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Early Cinema & Bizarre Magic: Interview With Tim Wisseman

Wednesday, August 8, 2018 | Interviews

By: Fabien Delage

Dark magic is a secret art which has been kept hidden from the public for centuries… It uses supernatural powers for evil purposes and involves the invocation of spirits. What if you could really contact the dead and make the planchette move or make the bell ring? The devil can turn you into an incredible medium – you just need to press the button on the remote control. Over the past ten years magician Tim Wisseman has become one of the most respected producers of haunted props and illusions in the industry. Renown for unmatched ingenuity and quality as well as his singular creativity, Wisseman continues to grow and re-visit the world of dark magic, which he discusses in this exclusive interview. His new “Musick Box” just came out from Gemini Artifacts and it sold out in a mere 3 hours.

Since the 15th century, the magician has been piquing the far reaches of human imagination. For over 500 years, the illusionist has made the impossible seem possible. Would you say magicians were the true pioneers of special effects, before the invention of cinema?

Yes, I would agree. Before cinema, it was the magician that could make the impossible seem possible. However, the magician needs a great story to go with the “trick” to make an impact on the human imagination. Some magicians are “men of mystery” that leave a trail of wonder everywhere they go. Too many magicians are boring tricksters that want to show you a trick and move on to the next trick acting like it is just puzzle after puzzle that they know the secret of, but the onlookers do not. They act like someone that is always trying to prove they are smarter than everyone else… which is why many people can not stand magicians.

David Devant was a true pioneer of special effects used in early cinema as well as a great magician. Devant was the David Copperfield of his day. His repertoires were made up of elaborate sketches that the people loved, but were not well received by critics. His “Mascot Moth,” which involved the instantaneous vanish of a winged assistant was one of the most amazing things to ever been seen on the stage. It looked like something from a movie, but it happens live on stage right in front of you.

The true pioneers of special effects were the great theatre shows of the past. The Duke of York’s Theatre comes to mind as an important pioneer. In December of 1904 they opened the play “Peter Pan, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” The play had many new special effects; the character Tinker Bell was represented on stage by a darting light created by a small mirror held in the hand off-stage and reflecting a little circle of light from a powerful lamp and her voice was a collar of bells. More important than special effects though was the underlining theme of the play: the conflict between the innocence of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood. The play touched the hearts of both young and old because it is a journey that we all must take and gives us much to think about after we have left the theatre. A good movie should stick with you long after you have seen it. Most of the magicians of the past did a poor job of touching the hearts and imaginations of the people that saw them, but a few great ones did and they used ideas from theatre to make their magic have a lasting impression. I think of Houdini, Uri Geller, Chris Angel, and David Blaine as great story tellers, their lives are grand stories that inspire and bring wonder into the world.

Through the ages, magic became more specific. Today there are all kinds of magic: card magic, coin magic, fire magic, mentalism, psychokinesy, stage illusion or bizarre magic. How would you define this category and why did you choose bizarre magic over the other genres?

For 10 years I did a kids magic show that involved cards, coins, fire magic, metalism, and psychokinesy. The show was like many magic shows you might see, it was one trick after another presented as a puzzle. Many kids were just enjoying watching all the strange things happen and others were trying to figure out how I did what I did. These types of magic shows work great for kids, but most adults hate such shows. Many adults feel that magicians are just making them look like fools as they show time and time again “I know a trick and silly you for not knowing how I did it.” I do bizarre magic for both kids and adults. The bizarre effects that I do may involve card magic, coin magic, fire magic, mentalism or psychokinesy, but it will always include an interesting story and strange props. I don’t do a trick when I am engaged in bizarre magic, instead I am sharing an experience with a group of interested people. If something strange happens, I appear just as baffled and surprised as those around me.

Glass Spirit Bell

Your devilish devices allow performers to bend the laws of nature and to conjure life and death. You’re giving them the power to touch the supernatural and to enter the spirit world. By creating infernal items for modern day seances, do you feel like Houdini exposing fake mediums? You know all their secrets… Do you feel you’re holding a certain power by giving them the tools to deceive?

The devices that I build can be used to bring joy to the world or to deceive people. I see them only as tools that can be used for good or bad. Yes, they do give people a certain extra power to do impossible things. I feel that what I do makes the world a little more interesting.

Has someone already fooled you with a bizarre magic trick?

I have terrified myself with my own devices. I have built machines that seamed to have a mind of their own and did things that were impossible. I worked on a drawer box that would open on its own at night whenever it felt like it. I had the thing in my workshop and several times I saw the drawer just open. I took it apart several times and could find no reason for it to just open on its own. We ended up selling it as a truly haunted item and even to this day it still opens at the new owner’s house.

For centuries people have been trying to communicate with the dead. Georges Méliès has been the first to picture this practice with short films like Summoning the Spirit (1899) and The Apparition (1903). How do you explain this exercise is still so popular today?

Because people still die and almost everyone wonders what exactly happens after we die. People are basically the same now as we were a hundred years ago. Technology has not changed the basic nature of mankind.

You’ve created wooden boxes that knock and open by themselves, remote controlled ouija boards, spirit lamps and the famous spirit bell… But you also designed a fascinating antique device named “The Re-animator” using a dead bat. Can you tell us more about this crazy machine?

