Magician Teller Once Performed a Seance That Had Some Convinced He Could Read Minds
Teller, the silent half of the famed magic duo Penn & Teller, has long nurtured a healthy relationship with horror. Like many illusionists, his work has much in common with the FX wizardry of great horror films, and he traces his fascination with the genre back to his early performances with Penn—one of which convinced a participant that they could read minds.
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“In our early days, Penn and I did a couple of seances where we’d go to people’s homes and do an hour’s worth of very creepy stuff,” Teller says on the latest episode of Post Mortem with Mick Garris. A self-described “hobbyist in the history of 19th- and early 20th-century spiritualism and the frauds attached to that,” Teller spent years reading about seances, so he and Penn were well prepared to conduct one convincingly.
Ironically, some of their tricks were so effective that they ended up doing what magicians never do—going out of their way to explain to people that they weren’t real. “It was horrible, because when our tricks were good, we were in danger of people saying, ‘Well, I know some of these things are tricks… but you really can read my mind!,’” he continues. “We’d go, ‘No! No! They were just good tricks!’ And they’d say, “No, no. If they were tricks, I could’ve figured them out!”
Teller’s creative career first took a decidedly darker turn in 2008, when he made his five-installment series of zombie shorts, “& Teller.” (In those films, Teller, who stars as himself, keeps a video diary as an undead epidemic sweeps across Las Vegas.) But it was those seance stunts, along with his fateful pairing with producer Todd Robbins, that he says inspired his “spook show” stage play, Play Dead, years later.
“Around the 1920s, right when people were moving from live performances to movies, a group of magicians found a crazy way to do these spook shows for free and make a lot of money,” Teller explains. “They would take a movie theater and at midnight, after the films were done playing, they’d take over the theater. Kids could bring in their dates, all the lights would go off, and then all hell would break loose.”
When he and Robbins teamed up, they both thought the spook show was a format that could be pulled off beautifully in a modern setting. “Todd was a serious historian of the spook show, and said, ‘What if we focused on making this a sprawling storyline to go through it, and made better tricks than any of these shows before it?,’” Teller says. “And then we combined all that with [audiences] in the dark getting covered with things and things blowing in front of their faces, scaring the liver out of them.”