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Dr John Granrose - Houdini - The Archetype of the Magician



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

The Archetype of the Magician - John Granrose, Ph.D., Director of Studies "E" at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich; 1996

Like Jung and many others in this period, Houdini (who was born one year prior to Jung) had a life-long interest in spiritualism and the occult. But where Jung attempted to find the sources of such manifestations in the psyche, Houdini first attempted to replicate them, then to debunk them, and then, desperately, to use them to make contact with the dead.

Rogan Taylor writes of Houdini:
At the height of his career, he was loved, even worshipped, by literally millions of people in Europe and America. Whatever it was about Houdini and his feats that so impressed the minds of his faithful followers, that power seems hardly to have waned at all. Houdini still casts an irresistible shadow, and long after his death [in 1926], his name remains a household word. He captured the imaginations not only of his contemporaries, but also of successive generations who never even witnessed any of his stupendous feats. He is a modern myth, a true showbiz shaman of our time.

Houdini was fascinated by magic as a boy and began his stage career performing rather standard tricks. He was inspired by the famous stage magicians of the recent past, Hermann the Great and Harry Kellar in addition to Robert-Houdin, and he desperately wanted to be "great" himself, but it was some time before he found the approach which led to his special fame. As his biographer put it, "He was convinced that he had some role to play but could not work out what it was."

The key came through his interest in spiritualist seances.

In the typical spiritualist seance of Houdini's time, the so-called medium would be securely tired up with ropes prior to the darkening of the seance room or the closing of the spirit cabinet. Nevertheless, drums and trumpets would sound and people would be touched by spirit hands. Houdini soon learned that the secret of such performances was that the mediums had ways to free themselves and then re-tie themselves. He set himself the goal of becoming history's greatest escape artist. He succeeded in doing just this.

What Houdini did not know at the time that he set himself this goal was that escaping from restraints was a typical shamanistic demonstration. According to Rogan Taylor, again,

The escapology trick is one of the most ancient and potent symbols of the drama and the dilemma of human existence. We are bound in our bodies. How can we escape? Consequently, escapology is also one of the most frequently occurring feats performed during shamanistic healing magic all over the world.
Regardless of whether the shaman literally demonstrates his ability to escape, he must convince his audience that he has undergone an initiation in the Underworld or on a different plane of existence and has returned healed. He must convince his audience that healing escape from sickness is possible for them as well through his help.
Although Houdini remained unfamiliar with this shamanistic context for his art, his shows contained such an ancient and powerful healing drama that his contemporaries found them as fascinating, moving and "therapeutic" as their nomadic forebears had done ten thousand years before. Houdini's escapology was, in essence, a healing rite which the demon-possessed modern Westerners avidly attended in the hope of a dramatic exorcism. ...
[T]he effect of these feats lies less on visual stimulation than on their impact on the inner lives of the watchers. The audiences identified with him totally and shared every minute of his ordeal. When Houdini got free, everybody got free.

One of Houdini's most famous stage tricks was the illusion known as Metamorphosis, sometimes referred to as the substitution trunk. In this trick the magician is bound with restraints such as ropes or handcuffs and locked in a large trunk. His assistant holds a curtain in front of the trunk and in a matter of seconds the curtain is dropped and the magician, now freed from the restraints, is standing there. The assistant (in Houdini's case, his wife, Bess) is found, tightly bound, inside the trunk. Versions of this trick have become a standard part of stage magic shows since Houdini's time. (Coincidentally, given our focus on the magician as archetype, the most famous current performers of this effect are "The Pendragons.") But with Metamorphosis the most striking thing for Houdini was not the reaction of his audience, it was his own reaction: performing the trick gave Houdini the feeling that he had left his body.

Despite knowing full well that it was "only a trick," Houdini felt that a genuine miracle had occurred. As Taylor puts it,

It is fascinating that a trick that, in its original context, was designed to point towards the ecstatic experiences of the shaman, should actually begin to create such experiences. Houdini was, as it were, working backwards, starting with the tricks and ending up with the supernatural experiences, instead of the other way around. ... Houdini was baffled by his own experiences.
As a performer myself, I have occasionally had the same feeling. It can happen in many fields, of course. The gymnast who completes a difficult routine without a hitch and the musician who performs a demanding piece in a "magical" way can know this same sense of ecstasy.  It is rare, but when it happens to the magician, as it did to Houdini, it raises the question of the relationship between "the two magics - performance magic and ceremonial magic."

As a result of such experiences, Houdini became obsessed with his search for "real" magic. He collected thousands upon thousands of books about magic and the occult (books which are now housed in a special collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.). As Taylor, poignantly, describes Houdini's library:

It was like an occult version of Citizen Kane's vast collection of European art, only Houdini was gathering together all the desperate fragments of literature reflecting Europe's long-standing obsession with magic. Houdini plumbed the European unconscious in his search for a genuine tradition in which to find a home. But he never found it.

Lacking the context of a spiritual "home" or tradition, Houdini's inner life took a rather morbid turn. He had long since achieved both fame and wealth. And he had escaped from all the locks, ropes and jails that both America and Europe had to offer. What he could not escape from, however, was his dependence on his mother.

Bizarre as it may seem, he was never concerned with the possibility of his own death, despite the fact that he often risked his life with his spectacular escapes. Nor was he concerned with the possible death of his wife. He was, however, obsessed with the thought that his beloved mother would die before him and that her death would drive him insane. (It is for this reason that one of his most interesting biographies is titled Death and the Magician.) Because of this fear of his mother's death and his belief he would inevitably go mad, Houdini visited the local psychiatric hospitals, then called "lunatic asylums," of course, in all the major cities where he performed. (As a result of these visits he developed several famous escapes from the psychiatric restraints of those days, the strait-jacket, for example.) He also visited graveyards, being especially interested in the graves of suicides.

When his mother did die, in 1908, Houdini collapsed. Afterwards, he visited her grave every day and would lie face down on it hoping to receive a message from her. Despite his public attacks on spiritualist mediums, Houdini began seeking out mediums who might help him make contact with his mother. When no such contact came, Houdini made pacts with those around him, arranging secret codes and signs which could be used to prove communication after his own death. For fifty years following Houdini's death on Halloween 1926, an annual seance was held for his family and friends. After fifty years without success, the seances were discontinued.

As the rabbi said at his graveside, Houdini possessed a power which he himself had never understood. In another culture he might have become a shaman. Given still another background, he might have become an innovative and powerful therapist. He was clearly a "superstar," perhaps the first. But he failed to find a framework in which to make full sense of his gifts or his life.

And yet, as Eugene Burger writes, "This image of freedom from bondage, in whatever form, is a powerful one indeed." And Houdini's success and a huge success it was due "to the great power of the mythical (if not archetypal) character he was portraying namely, the 'Man No Chains Can Hold.'"

The phrase "if not archetypal" in the above quotation is echoed in the most recent biography of Houdini which I have read. In her 1993 work The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, Ruth Brandon quotes Jung on "the primordial images of the unconscious" and then concludes

Houdini, in his (literally) death-defying stunts, brought this 'primordial image' to the level of conscious experience, both for himself and on behalf of his audience. That was real magic.



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