The truth behind these famous magic tricks

Magic is an ancient form of art and entertainment that has roots going back to some of Earth's oldest civilizations, with court magicians performing illusions for the grand pharaohs of Egypt, all the way up to today, when gross dudes in stupid hats make forks float in bars or whatever in an attempt to pick up women with low self-esteem.

Anyway, we've done a little research into the matter, and it turns out that magic isn't even real, probably. The magic you see performed on stage and screen, it turns out, is actually the result of a series of sleight of hand skills, psychological tricks, technological gimmicks, distractions, misdirections, and — in essence — one million lies, together with lots and lots of practice.

Presented here for you are some of the most famous tricks in history, performed by some of history's most famous magicians, together with the secret trickery behind them. Be warned: This list 100 percent for real spoils these tricks, so if you want the illusion preserved, read one of our other articles instead. It's totally cool; we understand. But if you want to be amazed and/or frustrated about how deceptively simple some of these incredible feats are, by all means, continue reading.

David Copperfield disappears the Statue of Liberty

Forbes magazine has called David Copperfield "the most commercially successful magician in history," grossing over one billion (with a "b") dollars from doing magic tricks on stage and on television. While his greatest ever feat was probably convincing supermodel Claudia Schiffer that she should be married to a magician for five years, his most famous trick is probably the time in 1983 that he made the Statue of Liberty disappear on television in front of a live audience.

The setup was this: There were two tall pillars on either side of the statue, which was inside a circle of lights. A curtain raised between the pillars, hiding Lady Liberty from view. When it was taken away, the statue was gone. Legally speaking, during the time between the disappearance and reappearance of the statue, all freedoms were forbidden, if we're reading the Constitution correctly. (It is possible we are not.)

So how did it work? Well, the pillars and the audience were all on a slowly rotating platform. When the curtain was hiding the statue, the platform rotated (so slowly that the audience didn't notice) until it was facing a spot where the statue was obscured by one of the pillars and where an identical circle of lights had been set up. David Copperfield made one of America's most beloved landmarks "disappear" by having some people look a few feet to their right, basically the same way you make your face disappear when playing with a baby.

Criss Angel levitates

Criss Angel is a magician who rose to prominence by daring to say to himself, "Magicians have an unfortunate reputation for being tools. What if I were to buck that trend by instead becoming the world's most enormous tool?" He subsequently parlayed a closet full of Ed Hardy T-shirts and a Kaboodle full of black eyeliner into stage shows, TV shows, and a cameo appearance in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

Across these various media, Angel has performed many wonders with which to freak your brain, such as walking on water, getting run over by a steamroller, and yelling swears at Perez Hilton. However, possibly the trick with which he is most associated is his apparent ability to levitate several feet off the ground, even floating up onto other nearby objects, like planters or low walls. It is clearly his number one party trick and definitely everyone is sick of it. "Yes, Criss, we know you can levitate. Please let us finish this game of Settlers of Catan."

How does he do it? As the video above shows, he wears a special gimmicked shoe and pair of pants that make it look like his leg is hanging straight down when in fact it is outside his pants. He then puts his foot, hidden from view, on the nearby planter or low wall and then just stands up. In a later TV special, David Blaine would do an easier version not requiring nearby objects or gimmicked pants, thereby winning this particular tool-off.

Bullet catch

The bullet catch is a staple of magic shows, first appearing as far back as the 16th century and subsequently being performed by such famous acts as Penn & Teller, Criss Angel, and David Blaine. Despite this, the bullet catch is considered one of the most dangerous magic tricks of all, and has famously led to the death of at least 12 magicians. Harry Houdini was allegedly convinced not to perform the dangerous stunt after one of his friends died performing it.

The trick is basically what it sounds like: Someone fires a gun at the magician and then he or she catches the bullet, usually in their mouth, but sometimes in their hand or other receptacle. Often the bullet is marked in some way to show that the one fired is the same one that ends up in the magician's mouth. The bullet is usually shot through a pane of glass to show that a projectile has actually been fired.

