Monday, September 20, 2010

Spooky Magic 101 part IV

And we're back. Today's discussion is about the creation of atmosphere. When trying to create horror, you live or die by your atmosphere. It's an integral part of the genre and cannot be neglected.


Humans are social creatures and as such we fear being alone. True, sometimes solitude is a good thing. It's good for sorting out thoughts and emotions, contemplation, and spiritual refreshment. But it also represents vulnerability. Humans need human contact. We evolved to live in groups and part of our mind still recognizes that alone we lose most of our strengths.

Isolation is easiest to create in smaller, more intimate settings. With smaller groups, it's possible to create a pervasive feeling of loneliness and seclusion. The fewer people are around, the greater the danger of any lurking threats. It also works well in settings where it's harder to call for help. There are certain ideal situations, but you won't get them very often. That doesn't mean however you can't get the effect intended.

The key here is to keep it understated. Pointing out the isolation factor bluntly only serves to dispel most of the effect. This is a general rule to abide by. Show don't tell, and all that jazz. Explaining to people why they should be scared only hurts your efforts in the long run.


Humans are diurnal creatures, meaning we primarily function during the daytime. We're so drawn to the sunlight that if we don't get enough of it we actually grow mentally sick. People with seasonal affective disorder lapse into depression during the dreary winter months due to the diminished sunlight. Consequently, we fear that which lurks in the darkness. We can't see into the shadows like nocturnal predators can. We sleep at night, and that's when we're most vulnerable.

This is one of the easiest ambient techniques to conjure up. Candles can provide all the light you need while still casting long, deep shadows. Draw the curtains and perform at night. These things seem like no-brainers, but you can't underestimate the power that simple darkness holds in creating atmosphere. Humans are visually oriented creatures. Anything that hampers our ability to use our primary sense to judge our environment is going to make us nervous.

Complete blackouts are uncommon except in haunted magic, but if you can find a creative way to use them, more power to you.


As vital as this is to horror, I don't recommend using it in a performance. Only the most seasoned magical veteran with an excellent grasp of audience management and theatricality should attempt this. The reason being that to be truly effective, paranoia has to create a sense that no one can be trusted. Not even the performer.

A great example of how this is used would be the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's arguably the first of the paranoid sci-fi films and holds up surprisingly well today. It's been remade twice, once in the 70's rather successfully, and again in the 90's that was, well... not so much.

Paranoia is tied closely to isolation in that it separates the individual from the support of a group and makes it more difficult to call for help. What distinguishes paranoia is the duplicity of friendly faces that are enemies in reality. Again, this is not to be undertaken lightly. Keep it in the back of your mind, but do not attempt it unless you have the appropriate experience under your belt.


This one requires a very subtle touch. In my ebook, Exalt of the Weird, I discuss the difference between spooky and creepy. Spookiness is explicit images of horror, but creepiness plays off the incongruity between what the surface shows and what certain actions imply. The rub here is that it's very easy to take this too far because it puts people on edge and can cause them to lash out inappropriately.

A little goes a long way here. The intent is to create an eerie atmosphere where things are subtly off or not quite right. It ties in with paranoia often in that it creates a setting where it's hard to tell who can be trusted. A medium who never smiles, a lack of ambient sounds you would expect, distinctive scents (such as perhaps roses) despite a lack of obvious source, that sort of thing. The intent is to create a scene where people realize that things are not what they seem.

Again, approach this with caution. Use it sparingly and tactfully, and it will be good to you. A little bit too much and you risk coming across as creepy yourself. More than that, and you may end up crossing the line into camp and everyone will see you as trying too hard.

There are more elements to creating proper atmosphere of course, but this should be enough to get you started.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Spooky Magic 101 part III

Welcome back. The other day we talked about how less is more and delved into a little bit of history in modern horror. We talked about using implication to scare rather than crude shock value. But that which is shocking does have its place. The problem is that it takes a very subtle and clever approach to make it work. If shock magic is something you'd like to work with, then please consider the following words.

Shock Jocking

There is something inherently intriguing and yet repulsive about our own viscera. The hardest thing in the world to watch for most people is a video of an actual surgical procedure. The sight of blood and organs puts us on edge, inspires in us first the paralysis of fear and then the desire to flee as quickly as possible. And yet we can't help but stare at the spectacle to satisfy our curiosity.

