Magic (illusion)

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For other uses of the term magic, see Magic (disambiguation).
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A flourish with a deck of playing cards.

Magic or conjuring is the art of entertaining an audience by performing illusions that baffle and amaze, often by giving the impression that something impossible has been achieved, almost as if the performer had magic or supernatural powers. Yet, this illusion of magic is created entirely by natural means. The practitioners of this mystery art are called Magicians, Conjurors or Illusionists.



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Hieronymus Bosch: The Conjurer, 1475-1480

Performances we would recognise as conjuring have probably been practised throughout history. The same ingenuity behind ancient deceptions such as the Trojan horse would have been used for entertainment, or at least for cheating in gambling games, since time immemorial. However, the respectable profession of the illusionist gained strength during the eighteenth century, and has enjoyed several popular vogues. Successful magicians have become some of the most famous celebrities in popular entertainment.

Modern entertainment magic owes much of its origins to Jean Eugne Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), originally a clockmaker, who opened a magic theatre in Paris in the 1840s. His speciality was the construction of mechanical automata which appeared to move and act as if they were alive. The British performer J N Maskelyne and his partner Cooke established their own theatre, the Egyptian Hall in London's Piccadilly, in 1873. They presented stage magic, exploiting the potential of the stage for hidden mechanisms and assistants, and the control it offers over the audience's point of view. The greatest celebrity magician of the nineteenth century (or possibly of all time), Harry Houdini (real name Erich Weiss, 1874 - 1926), took his stage name from Robert-Houdin and developed a range of stage magic tricks, many of them based on escapology (though that word was not used until after Houdini's death). The son of poor immigrants, Houdini was genuinely highly skilled in techniques such as lockpicking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of the whole range of conjuring techniques, including fake equipment and collusion with individuals in the audience. Houdini's showbusiness savvy was as great as his performing skill. In addition to expanding the range of magic hardware, showmanship and deceptive technique, these performers established the modern relationship between the performer and the audience.

In this relationship, there is an unspoken agreement between the performer and the audience about what is going on. Unlike in the past, almost no performers today actually claim to possess supernatural powers (although there are exceptions to this, they are regarded as charlatans). It is understood by everyone that the effects in the performance are accomplished through sleight of hand (also called legerdemain), misdirection, deception, collusion with a member of the audience, apparatus with secret mechanisms, mirrors, and other trickery (hence the illusions are commonly referred to as "tricks"). The performer seeks to present an effect so clever and skilful that the audience cannot believe their eyes, and cannot think of the explanation. The sense of bafflement is part of the entertainment. In turn, the audience play a role in which they agree to be entertained by something they know to be a deception. This is one of the few situations in which people willingly allow themselves to be lied to, and the audience trusts the performer not to exploit this, for example by cheating them out of money. Houdini strengthened this trust by using his knowledge of illusions to debunk charlatans, a tradition continued by magicians such as James Randi, P.C. Sorcar, and Penn and Teller.

Magic has come and gone in fashion. For instance, the magic show for much of the 20th Century was marginalized in North America as largely children's entertainment. A revival started with Doug Henning who restablished the magic show as a form of mass entertainment with his distinctive look that rejected the old stereotypes and his sense of showmanship that became popular on both stage and numerous television specials.

Today (2004), the art is enjoying a vogue driven by a number of highly successful performers such as David Blaine, David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown and many other TV and stage magicians. The mid twentieth century saw magic successfully make the transition to TV, which opens up new opportunities for deceptions. A widely accepted code has developed, in which TV magicians can use all the traditional forms of deception, but should not resort to camera tricks, editing the videotape, or other TV special effects - this makes deception too "easy", in the popular mind. Most TV magicians are shown performing before a live audience, who provide the remote viewer with a reassurance that the effect is not obtained by camera tricks.

Many of the basic principles of magic are comparatively old. There is an expression, "it's all done with smoke and mirrors", used to explain something baffling, and often this is literally true of magic performances - even today, a lot of effects are achieved using mirrors. Modern performers have vanished objects as big as the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, and the Space Shuttle, using optical deceptions such as Pepper's Ghost, a stage illusion first used in 19th century London. Harry Houdini led the field of vanishing large objects, by making an elephant disappear on stage, although not using mirrors.

