To start off 2019, Jonah sits down with Steve Shaw, better known as Banachek, to discuss mentalism, the ethics behind deception, and parapsychology. Banachek is one of the world’s leading mindreaders who has helped debunk psychic claims, created effects for leading performers and is sought after by venues around the world for his performances.
When Banachek started, he wasn’t aware that there was a subsection of magic called mentalism. He just knew there were psychics fooling people with tricks.
Banachek, born in England before emigrating to South Africa, had a troubled childhood which saw him raising his two younger brothers. This prevented him from developing his social skills alongside other children. He was the kid in the back of the class who was afraid of being called on. When he was raising his brothers, he would always try to instill the value of fairness in them. He wanted them to know right from wrong–a value he still holds dear to this day.
Project Alpha was a four-year-long hoax that involved planting Banachek and Michael Edwards in a parapsychology research project to demonstrate that it is possible to fake psychic powers in a controlled environment. Banachek initially went in believing it to be an “I’m against them” scenario to prove that the proper protocols were not being followed by the scientists. However, he eventually came to the realization that things weren’t necessarily black and white; the scientists weren’t evil, they were just imposing their own beliefs on the trials and believing they could not be fooled.
Before the project began, James Randi sent the scientists a list of eleven caveats to follow so that they could truly test the psychic claims of Banachek and Edwards. The scientists dismissed the suggestions, saying that Banachek and Edwards would be unable to perform under such conditions. During the project, Banachek would write letters to Randi explaining how they would manipulate the tests; Randi would then inform the scientists that they should look out for these exact methods during their experiments. The scientists would, again, dismiss the suggestions. Overall, the project revealed that we can be fooled and that we need to be more open to the idea that we can be fooled. This focus on critical thinking is something that Banachek still tries to instill in people today.
Deception of Mentalism
Banachek believes that the difference between a psychic and a mentalist is that the mentalist doesn’t claim to have real psychic power. He, as a mentalist, is taking the five known senses to create the illusion of a sixth sense. In terms of if we are lying to the audience, Banachek says that “a lie is a lie is a lie.” If you tell your audience that everything is pure psychology, you leave it open to people to expose that you are lying which will affect how other performers are viewed.
When he was starting out, he would say he was using magic and tricks in his performance, only to be told by other mentalists that cheapens the art. Banachek never understood why, as the essence of what they’re doing is fake. At the moment, they are duplicating psychic phenomena, but, when you’re off stage, you don’t want to leave the door open for people to make their own assumptions about what actually occurred as it can lead the spectator to dangerous assumptions.
This is why Banachek will constantly reinforce the idea that what he’s doing isn’t real which, in a way, makes his effects stronger as the audience is thinking “how could you have possibly known” compared to “he’s a real psychic.” To him, telling people that what he is doing is fake comes from an ethical standpoint because he sees himself as an authoritative figure on stage; people don’t know what to expect when they go to a mentalism show, so they’re going to believe whatever it is he tells them if he’s convincing enough.
Pseudoscience & Magic
You are not going to convince everyone that pseudoscience is fake, especially if you are hostile in confronting people. What you can do is talk about pseudoscience on the correct platforms to inform people and get them thinking critically about what they’re being told. Banachek goes on to explain that we should be focusing on the larger mediums as they’re the ones influencing the masses; we can use their publicity to educate people. If we are to educate on a smaller level, it shouldn’t be confrontational or else people will put up a wall. It’s better to have an educated discussion to understand their viewpoint. You can’t just think everyone is stupid because they don’t know what you know.
Banachek highlights his show Telepathy as an example of how he approaches educating people. During the first half, he comes out as psychic to build the same emotional reaction the audience would have if they went to see a psychic. In the second half of the show, he comes out to inform the audience that what he did was all fake. He wants the audience to know that they can be fooled and that they shouldn’t believe blindly. He wants the audience to know that they don’t need to necessarily change their views, they just need to realize that there are those who will take advantage of their beliefs.
Million Dollar Challenge
The JREF offered one million dollars to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under scientific testing conditions — the test was terminated in 2015 but Banachek says it will likely be coming back in a different form. The difficult part about conducting the claims was coming up with a test that was agreeable to science and the psychic. When they conducted the tests, they wanted the subject to succeed, but they needed the participant to succeed under the proper test conditions. No one was ever able to pass the preliminary stages.
Believability and Criss Angel
When he was working with Criss Angel, the goal was to create believable magic; it’s not a good trick if it doesn’t look real. When he was creating effects for the show, they would come up with 300 tricks per season and then they would have to quickly figure out presentation and method as they had a tight filming window. Often, they were restricted by the environment. Banachek knew that they didn’t have to stooge things for the effect to be fooling on some level, so he took advantage of the medium. Editing allowed them to hide methods that would otherwise be exposed on television, or they could block the show in a way to avoid exposed angles. These methods, Banachek said, are similar to blocking a routine on a stage. He wants the audience at home to have a similar experience to the participants in real life, so he took advantage of the medium.
Banachek goes on to explain that there are always going to be purists who see certain methods as dirty or impure. However, magicians are in the business of deceit, so it’s difficult to say what is and isn’t a dirty method when it comes to trickery. By going online to expose other magicians for using “dirty methods” they’re hurting the art form as a whole, not just the singular performer. Once you have people thinking a magician uses a particular method, they’ll begin to think that’s how all magicians approach the effect.
How has the audience changed?
Banachek hasn’t necessarily seen a change in his audience, but he has noticed that people are attending more live performances for the uniqueness of the experience.
Take Home Point
Jonah likes the idea of leaving the audience better off than when he found them.
Banachek likes the idea of not attacking people when you want to educate them.
Tyas liked talking about how magicians are often cannibalizing the culture and how people tend to discredit methods and other performers. He wants people to be building the artform, not stifling it.
Be positive about magic. When you knock down another magician, you’re tearing down yourself, and you’re knocking down the art form.