In cinema, this has led to what film critics and analysts call "the spectacle of the wet death." And nowhere is this more front and center than John Carpenter's The Thing, the filmography of Herschel Gordon Lewis, and many of the works of David Cronenberg, the Baron of Blood himself. It's a push-pull dynamic of not wanting to watch but being unable to look away that intrigues us so. Part of the recreational aspect of the horror genre comes from this dynamic.

The problem is that the splatter flick which so loves the wet death is also considered among the most disreputable of horror sub-genres. The reason being that these films have the flimsiest excuses for plots imaginable. The plot and characters are only there to facilitate as much torture, death, mutilation, and dismemberment as possible. For those of particularly morbid curiosity that's enough. But for many more people, the repulsion is too strong and completely overcomes all sense of curiosity. The desire to not see overwhelms the desire to see and the push-pull dynamic is lost.

In short, shock factor is difficult to pull off. If you're going to use shock magic, understand that it significantly narrows your demographics. You put yourself in a position where picking the wrong audience will get you a bad reputation and your performance will be nothing but masturbation.

Sadly, many of the young lads who seek to perform shock magic make exactly that mistake. They have no real concept of horror or pathos and believe that any frightened reaction is a good one. They try to bludgeon you over the head with viscera (now there's a mental image) until you react. And as a result, the only person they're entertaining is themselves. It's selfish, boorish and immature. It's not horror, it's not spooky, it's just pointless shock jocking that any half-wit with access to a fake blood recipe could do.

So where does shock magic fit in? Ideally it should be presented to a paying crowd who knows what they're getting. Halloween events for example. It should not be done on the street. It should not be inflicted on innocent passers-by. It definitely should not be done when children are about. If you think that their disgusted reactions are success and a sign of talent and creativity on your part, then you need to stop putting two scoops of stupid in your breakfast cereal.

I'll wrap by saying that shock magic doesn't necessarily have to be horror. It can be done very tongue-in-cheek. It can be funny in an off-beat sort of way. But the basic rules of performance theory still apply. You're dealing with subject matter that is at once repellent and fascinating. You're playing with fire.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Spooky Magic 101 part II

Welcome back. Last time we talked about the meaning of horror itself. We established that we had to put people in the proper frame of mind for horror and let them scare themselves. Now we need to talk about how to pull that off practically.

Less Is More

You hear this all the time, but I'm willing to bet few people have explained to you how to use it effectively. Well, haunted magic provides an excellent context. Picture the scene if you will:

A dark, well-dressed medium is sitting with you and a few other guests around a table with a couple of candles and the lights turned low. Shadows are long and deep. The darkness gives everything a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia and depth as you gather around in the tiny pool of available light while also being unsure of just how deep the shadows go anymore. The medium speaks as if to a sitter seen only to him, something which may indeed be the case. You watch the one-sided conversation and can only infer what's going on by the medium's reactions. It's not going well. It's turning into something like an argument. The medium is sweating. You look back and forth to the other sitters as if seeking some sort of comfort or validation for your anxiety. The air feels a little staler than before. The medium keeps getting cut off in mid-sentence by whoever he's talking to. He keeps calling the name of his spirit guide but doesn't seem to be getting an answer. Seeming to humor the belligerent specter, the medium holds a piece of paper up to one of the candles. Writing is slowly forming in the scorch marks spelling out words. FIND THAT BASTARD HARLEY "Lights," the medium says with a sense of urgency. "Get the lights. We need to stop."

Now try reading that paragraph in the dark with all the lights in the room turned off. You looked over your shoulder didn't you? Now break that paragraph down. Think of how little action took place in it. There was a conflict between the medium and an unseen force. There was only one effect. But there was enough atmosphere that it put you in the right frame of mind. Did you hear any small noises in the room or outside your window or even in the next room? Were you anxious about investigating them?

People are very good at scaring themselves. Much better than you ever will be. But if you set the stage properly, you won't need to do any real work. Their imaginations will do all the heavy lifting. With that in mind, I'm going to give you a phrase that I want you to write down and put it some place visible in your practice space:

The shadow of a knife is scarier than the knife itself.

