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How Harry Houdini escaped death
Well, not literally. But the legendary magician is nearly as relevant today as he was 100 years ago.
 
Harry Houdini's legend lives on today.
Harry Houdini's legend lives on today. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

There's a key scene in Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin in which Steve Carell's guileless, sexually withdrawn character reflects on the reason women aren't attracted to him. "You know what my problem is?" he says. "I am not interesting. What am I supposed to say? I went to magic camp?"

Yep, Harry Potter notwithstanding, an interest in magic remains a go-to signpost in popular culture for someone who is unattractive, lame — basically just a total loser.

In the popular imagination, magicians are almost tragically uncool. They are objects of ridicule and scorn. America's wonder at stage magic has long been eclipsed by the real-life magic of evermore incredible scientific and technological achievements. To be a magician or escape artist in 2014 is a little like being an ice deliveryman; a few throwback people might be interested in your services, but the vast majority thinks you're painfully obsolete.

History Channel wants to change all of that. On Monday night, the network premiered a two-part special event called Houdini, an Adrien Brody-starring biopic covering the life of one of the greatest magicians of all time. Brody's performance has been widely praised, with critics describing him as everything from "buoyant" to "a treat to watch."

But however strong Brody may be in the role, History has another question to tackle: Why should anyone care about a magician who died almost 90 years ago? The answer is this: because Harry Houdini was more than just a magician. Biographers William Kalush and Larry Sloman refer to him as America's first superhero — and they're not far from the truth.

Magic has been around for thousands of years. (Magicians in ancient Rome used stones and small vinegar cups to perform the cups and balls effect.) By the 19th and 20th centuries, being a magician was a legitimate and often lucrative career promising fame and fortune on Vaudeville and beyond, in the same way aspiring actors dream of Hollywood today. At the time, magicians — along with ventriloquists, jugglers and plate spinners, dancers, and acrobats, or pretty much anyone who could entertain large audiences for more than three minutes — were the primary entertainment of the day. The competition was fierce. Houdini was far from the first magician to bring magic to the masses. But he was the most famous.

Houdini was a master showman and ingenious self-promoter. He built his career on his ability to escape from anything, no matter how dangerous. Unlike many performers at the time, Houdini never claimed to have mystical powers. Instead, he relied on obsessive research, wits, charisma, physical strength, and the ability to create an atmosphere of intense drama and danger. In a 2010 Jewish Daily Forward story, Teller, of the magic act Penn & Teller, explained that it was also Houdini's use of technology that made him stand out: "If there was a new medium, a new technology, if there was a new idea that was center stage in the culture, Houdini was right there."

Houdini also had a knack for PR and branding, arranging for dangerous feats in the middle of crowded city streets, like dangling himself upside down from a building in a straitjacket. But not just any building — newspaper buildings like the Boston Globe, the better for reporters to notice him. He sold out arenas like the Hippodrome, with thousands crowding in to watch his feats of escape. And he recruited thousands of other magicians into the Society of American Magicians during his tenure as president, setting a high bar for its members and cementing his own legacy and influence.

Houdini was a Jewish immigrant whose family fled Europe to America to make a better life for themselves. Like many immigrants, escape was a common theme in his life. And Houdini's acts resonated with his audiences as he put himself in seemingly impossible situations, only to emerge triumphant. By challenging himself with increasingly dangerous acts, he made himself the underdog. And America loves an underdog.

Houdini started his career by escaping handcuffs. Then he moved on to straitjackets and ropes, then straitjackets and chains underwater. He was even buried alive. These escape acts might sound cliché now, but during Houdini's time, they were nothing short of miraculous.

Later in his career, Houdini turned his attention from escapism to spiritualism. He used his training in magic to expose fraudulent practices common among psychics and mediums at the time, defending the bereaved from those who sought to take advantage of their losses. He would show up at séances unannounced, sometimes in disguise and other times with a newspaper reporter and a police officer. As part of a group hired by Scientific American Magazine, he offered anyone a cash prize to any medium that could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. No one did, and the prize was never collected.

By the time Houdini died, he was already known worldwide as the greatest escape artist to have ever lived — and 90 years later, he still holds the title. His influence is far-reaching, touching every aspect of pop culture, from movies to TV to comic books and literature, and inspiring characters such as pulp magazine hero The Shadow and Josef Kavelier from Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Earlier this year, Johnny Depp was discussed as the possible star for a Houdini biopic. Indeed, "Houdini" remains the go-to linguistic stand-in for someone who seems to magically escape an uncomfortable situation. And every year, the Society of American Magicians holds a "broken wand" ceremony at Houdini's grave, ensuring that his story never goes forgotten.

As a magician, Houdini preferred to shroud himself in mystery. He boasted that he could escape from anything, even death. In a way, that's true. The fact that we remember and still revere Houdini today is a testament to his character and his art, even at a time when magic itself is considered passé.

 
Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He's written for The Atlantic, Slate, Paste Magazine, The Oxford American, re:form and Tablet Magazine. Read more of his writing and hey, don't be shy. Friend him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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