers who wanted to learn magic, because many tricks and methods were laid out in black and white for them to study. It is said that when James 1 ascended to the throne, all copies that could be found were gathered up and burned.
In almost any decade you can find someone exposing magic secrets. In the 1930s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company mounted a huge campaign where they exposed magic tricks in a series of Camel Cigarettes ads. The ads appeared in over 1200 newspapers and magazines, and professional magicians were outraged. The Society of American Magicians actively worked to stop the campaign, and an illusionist actually sued the tobacco company for $50,000. (He ended up losing the suit.)
Surely one of the most notorious conjuring exposures were the Fox Television specials Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed. This series of four television specials in the 1990s featured host Mitch Pileggi (from The X Files) guiding us through actual magic illusions being performed by a masked magician – and then going through it again, revealing the secret. Possibly the biggest exposure of professional magic ever, it truly caused a lot of concern in the magic world regarding how it was going to affect business. (BTW, yours truly actually appeared on Entertainment Tonight to give some counter-opinions on the material presented (see my reel on my website for show footage).
So… right or wrong? Is it fair to reveal secrets that are actually used by performers today? Does it affect their livelihood? Or is the pursuit of any and all knowledge fair game? In today’s computer world, almost anything on any subject can be unearthed, examined and dissected. So is this really a moot question?
I’ll tell you where the answer lies for me. The night the first “…Revealed” special ran, an amazing thing happened. My phone started ringing. Friends and clients were calling me, some saying “Do you know what’s on TV right now?!?!?”, but most were calling to tell me something else. They were telling me that watching the special was making them sad, because it was killing the mystery of magic for them. It was strangling the enjoyment out of puzzling over it themselves. And more than one person told me they were turning off their TV. They DIDN’T want to know. They wanted to keep the wonder, keep the amazement. And I found that truly enlightening. It helps me believe something I’ve witnessed many times in my professional career: it’s not the secret of the trick that drives the whole process of illusion; it’s the wonder and amazement that the wizard creates when he is performing.
So those phone calls created a sort of happy ending for me when those specials were airing. It confirmed for me a truth about Magic as an art form, and what really drives it. Let’s face it – if you really want to find out how something is done, you probably can. But think about it; do you really want to spoil it forever and ever?
I’d love to hear what you think! Drop me a line…!