As it turns out, there are multiple methods for performing this trick. The gun may fire blanks while the glass is shattered by an electric charge; the gun may fire wax bullets; the gun may shoot real bullets but the assistant misses on purpose. (That technique is the cause of most of those 12 deaths.) No matter which method of firing is done, the bullet gets in the magician's mouth by being palmed during loading, or sometimes a stagehand passes off a duplicate bullet to the magician, marked identically to the original.

Houdini disappears an elephant

Harry Houdini is perhaps the most famous magician and escape artist who ever lived, with his name being more or less synonymous with the art form. His most famous tricks include escaping handcuffs and straitjackets, escaping a milk can filled with water, swallowing needles, and walking through walls. He even died as a result of one of his famous tricks, the iron stomach, which wasn't even a trick: He could just straight up take punches to the stomach, until one time a guy hit him when he wasn't ready and his appendix exploded.

But the trick that people are still trying to figure out to this day is how he made an elephant disappear. He only did this trick once, on January 7, 1918, and there don't appear to be any photos or film footage of the event, which makes it harder to figure out. The setup was that Houdini led an elephant onto the stage, put him in a big box, shot a stage pistol into the air, and when the smoke cleared, the elephant was gone.

While there is no 100 percent certain solution to this one, most professionals figure that the trick had to do with the cabinet being larger than it seems, and while the audience was distracted by the pistol shot, either mirrors (as seen in the video above) or camouflaging fabric was put in place to hide the elephant from view. Others, however, remain unconvinced by these explanations.

Zig-Zag Girl

Though you may not recognize the famous trick the Zig-Zag Girl by its name alone, you would definitely recognize it if you saw it. Since its invention in the 1960s by magician Robert Harbin, it has become one of the most recognizable stage magic tricks in the world, and in fact it was recognized in 2005 by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most copied stage illusion in history.

In it, the magician leads his assistant into a tall rectangular box and closes a door through which her face is visible. He shoves two blades into the box, seemingly cutting it — and the girl — into thirds. He pushes the middle box to the side, thereby creating the "zig-zag" of the trick's name. The girl is still alive somehow, with a hand sticking out of a hole in the middle third and moving around. The magician puts the boxes back together, and the assistant emerges unharmed.

The trick is done by the fact that the box is bigger than it looks, and the blades are smaller than they look. The girl simply turns her body to the side so that the blades slide past her, and her body hides behind strips at the front of the box that make the box look smaller than it is. The trick partially relies on a biased assumption from the audience that the female assistant is just an unskilled helper that wouldn't be an active part of a trick. Tsk tsk, audience.

Uri Geller bends spoons

Uri Geller is an Israeli illusionist and mega-fraud who rose to great prominence in the 1970s on the back of his bogus claims of mental powers such as telepathy and psychokinesis, as well as the ability to divine the presence of precious minerals within the Earth. Not only did his fraudulent claims gain him enormous fame and fortune, they also somehow made him best friends with Michael Jackson, who was the best man at Geller's wedding, a very weird thing to imagine. His great nemesis was the excellent magician and skeptic James Randi, who dunked on Geller pretty hard in the 1982 book The Truth About Uri Geller, which exposed a lot of Geller's chicanery. If you're not so much into book-learning, you can see Randi explain the methods behind many of Geller's tricks plus Geller's cringe-inducing meltdown on The Tonight Show.

But even though he could allegedly read minds and perform acts of clairvoyance such as replicating other people's drawings unseen, guessing people's license plate numbers, divining which containers held water in them and so on, by far the trick Geller was most associated with was bending spoons, allegedly with merely the power of thought.

The trick is to pre-work the spoon by bending or cutting it such that it responds to a very light touch, ultimately breaking with very little effort. Simple, right? This guy made millions of dollars by being willing to spend hours bending spoons back and forth.

Mentalism

If you've watched magic acts in the last few years on shows like America's Got Talent or Penn & Teller: Fool Us, you've likely seen a lot of mentalist acts. These are tricks that present the illusion of the magician reading someone's mind, such as discerning a card seemingly picked at random from a deck, pointing to an item chosen by an audience member while the magician's back is turned, or simply guessing a word an audience member is thinking. Uri Geller used lots of tricks like this in addition to his spoon nonsense to make very many dollars.