Yeah, I know that's an odd thing to say, even for me. Are you a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000? In season 8 they riffed a movie called, I'm not kidding, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. It was a truly incomprehensible film with a writer/director/star who looked like a cross between Nicholas Cage and a Moai statue, and a cast of other oily people with giant hair and little discernible talent. And musical numbers for some reason. Anyway, there was one scene that actually stood out to me at the time. After Nicholas-Cage-looking-guy zombies out and kills someone conveniently and cheaply off-screen, her date arrives at the house and wonders why the lights suddenly have gone out. He opens the front door and walks in, seen only in shadow through the light coming in through the front door. Nicholas-Cage-looking-guy comes up behind him and stabs him in the neck, the camera cutting away the very instant the knife makes contact. Again, that killing is seen only in shadow.

I was about 14 or 15 at the time. Spooked the hell out of me. The movie was really boring and I couldn't make heads or tails of the plot. But that one scene stuck with me. I found out much later that the movie was shot by one Vilmos Szigmond. Mr. Szigmond is a famous and highly respected cinematographer. With a name like that, what other career was he going to have? Anyway, he went on to make a lot of genre flicks, as well as some really good movies like Deer Hunter and The Bonfire of the Vanities. He won an Oscar in '78 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My point is, this is a man who knows how to make a good image. That shot of the killing in shadow was one of those moments of a bad movie that got one thing right in a big way. And that's why we're going to use it now. The shadow of a knife is scarier than the knife itself.

One thing that mentalists are generally better at than magicians is the use of implication. This probably has something to do with the fact that mentalism is a much more implicit experience by and large and lacks the sort of sensory extravagance of traditional magic. The sad thing is that most magic could do with less talk and exposition and more actual magic. As Elvis Presley famously said, a little less conversation, a little more action please.

Horror fiction is interesting in that well-written prose understand that showing is better than telling, and that implying can be more effective that showing. Stephen King's fantastic novel "Pet Semetary" is a fine example of this, merely hinting at some of the more disturbing themes such as cannibalism and having a bleak, defeatist ending that still goes out leaving so much to the imagination. Compare to that to the movie that left almost nothing to the imagination. Of course if we're being honest, my favorite part of the movie was the Ramones song so make of that what you will.

Horror film used to understand the concept of less is more much better in the past and this was largely due to technical limitations. Special effects were very primitive and crude. It wasn't until the 1960's when Hammer Films eroticized horror and pornographer Herschel Gorden Lewis invented the splatter flick that gore and explicit content became the order of the day.

However, it wasn't until the 1980's that this sort of subtlety truly started to be ignored. As we'll detail in a later entry, the 80's was an era of excesses. It was also the point when special effects tech really jumped ahead. And while this produced some really good movies like David Cronenberg's The Fly and John Carpenter's The Thing and An American Werewolf in London, it also produced a lot of direct-to-video crap. The nadir for less-is-more in cinema is arguably the brief period of mainstream popularity enjoyed by the torture porn sub-genre, which started with Saw and Hostel and ended pretty decisively with the box office flop of Captivity, quite possibly the stupidest, most pointlessly sick movie ever made.

Video games are experiencing a similar problem. Early horror games, as the linked video in the previous entry pointed out, had to work within technological limitations. One of the best examples of this remains Silent Hill 2. The PS2 was very strong technology for its generation, but it still had limits. Konami kept the thick fog from the first game in order to limit the draw distance and deliberately kept everything just ever so slightly out of focus so that they wouldn't have to render as many textures. The result was picture perfect atmosphere for horror, plus indistinct features on the monsters that left room for the player's imagination. And they didn't stop there either. In for a penny, in for a pound. Since the game's aesthetic was built so heavily on allowing your imagination to fill in the gaps, they also presented this derelict town with a handful of other characters who were universally unreliable and never seemed to see the same things you did, leaving you to wonder just what the hell was going on. Furthermore, the scenery was littered with enigmas such as the famous graffiti piece, "THERE WAS A HOLE HERE. IT'S GONE NOW."

But nowadays, games want to show off their technology. Every texture is rendered with realism rivaled only by James Cameron's most recent cash cow. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's often done in a manner of just giving the level and character designers an ego boost. The graphics wars are to video games what the weekend box office totals are to Hollywood. It's a pointless game of one-up-manship that's only holding the industry back.

So take a moment to think about what you're doing. Are you providing too much exposition? Are you explaining too much? Are you taking the mystery out of mystery entertainment? Are you leaving anything to the imagination? If you really want to make a scary routine this Halloween, you need to learn to let the audience scare themselves. The shadow of a knife is scarier than the knife itself.

