In his excellent book about stage magic, Hiding The Elephant, Jim Steinmeyer touches on an important question – to what extent should magicians pretend that they actually have magical powers? Very few magicians are straightforward in their artifice, most make a show of inexplicability, but of course it’s accepted that it is a show, part of the act and also a professional courtesy. The stage magician, it seems, is bounded at both ends: deny any mystery and you lose the audience, overdo the mystery and you lose the respect of your peers.
Steinmeyer tells the story of the Davenport brothers and their cabinet of spirits, which emitted unearthly glows and sounds while the brothers were ‘tied up’ inside it. In this case escapology + gothism = the supernatural, but it caused riots across Britain during the 1860s. The apparent insistence of the Davenports that they could indeed contact the spirit world, and their involvement with the burgeoning spiritualist movement (started, Steinmeyer suggests, by a mendacious child with a deformed toe!) caused a rush of debunkers, several of whom then nicked the secrets for their own magic acts. In his book about the brothers, who he admired for their rope-wriggling, Houdini felt compelled to put in big capital letters that they NEVER CLAIMED TO BE SPIRITUALISTS (a total lie which his editor removed).
It’s clear this is an ethical line for practitioners of the fantastic – step over into the world of the supernatural and you risk drawing unwelcome attention, not from Teh Devil but from skeptics who otherwise leave stage magic well alone (not being total killjoys). Also it’s a bit lame. Unfortunately crossing this line can also put you in among the big earners, cf. Uri Geller who Alan rightly nailed on this earlier.
I suspect there’s a bit of sniffiness involved too – if you can gull the punters into believing you have actual psychic powers then you don’t need to work the physically dextrous aspects of your craft as much. Once a “TV psychic” has told his Big Lie, the specifics of his small lies are pretty tawdry and unspectacular. But of course some performers walk this line very well – Derren Brown has excellent stagecraft and a love for the spectacular effect that makes him less of an easy target than the Davenports, Geller and the likes of Derek Acorah.