Popular Culture

12 Famous Magic Tricks and Illusions Exposed


When a performer like Criss Angel, David Copperfield or David Blaine wows us with “magic”, most of us know that there’s a logical explanation.   When the magician pulls an endless scarf out of his closed fist or a bird flies out of an apparently empty hat, it’s easy to accept that it’s a simple trick, a sleight of hand.  But when that magician appears to make the Statue of Liberty disappear, turns a Bentley into a Lamborghini, or rises into the air before our eyes, it’s a bit more difficult.  We know it couldn’t really have happened… don’t we?

Still, the debate rages.  After each new trick — and they are tricks — some people speculate about how it was done, while others poke holes in their theories and try to hold on to the illusion.  Eventually, the truth comes out, and it’s almost always disappointing.  When the “Masked Magician” came on the scene more than a decade ago, the hype said that he’d destroy magic forever.  Then, the proliferation of Internet forums made it even easier to learn magicians’ secrets.  But “magic” is still with us. Perhaps the greatest remaining mystery surrounding the magician’s trade is why it continues to fascinate when so much has been revealed.

Here are some of the great tricks that have dazzled us, caught us off guard, perhaps even made us wonder for a moment—and then turned out to have a simple, usually mechanical explanation.

David Copperfield Makes the Statue of Liberty Disappear

Sleight of hand might be employed to make a rabbit disappear, but when the vanishing object is a 225-ton national landmark, it’s not quite so simple.  Apparently, though, it was.  Soon after the giant statue disappeared before our eyes on television (and in front of a live audience), a simple explanation was revealed.  Copperfield’s audience, along with the pillars between which the statue could be viewed, stood on a rotating platform. 

Rather than moving the object, as magicians vanishing small items do, Copperfield apparently moved the audience.  The pillars were draped so that the statue was not visible during the process. The movement was slow, and occurred after dark in an area without visual landmarks. The draped pillars remained in front of the audience, but were slowly shifted so that the statue of liberty was no longer visible between them.  Throw in a duplicate set of lights and some showmanship, and the statue “disappears”.  After the unveiling, the pillars were draped again and the process reversed to “restore” the Statue of Liberty.

The Buzz Saw

Just as David Copperfield drew on an age-old trick to create something more spectacular when he vanished a national landmark, the modern buzz saw trick is a variation on an old standard.  Magicians have been sawing their assistants in half for nearly 100 years.  It’s a dramatic trick, and one that actually includes an element of real danger, because of the sharp blades employed.

Most of us have long since figured out that when the girl goes into the box, half of her body is being concealed somewhere and another girl is providing the legs and feet.  That’s a little less clear — and the tension is certainly greater — when the box is removed and we’re watching a giant rotating blade descend toward a body strapped to what appears to be a bare table.  The Masked Magician demonstrated the buzz saw trick, revealing that the other halves of two people could indeed be hidden in the legs or platform of a relatively spare table, and the separation between them concealed by a steel band purporting to secure the “victim” to the table. The blade passes harmlessly through the space between the two people, and then the halves of the table are separated to show the division.  Once again, “magic” has more to do with contortionism and the ability to squeeze into small spaces than it does extraordinary powers.

Criss Angel’s Levitation

Criss Angel managed to create a sensation with his levitation tricks.  He levitated on the street, with audiences just a few feet away from him, making it seem impossible that he’d used any kind of prop or mechanical device to rise off the ground.  Despite the fact that we’re all pretty savvy about this whole magic thing today, audiences once again began to question whether Angel might really be somehow floating in the air.  Nope.

Angel himself describes his technique in this levitation video.   Sadly, it boils down to nothing more than keeping audiences behind him while he removes one foot from the shell of his shoe and steps upward with the now-hidden leg.  Meanwhile, his shoe and pants-leg remain behind, slowly rising as he hoists himself up on the now-invisible leg and creating the impression that both of Angel’s feet are in the air.

Horizontal Levitation

Raising your feet off the ground using misdirection and simple props might not be too much of a challenge, but what of women who lie on floating planks in the middle of the air and objects rising off the table?

