The Dangers of Mentalism: an Introduction

     A week or so ago I had a jarring experience that made me revisit how I present mentalism effects. While I originally intended to write a quick post about how magicians need to be careful in how they use the “psychological reading” pseudo method, the more I thought about it the more complex the topic became, and the more it seemed to connect to the history and evolution of mentalism. So instead of a single post, this will be the first in a short series about mentalism presentations, how they connect with real world tropes, and the dangers of the audience lending a bit too much credence to our presentational frames.

     Before I get into all that, though, let me explain what happened. I was hanging out with an old friend, and since they always enjoyed my magic, and usually requested to see some, I had prepared a few mentalism effects. Just as the topic came up and I began to perform, a few of their friends that I didn’t know started to watch. The final effect (performed on one of the newcomers) was a billet effect presented as psychological reading of a childhood nickname. For the first letter I had swept my hand across the air telling them one side was A and the other Z, and supposedly reading their eyes to determine the letter. I had named it, and was concentrating on their face when suddenly I let my eyes go blank, started slightly, and abruptly stated the last letter, finally filling in the name. They were duly surprised and intrigued, and began discussing what had happened, and how.

     Now though I have been creating and performing mentalism effects for a while, most are in the context of larger, more formal performances, so only rarely do I get that kind of direct access into the audience's immediate thoughts. It shocked me, then, how fully they bought into the pseudo method, discussing how clear it was for the first letter, and trying to figure out what subtle tell had given away the last letter in such a manner.

     One common refrain when discussing mentalism is that care must be taken to ensure the performer does not, intentionally or otherwise, bolster the audience's belief in the supernatural. While many come to think that presenting these particular effects as feats of psychology, body reading, NLP, and the like elides this issue, I have come to wonder if these pseudo methods are perhaps more dangerous. In later posts I’ll talk about why, in many ways, NLP and its ilk are the modern equivalents of palm reading and fortune telling, why and how magic gravitates towards whatever the current popular tropes are as presentational frames, why that’s both dangerous and necessary, and how careful you have to matching the believability of the pseudo method to the unbelievability of the effect.

-- Z.Y.