The Empty Safe

by  —  March 24, 2008

As an amateur prestidigitator, I have always had the utmost respect for well-performed stage magic. In the Art of Magic, effect is of course everything. Sleight-of-hand is a practiced and elite skill, but I am equally impressed by the genius that has devised methods of producing illusions that are staggering in effect but simple in execution. As author, and inventor of illusions, Jim Steinmeyer writes in his book Art & Artifice and Other Essays on Illusion:

Magicians guard an empty safe. There are few secrets that they possess which are beyond a gradeschool science class, little technology more complex than a rubber band, a square of black fabric or a length of thread.

Indeed, most spectators are disappointed to learn the techniques of the theater magician. Knowing that they are being deceived, the audience is always looking for the gimmick, the misdirection, a give-away. Their minds are trying to puzzle out an idea of “how”, and are only impressed when they are capable of none. Theater magic is a difficult and demanding profession, substantially lucrative only to a select established minority. A skilled magician, deft in sleight-of-hand, practiced in illusion, and well-spoken in scripted monologues, most likely works a “day job” while performing his art for extra money on-the-side. On the other hand, a bullshit artist employing but one routine – even (and most usually) very poorly – outside of the context of stage magic, can usually coax large sums from credulous rubes. Thus, a cheap mountebank, having learned the relatively unimpressive carnival routine known as The Blockhead, can declare himself John of God, a “Faith Healer”, so as to bamboozle the sick, superstitious and simple. An unscrupulous charlatan like Uri Geller can build a career from his – at times – clumsily executed spoon-bending routine. Cheap mentalists utilising common magic shop gimmicks convince lay-people of their powers of telepathy with disturbing regularity. Perhaps most perplexing of all, though, is the enormous success of the “psychic” who often displays no skills of illusion, or even the appearance of an increased perception. Using a basic technique of Cold-Reading that utilises vague statements, subtle questioning, and platitudinous advice, these relatively unskilled cons can often extract an indecent fee from their only-too-happy-to-be-fooled clientele.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to observe some cold reading practitioners in action when I stayed in the home of Salem “witch” Shawn Poirier (who has since died… R.I.P.)

* * *

It’s late October 2005 and I’m having difficulty sleeping in the house of Salem’s lead witch. Not for fear of falling victim to some bizarre black magic death ritual – Shawn Poirier is a cordial host – but for reason of more common discomforts; the room smells of cat shit, the temperature seems to remain steady at some level only slightly above freezing.

Shawn crawls out of bed around 8:00 am. It’s an unusually mundane hour for those of ungodly loyalties. The night had been passed in a dreamless unconsciousness following a fit of vomiting. Something about the pain-killers he coerced out of a doctor in the ER didn’t sit well with the liquor. But this is no time to sleep in, or, for that matter, sleep it off. This is the end of October – a particularly busy season for the Witches of Salem, and Shawn is the King of the Salem Witches. It’s a day in The Festival of The Dead, an annual event organized by Shawn and his partner, a fellow “Elder of Salem Witchcraft”, Christian Day that spans the entire month of October. There is a Psychic Fair to oversee, rituals to perform, and tours to guide.

I happen to be there with a notorious promoter, organizer, publisher, internet radio host, and hyper-active Free Speech advocate, Shane Bugbee. Shane and I are to present a True Crime lecture later in the evening as an added attraction to the Festival of the Dead.

Luckily, Shawn has but to don a black, pointed, costume shop witch’s hat over his uncombed mess of long, black hair, throw on a black velvet cloak over his snuggly flannel pajamas, and he’s ready to leave the house to conduct business. Towering – when vertical – at around 6’5″, and weighing in at around 300 lbs, Shawn projects an imposing air. He’s exactly what one would expect a male witch or vagabond Hell’s Angel to look like. The fearsome image is maintained only until he speaks. Shawn communicates in a comically incongruous effeminate lisp.

Shawn’s market consists of tourists who converge on Salem each October for the city’s peculiar Halloween-specific appeal. Since the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the name “Salem” has become synonymous with witchcraft, superstition, and persecution. During that embarrassing episode of American Religious History, 19 people were hanged and one was flattened under the weight of heavy stones – convicted on the accusations of jealous or vindictive neighbors – for imaginary crimes against Christian decency, performed in the name of Satan. During 2004, Salem mayor Stanley Usovicz considered the possibility of pardoning those executed in the early puritan witch-hunt….sometime in 2007.