“The Re-Animator” is a steam punk machine of sorts that has metal parts, a smoke stack, a plasma chamber, a working power gauge, a brass key that the starts the machine. When a living human holds onto the two brass probes it is said to draw the life force out of the living and transfer the life to a dead bat sitting under glass bell jar. The dead bat ends up twitching and jumping around as it briefly comes to life. It is more like live theatre than a magic trick. The strange thing about the device is it was always very popular at children’s birthday parties. The kids were fascinated by the thing.

The Re-Animator

All your items are beautifully crafted. They look old and cursed. But these insane gimmicks are useless without the magician’s mind. Would you say that magic is in the mind? What does it take to be a good bizarre magician?

The real magic is a sense of wonder, to look at the world around use as see what a magical place it is. Strange and unexplained things happen around us all the time and most people are too busy or jaded to appreciate the magic of it all. I greatly admire Zak Bagans, the host of Ghost Adventures. His book is one of the most magical things I have ever read, not only does Zak embrace the strange world of the supernatural, but he runs to it. It takes a love of the weird and a belief in the possibility of the strange to be a great bizarre magician. The worst magicians are the ones that do not believe in magic. To them everything is just a boring trick. Their goal is just to fool people and collect a paycheck. They are joyless and end up just annoying people around them.

Is there a contemporary practitioner that you particularly admire?

There are many magicians that I admire. David Copperfield is the magician that I admire the most, because he clearly understands what makes magic fun and knows how to tell a good story and touch the heart of everyone watching the show. He is doing magic with you and everyone is enjoying the show together. I also admire David Blaine for his take on magic as something real, he is the mysterious stranger with weird powers. Chris Angel brings a very playful and fun modern approach to magic, taking it out into the street one mind freak at a time.

The bizarre magic movement began in the late 60’s with Charles Cameron and Tony “Doc” Shiels. Like a lot of magicians they were drawing their inspiration from the black arts and dark romanticism. Does art and early fantasy cinema inspire your creations?

When it comes to cinema, I do enjoy the classic supernatural films from the 1960’s and early 1970’s. But there is one film marker that really inspires me and that would be David Lynch. I can watch his films and over and over again and every time I do I take something different away. In most of his films and TV shows one is left with the feeling that there are things outside of our understanding. Things lurking out there that sometimes show just a shadow of their true nature that leaves us with more questions than answers. Lynch’s films get into my head and live there, like any great film should. My goal is to take that same feeling and mood and bring that into my magic. I love being confused and not knowing, it just means there are things to find out and explore. There is an unknown edge to push into.

Musick Box

Your magic devices are selling within minutes every time they drop online. How do you explain such a success ?

There are many things that I build that I take a great care in making look and work just right. I build things exactly the way I would need them to be if I were to use them in my own show. In a strange way my creations are a part of me, almost like my children. I want each of them to be at their best when they leave the shop.

You’re also working in film production. What type of objects are you designing for movies?

The most frequently requested props for films are over-the-top quack medical devices from the 1890’s and steam punk style machines.

Your work has been well known thanks to the bizarre magic website Outlaw Effects. But you’ve stopped working with them after they caused outrage throughout the magic community. What happened?

The simple answer is they ran into money problems and could no longer pay their builders. Outlaw ended up taking many people’s money for orders and not delivering their items. Outlaw would pressure their builders to build items with a promise to pay them later and then ended up not paying them back at all. When I walked away from Outlaw he still owed me a great deal of money and the same is true of all the other major builders that used to build for them. Outlaw Effects would use his debts to the builders as a tool to keep builders on the hook and try to run up more debts. Builders would keep working for Outlaw Effects hoping that someday they would pay back all the money they were owed. Another thing that sunk Outlaw Effects was the endless lies the owners would tell the customers and the builders. In the end, nothing they said could be trusted.

You’ve created a trick entitled “Dead Rap” allowing a ghost to knock through the walls to make his presence known. Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you think there’s something bigger than us?

I believe in the supernatural. I have seen and heard things that I could never explain. I used to live in a very haunted house. Yes, I believe there are powers and things far beyond our understanding. However, I have very little understanding of what exactly these things are and what is hiding behind the vale.

The Etherica Spirit Lamp

Your “Butcher’s Blade” makes you literally bleed and heal right in front of the audience. Is horror an important element of bizarre magic? Why are blood and violence so appealing to the public?

Blood, violence and pain are dangers that could lead to death. When an audience sees that it sparks a primal reaction in their lizard brain that floods their mind with emotions beyond their control. It is a safe thrill. They know what they are seeing is not real, but their inner mind is freaking out. This thrill ride works for bizarre magic as well as movies.

Are you working on a new device?

I am designing a fortune telling machine that looks very old, you place your hand on it and it reads your fortune and drops a small card into a pan that the user can pick up read and take home with them. It will have many strange moving parts. It is just something fun for me to tinker with.

Tim Wisseman works for TV shows and movies as well as Las Vegas and New York stage shows. All his bizarre magic props are built in his workshop in North Fork, CA and can be found on his website Watch the effect of his new haunted device “The Musick Box” here: