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What is Mentalism?
Mentalism is a kindred art associated with traditional Magic that evolved out of the mid-19th century fascination with Spiritualism; a religious movement that swept much of North America and Europe promoting the idea of Spirit Communication and what we now refer to as the Psychic Arts; abilities such as Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Mediumship, Dowsing, Psychometry and more.
See -- MENTALISM: Introduction & Resource List for more details.
The evolution of Mentalism delivered three initial schools of thought;
The Investigator/Debunker -- what many would call a "Skeptic" and in more cases than not, a "Cynic" -- frequently magicians who likewise had a fair amount of formal education; very left-brained "rational" thinkers who had difficulty when it came to belief in anything outside logic and science. Such people viewed the whole of things "Spiritual" or "Paranormal" as inane superstition for the weak of mind and gullible . To them all of it was a scam though, they understand that frequently the belief people invested in such things was based on both, environment and person education. Let's face it, until the early decades of the 20th century very few people had more than a 3rd or 4th grade comprehension level and most of that education came by way of reading scripture vs. intellectual texts.
Many of these "Investigators" used their acquired materials and assumptive theories as presentation texts; most often for college level lectures as well as review papers for one's peer groups. The fledgling field of Psychology & Human Behavior, like the magic world, found this form of research most curious and possibly for the same reasons; each niche had a "need" to take things apart and understand how and why it worked. It's a logical and productive course but as with all things, balance is needed but sadly, not applied. The zeal by which these people used their findings as a weapon to attack and dismiss phenomena resulted in strong social divisions as well as distrust. The exception being those investigators that were at heart, believers. While they understood and even aided in the exposure of fraud, they still held compassion for persons of faith and the testimony many offered when it came to paranormal encounters.
The Showman -- needless to say most falling into this category were already involved with the world of professional magic, the simply developed method by which to replicate Paranormal & Psychic manifestations. Some of the more famous demonstrations associated with this type of Mentalist include the Two-Person Telepathy and the Clairvoyant or Blindfold Act. Also in this mix were those demonstrating super memory and mesmerism (hypnosis). But, this type of performer had many tools to his/her advantage and while they weren't abashed about being seen as a magician impersonating a Psychic or Swami, there was a large contingency that did and who practiced under the ruse of being "real". This element created one of the largest and still existing chasm in the whole of the magician's fraternity in that many see the suggestion of validity as being the same as actual charlatanism, the very thing the magic society was to hold in disdain.
Those that operated from the face of validity however, held to the belief that Mentalism should reflect its roots and likewise the logic that it is through the invocation of belief that Mentalism gains greater power and advantage when it comes to public reaction and support. As one noted old timer pointed out, "No one wants to pay to see a fake mind reader".
This single division resulted in two chief schools of thought & practice within the whole of Mentalism; The Old and the New Schools of practice, which we will get to shortly.
The Charlatan -- is in fact our final niche when it comes to Mentalism as a category. As depicted in the film Nightmare Alley the allure of easy money and being a part of the "social class" can be very overwhelming, especially for those that have worked exceptional hard at "making it" in the "legit" industry only to find themselves getting nowhere. Someone even semi-versed in scripture and wisdom parables can couple that with a handful of rudimentary techniques and literally start their own church almost over night.
While many that are aligned with the "Old School" philosophy of Mentalism actually do work within the New Age/Pagan/Psychic communities and even certain religious fellowships, their work is not predatory, separating them from the Charlatan when it comes to morality and general ethics (integrity). The charlatan on the hand, sees everyone as a sucker and will readily target those they feel to be prime for the picking; their favorite targets tend to be upper-middle-classed & wealthy widows, widowers and their children but in the years following World War II these predators started looking more towards racial (minority) sects because of cultural & religiously based superstitions which made them more susceptible to exploitation.
Mental Magic vs. Mentalism
As noted, a large niche of the Mentalism genre involved magicians seeking to cash in on the publics love affair with things "taboo" -- psychics, mediums & ghosts. The result being an extensive array of effects that literally look and feel like Magic Tricks but are presented in a manner that alludes to parapsychology. Then again, there have been many a deliberate bit of shtick that likewise plays well with the public but due to its nature, is overtly obvious as trickery. The single most over-used bit of this sort being what is known as "Instant Stooging"; essentially, the performer hands a note to a spectator that tells them to just agree with everything he says. While there are some rather elaborate scenarios by way perfectly innocent folk get nudged by the performer, most are very simple and direct. . . literally at the tip of their nose.
This method falls under the heading of Mental Magic because members of the public are "in" on the secret behind the demonstration being presented. The great Houdini used to do this with entire audiences. After doing a demonstration in which he apparently divines all kinds of personal details about various guests he asks them if they'd like to know how it works? He then passes out some cards and tells folks, "If you have friends and neighbors that are planning to visit this show tomorrow evening, jot down five or six things you know about them along with their name and birth date if possible." The cards were collected and Houdini would be ready to repeat this uncanny demonstration of psychic prowess the next evening; allowing friends & family to play a big joke on one another.
Another face of Mental Magic is what we find when witnessing a traditional magician performing one or two spots of Psychic-like demonstration within their show, something that's become exceptionally common in today's post Criss Angel/David Blaine environment; their debut in the latter 1990s not only shattering the idea as to how magic was to be done after decades of big boxes and snazzy outfits, but giving to the public a form of magic that was quite foreign to them; magic of the mind and in some instances, from whence nightmares are formed a.k.a. Bizarre Magick & Sideshow (or Geek) Demonstrations.
See -- About Bizarre Magick for further details.
When it comes to performance the Mentalist is an entirely more sinister bird than their cousins the Magician as well as the Bizarre styled performer; as previously noted, they claim validity whether they are suggesting that they are genuinely gifted Psychics or if they are "experts" in some mode of communications or human behavior (which has become quite popular since the advent of the UK's Derren Brown and the various contributions to the craft by Banachek). Members of this rather limited sect, frequently work with small groups vs. the larger commercial venues most common to the entertainment industry. They generate work more by word-of-mouth than advertising and staging big promotional stunts. Too, most are viewed as being legitimate experts on specific topics, working frequently with law enforcement, consumer protection groups and schools from within their community area.