The bottom line is that there’s some kind of support.  There are as many ways to set up and conceal that support as there are magicians.  The key is to ask yourself why anything close by is there — and that may include the magician himself.  The Masked Magician revealed one technique in which the platform is supported by a steel rod cloaked to appear to be one of the magician’s legs.  While the platform “floats”, the magician never moves.  In another video clip, a “floating” doll is used to demonstrate how winding supports allow a magician to appear to pass a ring entirely over the body of an apparently levitating woman.

The Guillotine

Like the buzz saw, the guillotine holds our attention because it employs a real, deadly blade.  The upper part of the apparatus is virtually identical to those used in actual beheadings — including the blade.  The lower part, however, is a collection of riggings and secret compartments. Tiny stop blocks prevent the blade from actually reaching the magician’s neck, and a trap door in the table allows the magician’s head and shoulders to drop out of sight as the blade strikes.  A shell in the magician’s coat makes his body appear to remain on the table when he drops below, and a second panel supported by his neck drops with him to create the illusion that the blade has passed through the hole where his neck was previously secured.

The head pulled from the box in front of the guillotine is, of course, a fake — but it’s not the only one. There’s also a double concealed within the table, and when the magician’s assistant appears to set the severed head on the table, a switch takes place.  The double pops his head up through the table while the assistant conceals the fake head, allowing the “severered head” to open its eyes and/or move.

David Blaine’s Card through the Window Trick

Before David Blaine became famous for his feats of endurance, he was best known for dazzling street magic.  One of his most popular tricks involved a variation on the old “is this your card” trick.  After a volunteer selected a card, showed it around and then mixed it back into the deck, Blaine would hurl the cards at a nearby plate-glass window.  The cards would fall to the ground, but one would appear to stick to the window.  Closer investigation would reveal that it was actually on the OTHER side of the glass.

Like many of the other tricks revealed here, this one requires the participation of another person—one on the other side of the glass with an identical deck of cards.  The volunteer shows the card to everyone but the magician, making it relatively simple for the inside person to slap the appropriate card against the glass while the small audience’s attention is diverted.  But, of course, that means that the trick can’t be nearly so spontaneous as “street magic” would imply; the stage has to be set with the assistant in place before the card is chosen.

Driving a Truck over the Magician

When Penn ran over Teller with a truck, it made Objective Productions’ list of the Fifty Greatest Magic Tricks despite the fact that the pair themselves revealed how the trick worked.  It was a real truck, and Teller lay unprotected on the ground as the truck’s tires rolled over him…and then, of course, popped up unharmed.  The key, it turned out, was a set of counterweights on the far side of the truck, not visible to an audience or camera focused on the action.  The weights shifted the balance of the truck, forcing the weight of the vehicle onto the far-side tires and allowing those on the lighter side to roll over the top of the magician.

The Zig Zag Lady

The Zig Zag Lady, in which a woman steps into a cabinet and then the midsection is pushed out of alignment with the rest of the cabinet, made the Guinness Book of World Records in 2005 as the world’s most-copied illusion.  It’s been estimated that 15,000 copies of the original “magic” cabinet have been constructed, and it’s no wonder:  the illusion looks impressive, but is remarkably simple.  Unlike many of the illusions unveiled here, this one doesn’t require secret compartments, trap doors, doubles or even the kind of misdirection it takes to make many illusions work.  Rather, the woman simply steps into the box, turns sideways, flattens herself against the left-hand wall of the cabinet, and then extends one hand behind her to wave through the hole in the displaced midsection of the box.

Like many well-known tricks, the secret is simply to have the right equipment.  In this case, that means a cabinet with a solid strip on the left to conceal the fact that the midsection hasn’t been pushed all the way out, blades that don’t quite extend the width of the box, and a slender assistant.

Criss Angel Walks on Water

If a man can levitate, it only stands to reason that he could walk on water, right?  Criss Angel demonstrated in a Las Vegas pool, even “dropping” a shoe to the bottom of the pool to make it clear that there was nothing but water below him.  But according to sources, the explanation was simple:  he was walking atop plexiglass pillars.  Plexiglass has a refraction index very similar to that of water, and is so nearly invisible in water that it’s used to reinforce shark cages without interfering with the “up close and personal” experience. 

Angel’s careful steps in this walking on water video lend credibility to the explanation.