Categories of illusions

Although there is much discussion among magicians as to how a given effect is to be categorised, and in fact, disagreements as to what categories actually exist -- for instance, some magicians consider "penetrations" to be a separate category, others consider penetrations a form of restoration -- it is generally agreed that there are very few different types of illusions. [1] (

Perhaps because it is considered a magic number, it has often been said that there are only seven types of illusion:


The magician pulls a rabbit from an empty hat; a fan of cards from 'thin air'; a shower of coins from an empty bucket; or they may, on an empty stage, appear in a puff of smoke -- all of these effects are productions, the magician produces "something from nothing".


The magician snaps their fingers and a coin disappears; places a dove in a cage, claps his hands and the bird vanishes, including the cage, stuffs a silk into his fist and opens his hands revealing nothing, or waves a magic wand and the Statue of Liberty magically "goes away". A vanish, being the reverse of a production, may use a similar technique, in reverse. Example Video (


The magician has a volunteer "pick a card, any card" from a deck, and with a flourish, show the card: "Is this your card?" -- it is not the card, and the magician tells the volunteer, "here, hold it for a second", handing them the card and then picking card after card from the deck, none of which is the card the volunteer picked. The magician says, "will you look at that first card again?" -- whereupon the volunteer finds it has magically become his card.

Or, a chicken is placed in a cage, the cage is covered with a cloth, which is immediately whisked from the cage, and the chicken has become an eagle. A bowl of fire may become a rabbit, a broom may be transformed into a beautiful woman. Transformations change one thing into another.


The cut-and-restored rope is a restoration: a rope is cut into two pieces, the two pieces are tied together, the knot vanishes, leaving one piece of rope. A newspaper is torn to bits. The magician rubs the pieces together and the newspaper becomes whole. A woman is sawn into two separate parts (an apparent hemicorporectomy), and then magically rejoined. A card is torn in fourths and then restored piece by piece to a normal state. Restorations put something back into the state it once was. Example Video (


A teleportation transfers an object from one place to another. A coin is vanished, then later found inside a tightly bound bag, which is inside a box that is tied shut, inside another box, which is in a locked box... all of which were across the stage.

The magician locks her burly assistant in a cage, then locks herself in another. Both cages are uncovered and the pair have magically exchanged places. This is a transposition, a simultaneous, double teleportation.

The magician climbs on a motorcycle, rides it into a crate, the crate is hoisted aloft, and presto! The motorcycle instantly appears, engine roaring, in the middle of the audience, 60 feet away, with the magician astride it. In a teleportation, something magically moves from one place to another.


The magician "puts his assistant into a trance" and then floats her up and into the air, passing a ring around her body to show that there are 'no wires' supporting her. A close-up artist wads up your dollar bill, and then floats it in the air. A playing card hovers over a deck of cards. A penny on an open palm rises onto its edge on command. A scarf dances in a sealed bottle. Levitations are illusions where the conjurer magically raises something -- possibly including the magician herself -- into the air. Example Video (


In which one solid object passes through another. The magician links two apparently solid steel rings, or the cup and balls trick in which the foam balls appear to pass through the cup are penetration illusions.


The purpose of a magic trick is to amuse and create a feeling of wonder; the audience is generally aware that the magic is performed using trickery, and derives enjoyment from the magician's skill and cunning. Usually, magicians will refuse to reveal their methods to the audience. The reasons for these include:

  • Exposure is claimed to "kill" magic as an artform and transforms it into mere intellectual puzzles and riddles. It is argued that once the secret of a trick is revealed to a person, he or she can no longer fully enjoy subsequent performances of the trick, as the amazement is missing. Sometimes the secret is so simple that the audience is let down they were taken in so easily.
  • Keeping the secrets preserves the professional mystery of magicians who perform for money.

Membership in professional magicians' organizations often requires an oath not to reveal the secrets of magic to non-magicians. This is known as the "Magician's Oath".

The Magician's Oath (though it may vary, 'The Oath' takes the following, or similar form:)
"As a magician I promise to never reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, without first swearing them to the Magician's Oath. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician, without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic".

