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How Houdini's escape trick worked
June 6, 2004 6:46 PM   Subscribe

The secret of Harry Houdini's signature "Metamorphosis" escape trick is out of the bag. Do not visit that page if you don't want to know how he did it.
posted by riffola (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
It's been out of the bag for a long time, just not on display.

Although the museum did model the exhibit off of information it discovered through a highly questionable method: looking in library books.
If more museums start putting this "secret library info" into highly accessible and easily understood displays, surely the damage will be great.
(Sorry, this has already gotten press in Milwaukee, so I've been building up bitterness for a few days.)
posted by Wingy at 6:59 PM on June 6, 2004


Uh, fortunately, I guess, I read that whole article and still don't have any idea how he did it.

If I were to visit the exhibit, I probably would though.

Gotta love the bit about how "In some ways what we're doing here increases the value of magic rather than making it something cheap," because while keeping secrets is cheap, knocking over the bucket and spilling them out, well, that's something that takes real courage. *snort*
posted by soyjoy at 7:00 PM on June 6, 2004


For a more effective explanation of how it was done (with illustrations!), take a look here.
posted by Wingy at 7:07 PM on June 6, 2004


If I was lying on the ground behind someone standing on a box, I don't think I could swap with them in 3 seconds, never mind from inside a bag, inside the box, with (even trick-release) handcuffs.
posted by jozxyqk at 7:30 PM on June 6, 2004


There are some other illustrations of how it's done here.
posted by josephtate at 7:32 PM on June 6, 2004


Wait a minute. Does this mean that David Copperfield didn't really make the Statue of Liberty disappear?

Next thing you know, they're going to be telling us that the lightheaded feeling you get when you raise your hands above your head isn't jesus.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:33 PM on June 6, 2004


Gotta love the bit about how "In some ways what we're doing here increases the value of magic rather than making it something cheap," because while keeping secrets is cheap, knocking over the bucket and spilling them out, well, that's something that takes real courage.

Makes me think of that 'Magician's Secrets Revealed' guy... and I'm glad that there are people showing us how magic tricks work, because it's interesting to know (what's more, that show did take a certain amount of courage -- people in the Magic Circle were pissed, and tried to stop it from happening, if I remember correctly).

It's not like there's anyone [sane] who believes that these things really are magic, so I don't see how anything is being spoiled. If anything, it just makes you appreciate it more when you see a magician whose tricks you can't figure out (Derren Brown, for example).
posted by reklaw at 8:13 PM on June 6, 2004


what's more, that show did take a certain amount of courage -- people in the Magic Circle were pissed

Ooooh, angry magicians! What, are they gonna saw the guy in half? Make him disappear in a puff of smoke? But it's all a trick! Thus, magicians have no power! So... uh... where's that "courage" come in again?
posted by soyjoy at 8:52 PM on June 6, 2004


Back when the "Houdini Magical Hall of Fame" was still on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls (it has since burned down), they revealed this secret and many others during the tour.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:04 PM on June 6, 2004


Magic is about 10% mechanics and 90% showmanship. "Metamorphosis" is impressive because the switch appears to take place instantly. The magician just didn't have time to escape the cuffs and chained box. People fail to realize that the magician is out of the cuffs before the assistant finishes chaining the box, and out of the box while the assistant is raising the curtain.
posted by SPrintF at 9:19 PM on June 6, 2004


Anyone ever see Penn and Teller do the old "Cups and Balls" routine -- with transparent cups? -- With Penn giving a blow-by-blow description of exactly what's going on? That sorta puts the lie to the notion that knowing how something is done diminishes ones appreciation of it.
posted by RavinDave at 9:29 PM on June 6, 2004


Hey Wingy, you live in Milwaukee?

I went to the Houdini museum in Appleton when I was a little kid and remembering that it was neat. Learning how to do this trick probably could not justify a trip to Appleton though- trust me, it's not worth it.

At the museum, they had a placemat that told how to do card tricks, where was the outrage then?
posted by drezdn at 10:30 PM on June 6, 2004


What I want to know is how David Blaine stayed alive in a transparent box for all that time? Or how he survived being frozen in a block of ice!

Harry Houdini's got nothing on David Blaine.
posted by filmgoerjuan at 10:50 PM on June 6, 2004


True, Juan, and how'd he stay on top of that pole all that time? That's true magic.

Even knowing what Houdini did and how he did it, with diagrams, I still marvel at his accomplishment. There's still no way I could do even one tenth of what he did, and I'm a reasonably athletic (and flexible) guy.
posted by chicobangs at 11:04 PM on June 6, 2004


Metamorphosis is probably not half as gutsy as Chinese Water Torture and the Milk Can Escape. Granted, the Chinese Water Torture cell had a safety release valve (and I suspect, so did the milk can) but still strikes me as pretty dangerous even with a "trick".
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:56 PM on June 6, 2004


So are people who aggressively want not to know how magician's tricks are done similar to religious people who want not to know how the world really works? Why would someone choose to reject knowledge, of any kind, and then get angry if they stumble across it unexpectedly? I don't get it.

Among other things, the trunk has a side panel that allows someone inside to sneak out.