Today, in less archaic, bleak, superstitious times, Salem is where tourists travel to speak with self-proclaimed witches and pay them large sums to give vague statements concerning – primarily – their love-lives, careers, money, and health. While this may all seem no less superstitious than the Salem of 1692, it is undoubtedly less violent, though, perhaps, not entirely benign.

In fact, Shawn and his witches are symptomatic of a world-wide outbreak of unreason. Poll after poll shows a majority of the lay-person masses to be skeptical of science, yet susceptible to easily disproved notions of supernatural phenomena including abduction by small, orifice-invading aliens, and worthless witch doctor cures from homeopathy to crystals.

Shawn himself is highly amused. Sitting in the Living Room of his modest middle-class suburban Salem home (a home that, according to him, was entirely purchased “by the Dark Arts”), he has just enough time to slip an old VHS tape into his VCR before tending to the Festival. It’s his favorite television appearance: a BBC documentary about witchcraft and the occult in Salem. Throughout the video, Shawn can be seen performing rituals and speaking of Salem history. His own editorial of the film, delivered while smoking marijuana on his couch, is surprisingly honest. To his credit, Shawn has accurately “intuited” that Shane and I are no strangers to mystical rhetoric and aren’t to be taken for rubes.

“I made all of that up.” Shawn says of an “ancient” ritual he performed on camera. Set to highly dramatic music and slick professional camera work, Shawn gives the apparently terror-stricken, intrepid film crew a tour of one of Salem’s most famous landmarks; the ominous, black Witch House, an architectural relic that used to be home to a judge, Jonathan Corwin, during the Witch Trials. Shawn’s on-camera tour of the house, given at mid-night for maximum effect, includes a harrowing tale of an accused witch who, according to Shawn, was tortured while strapped to a chair that still sits eerily against a wall. So as to validate the tale, the BBC brought a professional psychic into the house who, remarkably, felt terrifying vibrations emanating from that very chair. “I made up that whole thing about the chair, too.” Shawn remarks, admitting that he knew very little about the actual history of the Witch House, but felt compelled to produce a “little known” fact for the benefit of the camera.

Shawn loves publicity and attention. He’s appeared on The Discovery Channel, The Travel Channel, MTV, The BBC, Playgirl magazine (though, thankfully, not in the nude) and numerous spots on NPR. Probably Shawn’s least favorite appearance was a spot on Showtime’s “Bullshit”, hosted by Las Vegas stage magicians Penn & Teller. “Bullshit” is a show dedicated to de-bunking quackery, new-age hocus pocus, pseudo-science, and un-truths in general. Shawn was an easy target. Recalling his appearance on “Bullshit”, Shawn claims that he didn’t mind the skeptical, inglorious presentation of his occult practices, but he didn’t appreciate the dishonesty with which the “Bullshit” film crew approached him. Ironic.

Though it is generally agreed that the accused witches of 1692 Salem weren’t actually practicing any occult rituals, and it is almost universally agreed that they never actually fornicated with the devil during unholy Sabbath rituals, enough people seem willing to suspend their disbelief, or exercise their gullibility, to participate in Shawn’s occult antics. Walking with Shawn through the streets of Salem is similar to walking with a rock-star in any other American city. Tourists want their pictures taken with him, people stop and point. In most cities, Shawn would be taken for just another gaudy gothic clubber. In Salem, he’s a celebrity.

Upon arrival at the psychic fair, Shawn’s witches try desperately to impress Shane and I with their psychic talents.

“Who died?” One hapless witch asks Shane who, like me, after the long travel and uneasy sleep, is in no mood to play along. “Where do want me to begin?” He asks her.

Undaunted, she moves to her next victim… me. “Why aren’t you down south?”

More confusion.

“Why would I be?” I dryly respond. Failure.

What was just witnessed was a rather lame attempt at what is known as “cold-reading”, the process by which stage-psychics fish for clues from their chosen marks so as to impress them later with what they have “psychically” divined.

Later, while arranging items ranging from original letters written by John Wayne Gacy, to a hatchet used by psychotic serial killer Ed Gein, Shane and I are perplexed by a wandering psychic who claims to feel the evil “vibrations” from the objects that also, aside from vibrating, seem to burn the skin of the sensitive psychic who touches them.

