Astonishment and Mystery

If I could go back in time I would make this one of the first posts on this site because I think it would help people understand what my intentions are with some of the ideas I post here. But I couldn't have written this post at that time because it took examining all the ideas in concert to see the bigger picture. 

In his seminal (and—quite frankly, given how much I loved those books—semenal) trilogy, The Art of Astonishment, Paul Harris wrote about astonishment being our "natural state of mind." 

"Here’s basically how it works, give or take a few metaphors.
You come into the world a blank slate. No ideas about who you
are or what anything is. You’re just being. And it all feels great...
because there are no options, or opinions or judgments. There is
no right or wrong. Everything is everything. That’s what you see
in a baby’s eyes. Pure child’s mind. Then, very quickly, we learn
stuff. The names of ten thousand things, who we are, what we’re
supposed to be, what’s good and bad according to the current
rules of the game. And you organize all of this information into
little boxes. And when any new information comes along you
file it in the appropriate box.


And then along comes a focused piece of strange in the form of
a magical effect. Let’s say this book vanishes from your hands.
“Poof,” no book. Your trained mind races into action and tries
to put the piece of strange into one of its rational boxes. But no
box will hold it. At that moment of trying to box the unboxable
your world-view breaks up. The boxes are gone. And what’s
left? Simply what was always there. Your natural state of mind.
That’s the moment of astonishment. The sudden experience of
going from boxes to no boxes. If you can keep the fear-response
from arising you have the experience of going from a cluttered
adult mind to the original clear space. Gee, it almost makes you
feel like a kid again."

And he talked about the moment of astonishment, and ways to enhance that moment and even how to discuss it with your spectators so they can get the most out of that brief moment.

I think a lot of people gravitated to this idea, first because it makes some sense, but also because it makes magic seem important in some way. We're not just showing people tricks to get our jollies. We can do it to give them a moment they haven't experienced since childhood.

I think there's some truth here, but I think it's an incomplete way to look at the outcome of a magic performance.


Let me explain by way of analogy.

It would be very easy to re-write Paul's essay on magic and astonishment and make it so it's about horror movies and the startled fear you feel after a jump scare. 

(I assume "jump scare" is a somewhat universally understood term. But if not, watch the video below.)

You could say that moment of fear after a jump scare is a moment of pure disconnect between what we had heretofore experienced and new information that was abruptly presented to us. And that being startled like that is similar to a child's mind being faced with brand new stimuli. And in that moment of fear our mind becomes like that of a child dealing with the completely unexpected. Or something like that. I'm not saying it perfectly maps onto what Paul was saying, but I think you see where I'm coming from.

If someone had written that essay and it was put out to other horror movie producers, they might think, "Ah, yes! The jump scare is a truly powerful technique that does something important for the spectator." And they might find ways to make that scare stronger and more focused.

But, if we take a step back, it becomes clear we're only talking about one definition of what makes a good horror movie.

Some horror movies make you jump in your seat, and some horror movies keep you up at night.

Looking at magic tricks strictly through the metric of Astonishment is like looking at horror films as being only about scaring people in the moment.


The moment of astonishment, as Paul defines it, is brief. He writes:

For most people the moment lasts under ten seconds. Then
because we crave the security of our missing world-view, we
quickly build a new box. The “it-went-up-his-sleeve” box or the
“it-was-all-done-with-mirrors box” or even the “I-don’t-know-
what-happened-but-l-know-it-was-a-trick” box. And that’s all it
takes. One thought, one guess, even a wrong one, and the boxes
all come back, natural mind gets covered up, and the moment
of astonishment is over.

This is why I think Paul's essay is incomplete. Yes, magic is about that brief moment of astonishment (just as horror movies are about that brief moment of primal fear), but it's also about the long-term feeling of mystery that you leave people with. Astonishment and Mystery are the two "dimensions" of someone's reaction to a trick and you need to consider both of them because they're both equally valid reactions to shoot for.


Are you an Astonisher or a Mystifier? 

You don't have to be one or the other, but you do have to know if you want to be one or the other, or some combination of both. And you have to recognize that being some combination of both may take away from your success at being one or the other. 

I'm going to clarify this if it's getting murky. And when I do, I'm going to be talking as if these are two completely distinct things. They're not, but to establish the idea, I need to talk about them that way.

Let's say you're performing for some friends. Would you rather:

A) Perform a trick that gets a profoundly strong, visceral reaction—a 95 out of 100—but that is never mentioned again by your friends.
B) Perform a trick that gets an okay reaction—a 40 out of 100—but weeks or months later your friends are still mentioning it to you and asking questions about it.

If you chose A, you probably tend towards being an Astonisher. If you chose B, you probably tend towards being a Mystifier. If you had trouble answering, you're probably more in the middle. If you chose both, you're one of those assholes who can't answer hypothetical questions properly. 


In general, Astonishment is heightened by simplification of the effect. You want to give people something easy to focus on and then do something clearly impossible. You want that "moment" to be uncluttered and not require much interpretation by the audience. 

Mystery is created via complexity in presentation, where the nature of what they experienced is called into question. That's what a mystery is. It's unanswered questions. It's not knowing what is the truth and what isn't.

Astonishment is created by a simple plot executed well. Mystery is created by adding layers to the presentation, creating a somewhat un-navigable labyrinth with no wholly obvious direction to go.


