4 Bizarre Stories Of Magic Tricks Going Wrong
What's the worst thing that could happen when you're doing a magic trick? The rabbit refuses to leave the hat? It honestly doesn't seem that dangerous ... until you hear all of the stories about tricks gone wrong that have actually maimed and killed people. Like how ...
Magicians Keep Impaling Their Hands On Live TV
Everything seemed cool on the day Poland's Got Talent semifinalist Marcin Poloniewicz went on the series Question For Breakfast to perform a little magic. Poloniewicz, styled like a children's entertainer played by Bobcat Goldthwait, was going do a close-up trick that's a morbid riff on Three-Card Monte. You may have heard of these various pseudonyms for it: the Hidden Spike Trick, the Nail Under the Cup Trick, or more ominously, Russian Roulette.
The performer shows the audience a knife or a nail that has been placed standing up on a table. It is then hidden under a paper bag or a flimsy cup, with two other empty bags/cups next to it. They're shuffled around behind the magician's back, and the audience holds their breath as the magician then smashes the cups or bags one by one with their bare hand, avoiding the blade or spike. To really up the stakes, they may take the hand of a volunteer and shove it down along with their own, with the volunteer's hand at risk of getting impaled first.
That brings us back to the cheerful Polish morning show and its soon-to-be-traumatized audience. When Poloniewicz took co-host Marzena Rogalska by the hand and brought it down, she got to experience The Passion Of The Christ in 3D. Here's a clip, if you're desperate to watch someone shriek as they realize both that they have a sharp object in their hand and that their choice of career was a mistake at the same time:
You might be inclined to believe that this is some kind of viral hoax, but yes, the host had to go to the hospital, and the network had to issue a statement about it. And this happens with this trick constantly. Here's a link to famous sleight-of-hand magician Cris Korn injuring himself doing it. Here's Byron the Magician doing it live on Bolivian TV. Here's a guy from Germany doing, you guessed it, the exact same thing. Each time, the same horrific results.
The spiked bag/cup is supposed to be marked in some subtle way, but apparently it's really easy to screw that part up. Magician Kyle Wallace even posted x-rays from the hospital of his nail-impaled hand after he botched it and here's a message board of magicians sharing similar stories about this stupidly irresponsible trick and pleading for everyone to please, for the love of god, stop doing it.
Related: 13 Incredible Magic Tricks (With Really Simple Secrets)
The "Buried Alive" Trick Keeps Ending Exactly How You'd Think
Harry Houdini's whole schtick was part illusion and part "Now let's see if this will kill me!" And so in 1914, he started devising a trick that he called "Buried Alive," which involved being shackled and buried under six feet of dirt while an audience watched. It seems like it could do the trick of satisfying a man who was clearly eager to kick the Grim Reaper in the dick.
He first attempted to perform it in the mid 1910s, but dirt, as you may have guessed, is heavy as hell. And after struggling for a while and discovering that shallow breathing exercises weren't working, he started calling for help. He eventually managed to poke his hand through like he was in a zombie flick before passing out. After his assistants pulled him the rest of the way out, he concluded in his diary that "the weight of the earth is killing," which honestly feels like something he should have known going in. Side note: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, a graveyard would actually be the safest place for you.
But never one to be beaten by anything that could end up costing him his life, Houdini kept at the project throughout his movie career. As he rescued damsels and fought robots, he was devising a way to not get, well, buried alive while he purposefully had himself buried alive. It wouldn't be until 1926, about a decade after he first started kissing Death on the mouth, that he finally figured out how many licks it took to get to the center of the Not-Dying-Doing-A-Stunt Pop. But even nearly a hundred years later, no one has really perfected the trick.
Escapists like Alan Alan, Anthony Britton, and Bill Shirk have had to be rescued trying this. And in 1990, the inevitable happened: Joe Burrus died filming his attempt at it in front of 150 people. He'd upped the stakes by having himself chained, locked in a coffin, then buried under dirt and concrete. The weight of it all collapsed the coffin and crushed him, granting a lifetime of nightmares to a whole bunch of spectators.