Unconvinced, Shane produces some standard silverware and holds them out to the psychic while concocting a story about their history of use as brutal weapons in crime. Oddly, the psychic neither detects the deception, nor do the vibrations and burning sensations lessen with the introduction of objects undefiled.

That evening, against the wishes of Salem’s mayor who, despite having no idea what the actual content of our presentation was to be decided that Shane and I would “contribute nothing positive” to the Halloween festivities, we gave our lecture on True Crime to an unresponsive and generally hostile audience. Neither glorifying crime nor preaching morality, I delivered a speech in defense of full factual disclosure. Ignoring the brutal details of crime may serve to sanitize and glorify the act more than if one were to face all the facts head-on.

After a day of psychic readings, divination, and Black Magic, I couldn’t help but feel that Shane and I would have done better had we alluded to an International Satanic Conspiracy and “true” cases of “vampirism”.

We parted politely, yet uneasily from the Salem witches. I had a distinct feeling that both parties felt that they had been bullshitted.

* * *


The Dubious Art of Cold-Reading: An Interview With Michael Shermer

Why is it that ambiguous statements – sometimes no more insightful than those in a poorly hacked county newspaper horoscope – have the power to impress people as evidence of psychic ability? Why is it that with literacy and communication constantly improving, the belief in mystical oracles seems no more diminished?

Dr. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and the author of such books as, Why People Believe Weird Things, and, How We Believe, explains:

MS: It’s prevalent because we are by nature superstitious. We tend to want to believe certain things and, according to the Confirmation Bias, find evidence that supports what we want to believe is true, and then just ignore all the contradictory evidence. The Confirmation Bias is what drives and fuels conspiracy theories or things like the Da Vinci Code… anything. So if you want to believe that the dead are on the “other side” and that people can talk to them, you’ll go to a psychic and remember the hits and ignore all the misses – the hundreds of misses that they make – and remember the half dozen hits, and think that there’s something to it. So, as a psychological process, it’s not at all a surprise that it operates so well because we’re not designed by evolution to think scientifically, we think anecdotally. We hear anecdotes about this kind of thing and think that there must be something to it.

Q: So you don’t think that superstition is actually increasing or spreading, but rather, it’s a human constant?

MS: I think if anything, in the long-run, it’s getting better. If you compare our age to the Middle Ages, I think that things are much better than they were in terms of percentages of the population that believes in a lot of destructive superstition.

I think there will always be a sizable number of people that believes weird things. The Weird Things themselves, however, change. I mean, this whole business of talking to the dead – it cycles in and out of popularity. It’s popular now, but it wasn’t popular for a while. It was hugely popular back in the 1920s when Houdini was de-bunking it. These things kind of come and go.

Q: Is there actually no evidence of psychic ability in man or animal?

MS: None at all. No. And they’ve been testing this for a hundred years now – good, rigorous, controlled experiments, and they still really have nothing to speak of.

Q: Well, the sham psychic readings seem to have the feel of an ad hoc psychotherapy session, so one might argue that there is some good that comes of indulging in such things.

MS: Well, right – but that’s sort of like saying, what’s the harm in alcohol? It leads to other things that are destructive in life. Bad ideas are just as poisonous as alcohol. In many ways, worse. People go to war over bad ideas. They kill people. They blow up abortion clinics and fly planes into buildings, purely on bad ideas. It can be very dangerous.

Q: Could you briefly describe how cold-readings are done?

MS: Well, the readings are done – it’s actually cold-reading, warm-reading, and hot-reading – cold-reading is when you literally read someone cold whom you’ve never met, and there you throw out lots and lots of comments, ask a lot of questions, and look for feed-back, and start honing in on things that you’re getting feed-back on.

With the warm-reading technique, you say things that are true for everybody – enough that you are bound to get quite a few hits. So, if it’s a talking-to-the-dead sort of thing – if it’s a guy whose father or grandfather passed over, you talk about his watch. “There’s something about the watch… what does that mean, please?” Most guys keep their Dad’s or Grandfather’s watch when they pass over. If it’s a woman who’s lost a mother, grandmother – women usually keep a piece of jewelry; a necklace, a bracelet, something like that. Everybody keeps a keepsake – photographs, articles of clothing, whatever, of their lost loved ones. You throw those kinds of things out, you’re bound to get hits. Those are warm-readings, they’re true for most people.

