David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear when I was just old enough to understand. With a dramatic closing and opening of a curtain, the landmark appeared to have vanished, even on “radar.”
I was amazed. But then I was skeptical.
This was a grandiose trick. I didn’t know exactly how it worked, but I suspected that there was camera trickery going on, or that the crowd was in on it. There was too many moving parts for it to be magic. I was learning that you couldn’t always trust what you see.
As I got older, that historical TV moment would pop up from time to time, gradually losing its magic quality. It was just a riddle that needed an answer.
Then, in my early twenties, in a random conversation at a party, someone finally explained to me how it was likely done.
The explanation was obvious, ugly, and not particularly interesting. I won’t ruin it here, but be my guest.
Tricks are designed to deceive. There is a one-sided relationship between the magician and the person being tricked, the mark. The role of a magician is inherently deceitful. The magician is betting against the mark’s understanding of the world. If the mark knows the secret to the trick, it doesn’t work.
In his explanation of the famous Piddington couple’s trick (categorized as a “book test“), Penn Jillette (from duo Penn and Teller) says that the explanation to a trick can never be as good as the trick itself. It’s true.
In many cases, like in the Piddington couple’s trick, identifying the part of the trick that seems most unimportant will lead directly to the exact explanation of how the trick is done.
For example, in many card tricks, the mark will be asked to choose a card at random. However, the magician has made it so that the mark actually has no choice. Through misdirection, or some math, the mark is deceived into choosing the exact card that the magician wants them to choose.
“Let me see your other hand”
Despite everyone having a camera in their pockets, UFO sightings are down. People can pick apart and edit video themselves, and there’s no more grainy footage to disguise the trick. Instead, we celebrate hoaxes.
That’s why every year now David Blaine is either buried alive, standing on a pedestal for 24 hours or sticking an ice-pick through his hand. It’s why Penn and Teller’s cup and ball trick is done with transparent cups. There’s no lasting value to a simple trick any more, it depends on technique and physical conditioning. It’s not magic, it’s real life. It takes hours of practice.
Thirty years later, David Copperfield would have a hard time making the Statue of Liberty disappear on TV in a believable way. The audience knows every trick in the book.