To Wave or Not to Wave?

by Mark S Farrar


I shall state up-front that I have never been a big fan of illusion acts, especially those that might be described as "box tricks." Even before I took up magic at the age of 16, I always thought that most illusions were more of a puzzle than magic - it was more a case of "how does the box work?" rather than anything else.

My question, then, is: "Does the waving of hands or feet, through holes or flaps in the box, improve the illusion or not?"

If there are no visible signs of the person who is meant to be inside the box, then the audience has some legitimate doubt about whether that person is really inside or not. This doubt was, of course, much greater in the days of stage magic in theatres and music halls, since the suspicion of trap doors must always have been present. Nowadays, where illusions tend to be performed in more of a cabaret situation, this suspicion has less chance of arising.

If, on the other hand, there are visible signs of the personís presence inside the box, then I believe that the audience can only wonder how the various implements that are designed to harm the person, such as blades, swords, etc., can miss this person - itís a sort of magical version of "Whereís Wally?"

Related to this issue also, I think, is the question of intention - when performing the typical illusion, is the magician trying to prove that his assistant is impervious to harm or death, or is the goal to prove that the assistant can be made to vanish from the box (in which case it doesnít matter in the slightest what you stick through the various holes and slots)?

If it is the latter, then you might as well simply open the box to show that the assistant has disappeared - isn't an explicit vanish stronger than a vanish by implication (i.e. the assistant cannot possibly be inside the box or else he or she would be harmed, therefore they must no longer be inside the box)?

If it is the former, then I do not believe that many magicians stress this point enough. As a method actor might ask, "What's my motivation?" In other words, what is it that gives the assistant such powers - the magician, some secret potion, or what?

An analogy of sorts for the "secret potion" would be Robert-Houdinís "Ethereal Suspension," where he claimed that it was the mystical powers of the new wonder drug, ether, that allowed his son to float up into the air.

If, on the other hand, the magician is claiming to be the source of this power, then I really think it needs more than the "throw-away" gesture that is meant to be hypnosis which is so often seen, even today. By all means, use hypnosis as the "method," but please donít try to make the audience believe that it only takes one snap of the fingers to achieve this state of mind.

In conclusion, and coming back to my original question, I believe that having an assistant waving from inside the boxes actually decreases the impact of the illusion, rather than increasing it.

However, this is all very much of a personal view, and there is, of course, one other reason why illusions should be performed - as sheer entertainment, in which case most of these ramblings are the thoughts of an over-analytical pedant! Perhaps it is only we magicians who try to make illogical events logical (within our own peculiar definition of "logical," of course).


© Mark S. Farrar December 2000