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David Bouchier: Magical Thinking

Paul Vernon
Cody Cloe, 10, Will Rorris, 8, and Cameron Walker, 8, compete in a Harry Potter costume contest during the Midnight Magic Party Friday at a Barnes & Noble store in Columbus, Ohio.

The golden age of magic coincided more or less with my childhood, which was lucky for me. Not only could we see real magicians at work on stage at the local music hall theater, we could even become magicians ourselves.

There was a magic shop in a nearby town, a dark, atmospheric place full of mysteries. I started out from there, with a junior magician’s kit and a book of instructions. This was pretty simple stuff like the self-tying handkerchief and the coin through the elbow, and I soon escalated to mind reading and card tricks. My ambition was to master big stage effects like sawing a lady in half. But I never found a girl who was willing to help me practice, so I never got beyond the small stuff.

All kids love magic. We didn’t call it conjuring, we called it magic, and we didn’t like the word “tricks” either. “Illusions” was more dignified. But, as a kid, my audience was limited and unsophisticated. “Show us some of your tricks,” my aunts would demand at family gatherings, and I would bring out my wand and confound them (and myself) with the linked steel rings, or by making an egg disappear. This last one could be messy. I wasn’t destined to become a great magician: I was too clumsy, and too transparent, and I failed to practice enough. In my own defense I must point out that eggs were rationed back then, and my father refused to let me put his valuable rabbits into my trick hat.

Stage magic is sadly in decline these days. It’s been killed by special effects, I suppose. Nobody performing live in front of an audience can beat Harry Potter, or even that transparent faker, The Great Wizard of Oz. 

Yet we do still believe in magic, at least once a year. Primitive superstitions are on the loose in the last dark days of October. Consider how your ordinary supermarket pumpkin, just by being carved into the shape of a face with a candle inside, is transformed into will o’ the wisp – the ghost of a long-dead wicked blacksmith called Will Smith, who made a pact with the devil: that’s magic. On Halloween demanding chocolate with menaces becomes a sweet childish game: that’s magic. Politically incorrect costumes that disrespect dwarves, witches, werewolves, and people of any and all colors, are accepted as innocent expressions of youthful creativity: that’s magic too.

Halloween is an explosion of wishful thinking. If only magic did work, how delightful it would be. In a world where science and logic seem to explain everything, I suspect that magic lurks in our minds as a kind of primitive, hopeful faith. Plenty of people take advantage of our longing for it. Purveyors of astrology, fortune telling, and miraculous cures are almost as common now as they were in the Dark Ages. Magical thinking has virtually replaced rational thought in Washington, D.C., and has proven to be enormously popular. It promises a short cut through all the complexities and disappointments of life, straight to our heart’s desire. It’s hard to resist believing in magic just a little, even though it always turns out to be a trick rather than a treat. Happy Halloween!

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.