The Sealed Room With the Little Door

I spent much of the last 10 years working on my presentations for effects. And I've tested a lot of concepts with real people and one of the concepts I've tested the most is what my spectators respond to the strongest in regards to the implied method behind the trick. So, I looked at:

  1. A strong trick with no implied method.
  2. A strong trick with a believable implied method.
  3. A strong trick with an UNbelievable implied method.

And I consistently get the best initial reactions with 1 and 3. The most mild reactions with 2. And the most long-term reactions with number 3.

Here is why I think this is. I'm not saying the analogy I'm about to give is necessarily true, but it's how I picture things in my mind and it's true when I perform.

A very strong magic trick (where the spectators don't have any insight into the actual method) is like taking a person and sealing them in a square room with no windows or doors or any means of exit. When you give no explanation, people become trapped. They are amazed, but often, after a little while, they give up because there's no where for them to go. 

However, when you give them a believable explanation it's like putting them in a room with a door for them to walk out of. When you say, for instance, "I know where the coin is because I read your body language," you are giving them an exit. And they have two choices: 1. Feel trapped or 2. Walk through the exit you've given them. And so they will do number 2. (Not shit, I mean, they will go through the exit.) They may still be amazed ("That guy can read my body language!") but you are kind of sacrificing the mystery, in a way. And the mystery is the beguiling, interesting, frustrating, and long-lasting part of the magic trick.

Now imagine this, you're in a sealed room with a little tiny door the size of a cereal box. You're trapped, but there's this thing that beckons you as if it's an exit. Your rational mind knows it's not. You know you'll never fit through it, but you can't help but keep returning to it and shoving a hand or a leg out and seeing if maybe there's some way to work your way through. Rationally, you know it's not the way out, but it's the only thing that even suggests a way out, so your mind keeps returning to it. (In the same way you keep looking in your jacket pocket when you can't find your keys, even though you've already checked it five times. You know they're not there, but you can't imagine where else they could be.) This is, I think, the cruelest way to trap someone because they have the hope of escape and each time they reach out that little door and feel around in hopes of finding something that will let them out, it reinforces that they're trapped.

This is how I believe presenting magic with an unbelievable (yet internally logical) implied method affects people too. They know it doesn't provide the escape they need but it's something for them to explore when they feel they have no other option. And I feel like it's a way of fooling people multiple times with the same trick. You show them the trick and fool them, and then their mind looks for a logical explanation and when no logical explanation presents itself, they start poking around your unbelievable explanation (the little door) in their mind. "Okay, I know he didn't really stop time like he said... but maybe he stopped me perceiving the passing of time for a moment? Like maybe when he twirled that card he hypnotized me to not notice time passing? What the fuck am I saying, that's nonsense too." And every time they consider your unbelievable explanation, even partially, they are fooled again.

With a believable explanation you have two possibilities. 1. The spectator believes it, which is good for your ego, but not great entertainment, I don't think. 2. The spectator doesn't believe it and is put into the awkward position of wondering if you really want them to believe this somewhat believable explanation. For these people the believable explanation often seems less like a "presentation" and more like you're lying in order to impress them with some skill/power your don't really possess. Which a lot of you are, of course.

With an unbelievable presentation, you don't have this issue. They understand that you're doing this to entertain them, not to get them to "believe" anything. At least that's my experience. Do they still get caught up in it? Yes. You'll know this because they'll come back an hour later to poke some hole into your bogus explanation. "You said you found that metal disc in the wreckage of an alien spaceship when we were camping. But you couldn't have because I was with you the entire time." To which I'll either say, "Yeah, no shit, I was goofing around. It was just a magic trick." Or, "What are you talking about? I went for an hour hike by myself that night. Wait... you don't think they sent some kind of replicant in my place, did they? Oh my god, please tell me you didn't have sex with my alien cyborg doppleganger." 

Again, I'm not suggesting this is the right way to do things. Just my preferred way of doing things. For me it's more interesting and definitely more entertaining. Of course this is all on a spectrum. Some of my presentations are completely unbelievable, and some are partially believable. Some of the doors I give them will be just big enough to get their pinky through, and some they'll be able to poke their head through. But I always stop short of giving them something they could comfortably walk through.