“The Spellbound World of Doug Henning”
by Richard Harrington
June 9, 1982
After graduation from college with a degree in physiological psychology, Henning traveled all over Canada and the United States searching out masters who could teach a young Doug old tricks; post-graduate work included opening for Canadian rock groups.
He soon found backers for “Spellbound.” Opening night in Toronto was not too promising–the set fell on him, he fell offstage and then got stuck in a secret tunnel between sets and had to be pried loose–publicly. The rest of the run was smoother, though, setting attendance records and beginning the upward swing for theatrical magic. (Not all Henning’s shows have been problem-free: Once a Bengal tiger got loose backstage at NBC and chased Tom Snyder into the bathroom; another time, another tiger ate up 27 of Henning’s 30 prop animals, causing some fast and furious recycling–on live television.)
But while some magic tricks require artifice, Henning believes real magic is possible. “Things like levitation. I’m saying it is possible; my show is a metaphor for real magic. I’m saying, look folks, I’m doing all these things through illusion, but there is real magic. That’s not a contradiction of science, it’s an extension of science. The magic of today is the science of tomorrow–levitation, clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis.
“Wonder is there, it’s just blocked.”
For Henning, “everything is caused by a law of nature. Nature cannot be altered. Magic is something that appears to be impossible–I levitate a girl, I levitate myself. In illusion magic, the cause of a phenomenon is known by everyone (it’s usually a simple thing) but is hidden by using the four great tools of the magician–optical illusion, physical or mental misdirection and the power of suggestion. Magic is not beyond nature, it’s not supernatural; it is supernormal, beyond what people normally think of as nature.”
Henning sees distinct levels of magic: “The first is called tricks. You use the laws of nature, but you make something look impossible; you fool somebody and they try to figure it out. It’s for entertainment value only, a trick or puzzle. The next level is illusory magic, which is what I do on the stage. It creates wonder. It’s not a puzzle to figure out, it’s a mystery to be experienced with wonder.”
The next level is “real magic” where the magician makes something impossible happen by controlling the laws of nature, using his own mind, his ego. “It looks exactly the same as illusory magic to the viewer, except it’s caused by a law of nature that they don’t know about. The fourth level is miracles, which is not real magic. A miracle is when something happens and it’s completely impossible and its cause, the person, is an instrument of God; there’s no ego, he’s doing God’s will for the benefit of good. Real magic can be black magic or white magic, the ego is still doing it for good or for harm.
“We are the architects of our own lives, we control our lives with our own consciousness. If I were to levitate, I’d use my mind to control matter, make my body lighter than air, I’d rise up. I wouldn’t go against the law of nature, I’d be controlling the law of nature from a subtle level of consciousness.”
Pretty heady stuff huh? To me that’s what always made Doug so unique. He wasn’t just doing illusions. He 100% believed in the magic of every day life and all that it offers us. For more of this and a bit about Houdini, be sure to come back this Monday for the third and last part of this great interview!