05
Jan
09

Horror and Cinematic Sleight of Hand

People who know me can tell you that there are two things that I only occasionally shut up about : Horror Films and Magic. These two things are more related than one might initially think. I’ve wanted to write this little essay down and organize my thoughts on it for a while… so this might be a two parter of a post. Heeere we go.

Horror films and magic tricks are similar art forms because the artist has the same set of intentions in each. More than any other form of entertainment, horror film directors and magicians want to AFFECT the audience. They want them to laugh at the right time, gasp at the right time, and clap at the right time. Affecting the audience isn’t the only goal of course… they also seek to entertain, but they seek to entertain while holding the audience in their control.

This is why bad horror films are so much fun to watch. When there’s a breakdown of control over the audience, for whatever reason, every attempt at a scare comes off as goofy. Bad magic has a similar effect if nobody will buy the initial premise behind it. They both rely heavily on suspension of disbelief, even if it is on a completely subconscious level.

On that note of suspension of disbelief I should mention Darwin Ortiz, who wrote about how magic is when emotional belief overwhelms intellectual belief. That is to say that in today’s society most of us know that magic isn’t real, but people are still going to go along for the ride. He uses the quote “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them”, which is just beautiful because it points exactly to what I’m talking about … horror films! Of course we don’t really intellectually think that the killer in scream is actually killing Drew Barrymore, but the animal instincts in us will still flinch or jump when it happens.

Truly transcendent magic, just like truly transcendent horror films, can be appreciated both in its ability to shock and affect the audience, as well as its ability to tell an interesting story, or hit a theme that resonates within people. If we think of Cardini, who would play the character of a slightly drunk upper class Englishman on stage, pretending to be just as bewildered as the audience when cards appeared in his hands, we see that there’s a layer here other than him just doing impressive things. By acting astonished and often annoyed by his own displays of magic, Cardini brought his act to a whole new level by making it a drama (or perhaps comedy) of sorts. With horror films, we see just by looking at any list of the best horror films that often the best ones aren’t the bloodiest or the scariest, but the ones that are able to keep you on the edge of your seat while carrying with it a good story. For both art forms, the best works are the ones that can both surprise and entertain equally well.

Okay, so we’ve established that magic and horror films are similar in their intent and in how they are received by an audience. There’s more though, they’re also similar in exactly *how* they achieve their intended goal of both surprising and entertaining an audience.

One key theory in both magic and horror is to always leave your audience wanting more….I’ll discuss these many methods and theories behind affecting an audience for both magic and horror films in more detail next post… which will be Thursday the 8th! Thanks for reading!

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1 Response to “Horror and Cinematic Sleight of Hand”


  1. January 5, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Skye used “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them,” in one of her songs – one of the songs that she wrote entirely. Could Skye be a fan of Ortiz?!
    …probably not, but still. Points for her.


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