Harry Houdini was a great stage magician and one of the highest paid Vaudeville performers of the 1910s and 1920s. He was born Erik Weisz, but took the stage name Harry Houdini to honor the Victorian magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who was known for his work creating magical automata. Houdini’s fame largely rested in his amazing escapes. He could free himself from handcuffs, straightjackets, water tanks and he even allowed himself to be buried alive under six feet of earth. That last stunt nearly did kill him, but he emerged far enough, his assistants saw his hand and were able to pull him to safety.
Posters advertising Houdini often showed him dematerializing from imprisonment and materializing elsewhere. Despite this, Houdini himself never claimed any of his escapes were the result of supernatural powers. In fact, he actively sought to expose people who made such claims, especially when they used those claims to defraud people. He was a member of Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any spiritualist who could demonstrate real supernatural abilities. In that way, he was very much like James Randi, the magician and skeptic who offers a similar prize today.
In 1922, Arthur Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his home. Conan Doyle, the famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a believer in spirit communication. A regular way for spirits to communicate during séances was by writing on slates. Houdini arranged an elaborate demonstration to show Conan Doyle that slate writing could be accomplished by trickery and required no supernatural means. There’s a great article that describes the meeting at the Scientific American website. When Houdini finished his demonstration, he told Conan Doyle, “Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion … I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily ‘supernatural,’ or the work of ‘spirits,’ just because you cannot explain them…”
In 1926, Houdini hired the famed horror authors H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy Jr. to write a book about debunking spiritualist miracles called The Cancer of Superstition. Unfortunately, Houdini died before the book was finished. Despite that, Lovecraft’s detailed synopsis for the book survives as do three of Eddy’s chapters. It just goes to show that writing spooky, supernatural stories doesn’t require an actual belief in the supernatural. Much as supernatural stories compel me and even though I’ve seen a few strange things here or there that I can’t easily explain, I stop short of believing that they have paranormal explanations without much more proof.
If you’re looking for some good spooky stories, might I suggest either Cemetery Dance, Issue 66 or These Vampires Don’t Sparkle? Both are wonderful collections and the links will take you to their pages at Amazon.