The Guinness Book Of World Records, not coincidentally, stopped recognizing attempts in 1991, though people still try (and fail) in their tragic attempts to chase the master. And while we're on the subject ...
Another Houdini Trick Results In Numerous Near-Drownings
Houdini was also famous for performing a trick he invented called the "Chinese Water Torture Cell." He would be submerged upside-down in a locked box. Eventually he'd release himself from the locks and clamber out of the watery casket contraption before taking a bow, dripping on the stage and flashing his pearly whites at the audience to show he was all right. And, once again, it's inevitable that people would want to imitate him. That comes with the territory of being one of the most famous performers of all time
And so Hot Topic shift manager Criss Angel decided to do a version of his trick for his show The Supernaturalists. He had escapist Spencer Horsman cuffed, dunked, and suspended above the ground like a bondage donut. If your employees nearly dying and having to be forcibly saved from their own demise is good advertising, then Angel got great advertising that day.
Unfortunately, any time you handcuff someone and lock them in an airtight box which is then filled with water, the trick isn't really a trick; it's the performer racing the clock picking locks before the air supply to their brain gets cut off. Horsman ran out of time and passed out. And it wasn't even the first time he'd nearly died doing the same damn stunt under nearly the same damn circumstances. During a rehearsal three months earlier, he had to be rescued for the same reason. And you want a really fun, ironic twist to this story? Horsman has asthma.
But even if he didn't, why do people keep doing this? Escapist Kristen Johnson passed out from hypoxia during an NBA halftime show. Isla Fisher found herself in trouble on the set of Now You See Me when she got caught up in her chains and couldn't reach the button to flush the tank. And those are just the times when the trick has been non-fatal. Sure enough, a magician in India named Chanchal Lahiri (stage name Mandrake) drowned earlier this year trying to perform a version of this stunt in a river. He'd said he was trying to reignite interest in magic, but the cruel irony of this trick is that it is only going to make headlines if it ends in disaster.
People Keep Getting Shot Doing The "Bullet Catch" Trick
The Bullet Catch is one of the deadliest magic acts that can be performed on a live stage, as you can guess by its name. Sure, the performer isn't actually catching the bullet in their teeth, but making it look like they are is tough to do with perfect safety. Sure, it sounds straightforward -- the gun fires some kind of blank, and the magician then uses sleight of hand to pull a bullet from their mouth, to the disappointment of an audience who thought they were going to see the ending of Fight Club played out in real life.
The problem is that none of what I just described would fool an audience of adults, unless a whole bunch of steps were taken to make the trick look convincing. This is why performers add elements like allowing an audience member to verify the gun is really loaded, or even placing a pane of glass in between performer and gun that will shatter as the projectile supposedly passes through. It's those little touches of authenticity that kill performers like Chung Ling Soo, who tried the trick in 1918.
Soo started out as William Ellsworth Robinson before he copied the name of an established Chinese magician to make himself seem "exotic." He even made himself "look Chinese" in the most '80s movie comedy way possible: shaving his hair into a ponytail and putting on a silk robe, then either speaking phony broken English or communicating through an interpreter he didn't actually need. So right away, it's possible the guy wasn't exactly a master of illusion.
His version of the trick was to pack actual gunpowder and a lead ball into his old-timey muzzle loader, which was rigged to fire a harmless blank out of a tube below the barrel. You know where this is going. Soo got up on stage, let his assistants take aim, and he ended up catching a bullet right in the lung. Sloppy maintenance had caused the fire from the blank to spread up to the actual barrel, discharging the real projectile. Soo collapsed and broke character, saying, "Oh my god, something's happened. Lower the curtain." And since it was 1918, he died. He died bad.
Failures of the act continue to this day. David Blaine even did a version using a high-speed camera to supposedly capture a real bullet that he catches with a metal cup in his mouth:
He also says he nearly died when the apparatus shattered while practicing the trick, lacerating his throat. That's what he said, anyway, in interviews which ended with him promising he'd do the stunt for his 2017 tour. And now we know that thousands of people who bought tickets came away mildly disappointed that Blaine didn't take a stray bullet to the eyeball.
Andrew McRae has books and ebooks available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He can also be found on Instagram and Facebook, as well as writing for Lewtonbus.
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