While we’re on the subject of television, in the last couple of weeks I’ve also caught a few episodes of a show called ‘Criss Angel: Mindfreak’ playing on A&E. Now, for anyone who doesn’t know, Criss Angel is an illusionist in the tradition of David Copperfield, Doug Henning, Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson) and Harry Houdini. That is, a Grand Illusionist. He does the kind of BIG magic that requires a stage crew of a few dozen people, a room at a venue in Las Vegas and (in case you haven’t inferred it) money.

Criss Angel’s schtick is to attempt shake off the stuffiness and shmaltz of his tuxedoed predecessors and instill into his act a semblance of anarchistic punk,1 but it is, the leather and the chains and the bandana notwithstanding, exactly the same kind of spectacular theatrical routine that has defined stage magic for the best part of a century. You know the sort of thing: cut a girl in half with a circular saw/escape from a locked box dangling over a precipice/make people disappear.

I want to say from the outset that Criss Angel is VERY good at what he does. And what he does, in exact terms, is to make people believe things that seem contrary to the laws of reality. The key words here are ‘believe’ and ‘seem’.2

Watching his show is a revealing exercise in how the impressionable mind works, and an excellent disciplinary pastime for the rational thinker.

Now I don’t know how Criss Angel accomplishes many of his illusions. I’d be disappointed if I did, because I really like good stage illusionists and I expect them to be able to outwit me if they’re worth their paycheck. But there’s one thing I can tell you for sure: Criss Angel, when performing his act – despite his frequent declarations to the contrary – does not care too much about telling ‘the truth’.3 And neither do his stage crew or his film crew. What you see on Mindfreak is rarely what you have been told you’re seeing.4

Here’s an example: Criss appears outside his permanent ‘magic’ home at the Luxor in Las Vegas, with a crowd of ‘random’ bystanders. He reaches into a bush and introduces them to a ‘pet’ that the management of the Luxor won’t let him keep in the hotel: a large scorpion. It’s a real live scorpion for sure – there’s no doubt about that.

The onlookers ook and gasp as he lets it crawl over his hands, and then, with a nice piece of sleight-of-hand, magics it away in a puff of smoke. But the real trick is yet to come. Angel reaches over and grabs an attractive (of course) girl from the crowd and gives her a big kiss, whereupon she mugs wide-eyed and ‘surprised’ and opens her mouth to reveal the scorpion crawling out.

This is one of the the oldest and most frequently-employed gambits in the book of magic – the girl, despite her convincing acting, is indisputably an accomplice. There is simply no other way to achieve a illusion like this. You can’t get a seven-inch-long scorpion into an unsuspecting girl’s mouth without her consent. I know – I’ve tried.5 Seriously – this is the only way this trick can work, and even though no-one wants to believe it, magicians make frequent use of accomplices.6

Now I don’t want to seem like I’m making light of Mr Angel’s accomplishments as an entertainer. As I said, he’s good at what he does. Many of his tricks (especially the smaller ones) are quite astonishing.7 But when Criss Angel ranges through the adoring crowd after setting the scene for his next conjuration and proclaims that there’s ‘NO BULLSHIT!’ there’s one thing that’s for certain – the greatest piece of magic in his entire repertoire is his ability to convince his audience that that statement is true.

  1. Indeed, his logo is the anarchist ‘A’ in a circle, with a kind of Nike-slash flourish. []
  2. Criss Angel’s Las Vegas show is, in fact, called ‘Believe’. The word, etched in twenty foot high letters on billboards across the city, seems more like a brute-force brainwashing command than an advertisment. []
  3. Just like Britain’s Derren Brown who masterfully uses any method available to trick his audience. []
  4. I need to point out here that this is not surprising – stage illusionists excel in leading you to believe things that aren’t true. It is, after all, their job. Criss Angel takes things one step further by exploiting the ‘natural’ trust that people have when they see something on television. For some reason it doesn’t occur to most people that a magician on tv would use the medium itself to trick them. Think again folks! []
  5. That’s a joke. []
  6. If you still don’t believe me, watch the video very carefully – despite what Mr Angel wants you to think, there is no way he passed the scorpion from his mouth to the girl’s mouth with that surprisingly chaste ‘stage’ kiss. His ‘mouth acting’ of regurgitating the scorpion is, of course, purely a distraction. Therefore there are really only two possibilities: the scorpion got into the girl’s mouth via real magic, or, when the camera wasn’t on her, and when the crowd was totally engrossed with Angel making the first scorpion disappear, the girl was surreptitiously stuffing a second scorpion into her gob. You decide which of those two scenarios seems most plausible… []
  7. Even if quite a few of them have a pedigree stretching back a good many decades. []