Now, in hot-reading, you actually just cheat. You actually get information on people. I don’t think most psychics do that because you don’t really need to do it. The first two cold and warm-readings will get you the information you need – enough to convince people that you’re for real. Again, you don’t have to be very accurate at all. You only need to have about a five to ten percent hit-rate. If you ask a hundred questions or make a hundred comments – if you only get five or ten of them right – that’s good enough. People will come out shocked at how good you are. They’ll cry. They’ll boast about your incredible psychic powers. They’ll ask, “How do you explain that he got the name of my uncle Bob?” Well, how do explain that he rattled off 27 other names that meant nothing to you? See, people remember the meaningful names and forget the non-meaningful ones.

Q: Do think that some of these people actually believe that they’re psychic?

MS: Yes, I do. I think that some of them are just scam artists that know they’re faking. But, I think others have come to believe they can do it by their own positive feedback that they get from their clients. I think that they themselves improve at it – it is a skill, it’s like acting – you get better with practice. I think it’s a skill they develop and as they get better, they get more positive feedback, which gives them more confidence. Exuding confidence makes them more effective as “psychics” and it’s a positive feedback loop that gets set up there.

Q: Why can’t science conclusively dis-prove psychic ability?

MS: Well, the burden of proof is on them to show us that it does exist, not us to prove it doesn’t – and they have yet to do that. However, we can attempt to test whether people can read the minds of other people and when the tests fail, we can conclude there is no effect.

Michael Shermer has performed successful cold-readings that convinced his clients that he is a gifted psychic. He writes about his cold-reading experiments in his book, Science Friction.


Marked as: Belief SystemsBunco  —  3 comments   (RSS)

3 Comments so far
  1. Fitz March 28, 2008 8:04 am


    When I was enrolled in Coney Island USA’s Sideshow School I had the pleasure of seeing the video of Melvin Burkhardt’s last performance of the Human Blockhead routine he pioneered which was done at Todd Robbins’ wedding. After showing me the tap Todd walked over to his bookcase and took out Melvin’s nail, a huge honking thing that only he could have worked with, along with some other artifacts.

    A few years later Todd did a one man show recreating 19th Century Seance methods called “Dark Deceptions.” During the talk up he mentions that it would be a night of Deception and Delusion. He’s bring the Deception, it was up to us to bring the Delusion. That was the night I discovered one of the key formulas to Path of the Order of Ascended Charlatans.

    If you should find yourself in Manhattan try stopping by the Center for Conjuring Research. They have a truly remarkable collection of books on stage magic and a small side collection of occult titled. They’re in the process of scanning large portions of their archives to be made available to interested researchers. You can find otu more at

    I’ve spent a fair number of years dealing with people directly and indirectly connected with occultism. The best of them were people who had used their interest as a means of altering their perceptual frames of reference and brought that skill forward in fields like art, literature, academia and military consulting. I’ve found to a dime that the ones who made being an occultist their primary persona or who more foolishly attempted to make careeers out of it were a sad lot. They reminded me of the kind of overbearing party goers who think others are shying away from them because they cannot handle the depth of their insights while in truth they are being avoided because they smell of something dreadful and their fly is open.

  2. doug May 4, 2008 9:06 pm

    This is beautiful information, and I hope to find myself in Manhattan soon enough. I will report on it here.
    I agree with you in regards to occultism. Using practises of occultism can, I believe, be useful as frames-of-reference, maps. Of course, by and large, it is a refuge for those who hopelessly confuse maps for their territories.

  3. greyling May 14, 2008 2:53 am

    I dated a stage magician once, and learned far more than i ever expected about the art.One thing that i can say for this very hard-working bunch: they’re totally honest about deceiving you. It’s actually part of the mystique. You know they’re putting you on, they SAY they’re putting you on, and yet… without some knowledge of exactly WHERE the switch is happening, or the bird is concealed, or the magnet is placed… our brains are hardwired to follow the flow and are surprised every time when something new happens.

    I think of it as experiencing first-hand the brain’s predilictions and lazinesses.

    I think of religion with the same respect, having read too many times Ana-Maria Rizutto’s Birth of the Living God. Yeah, we know it’s man-made. And the best practitioners will TELL you it’s man-made. And then you find yourself in the darkness, talking to transitional representations, and it still works.

    Or else they don’t tell you that it’s man-made, and i spend the next two hours watching them and gleefully pointing out where the tricks are to nearby members of the audience as a petty revenge. (Warning: Catholics don’t seem to mind this early as much as evangelical baptists. Be careful about doing this in church.)

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