Halloween Every Day of the Year : Professor Sees the Magic of Reality/Illusion in Society

Times Staff Writer

Here’s a frightening thought. It’s Halloween every day of the year.

One way or another, the spooky stuff most strongly associated with Halloween is mirrored by society year round. At least that’s the opinion of amateur magician Peter Nardi, who spends most of his time as an associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont.

To Nardi, magicians, vampires, any standard assortment from the pantheon of the mystifying--or merely nasty--are often symbols for the way people act, both as individuals and as a society.

Illusion of Reality


Take magic and magicians, for instance.

Nardi is fond of saying that “an actor gives you the illusion of reality, the magician gives you the reality of illusion.”

This deceptively slick statement glides over a complicated set of ideas Nardi has about the world of magic, how it’s a “metaphor for understanding human social behavior.” And he hopes to turn these notions into a book.

Using others’ sociological theories and building on his own research, Nardi maintains that people use illusion every day to get ahead, stay in place, or cover up.


“The argument is that people interact on a human basis using deception, illusion--not necessarily in a negative sense--but just that’s the way they present themselves. You only know one side of me and I present the side I want, so I deceive you in a sense by not giving you all the information about myself,” he said in an interview.

Indispensable Deceptions

All of us accept these little deceptions and, indeed, find them indispensable, Nardi said, much in the way that we accept the fact that magicians are somehow fooling us.

” . . . I looked at magic performances and realized that the way they work in our modern era is that we know there’s a rational explanation, but we don’t know what it is,” Nardi said. “If you didn’t think there was a rational explanation, you’d either be conned . . . or have a religious experience.”


Because magicians “play on and exploit people’s everyday assumptions of reality,” Nardi--who performs card tricks for friends and occasionally plies his skill before senior citizens groups--became interested in the kind of reality magicians themselves reflect.

Using a survey of his own and adding in the research of others, Nardi was surprised to find that “fewer than 10% of magicians appear to be women.”

Generally, entertainment “is one of the less segregated occupations,” he said. But for some reason, magic is largely a white male preserve.

“I got curious about that, especially since the imagery we have at Halloween of witches, women on a broomstick, the witches in Macbeth, fortunetellers and seances,” Nardi said. “We see women involved in all those areas but not usually performing magic on stage.”


Risk of Censure

Historically, this sharp division of realms was because women were barred from the stage and ran the risk of social censure if they appeared at places where magic was performed--generally street corners and taverns.

But today, the explanations aren’t so easy.

Women began appearing in magic acts as assistants in the late 19th Century when magicians moved from the street to the stage. With rare exceptions they have remained in those subsidiary roles, Nardi said.


“It seems to me that the role women play in magic, entertainment magic, today is a metaphor for the roles women play in society . . . they are the assistants and, ironically, do a lot of the work but get little of the credit. They’re used as a distraction when they first appear on stage while the magician does something, but they soon become part of the scenery.”

There are several explanations for this state of affairs, Nardi said, including outright discrimination. In London, the Magic Circle, a historic magicians club, successfully thwarted a lawsuit seeking the admittance of women, he added.

Elsewhere, though, more subtle forces may be at work.

Rational, Logical


“Maybe there’s something about the nature of magic itself,” Nardi said. “Magic is a very rational, logical, hypothetical, deductive process. You follow Step A, then Step B, then Step C and Step D. You can’t deviate much because it won’t work. So maybe magic lends itself to how we socialize boys in our culture to be more rational, mathematical, scientific. Boys are more likely to be attracted to magic as a hobby whereas girls’ hobbies tend to be in other directions. And most magicians become magicians as a result of a hobby while they were children.”

The roles that women do play in the mysterious arts also reflect society, Nardi said.

“The other interesting thing, in addition to women being assistants to magicians, is that we relegate women to the areas of seances and palm reading,” he explained. “If you think about it, most of the mediums, the palm readers, the psychics are women. When the National Enquirer says ’10 psychics predict 1985,’ eight out of the 10 are women.”

Again Nardi thinks he has an explanation that fits a larger context.


Women’s Intuition

“In magic there are men up there (on the stage) with instruments, with swords, with ropes, with rings, with cups . . . women, though, all they do is touch your hand and read your lines. It’s intuitive,” Nardi said.

“But male magicians are controlling their environment. Also, the power is different. The power appears to emanate from the male magician although he’s just an actor,” he continued. “But the woman is the conduit of the power. She’s sort of in-between, the telephone, so the power flows through her rather than from her and that’s an interesting metaphor for everyday life. Men have the power to make and mold, to create, to fire, to hire. With women, the power is through them, or they deal with the emotional side, the expressive side.”

When we see women performing psychic feats, an atavistic reflex may twitch, Nardi added. “You know there’s a rational explanation but with women, you might say, ‘Well, maybe she can do that’ and therefore it becomes less entertaining.”


For the public at large, Nardi offered explanations as to why Halloween has become a popular adult holiday and why fantasy seems to play a daily role in many people’s lives.

Play With Fright

The fright and horror movies so popular at this time of year are one way people deal with the urban nightmare of random murder and mayhem, he said. “To counteract that anxiety, we play with it,” he said. “We make it a holiday, we play with the fright.”

Furthermore, dressing up in costumes, playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading the endless succession of fantasy/science-fiction novels about magical worlds may be the 1980s answer to LSD, he said.


“The ‘60s and ‘70s had a lot to do with drugs,” Nardi said. “Well, this may be a healthier way to escape reality.”

After a pause, he added, “In fact, I think it’s a perfect metaphor that we have an actor for a President. There is the ultimate in illusion-playing--the reality of illusion and the illusion of reality notion up there on the ultimate stage.”

While there is some danger that a hyperactive fantasy life could “lead to delusion of ourselves, of who we really are,” Nardi believes that most adult fantasizing is healthy.

“I think we’re realizing that illusion is a type of reality,” he said. “I think what we’re trying to do is have fun with that other kind of reality. Our dreams can be real, we can live them.”