Obviously, the term "mentalism" covers a wide variety of acts, and so there are a wide variety of strategies behind them. In some cases, the mentalist can predict what you're thinking because there's only one possible or common answer. (If you've ever pulled the "grey elephants in Denmark" trick, you understand this principle.) Sometimes the mentalist has a confederate in the audience who communicates information to them via predetermined hand signals or a remote signaling device called a thumper (or even a full earpiece radio, such as televangelist Peter Popoff was exposed as using). And that card you supposedly picked randomly from the deck? Nah. Most of the time you picked exactly the one the mentalist wanted, thanks to a variety of techniques known as card forces. Penn & Teller often lampshade card forces in their act: If you see someone pick the three of clubs on their show, they've fallen for a force.

Sands of the Nile

Sands of the Nile, aka Sands of the Desert, aka Hindu Sands, is a popular magic trick that was commonly performed by Doug Henning, one of the most popular magicians of the 1970s, who looked pretty much exactly like what you pictured when you read the phrase "most popular magician of the 1970s." Basically like if Freddy Mercury and Gallagher had a baby and then said, "Well, we should probably teach him magic, because that mustache isn't going to make many friends on its own."

Anyway, Sands of the Nile is a trick where you have a big bowl of water and you pour different brightly colored sands in there: red, blue, yellow, whatever. You mix the water around, but then you pull out a handful of perfectly dry colored sand. You pull out all the red sand, then all the blue sand, then all the yellow sand until there is nothing but clear water left. Amazing! How did you do it?

This one is completely fueled by the greatest magic of them all: science. The sand is all treated in advance by a hydrophobic compound such as Scotchgard that makes it repel water, keeping it dry and causing it to clump up so that the different colors don't mix even when you stir the water. If you've ever played with magic sand (also called moon sand), that's exactly the same trick going on both here and there: specially treated sand that repels water and clumps only with itself.

Indian rope trick

The Indian rope trick is a very contentious trick in magical history. Some have referred to it as "the world's greatest illusion," while others have said that reports of the trick have been greatly exaggerated and that it has never actually been performed as described in some accounts.

There are multiple versions of the trick that have been reported since the ninth century. In the most basic version, a rope placed in a basket levitates into the sky, stiff as a pole. A boy assistant climbs the rope into the open sky, then climbs down and the rope falls limply to the ground. Some versions report that the boy climbs to the top of the rope and disappears, only to reappear on the ground somewhere. And in the most elaborate version, the boy climbs the rope and disappears, the magician follows him up the rope with a sword and also disappears, they argue, and then the boy's severed body parts (!) fall from the sky, the magician reappears from the ether (!!), and then the boy reappears on the ground, no longer chopped up (!!!).

It is generally agreed that no one has ever actually performed the latter two versions. The first, simplest version is done by placing the basket over an underground chamber from which an assistant slides a rigid metal rod into the hollow rope, removing it after the boy climbs down. The severed limbs version is almost definitely (hopefully) a hoax.

David Blaine's self-tying shoe lace

David Blaine is a magician who has made a name for himself through the seemingly diametrically opposite concepts of hugely publicized and public endurance stunts like burying himself in a plastic box for a week and super close-up, small-scale street magic.

One of these close-up tricks is his self-tying shoelace trick. In this trick, Blaine approaches some kids and ask if they want to see some magic. Instead of running away to find a police officer or other authority figure, they say, "Yeah, this is a normal thing for an adult to say to us, a group of unsupervised children." When one of the kids remarks that his shoe is untied, Blaine says, "Oh, all right, no problem," and then he shakes his foot around and a few seconds later, the shoelace is completely tied in a normal, seemingly unmagical knot.

How is it done? Well, it turns out his real shoelace was never actually untied, just hidden inside the cuff of his pants. The laces that were hanging out loose while he was walking were actually a separate set of laces not tied onto his shoe, but rather attached to a string running up his pants leg and either up through his waistband or into a hole in his pocket. As he shakes his foot around, he pulls the gimmicked string up his pants leg and lets his regularly tied lace fall into view. It's an illusion, Michael.