Yes, in an "astonishing" trick there is an unanswered question: How did you do that? But as Paul Harris says, after a few seconds, people will "box" that feeling in the "I-don’t-know- what-happened-but-l-know-it-was-a-trick” box. This is what I've referred to as the "Non-Explanation." And it's enough to satisfy most people, because while the trick may be this un-boxable moment of weirdness, the experience itself is completely boxable. It goes in the "It's a magic trick" box. And that larger "box" effectively contains the smaller mystery.

So to amp up the mystery we need to give them an experience that can't be boxed. Or at least one that can't be boxed cleanly. So we create layers to what the person has seen. That was a trick. But was the whole thing a trick, or just the one part? Did he say something that wasn't a trick was to hide something from me? Did he really not know how that happened? Did he really get a headache? Was he really surprised by this? Could that have really happened by accident? Who was that other person? Were they in on it? Was I hypnotized? Did he really need to film that to send to a secret club? Did he really not know I was paying attention? Is there really something strange about that object? Is there something to that ritual we did? If it was a trick, why didn't it work the first two times? Why did we have to go to that part of the woods? What was in that pill? Who called him on the phone? Why did we have to wait until exactly 12:54 AM?

These types of questions won't increase the Astonishment, but they'll broaden the Mystery.


When I perform, I probably lean 70% Mystifier to 30% Astonisher. Although the types of ideas I put forth on this site, specifically in regards to presentational styles and ploys, lean heavily towards the Mystifier side of things, just because I find that more interesting to write about.

If you like this site, then you're probably somewhere on the Mystifier spectrum. And the people who think the stuff I write is nonsense are probably hardcore Astonishers. The Jerx-style, as it is, is to present tricks with unanswered questions beyond just "how did you do that." That's a foundational element of a mystifying presentation, but it doesn't help with astonishment.


Here's another example if you need help self-identifying as primarily an Astonisher or primarily a Mystifier.

Which would you rather do:

A) You borrow a quarter from someone. Place it cleanly in your hand. Close your fingers. Wait a beat. Open your hand slowly. And the quarter is gone.

B) You borrow a quarter from someone. Place it cleanly in your hand. Say, "I read this new technique to vanish a coin but I'm not having much luck with it. It might be bullshit." You squeeze the coin for 20 seconds. "Nah, it's not working," you say, and toss the coin back on the table. "Does this place have good calzones or do you-." Your friend interrupts you. He's holding the quarter. What did you do? he asks. "What do you mean?" you reply. The quarter is smaller, he says. He compares it to another quarter and it's about 75% of the size of a normal quarter. "Holy crap," you say, "I can't believe that was working! I thought I felt something, but I wasn't sure." 

I would want to do both of these effects, of course. I think a super-clean coin vanish is about as pure and beautiful a moment of astonishment as there is.

But if I really wanted to intrigue someone, I'd go with the second option. The astonishment factor is lowered because the other person has to first recognize what happened, and then put that in some kind of context (that this is a coin part-way on its way to vanishing). Then they have to consider: "Wait was that the trick? Making it smaller?  Or is it really possible there's some process that I don't understand where a coin could get smaller.  Well...maybe... but to the point that it could vanish? That seems unlikely. Okay, it must be a trick... but why isn't he taking credit for it? That's what magicians do. Why didn't he just call it the Shrinking Coin Trick, and then he could take the credit for it? I mean... unless that really was unintentional." And it's considering these factors that makes the experience itself more of a mystery.

(I've looked into it. Getting fake quarters that are 75% the size of real quarters is expensive and potentially illegal, sadly.)


One of the valuable things about recognizing this distinction between Astonishing effects and Mystifying effects is that it helped me understand why some people like or dislike certain tricks and now I can tailor what I choose to show them more towards their likes. Some people love all magic. And some people hate all magic. But what I've found is that some people who I thought didn't like magic, just didn't like a particular type. Some people don't like an ambiguous mystery, but they're fine with an astonishing trick because—by it's nature—it's a transient feeling. It's not something they need to continue to process after the fact. Some people, on the other hand, find a trick that is just "astonishing" to be almost childish in a way. Like there's no meaning to it and they're looking for a more substantial mystery to get caught up in.

I like performing both styles, so I'm happy to oblige them. I'll put on my Astonisher cap for those who just want to see something cool and unbelievable. And I'll put on my Mystifier hat for those want to see something that hints at more complex mysteries. Everyone else will get some mix of the two.


I want to be clear about what I'm saying (and what I'm not saying).

I'm saying magic tricks can be used to create astonishment and to create mystery and that, while related, these are very different outcomes. Neither is better or worse. It's just about what you prefer and what you're going for. And I think it's helpful to keep in mind that pursuing one can be to the detriment of the other (given that one benefits from simplicity and the other complexity). 

Astonishment, as Paul Harris says, is fleeting. That's not to say people won't remember an astonishing trick long after it's over. They will. But the feeling of astonishment is fleeting. Mystery is a less intensely concentrated feeling, but it's one that can linger for a person's entire life. If you want to give people the richest experience when you perform, it should probably be with some effects that are primarily astonishing, and some that are primarily mysterious. 

Here's another way to think of it. Suppose you're a man who wants to be the world's greatest lover (magician). For some of you, that might mean giving women the most intense orgasms of their lives (moments of astonishment). For others, it might mean finding a woman and instilling in her intense feelings of passion and romance (mystery). Ultimately, you'll probably want both techniques in your arsenal, because while there are some women who just want to be wooed and charmed, and others who just want you to ball their brains out, most are probably looking for some combination of the two.