Playing with Deep Down Fears by Eugene Burger

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Originally published in Genii Magazine

I thoroughly enjoyed Lance Burton's recent, third television special. I thought it was his best so far. As Lance performed one of the effects on the show, my mind was flooded with memories of a moment from my childhood. The effect was "The Web" -- and the memories which filled my mind concerned my cousin Lorraine and an experience we had when I was twelve years old.

Coming, as my father did, from a large family, Lorraine was much older than me, probably in her late twenties or early thirties at the time. Among my family members, I always remember her as being especially positive and enthusiastic and supportive of "Eugene, the teenage magician." She was always ready to watch "a new one," smile and laugh and applaud in all the right places and then go on and on about how WONDERFUL and CLEVER I was. I suspect that Lorraine never doubted that I would one day become a professional magician. In the mad inner turmoil I remember as my twelfth year, Lorraine was indeed a shining star, and I loved seeing her and performing my magic for her -- which happened about four or five times a year (depending upon family weddings and funerals).

I think it is important that I tell you that my cousin Lorraine was a successful and highly organised person. She was the secretary (today, I suppose that we would say EXECUTIVE secretary) to the President of the Canteen Corporation.

Lorraine's phobia was spiders. If a live spider happened to come near her, she simply went crazy. There is no other way to put it. She would scream and sob and shake and exhibit all the borderline hysteria that you might imagine a person would exhibit whose darkest deep, down fear had suddenly been triggered. She went so crazy that it sometimes took quite a bit for her finally to calm down and get put the unpleasant experience behind her. Everyone in the family knew about "Lorraine and spiders" and I knew about it too. In fact, I once confided to Lorraine that I felt much the same way about snakes.

Enter "The Golden Spider." Created in England, it was an almost perfect magic trick for a twelve year old. I say "almost" because it did require that you force one of five balls of colored yarn. Not necessarily an easy task for a twelve year old. (The one text that might have helped me, Phil Goldstein's brilliant VERBAL CONTROL; A TREATISE ON THE UNDER-EXPLORED ART OF EQUIVOQUE; TECHNIQUES AND APPLICATIONS, would not be written for another twenty-five years.) The force used, as I remember, was a less-than-deceptive mix of counting OR spelling the number named OR eliminating OR not eliminating -- in short, a verbal mess.

At twelve years of age, however, I thought much less about the deceptiveness of the force and much more about the magical payoff at the effect's conclusion -- not unlike today's magicians who think much less about the deceptiveness of their Double Lifts and much more about what happens magically at the end of the effect. It took me years to learn that if the steps up to a magic effect's climax are flawed, EVERYTHING is flawed and the effect is RUINED!

Along with the five balls of colored yarn, the Golden Spider involved a rubber spider which was appropriately painted gold, a two fold screen with a secret pocket on its back, and an open wooden framework that stood on the table. The framework had a thread stretched across its center. The golden spider was shown and then hung on the thread with a pin that was fixed to its underside. The screen was placed in front of the frame, masking it from view. A ball of colored yarn was "chosen" by a member of the audience and dropped behind the screen (and into the secret pocket). When the screen was removed, the spider had spun a web that filled the entire framework with that very color yarn. It was colorful, goofy fun. I loved it.

It was Sunday afternoon and about a dozen relatives from the South Side (my family lived on the North Side) were visiting us. The house was buzzing with people talking and eating. With perfect timing, Lorraine said, "Eugene, won't you do a magic show for us?"

Delighted, I went to my bedroom and happily began moving magic tables and props into the living room. As I put the Golden Spider on one of the tables, "Lorraine and spiders" did flash before my mind. But THIS, I reasoned, was only a RUBBER spider -- a rubber spider spray painted gold! And Lorraine was sitting at least ten feet from the magic table. My mind turned to more important questions, such as figuring out what the order of effects might be that I was now going to perform.

The show began well. Family members are tolerant of twelve year old performers. Later, I discovered they changed radically and had become much less tolerant by the time I was seventeen.

Time for the Golden Spider. I removed the two-fold screen and displayed the open framework. Everyone was smiling. But when I reached into my pocket and removed and displayed the Golden Spider pandemonium broke out: Lorraine went crazy. She screamed, jumped up from her chair and ran sobbing into a bedroom. Several people followed to comfort her in her time of distress.

The show stopped.

My mother, father and several other family members were very angry with me. "You know how Lorraine is about spiders," they all said.

"But this was only a RUBBER spider painted gold and it was no where near her," I protested to little avail. I had, after all, RUINED the afternoon with my thoughtlessness. I felt terrible. The truth is, I LOVED my cousin Lorraine and I certainly didn't want to upset her in any way. I really never thought that I would upset her simply displaying that rubber golden spider. But I did. I personally felt horrible and most everyone was angry with me. It wasn't easy being twelve years old.

Is there a moral here about taking other people's deep down fears too lightly? I have no interest in preaching to you, but it is a question that might be worth considering.

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Fundamentals of Magick

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