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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.3 > Magic and Real Magic

Magic and Real Magic

Reviews of Spectacle of Illusion: Deception Magic and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins; The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost by Peter Manseau; and Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture by Simone Natale

…rapidly increasing scientific knowledge was regarded not as the enemy of supernatural obsessions, but an encouragement to them.”

—Peter Manseau, The Apparitionists What can psychology tell us about the paranormal? Can ghosts be photographed? How is the history of stage magic relevant to such questions? These three questions are examined in the three books under review here. Psychologist Matthew Tompkins’ The Spectacle of Illusion is a lavishly illustrated skeptical narrative history of spiritualism and parapsychology. Supernatural Entertainments by historian Simone Natale is a remarkably clear and innovative discussion of how the popularity of late 19th century séances was intertwined with developments in business, entertainment and leisure. One aspect of this was the commerce in photographs taken of people— apparently with the spirits of their dead loved ones. Both Tompkins and Natale discuss the paradox of using the emerging technology of the camera to document the existence of alleged ghosts. The trial for fraud of William Mumler is put into the context of early photography in the smoothly flowing The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau.

Tompkins introduces his The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic, and the Paranormal by suggesting that the history of the paranormal, from floating tables to alleged ESP, can be partially understood as showing something about how the human mind can misconstruct reality. Subsequent chapters (which he labels as “Acts”) review 19th and early 20th century mesmerism, séances, the history of stage magic, and the rise of psychical research and parapsychology. The fifth and last “Act” is a brief but engaging overview of recent psychological research on perception and memory. The chapters discussing the history of the paranormal are roughly chronological, though there is overlap between them. “Act” (chapter) Two discusses the history of stage magic through the prism of its relation to the paranormal.

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PINKER ON POST-TRUTH & REASON Steven Pinker on “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era: An (Unnecessary) Defense of Reason and a (Necessary) Defense of Universities’ Role in Advancing it” COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Coconut Oil: Health Food or Health Hazard? by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: The Persistence of Memory… and of the Memory Wars, by Carol Tavris ARTICLES The “Lost” Tribes of Israel • The Pentagon’s UFOs How a Multimedia Entertainment Company Created a UFO News Story • The Problem with the Walking Dead And How They Flummoxed Science for Centuries • The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould • Why the Human Brain Did Not Evolve to Accurately Represent the True Nature of Reality • Homeopathy’s New Clothes: Release Active Drugs • Pressured Apologies, False Confessions, and Witch Hunts • Two Kinds of Progressive Atheism • Surfing for Truth in All the Right Places: An Empirical Test of the Backfire Effect and How the Internet Can Reduce Anti-vaccination Attitudes REVIEWS Reviews of “A review of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities” • “Spectacle of Illusion: Deception Magic and the Paranormal” • “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost” • “Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture” JUNIOR SKEPTIC The Chilling, Changeling Chupacabra!