Once sworn to The Oath, one is considered a magician, and is expected to live up to this promise. A magician who reveals a secret, either purposely or through insufficient practice, may typically find themself without any magicians willing to teach them more secrets.

However, it is considered permissible to reveal secrets to individuals who are determined to learn magic tricks and become magicians. The secrets of almost all tricks are available to the public through numerous books and magazines devoted to magic, available from the specialised magic trade. There are also web sites which offer videos, DVDs and instructional materials for the aspiring conjuror. In this sense, there are very few classical illusions left unrevealed, however this does not appear to have diminished the appeal of performances. In addition, magic is a living art, and new illusions are devised with surprising regularity. Sometimes a 'new' illusion will be built on an illusion that is old enough to have become unfamiliar.

Some magicians have taken the controversial position that revealing the methods used in certain tricks can enhance the appreciation of the audience for how clever the trick is. Penn and Teller frequently perform tricks using transparent props to reveal how it is done, for example, although they almost always include additional unexplained tricks at the end that are made even more astonishing by the revealing props being used.

Often what seems to be a revelation of a magical secret is merely another form of misdirection. For instance, a magician may explain to an audience member that the linking rings "have a hole in them" and hand the volunteer two unlinked rings, which the volunteer finds to have become linked as soon as he handles them. At this point the magician may make a gesture at the open space in the center of the ring, ('the hole in the ring'), proclaiming: "See? Once you know that every ring has a hole, it's easy!"

Types of magic performance

Magic performances fall into three broad genres:

  • Close-up magic, which is performed with the audience close to the magician, possibly in physical contact. It usually makes use of everyday items as props, such as cards and coins (see Coin magic). Exponents of close-up magic include Michael Ammar, Jay Sankey, Daryl, Bill Malone and Ricky Jay.
  • Parlor magic, which is performed for small groups of people in the same room as the magician. This type of magic often makes use of portable props specially designed for performing magic. Examples of Parlor magicians include David Abbott and Francis Tabary.
  • Stage magic, which is performed for large audiences, typically within an auditorium. This type of magic is distinguished by elaborate, large-scale props. The most famous magicians in the world, such as David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, and Penn and Teller, are best known for their ability in stage-magic.

Other specialties or niches have been created:

  • Bizarre magic, which uses metaphysical, horror, fantasy and other similar themes in performance. Bizarre magic is typically performed in a close-up venue, although some performers such as Docc Hilford have effectively presented it in a stage setting. Charles Cameron has generally been credited as the "godfather of bizarre magic." Others such as Tony Andruzzi, Carl Herron, and Tony Raven contributed heavily to its early development.
  • Mentalism, which creates the impression in the minds of the audience that the performer possesses special powers to read thoughts, predict events, control other minds, and other similar feats. Some of the more famous magicians in this field include Max Maven and Derren Brown.
  • Shock Magic is a genre of magic that shocks the audience, hence the name. Sometimes referred to as "geek magic", it takes its roots from circus sideshows, in which "freakish" performances were shown to audiences. Common shock magic or geek magic effects include Needle through Arm (sic) and Pen through Tongue (sic). Shock magicians include Vincenzo Ravina ( and Andrew Mayne (


Close up magic relies mostly on sleight of hand (pronounced "slite"), in which skilful manipulation of cards, coins and other props enables an effect to be created. For example, the appearance that an item has vanished (or been produced) can be achieved by a sleight in which the item is held in such a way that it is not visible to the audience and the hand appears empty (eg. palming a coin or card). There is a wide range of basic sleights described in the literature for vanishing, producing, and switching small items. Magicians today seldom resort to hiding things up their sleeves, which has become a cliche, although this technique can still be used on occasion.

Sleights require a good deal of practice to perform convincingly, and so many beginners are attracted to close up tricks based on hardware gimmicks. However, most shop-bought gimmicks are usually obvious to the audience for what they are, even if the exact mechanism is not understood. Professional magicians do use hardware gimmicks, but tend to base their acts on skill with sleight of hand as the main foundation. Many magicians see gimmicks and sleight of hand as a means to an ends, and most uses a combination of both.

