Phenomenon: It's just magic tricks (and not very good ones)

As promised, I watched Phenomenon, and I've got to say, I'm unimpressed. The premise of the show is there are 10 people with paranormal abilities vying for a 250,000 prize (they could make more if they tried Randi's challenge - I wonder why don't they?). The one that impresses the judges - fraud and huxster Uri Geller, and magician Criss Angel - as well as the studio audience who calls in and votes.

Not only are they obviously using simple tricks to pass themselves off as psychics, but they're not even that good at it. Geller, of course, is such a pathetic creep, and acts as if each act is showing some psychic ability, all while maintaining this stupid expression on his face like he knows something we don't. In his introduction, in what I'm sure is a preemptive strike against skeptics, they even show little bits of the failed Carson interview and say he "bounced back", as if he's some kind of underdog rather than a fraud. What almost redeems the show is that after each act Criss Angel says something along the lines of, "that's an old trick, try harder", or "I can do that - I used a real gun". If only the producers made that the premise, that rather than convincing a cheesy fake psychic like Geller, they had to convince real magicians like Angel or Penn & Teller.

It starts off with Ehud Segev, doing a mentalist act in which he supposedly makes one person feel something when he touches another using the celebrity guests. What's hysterical is how he keeps talking about the deep connection between his celebrity plants Carmen Electra and Ross (Leno's eccentric street interviewer). He should have chosen a better pair to suggest a deep connection as Ross minced about the stage screeching like a 12-year-old girl making me think he had very little use for a woman like Carmen. I suspected it was all done by having the celebrities trained ahead of time, but Angel gives it away at the end when he mentions that it's a technique known known as "PK touch" or psychokinetic touch.

Geller thinks it's "brilliant thought transferrance" that made him believe he could "manipulate mind-energy" at will and shows real ability. Angel, and this is just awesome, says it's pretty poor job doing "PK touch" and the guy who invented the gimmick Banachek did it better. Here's Banachek's bio (his real name is Steve Shaw), he's awesome:

Steven Shaw (b. 1960) is an American mentalist who uses the stage name Banachek. Banachek has written numerous mentalism books and invented various magic and mentalism effects, including the Penn & Teller bullet catch and the original "buried alive."
According to his Psi:Series of dvd's Banachekk was born in England and raised in South Africa and Australia. He raised him and his brothers and soon found a love for things "psychic" after reading James Randi's book on Uri Geller. banachek soon taught himself some basic magic techniques and became famous for fooling scientists during the Project Alpha scam on the scientists inwhich Banchek and others were tested for being psychic. As they passed the tests, they were to receive a million dollar grant for psychic research, this is when Banachek said that it was all a scam and that James Randi had sent them.

Ha! I'm starting to like Angel despite his haircut. I don't know exactly how PK touch works, but it is a gimmick that uses suggestion and psychology, not real psychic powers (Banachek is a confirmed skeptic and debunker). I'll have to watch it a few more times to see if I can figure out the trick.

The second act is Jim Karol, who, after the usual cheesy intro talking about their birth into psychic experiences, does a gimmick with an animal trap that snaps onto his hand. He claims he doesn't feel pain. It's again, pretty easy to figure out. He starts with a small fox trap, and uses it to break a pencil. Then, using a larger wolf trap which he pulls out and shows it's real the second time only by activating the switch and asking Ross to confirm it's real when it snaps closed (it obviously doesn't snap as fast). He then sticks his fingers in it. The idea of course is that since it's larger trap, it must be more powerful right? I'd love to see how the pencil does on the second trap. It was a funny act, a lot more Amazing Jonathan-esque, but really just a simple and obvious switch. The second trap is not forcefully snapping - you can even see it only catches one finger, and doesn't deform his hand enough to squeeze any of the other fingers.

Uri found it "very convincing" again, but Criss Angel says, of course it wasn't and explicitly says he only showed the first trap was dangerous and the second was not dangerous. I love it! Uri Geller is a sub-par magician who thinks he's great, and consistent with being a silly crank, can't recognize the presence or absence of real ability since he's incompetent himself.

We break while Uri Geller shows us 5 symbols and promises to project one into our minds. I'm pretty sure the basis of the trick is that people are more likely to chose one of the five symbols more frequently, or they are subtly introducing the figure at some other time, and that's the one he "projects" at us. As I write this the show ain't over yet, but I'm guessing it will be the squiggles, they'll reveal it at the end.

The 3rd act from Eran Raven is a pretty good roulette trick with nail guns in which the magician has a girl load one of six guns while he's blindfolded. He then has to go back and figure out which was the loaded weapon. This is a pretty simple trick. He's blindfolded, so why do they obstruct the view of the guns when the girl loads it? Because either one was loaded the whole time (he only tests one to show it isn't loaded) or Carmen signals or is told ahead of time which to load (likely since they clearly had to train her to load the guns). It's a good trick, very dramatic, and at the last second he of course switches two of the guns to shoot the nails he was about to put in his head into a board.

Geller thought it was mindblowing, Angel thought it was better when he used real guns to do the same trick but still liked it.

The fourth act is Gerry McCambridge, again we hear the stupid life story to suggest they have special powers, and he says he's not just a mentalist but the mentalist.

He does a good job selecting a random three people to use to start the trick (by having Ross toss frisbees into the audience), but he also has six on stage he selected himself, so the question is, why didn't he make them all random? He then has someone randomly choose a telephone book, one choose a page from that book, and then a number on that page. The celebrity then reads out that number, and it's matched to envelopes he's prepared ahead of time.

Of course, as she's scanning down the page he helps her out by giving her a piece of paper, ostensibly to hold below the numbers to read them easier. Could it be the numbers in the envelopes were on that little slip of paper? Methinks yes. I was completely unimpressed, he gave that one away right up front. Uri thought the presentation was dull and flat, and Angel thought it was similarly junk.

The show ends with Geller's gimmick of projecting the symbols to the audience with the audience voting which symbols were projected. The distribution was 7% square, 28% star, 27% circle, 22% cross, and 16% squiggles. I guess I was wrong, I was one of those weird 16% who likes the squiggles best. Either way, hardly an impressive feat. It's just a combination of knowing what people tend to pick (like 7 out of 1-10, or 37 out of 1-40) and saying that is his symbol he's "projecting" to the audience. Better than getting caught sticking a magnet on his thumb to manipulate a compass at least.

I actually ended up enjoying the show because Angel is being a hard on them and doesn't let them off easy. If only it didn't have Geller there acting like he's some kind of psychic wonder, rather than a third rate magician hack, it might actually be fun to watch. It's kind of like a "Last magician standing" reality show. I also wish they hadn't insisted on having each of these guys pass themselves off as paranormal - while advertising for astrology services during breaks. I'm pretty confident I know the trick in at least 3 of the 4 acts, and that one I now know the name of the trick but not the mechanics. If these people are going to show truly phenomenal abilities they'll have to move beyond these parlor tricks into something really impressive, or at least original.


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By Watt de Fawke (not verified) on 25 Oct 2007 #permalink

The sad thing about "magic" is how very pedestrian and dull every trick is, once you know how it's done. I assume you've seen the show where a masked magician shows the techniques used for various illusions?

I have to disagree with Mark P: the wonderful thing about magic is how pedestrian every trick is. I just love to be fooled by an skilfull magician, just as I like to see an interesting optical illusion. It takes art and rehearsal to do it well. Of course, claiming to have any kind of supernatural power is an entirely different thing...

By el-jaguar (not verified) on 25 Oct 2007 #permalink

I can appreciate things that are done up close, like card tricks. What I don't like are the big tricks that require smoke and mirrors and back doors. I would just as soon see CG special effects.

The first ad I saw for this show mentioned Uri Geller. That decided for me, right then and there, I had no desire to watch it.

Thanks for the writeup, Mark; I'll have to give it a shot, I guess. I don't care much for Criss Angel, but if he's showing Geller for the hack he is, I can deal.

Banachek designs illusions for Angel and many other conjurors, and if you ever have a chance to see him perform, do not pass it up. If they'd had him up against Geller, I'd have dialed this show into the TiVo as soon as it was available. Come to think of it, if they'd had Banachek, Geller probably wouldn't have shown up.

It's always "star". I said star even before I knew what the symbols were (I didn't see the show, or read the rest of your post, before I said it; I've read about the tendency to pick "star" on Randi's site, if I remember rightly). People tend to pick "star". My girlfriend did when I asked her.

BTW, you should read about Project Alpha -- Wikipedia has a writeup, and there's more online. This is something Randi put a couple young magicians up to (Banachek being one) and it's really amazing how easily they were able to fool these researchers.

matthew: David Blaine is MUCH better than any of those guys... He's REAL.

You're joking... right?


The magic is unimpressive - so far. Mentalism is difficult to do well, especially when you know how most the tricks are done. Magic in general is best when people figure out new ways to do the tricks because to me, I like to puzzle out how they did it. There's almost always clues.

What redeemed the show was to have Angel sitting there saying, how weak the tricks were, and how he knows they're done after these morons introduced themselves as having psychic powers. I mean, c'mon. That's awesome!

I thought it wasn't bad.
For the nail gun trick, it is possible that he used a method Banachek described in one of his books for a similar effect, using timing, sound and weight to figure out which gun was loaded. And "the" mentalist didn't really say he had special powers, just that "I know secrets you don't" which is technically true. Thats how mentalism works, the mentalist knows secrets and uses those to manipulate the guest. I thought Angel was a riot though. And Geller, just creepy.

A good magician makes you think. Makes you wonder in his speed and ability. Its wonderful to see what a person can do. No magic involved, it actually makes me smile to realize anyone can learn to do stuff. All they have to be is smarter.

By Evinfuilt (not verified) on 25 Oct 2007 #permalink

At first I was disappointed in Criss Angel when I learned that he would be appearing alongside Uri Geller, but Angel has redeemed himself with his incisive comments that emphasize that these tricks - whether presented as stage illusions or psychic abilities - are about performance, not mysterious powers. It really is demystifying to have an expert critique these acts as part of an American Idol-like format.

One difference between Angel and Randi (or Houdini) is that he is not exposing the specific mechanics of these tricks.

Maggi Furlong interview with Criss Angel…

CA: "...I may create the illusion that I can read your mind, but its something that Ive practiced for many, many years and honed my skills. Theres nothing supernatural about the abilities that I have."

MF: "And you think psychics are a bunch of bullshit?"

CA: "Houdini spent half his life proving that psychics were basically charlatans taking advantage of the vulnerable. I mean, if somebody could predict the future, they should have done their prediction on 9/10 to predict 9/11. If I see [someone using] the methods which I employ or know about, obviously Im going to expose them right there on live television. Its probably going to be a lot of fireworks going back and forth, but I will stand up for the people as Houdini did."

MF: "Whats the difference between psychics, mediums and the supernatural, and being a mentalist?"

CA: "A mentalist takes the five senses and tries to create the illusion that theres a sixth sense. A psychic purely, straight-out claims that they have the ability to predict the future without any prowess in the arts of magic, illusion, mentalism or psychology."

MF: "So all the TV psychics out thereJohn Edwards, Lisa Williamsyoure saying theyre all pretty much impostors?"

CA: "Oh, of course. Yeah, the Sylvia Brownesin my opinion, all that stuff is a bunch of garbage."

I didn't realize that Criss Angel was as straightforward about what he does as someone like Randi.

I watched this with my seven year old. When they showed Geller bending spoons I asked her "Do you think he's bending those spoons with his mind?" She said, "No, he probably heats them up first."

Oh, yeah, that was a proud moment.

"The show ends with Geller's gimmick of projecting the symbols to the audience with the audience voting which symbols were projected. The distribution was 7% square, 28% star, 27% circle, 22% cross, and 16% squiggles."

Y'know, for 'projecting the symbols', you'd think that he'd get a better distribution. Like, I dunno, 99% squiggles and 1% trace symbols. It's almost as if he's making it all up, and poorly at that. *cough*

I love magicians, just so long as it is understood that magician = illusionist.

I too love seeing how the tricks are done. The only thing that ever left me feeling slightly spooky was David Copperfield's flying trick, which I saw live on stage and to this day cannot explain the doing of (and it looked so impressive, I'm really not sure I WANT to know).

By Justin Moretti (not verified) on 25 Oct 2007 #permalink

Thanks for writing this up and saving me the pain of having to watch it!

But, don't get to thinking that Criss Angel is all good guy. His cable tv show purports to be doing magic tricks but his show relies heavily on stooges, trucked in "random" street audiences and even camera editing. He pretends that the street magic he does fools the audience but in a number of routines including the "pulling a woman in half," Angel can't be bothered to perform a full trick and instead relies on editing to cover his BS and an audience that is either "in on it" or reaction shots that are staged or edited out of context.

Angel is a real showman, so I don't know why he feels necessary to stoop so low.

I'm a sceptic, and I believe most magicians are sceptics -- at least, in the sense that they know magic isn't truly "magical" and that there's no such thing as paranormal. That said, I'm finding myself enjoying Phenomenon, just as I enjoy most magical performances. Magic is great entertainment, and there's no need to debunk it during its performance. I appreciate debunking it if the "magic" is truly harming people, such as when "psychics" or "healers" put the squeeze on people time and again. (See Penn & Teller's Bullshit! for a great example -- that's the name of their show on Showtime, and now also available on DVD.) Yet it's not necessary to spoil magic performances, even the psychic ones; for someone who goes to a psychic for the kick of it, it's harmless fun.

Of course, it's not always easy to determine when a performance -- such as a visit to a psychic -- has turned from harmless fun to a serious financial crisis for someone who has become addicted to visiting said psychic. With stage performances of magic, however, it's clearly designed for entertainment. Most folks know it's all baloney, but it's still fun to be duped. I appreciate a good illusion, as most folks do, and I find it similarly enjoyable to find out how the illusion was pulled off.

Regarding Phenomenon: I agree that most of the performances leave something to be desired; there are certainly better performers out there. But it's fun to watch this show from the point of view of its premise: discovering and critiquing new talent. In that sense, it satisfies both those who appreciate a magic show and those who like to scoff at illusions. I'm not certain it entirely works, though. It doesn't quite satisfy on the performance level, and neither does it satisfy from the Bullshit! point of view. It's somewhat like going to a Penn & Teller magic show and then have someone step on stage after each illusion and scream and holler about why the illusion is fake. Leave that for the Bullshit! show; let us be entertained today.