In William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley and the film adaptation, Stan Carlisle starts out as a carnival mind-reader but soon his ambitions outstrip the penny-ante midway to head where the real cash awaits: ‘the spook racket’ as he calls it. People pay good money to talk to the dead. Whether for love or guilt, they want answers. Stan was more than willing to offer them.
The Wellcome Collection exhibit ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic’ offers some insight into this phenomenon as well as showcasing a wide range of paraphernalia from the magic trades. The wild work of spiritualists, séances and the debunkers who followed in their wake makes for a fascinating journey. From the Fox sisters to the Cottingley Fairies, you can see the ways that people were manipulated and tricked into believing their very eyes (never believe your eyes) – including people who thought they knew better, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. But it’s not really surprising: we have a deep desire to believe in magic. Watch the joy in children’s faces as they watch a parlour magician.
But that desire is so easily exploited. In the exhibit there’s a spirit trumpet like Carlisle used in his grifting. This section of the novel did not appear in the 20th Century Fox film; studio chief Darryl Zanuck allegedly hated the film from its start and these shenanigans would have outraged many. There are spirit boards, disembodied hands, and cameras for ‘spirit photography’ as well as photos of ectoplasm and other ‘proofs’ of success. Lurid posters of the era show the draw these artists of the ethereal had in the early 20th century between two big wars with so many mourning.
The zeal of the believers was only matched by the equal fervor of the debunkers. The early versions of ghost hunters included entire toolkits for exposing charlatans who used the tricks of the magical trade not for entertainment, but like Stan Carlisle, for money and influence. He used a lot of research, too. But he had a knack for the psychology of it, right off the bat. Like many a grifter, Stan gilded his patter with nuggets from the good book. Bible quotes add a veneer of veracity for many a doubter.
At the far end of the spectrum, there’s the place we find ourselves now, where people will believe insane conspiracy theories despite all logic and proof because…honestly, I don’t know (yes, I do, but it’s depressingly hard to fix). There’s a huge drawing that links up magic from John Dee and the Salem Witch trials to Jack Parsons (but not Marjorie Cameron) and Montauk (and I’m kicking myself for not noting the creator’s name, so if you know it, tell me!). Better to think about the fun way magic gets used, everything from The Amazing Kreskin’s ESP board game and comics, to the sublime comedy magic of Tommy Cooper.
Just like that, I feel better.
Smoke and Mirrors continues through 15 September at the Wellcome.