That was the lamest "expose" of a trick's mechanism I could possibly imagine. Here's another for ya: "The cards are marked."
posted by rushmc at 5:28 AM on June 7, 2004


Oh, man.

rushmc, why'd you go and reveal that? Hast thou no honor, my good man? (At least hide it in a title tag or something, fergodsake.)

Now I can never, ever unknow that. Damn you! Damn to heck!

[Lame? Yeah, but the secrets to these tricks tend to be rather more mundane than the effect themselves. And I still contend that even if we knew every secret to Houdini's greatest works, it would not diminish the greatness of his life's work.]
posted by chicobangs at 7:08 AM on June 7, 2004


Copperfield's best trick was getting a supermodel to date him. Does anyone have a link to how that trick is performed?
posted by crank at 8:15 AM on June 7, 2004


Anyone ever see Penn and Teller do the old "Cups and Balls" routine -- with transparent cups? -- With Penn giving a blow-by-blow description of exactly what's going on? That sorta puts the lie to the notion that knowing how something is done diminishes ones appreciation of it.

Penn and Teller do a fair number of "transparent" tricks, feeling that protecting the old standards is kind of stupid since the old tricks are tired and boring. For example: nearly every card trick they'll do, they start of by proving that the card selection was forced by having the mark "draw" the three of clubs. Everyone suspects that the draw is forced, why not be above board about it and let you wonder how they forced it. Or how it will show up where it does.

Vis SPrintF's comments: Part of Metamorphisis is always going to be the showmanship. Even knowing exactly how all the bit are done, one can still be impressed with the speed at which the trick is performed. I mean, I know how juggling works but the act never ceases to amaze me when I see it done well.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 8:38 AM on June 7, 2004


I do close-up magic for fun - and I will sometimes explain how stuff is done for people who are keenly interested. I've shown someone a card force three times in a row, explaining every step, and still had the person say "I still can't see it" when I bring it back to full speed. Or, if they do get it, I'll break out something harder and leave them without an explanation.

Some of the best magic I do revolves around the audience catching on to the trick - the brighter ones will figure out how it's done because they're keen observers. That's when you kill them with the "kicker" - the climax that makes them go from "I got this guy nailed" to "WTF?"
posted by Fat Elvis at 9:53 AM on June 7, 2004


What I want to know is how David Blaine stayed alive in a transparent box for all that time? Or how he survived being frozen in a block of ice!

It's almost as if there was a magical race of people who live far, far up north in some secret land who have lived in houses of snow for thousands of years.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 10:10 AM on June 7, 2004


I just want to say that for everything David Blaine has ever done (and by this I refer to his feats of endurance), someone else has done it in 10 times more extreme conditions. Seriously. Blaine has never even come close to making into the Guiness Book of World Records. There was a great interview with someone from teh GBWR a few years ago where the guy was laughing and pointing out the suckiness of Blaine and talking about guys who have been encased in ice for days (and actually encased in it -- Blaine was not touching the ice) or who hadn't eaten anything for 8 months (living off tea or and soda or something), etc.

I love Penn and Teller's transparent cup-and-ball thingy. It's awesome. Teller is a favorite of mine, he talked once about how he's spent a lot of time with old tricks that everyone knows, trying to misdirect you into thinking that he's done the trick in the way you know about and expect, but then blowing the audience away by the fact that he's done it some other way. Sort of like, say, making a slight mistake and letting you see that he's palmed a ball, when really he hasn't, it's still in the place that it was. Hard to explain, fun to watch.

Magicians don't want tricks getting out for another very important reason: many (most?) of them BUY the tricks from someone. They get pissy if someone gives them away for free. All the really good illusions cost multiple thousands of dollars. The starting ones are more affordable, in the hundreds of dollar range. As was said above, good magicians are showmen. No one is going to pay to see crappy demonstrations of purchased magic tricks -- twice.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:41 AM on June 7, 2004


But -- but Blaine was so high up! In the air! He had to pee in a tube and everything! Way up there! Right over London, where everyone could see him, almost all the time pretty much!

Seriously, you people. Nothing impresses you anymore, does it. You jaded freaks.
posted by chicobangs at 10:51 AM on June 7, 2004


Part of Metamorphisis is always going to be the showmanship. Even knowing exactly how all the bit are done, one can still be impressed with the speed at which the trick is performed. I mean, I know how juggling works but the act never ceases to amaze me when I see it done well.

I feel the same way about watching Cirque acrobats on video (not had the opportunity to see a live show yet.) Even though there is no hidden "magic" behind balancing on one hand while spinning an umbrella for a full 60 seconds, it is still a "trick" than only a rare handful of people can both pull off and make beautiful.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:58 AM on June 7, 2004


I know a lot of magicians, and I've never known any of them to be really angry at guys like Masked Magician... it's just kind of gimmicky. Most basic magic tricks can be learned from books, many of which are available from local public libraries. So people like the Masked Magician exist for people who love to see Secrets Revealed On National Television, pretty much the same as Hidden Cameras Reveal Disgusting Things Going On In Some Of Your Favorite Restaraunts
posted by dagnyscott at 12:04 PM on June 8, 2004


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