Truth and Myth Behind “Magic in the Moonlight”

July 25, 2014

In the new Woody Allen film Magic in the Moonlight, Colin Firth (Apartment Zero, The King’s Speech) plays a master magician named Stanley who is asked by a friend to join him in the French Riviera to investigate a fetching young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to have psychic powers, including of prophecy and speaking to the dead. Sophie may or may not be truly psychic, but Stanley has a secret of his own: He performs as a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo, and no one knows his alter ego.

I thought it would be interesting to give a brief look at some of the real-life events and characters that inspired the film. As it happens I’ve researched the history of investigations into psychic mediums and Spiritualists, and I was impressed. Allen has done his homework, and many of the details in the film, especially about the role of magicians in investigating–and often exposing–fraudulent mediums are exactly correct.

The film is set in the 1920s when séances were often held by fashionable (and wealthy) families; Ouija boards, three-legged tables, candles, and other accoutrements were used to try to contact the dead. Usually the communication took the form of knocks or raps heard in response to questions from mediums in darkened rooms (typically one thump meant yes and two thumps meant no).

American belief in communication with the dead rose dramatically in the 1800s, and the notion of spirits rapping out communication in telegraphy style dates back to at least the mid-1800s. In the early 1840s in Hydesville, New York, a young peddler arrived at the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Bell to sell his housewares. He was invited into the home by the Bells’ housekeeper and stayed for some days. The maid was shortly dismissed from service but abruptly rehired a week later. The peddler was gone, but many of his items were now in use in the Bells’ kitchen. The maid thought little of it until she began experiencing strange, ghostly phenomenon, only to find out from the peddler’s ghost that he had in fact been murdered in her absence.

At least that was the story told by two sisters named Maggie and Katie Fox, who claimed to communicate with the peddler’s ghost through taps and knocks. The Fox sisters became famous across the country and in Europe for their ability to communicate with spirits of the dead, drawing enthusiastic crowds for decades. Years later, however, the sisters admitted it had all been a hoax; there was no murdered peddler, and the spirit communications had been faked. The girls-who none suspected of trickery-had created hidden knocks with their feet. Fraud or no, the sisters had inadvertently founded a religion called Spiritualism, which is still practiced today. Decades later many self-proclaimed psychic mediums would continue the practice, pretending that knocks in darkened séance rooms came from the spirit world instead of from the medium or her employees.
For well over a century many mediums have been caught faking spirit communication, often by magicians-who unlike laypeople and scientists were ideally suited to spot trickery, being well-versed in techniques of distraction and illusion. In fact Harry Houdini exposed many psychics as frauds who used trickery to make vulnerable people believe in the reality of spirit messages. (For more on this, see Massimo Polidoro’s 2001 book Final Séance.)

Allen did his research; Firth’s character, Stanley Crawford / Wei Ling Soo is a composite of several real historical figures, including the Houdini and William Ellsworth Robinson, an Englishman who adopted a Chinese persona and the stage name Chung Ling Soo to capitalize on the popularity of Orientalism at the time. Robinson, as Soo, never spoke English and even had a person interpret for him during press conferences to take reporters’s questions. The illusion tricked the public, and very few people knew that Chung Ling Soo was an elaborate hoax-until one day in 1918 when a bullet-catching trick went awry and the magician was fatally shot onstage. He died at the hospital soon after, and that’s when Robinson’s greatest secret was revealed.

As for why Woody Allen chose this subject, the press notes explain: “Allen has been fascinated with magic since he started performing tricks as a teenager, and since then magic and magicians have often made appearances in his work…Spiritual mediums were all the rage during the 1920s, when Magic in the Moonlight is set. ‘At the time much was made of it,’ says Allen. ‘Very renowned people like [Sherlock Holmes creator] Arthur Conan Doyle took it very seriously. There were all kinds of incidents like spirit photographs that people were wondering about. Séances were very common.’ The greatest magician of that era, Harry Houdini, attended many séances, debunking every clairvoyant he encountered. Interestingly, Houdini wasn’t motivated by a desire to expose con artists, but by his sincere longing to discover that communicating with the dead was possible. Finding so much fraud was a disappointment to him, but at the time of his death, he still held out hope for an afterlife.”

Like Houdini (and the fictional Stanley Crawford), William Robinson actually did go undercover to séances to investigate and reveal trickery in claims of talking to the dead. They did not debunk the fake psychics merely for the sake of debunking, but because the mediums would often exploit grieving families who truly believed that they were communicating with their dead loved ones. Some would ask high fees to conduct the séances; others would merely ask their wealthy patrons for “donations” or introductions to other prominent people. As Magic in the Moonlight shows, in many ways both the mediums and the magicians who exposed them were in the same business: creating illusions for pay.