Now, as promised we'll wrap up with some recommended movies.

Nosferatu (1922): The first vampire film ever made and still one of the best. The original Symphony of Horror.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): This was the beginning of the paranoid horror movie playing on the anxieties and xenophobia of the 1950's to create a ubiquitous and Freudian uncanny enemy.

Psycho (1960): One of the most iconic films in history and to this day it's still scary and disturbing. A perfect example of the Neo-Gothic.

Carnival of Souls (1962): Produced on the cheap by educational documentarian Herk Harvey, this is still a monumental and significant film for its innovative use of sound and silence, atmosphere, and haunting imagery. Avoid the 1998 remake like the bloody plague.

Rosemary's Baby (1968): Polanski's career defining masterpiece still resonates today for its portrayal of paranoia and creeping dread. There is very little explicit content, no blood, and yet it's one of the most haunting films ever made. This shows you don't need to be some whacked out creepazoid carrying severed body parts to be scary.

Halloween (1978): Forget the sequels. This film is often imitated but never equaled. Unlike the slashers the followed it, the film contains little actual blood, only a few on-screen kills, and a nail-biting buildup of tension to the eventual climax.

The Thing (1982): The 80's were no less a paranoid time than the 50's. And though the Cold War is over, modern anxieties over terrorists and extremists make the story of the enemy within just poignant today as ever before. Here we have one of the most frightening movies ever made because it's so unpredictable and it alternates between showing us every disturbing detail and then giving us nothing. From the spectacle of the wet death to being left with only our own paranoia. Take away the right lessons from this and you'll learn a lot about being scary.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Spooky Magic 101 part I

Since Halloween is fast approaching once more, I'll be dedicating posts over the next few weeks specifically to teaching effective spooky magic, a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of many a young magician.


This is where it all starts. You can't be funny if you've never heard a joke. You can't be romantic if you've never felt attracted to someone. And you can't be scary if you don't understand horror. So how do you learn? Fortunately, most of us have already been scared by something. We have our own little pet fears, there are certain nightmares we always remember, and there's probably that one movie that scared the bejeezus out of you as a kid that still invokes a little shiver even today. So that's where you start. The trick is understanding it. Allow me to provide you with a link to a specific episode of the series Extra Credits playing at The Escapist online magazine. Yes, I know, technically it's about video games but James Portnow and Daniel Floyd are very astute, intelligent, and eloquent, to say nothing of their collective experience in the entertainment industry. They make a lot of very thoughtful and important points about horror and its use in interactive media.

I've blogged in the past that close-up magic and gaming are interactive, and by their very nature require a different language than media such as film or prose. Watch that video a second time and consider what James says about horror as a genre. Now combine that with the writing of film critic Robin Wood who asserted that horror as a genre analyzed that which a culture had repressed. Heavy stuff.

I want you to hang onto this mind set. To be scary, it is less about what you do tell them and more about what you don't. Less is always going to be more. Imply instead of tell, use symbols instead of words, present a mystery that seems to have no answer. Some of you may think that you already do that last one, seeing as how you're a magician and all. But the truth is most magicians don't even get that right. They usually give a painfully stupid explanation for what's about to happen. Don't believe me? Check out any YouTube video of an ambitious card routine. I'm sorry in advance for the pain you will suffer if you take me up on that.

There's a lot of stuff out there that provides you with examples both good and bad about to make effective horror. The classic Silent Hill 2 game baffled players with its Freudian imagery and enigmatic scenery such as the infamous bit of graffiti reading, "There was a hole here. It's gone now." On the other side of the spectrum, the makers of the film Paranormal Activity made a movie building up to an important climax and cop out with a BOO moment. Even more baffling is one of the alternate endings on the DVD, which is much more artistic and leaves room for huge doubts and questions from the audience about what really transpired and why. Questions that will purposefully go unanswered.

It's actually much more difficult than it looks to pull this off. Now that we've established some parameters for horror, I'm going to leave off today's post with a list of recommended reading. A small sampling of horror novels to whet your appetite and get you in the proper frame of mind. I highly suggest you read all of them. Not all at once perhaps, but it's still important that you read them. You can't write horror until you've experienced it. Each book will be followed by an Amazon link for my benefit your convenience. In a few days, will talk about how to use less as more and end that day's lesson with some recommended movies. Pleasant dreams.