Stage magic tends to revolve around large props, which are almost always gimmicks in that some kind of secret mechanism is involved. The performer's skill is then largely in timing, patter, panache, comedy value, and related acting skills. Common stage props include cabinets capable of concealing an assistant; boxes into which items can be vanished, or from which they can be produced; rings which can be linked and unlinked; and swords, knives or even guns which help create illusions of deadly danger.

One principle that underlies virtually all magic tricks is misdirection, which is the act of drawing the audience's attention to one location while, in another location, the magician performs a crucial manipulation undetected. For example, by drawing attention to one hand by snapping the fingers, tossing and catching a prop, or saying "watch this hand", the performer can force the audience to look, however briefly, in a certain direction, and use this as cover for what the other hand is doing. This is the basic idea of misdirection, although it can become very sophisticated and subtle for an advanced magician. These are based on the natural insticts of a human being, relating to psychology.

Misdirection can also mean to re-direct or re-structure the spectator's perception of the action taking place. For example, telling a person to "look into the empty box" when really a secret compartment hides something. The word 'empty' is used to restructure their perception of the box. Another example is when placing something from one hand into another accompanied by the appropriate phrase and expression when really the item is not placed where it is said to go.

Many different techniques are used to create misdirection, and all require great amounts of practice to perfect. One technique is the use of natural-looking and confident movements, to disguise any surreptitious manipulations. Making a hand with a palmed coin move and behave like an empty hand is an acting skill used to misdirect the audience in coin magic. Another technique is the use of a confident flow of chatter from the magician, known as "patter". Patter may take the form of a story, or it may simply be the magician (selectively) narrating the actions being performed. Either way, it directs the attention of the audience wherever the magician wishes.

Another technique of misdirection is the use of optical illusions to hide or displace the location or size of objects. When the sides of a box are painted with concentric rectangles, or a hollow tabletop is beveled so that it is thicker in the center than at the edges, such containers appear to be much thinner than they actually are. These are often used in stage illusions, since they allow an assistant to hide in a space that appears to be too small to fit in, or to turn sideways and assume different positions in a box when there appears be too little room to move.

Misdirection, along with theatrical acting abilities and also NLP can help to improve how the magic is perceive by the audience, although the method is mostly based on gimmicks and manual dexterity with sleight of hand. These elements show the difference between an expert magician and a beginner, even while they perform the same effect.

Misuse of magic

In modern conjuring, it is not considered fully honest to give a performance which claims to be anything other than a clever and skilful deception. In today's cynical world, claims of actual supernatural powers would likely be greeted with ridicule, although many people were convinced that the hugely successful 1970s illusionist Uri Geller had a paranormal ability to bend spoons, for example.

Other performers have capitalised on popular belief in ESP and other paranormal phenomena as a way of presenting magic tricks. However, there are dishonest performers who use the techniques of conjuring for fraudulent goals. Cheating at card games is an obvious example, and is no more than a form of theft. During the height of the vogue for spiritualism and the wave of popularity for seances in the late 19th century, many fraudulent mediums used conjuring methods to perform illusions at seances designed to convince those present of actual supernatural events, for financial gain. The great illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini devoted much of his time to exposing fraudulent mediums. The spiritualists and mediums at work today tend to shy away from effects such as making knocking sounds in darkened rooms, and objects apparently moving without being touched, because these give rise to suspicions. Mediums of today mostly rely on the content of their messages to convince the audience.

Many simple conjuring tricks continue to be used to defraud the innocent, however often they have been exposed and debunked. The three card trick, also called "Find the Lady" or "three card monte", is an old favourite of street hustlers and conmen; also, the shell game, in which a pea is hidden under one of three walnuts, is another means to separate a fool from his money. Although these are well known as frauds, some people are willing to lose money on them just for the entertainment value. There are other street hustles which use conjuring techniques and methods such as misdirection to commit theft. Sadly also prevalent is the recent explosion of radio and television 'psychics' such as John Edward, charlatans who use the old trick of cold reading to extract money from their audiences.

Notable magicians

See also

External links

es:Ilusionista fr:Prestidigitation ko:마술 (기술) it:Illusionismo nl:Goochelen ja:奇術 pt:Ilusionismo fi:Taikuus zh:魔術


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