Feeling and Belief

In the writing that follows I talk a bit about developing a "magic feeling" with your effects.

What do I mean with this term? It's easy to dismiss this as some kind of hokey Doug Henning horse-shit. 

The reason I can give wonder is that I feel wonder about the world: the stars, a tree, my body - everything.
— Doug Henning

That's not the type of thing I'm discussing. I mean, that's fine and all, but what I'm really talking about is crafting an experience or a moment that has a bizarrely enchanting, otherworldly feeling to it. Not the magic of a fucking tree.

I've heard it said that the unfortunate part about performing as a non-professional is that your audiences are usually people you know, so they're unlikely to believe whatever power you are professing to have. 

But this is not a bad thing. This is one of the benefits of performing for friends and family. 

Wanting someone to truly believe you can read their mind (for example) is a mental disorder. It's a cry for help. 

The moment someone believes something actually happened, you have lost the ability to create the feeling of "magic." The magic feeling occurs in the gulf between what they believe is true about the world and what felt true during the course of the effect.

If they believe you can read minds in real life and then you do an effect where you read minds, you have a magic feeling of zero. Your performance can be impressive or even amazing as a demonstration of skill, but you're probably undercutting people's enjoyment by aiming for "belief."

One of the very first things we ever tested with my NYC focus group crew was to see who enjoyed a mind-reading trick more: people who believe in mind-reading/ESP or people who don't. People rated their belief in the phenomenon on a scale of 1 to 100 and later they watched a demonstration of mind-reading and rated their enjoyment on a scale of 1 to 100. While everyone had a positive response to the performance, there was an inverse relationship between belief and enjoyment. That is to say, the more you believe in mind-reading, the less enjoyable you find watching it as entertainment.

That kind of makes sense. The non-believers are witnessing something that seems impossible. The believers are seeing a demonstration of what they already assume is possible. 

You see, belief implies possibility. 

Every time you do a trick you have two choices:

1. "I want my audience to believe I did something that is possible." 

2. "I want my audience to feel like I did something impossible." (Or, more towards my style, "I want my audience to feel like something impossible happened.")

What screws magicians up is that they think there's a third choice: "I want my audience to believe I did something impossible." This isn't an option. It's not on the table. Because to believe you did the impossible, would make you a god or a wizard. You are not going to get an intelligent adult to believe that. And you're certainly not going to get your friends and family to believe that. And if it seems like you want them to believe it, you're going to come off as a grade-A nutjob.

When I suggest magician's shouldn't strive for people's belief in their performances, there is a tendency to think I'm suggesting they should half-ass it and turn it into something meaningless and frivolous, but that's not what I'm suggesting.

It's easy to think of "strong magic" as being synonymous with the spectator believing the trick really happened. So it can seem ridiculous for me to suggest that strong magic is when people don't believe it really happened. But it only seems ridiculous when you consider one axis of the equation.


With just that variable, it would seem like you would want to push it as far to the right as possible.

What I'm proposing makes much more sense when you add the other axis. 



When you consider it like this, I think most would agree that something at point B on the chart ("I believe it was real and it felt 100% real") is probably less "magical" than something at point A on the chart ("I don't believe it was real but it felt 100% real"). 

That "magic" feeling is really that dissonance that exists when something feels real but you know it's not.

What makes magic unique from any other art is that it can create experiences that exist around point A in the chart. Most everything else in your life is at point B. "I believe the cable guy replaced my cable box. And it felt like the cable guy replaced my cable box." That's not the most marvelous type of experience.

This is why a lot of the theory type stuff on this site is all devoted to changing how an effect feels to the spectator. The smear technique, imps, reps, buy-ins, the different performance styles— all of that—affect how a trick feels. They don't, necessarily, affect the deceptiveness of the trick itself. We're not lacking in tools of deceptiveness. We're lacking in tools to make the effects feel authentic.

What does it mean to make an effect feel real? It means adding in these types of presentational approaches that are designed to fool their heart, not their brain. 

See, it's not a problem that your wife doesn't believe you can't really read her mind. If your performance for friends and family have gotten stale, it's not because of their lack of belief. It's because they don't feel anything.

It took me a while to figure out, but many of my least favorite performances were the ones where people bought into the reality of my "powers," even partially. The ones where people thought I might have really been able to read their mind or predict their actions or memorize a full deck in a minute. Sometimes they'd be impressed, but I don't need that validation, especially for a skill I don't actually possess. And sometimes they'd be a little weirded out, and that's somewhat enjoyable, but more so for me than them. So, in one way, those performance were "successful," but there wasn't really that sense of raucous fun that I feel my best (most "magical") performances generate.

It's not a bad thing when your audiences consist of people who don't believe it's real. That's good. That means you're on the left side of the graph. Now you just have to push the effect toward the top of the graph to generate a feeling of magic.

And think about it, if you could genuinely read minds, and your wife believed it, she would be 100 times more sick of your shit than she is now. Asking her to think of a three digit number or draw a "simple shape" for the goddamn 1000th time so you can demonstrate a skill she believes you actually have? How would that play out in the long run? Just get it over with and have your lawyer draft the divorce papers.