David Copperfield Walks Through the Great Wall of China

A simple principle governs all walking through walls tricks — the magician must get under, over or around the wall in some way quickly enough to appear to have passed directly through the wall.  The Great Wall of China, of course, presented a bit more of a challenge in that regard than the typical stage-set.  Copperfield used shadow boxes to conceal his “entry” and “exit”.  Between the time he entered the shadow box on one side and the time he exited on the other side, the audience saw only his silhouette disappearing into the wall and then emerging from the other side.  The big mystery:  how did Copperfield quickly make it to the other side of the Great Wall of China without being noticed by spectators or the television camera?

Here’s a hint: after Copperfield entered the shadow box, the staircase he’d ascended was quickly removed and set up on the other side of the wall to allow for his descent.  This Trick Busters video highlights some shaky movements in the staircase and hidden activity, and even illustrates how Copperfield could switch with a double on the entry side of the wall.

Bullet Catch

Once upon a time, magicians used low-charge shells and wax-cast bullets in performing the bullet catch illusion.  The sheet of glass in through which the “bullet” was apparently fired served the dual purpose of creating the impression of a real bullet being fired and stopping that “bullet” from reaching its target.  Technology has made the trick safer today, in that specially crafted weapons that do not actually fire the slugs are generally used.  In that case, the act of “firing” the gun triggers both the sound of gunfire and the shattering of the plate of glass.  But what of the initialed slug and shell casing?

The shell casing is legitimate in both cases; either the casing has discharged its wax-cast slug or has dropped its slug when the specially-constructed gun is fired.  The slug that winds up in the mouth of the target is, of course, fake.   The method for marking the slug varies depending on the set-up.  In some manner, a stage-hand duplicates the markings.  This is accomplished most effectively when the event is televised, since zooming in on a backstage monitor will allow the stagehand to closely replicate the actual markings on the bullet.  In a pinch, though, the magician simply reads the initials out loud, perhaps describing distinctive markings or script, and a stagehand duplicates as closely as possible.  The duplicate slug is slipped into the target’s mouth as he dons his protective gear.

These cheats may make the bullet catch a bit less challenging and exciting, but they’ve also cut down dramatically on the number of magicians killed in attempting this trick.

Houdini’s Vanishing Elephant

Although one of the most famous magicians of all time, it was Harry Houdini’s great escapes that truly made his name.  Nonetheless, his vanishing elephant attracted tremendous attention, not only because of the size of the beast and the unlikelihood of being able to conceal it, but because Houdini’s secret was long considered lost.  While today’s technology provides a number of possible approaches to vanishing something as large as an elephant (and, in fact, much larger), the options in 1918 were far more limited. 

During Houdini’s show, the elephant entered a large box on stage and the doors were closed. The box was raised on wheels, so it was clear that a trap door could not have been used. When the doors were flung open again, the box appeared to be empty.  After decades during which the secret was believed to have been lost forever, magician-author Jim Steinmeyer believes that he’s tracked down the answer.  The illusion, actually developed by Charles Morritt, involved concealing the animal behind a diagonally-placed mirror in the box.  When the box was opened, the audience “saw” the entire empty box—but it was really a half-empty box reflected to appear whole. 

All in all, the magic has gone out of magic.  The ability to record, zoom in, play back in slow motion and repeatedly review tricks that came with televised magic was the beginning of the end.  Then, the small flurry of magicians “breaking the code” and the increasing accessibility of information and ability to share theories and discoveries on the Internet finished the job.  Few acts of magic, large or small, remain unexplained—and those few that do don’t really have us fooled.  Even the magicians themselves have largely conceded the point; while David Blaine stands by the vague and pseudo-mysterious “you decide”, others are more direct.  Franz Harary — who not only vanished the space shuttle in 1994 but is responsible for the “magic” incorporated into the stage performances of some of the most popular musicians of the past two decades—stated bluntly that “We have the technology to realize anything you can think up.” 

Technology lacks the intrigue of mystical powers, to be sure, but it has one significant advantage over magic:  it’s real.

These are only brief descriptions of the way professional magicians perform these illusions–they are performed by trained professionals using highly-specialized equipment and any attempt to replicate them could be extremely dangerous.


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