Top News

Colby Cosh: The rise and fall of the paranormal in pop culture

The Canadian conjurer and paranormal investigator James (The Amazing) Randi died Thursday of old age at 92, according to the James Randi Educational Foundation. When I was a child, Randi was perhaps the top television magician on the continent. One of my earliest TV memories is having watched him perform Houdini’s upside-down strait-jacket escape while suspended by a crane over Niagara Falls in 1976. I can now see that the crane doesn’t really add much to the stunt, but I had a crippling fear of heights; no horror movie has ever had anything like the same effect on me.

Dinosaurs from the three-channel era will also remember his 1978 guest appearance on ABC’s “Happy Days,” which involved the Fonz stepping into Randi’s shoes to perform Houdini’s terrifying milk-can escape. Johnny Carson was an admirer, and Randi appeared on “The Tonight Show” 10 times.

Remarkable enough to be worth remembering; but the second act of Randi’s improbable life was already underway. He had already established his long relationship with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and he was deep into his long international war of litigation and imprecation with the Israeli psychic performer Uri Geller.

This had commenced in 1973, when Carson brought Geller onto his show to perform the hokey spoon-bending act that had often reduced grown men to quivering puddings. Unbeknownst to Geller, Carson, himself a talented conjurer, consulted Randi on how to prevent Geller from sneaking around backstage and tampering with the props. (The teenaged Johnny Carson performed in Nebraska as “the Great Carsoni” in instinctive tribute to Houdini. By the same path, a young Torontonian, Randy Zwinge, became “the Amazing Randi.”)

The result of Randi’s precautions was agonizing for the audience, although Carson was gleeful. Geller, unable to perform any of his famous telekinetic effects and unequipped with professional patter to cover for it, was left incoherent. He became more famous than ever, but at the expense of being taken much less seriously. Geller was last heard from outside Israel last year, when he wrote to then-British Prime Minister Theresa May promising to use psychic energy to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union. So far, so good!

Randi pulled off many publicity coups of this sort, gradually transforming from a celebrated magician to a full-time professional skeptic — a debunker, although he disliked that term, of psychic frauds, televangelists, water witches, homeopaths and all manner of charlatanry. A key turning point was his receipt of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1986. He also became a magus to the New Atheist “movement,” which is slightly unfashionable now because neither it nor its opponents are too eager to confess its success.

Rarely, I think, has the MacArthurs’ money been so usefully spent. There was something about the 1970s … how can I explain this to the young’uns? North America, stumbling out of the ’60s haze, was vulnerable to psychics, mystics, gurus and allied flimflammers in a way that is unfathomable now. Geller wasn’t thought of as a handsome boob, but treated as a prophet. When Randi would reproduce telekinetic effects using conjuring techniques from antiquity, people would accuse him of being a real wizard in the face of his denials.

Many shows just like “The X-Files” were on the air, but with none of the self-regard: “The X-Files,” as critics often point out, is just NBC’s “Project U.F.O.” (1978-1979) diluted with irony, sex and grunge-era cinematography. Universities and government agencies were taking enormous amounts of money to fund parapsychological research — stuff that wouldn’t get near the back door at a cow college now. (Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book “The Men Who Stare At Goats” captures the spirit of the era.)

The great American conspiracy theories, JFK and Apollo 11, sprouted in this hotbed of commingled paranoia and credulity: 9/11 “truthers” now seem to have shrunk to embarrassed insignificance, yet these deeper-rooted mythologies trundle on. People were universally convinced that the United States government was concealing evidence of extraterrestrial life to prevent panic and disorder, but smartphones with cameras have mostly done away with the UFO, and now NASA announces possible life on other planets twice a year, if it can find two excuses to do it. Psychics have been demoted from “The Tonight Show” to an abyss of late-late-late-night cable. Evangelists have had to discard stage tricks that hint at clairvoyance or telepathy.

Randi did an awful lot to encourage this hardening of our psychic armour, even if it is approaching another phase of flabbiness. He fled Canada in the ’70s, not liking the hyper-Protestant atmosphere of his youth or the Mounties’ hysterical treatment of stage performers, so one has respectful reluctance to claim him fully as a compatriot. Perhaps Toronto the Good hurt him into skepticism, as mad Ireland hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry.

But he can be roped in for journalism. He did work as a (very down-market) newspaperman before defecting to the U.S., and much of the investigative work he oversaw in later life is indistinguishable from newspaper reporting. His unclaimed $1-million prize for proof of paranormal abilities certainly had the touch of the tabloid. He was a capable historian of magic, too.

He has a permanent place in the history of psychology, which might not have been able to shake the forgotten “para-” prefix if Randi and other stage magicians had not kicked down the doors of the academy and improved “paranormal” research protocols by sharing their trade secrets. If you counted scientific citations, Randi, a high-school dropout who half-drowned the Fonz and built props for Alice Cooper, might be in the top decile of all Canadian-born “scholars.” I am forbidden, under the circumstances, from describing this as magic.

National Post

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories