Fooling Garwulf
"Shoot to Kill" and Ethics in Magic

Robert B. Marks | 21 Jul 2015 15:00
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The question of how much danger a magician should face is also an ethical issue with some disagreement. Penn and Teller have stated on multiple occasions that it is unethical for an act to present any real danger of physical harm, which is a default that most magicians will follow. Even Harry Houdini, who was famous for escape acts that left the audience fearing for his life in every show, left nothing to chance - he did, however, know how to draw out every moment to make an audience sweat, often escaping as soon as the curtain was drawn and then reading a book while he waited for the right time to emerge.

While danger can usually be mitigated, it cannot always be avoided. One of the more famous props is the magic guillotine, which involves zero risk of decapitation, but a significant risk of cracked or broken ribs. The most dangerous trick, the bullet catch, was discussed earlier. Few magicians perform it due to its peril, and those who do take numerous safety precautions.

This risk aversion, however, is not universal. A number of escape artists do not share the carefulness of Houdini (who, contrary to popular belief, did not die on the stage, but in a hospital bed from appendicitis), and a number have died due to miscalculations in their escapes. Likewise, magicians like David Blaine have engaged in stunts with a high degree of risk - after a particular stunt where he was encased in a block of ice, Blaine required a full month of recovery before he could walk again.

In the end, there are many ethical principles in magic, but few are universal. One would be hard pressed to find a magician who would not declare it unethical to endanger an audience member, expose the secrets of other magicians, or claim to have supernatural powers. Everything else is up to the personal codes of the individual performers and the societies in which they claim membership.

Author's Note: My latest story in The Eternity Quartet, The Conjurer's Treason, is now available for download from

Author's Other Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads; if you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.

Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf's Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf's Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, his Patreon-based magazine experiment, Garwulf Speaks, can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at


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