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Harry Houdini, a famous escapologist and magician

Escapology is the practice of escaping from restraints or other traps. Escapologists (also called escape artists) escape from handcuffs, straitjackets, cages, coffins, steel boxes, barrels, bags, burning buildings, fish-tanks and other perils, often in combination.

Some escapologists' tricks are accomplished by illusionists' techniques; others are genuine acts of flexibility, strength and daring.



The art of escaping from restraints and confined spaces has been a skill employed by magicians for a very long time. It was not originally displayed as an overt act in itself but was instead used secretly to create other illusion effects such as disappearance or transmutation.[1] In the 1860s, the Davenport Brothers, who were skilled at releasing themselves from rope ties, used the art to convey the impression they were restrained while they created spirit phenomena.[2]

Other illusionists, including John Nevil Maskelyne, worked out how the Davenports did their act and re-created the tricks to debunk the brothers' claims of psychic power. However the re-creations did not involve overt escape, merely a replication of tricks with the statement that they were accomplished by secret magicians' skills rather than spirits. It took another thirty years before the pure skill of escape began to be displayed as an act in itself. The figure most responsible for making escapology a recognised entertainment was Harry Houdini, who built his career on demonstrating the ability to escape from a huge variety of restraints and difficult situations.[3]

Houdini made no secret of the fact that he was an expert on restraints and the skills needed to overcome them but he often concealed the exact details of his escapes to maintain an air of mystery and suspense. Although many of his escapes relied on technical skills such as lock-picking and contortion, he also performed tricks such as Metamorphosis and the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which are essentially classic stage illusions reliant on cleverly designed props. Houdini's feats helped to define the basic repertoire of escapology, including escapes from handcuffs, padlocks, straitjackets, and prison cells.

The actual term 'escapology' is reputed to have been coined originally by Australian escapologist and illusionist Murray (Norman Murray Walters), a Houdini contemporary.

A succession of performers have added new ideas and created variations on old stunts, but it is common for even the best contemporary escapologists to be dubbed modern day "houdinis".

Because of St. Nicholas Owen's exploits of having successfully escaped the Tower of London and arranged the escape of two Jesuit inmates of the prison, this 16th century Christian martyr is considered by Catholic escapologists as their patron saint. Along with St. John Don Bosco, the two are considered the primary patrons of Catholic Gospel Magicians.

Escapology in fiction

The Grim Game, a 1919 film, stars Harry Houdini as a young man who is bound and imprisoned on numerous occasions by a gang who have kidnapped his fiancée.

The novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), features escapology as an important plot point.

Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, features Harry Houdini as a major character, and uses escapology as a metaphor for the struggles faced by the American immigrant.

In American superhero comic books, many superheroes like Batman are trained in escapology which is invaluable when dealing with deathtraps. However, superheroes who are escape artists by profession include Mister Miracle, Ms. Liberty and The Escapist (interestingly, Mister Miracle and The Escapist were both based on escape artist-turned-comic artist Jim Steranko). Houdini himself appeared as a time/space traveler in the comic book series Daring Escapes featuring Houdini.

The 1953 biographical film, Houdini, starring Tony Curtis in the title role, depicted many of Houdini's escapology performances.

In 1972, Christopher George played an escape artist named Cammeron Steele in the TV movie/unsold series pilot, Escape. Steele was a non-performing escapologist and night-club owner who, like Bill Bixby's Anthony Blake (The Magician), habitually helped people in trouble.

In 1982, Griffin O'Neal played a junior escapologist named "Danny Masters" in the film, The Escape Artist.

In 1983, real-life escape artist Bill Shirk played himself in a film called The Escapist.

Yorick, the main character of the comic book Y: The Last Man is an escape artist.

In the 1991 film, The Linguini Incident, Rosanna Arquette plays an aspiring escape artist.

The novels Specific Gravity and Ontario Lacus by J. Matthew Neal (2007 and 2008) features a female scientist who is also a master escape artist.

Adam Phillips' essay "Houdini's Box" uses Houdini himself, as well as a young victim of sexual abuse and other examples to discuss escapology.

The console video game Exit focuses around the exploits of the self-proclaimed escapologist known as Mr. ESC.

List of escapologists

See also


  1. ^ Dawes, Edwin A (1979), The Great Illusionists, Chartwell Books (New Jersey), p. 193, ISBN 0-89009-240-0 .
  2. ^ Dawes, 'The Great Illusionists', p. 157.
  3. ^ Dawes, 'The Great Illusionists', p. 193.
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