Dracula - Not the movies, the book. I love the movies, but this is one of the most important horror novels ever written. It is not without its flaws, but the imagery and visceral undercurrents are timeless. Don't make the mistake of passing this up.

Frankenstein - Again, pass on the movies until you've read the book. This is an important piece of Romantic era and Gothic literature as well as being arguably the first science fiction novel. The use of frame tale narrative, the imagery and symbolism, and the continually developing story of the monster itself have made it a timeless masterpiece.

I Am Legend - You've heard me give Richard Matheson a lot of credit before. This seminal novel has spawned several film adaptations, none of which can equal the original prose. Seriously, get it. Now. And no, I'm not happy about the most available copy being the one with the crappy Will Smith movie on the cover.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories by Richard Matheson - For more reasons on why you should buy this, please see my earlier post, Why You're An Idiot for Not Reading Richard Matheson.

The Collected Ghost Stories of MR James - If you want to do seances, haunted magic, and spirit theater, you need to familiarize yourself with the classic ghost story first. This is one of the best places to start, bar none.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Today I want to talk briefly about a topic that's been on my mind a lot recently: escalation. At a recent lecture, Jon Stetson expressed his distaste for the Liquid Metal DVD produced by Morgan Strebler. Jon stated that in his eyes, such a stunt was reducing metal bending to the realm of balloon twisting. It makes a good magic trick, but it's hardly mentalism.

This wasn't the first time such thoughts had occurred to me, but it was the first time I got to really talk to someone about it. Where it first came up was in the context of Star Wars. I'm not going to get into the debate of original versions versus special editions because it bores me. What I do want to get into is where the franchise has gone since the original trilogy. My first exposure to Star Wars was through the special editions during their first theatrical release. It had a big effect on me, transforming me into the sci-fi/fantasy geek that I am today.

But I ask you to look at the depictions of Jedi and the Force in context to the franchise now. Compare Yoda lifting the X-wing out of the swamp to The Force Unleashed, in which your character uses the Force to pull down a Star Destroyer. Compare the original Death Star to the ridiculously overkill Sun Crusher from "Dark Empire." The more they expand the universe of the series, the more each new writer tries to one-up the others. They don't do it through clever narrative twists, excellent character development, or anything else nearly as interesting. No, they do it through escalation, constantly trying to pile on more absurd spectacle to make credulous consumers go, "Awesome!"

The problem here is that it's a losing battle. When you compete with everyone else in a shiny objects contest to see who can attract the most magpies, your inevitable defeat and slide into unemployment and obscurity is just a matter of time. Spectacle is ever evolving, but the pillars of great art and entertainment remain timeless. And one of those pillars is that less is more.

Seeing Luke fail to lift the X-Wing and then see Yoda do it is way different from having the Apprentice move a Star Destroyer just because some hack writer thought it was more epic. We saw Luke try and fail. When Yoda moves it, the drama is increased. And on top of that, it looks real! The X-Wing moves like a gigantic, super-heavy thing being shifted around would. In The Force Unleashed, you can't tell if it's the Force moving the damn thing, or if the navigator just got drunk.

Morgan Strebler's Liquid Metal is in a similar place. It's a nice spectacle, but it lacks a realistic awe and mystery. First the fork does this. Then it does this. Then it does this. Then it does this. I can't think of anything more boring than that. There's no sense of timing or drama or tension.

And what drives me berserk is hearing people continually say, "But it's so awesome! Not everything has to be artistic, you know." What a cheap cop-out. It's so defeatist and lazy. It's basically saying, "I don't have to do a good job, so I won't." And that's how we end up with junk like Vampires Suck, Ke$ha, and most Harlequin romance novels. They're all producing a cheap, throw-away product to pander to a very defeatist demographic who are content to consume nothing but the entertainment equivalent of junk food. And just as eating nothing but Twinkies is bad for your body, consuming too much spectacle fodder is bad for your mind.

Before I get someone jumping on me about this, I do believe that hollow, feel-good escapism has its place. But don't expect everyone to automatically embrace your laziness if all you can do is crank out brainless spectacles. And certainly don't expect me to give you a pass.

So think about what you're doing with your magic. Are you just giving them spectacle? Or an actual mystery?