Disclaimer: Holding one's breath underwater is an extreme stunt that should only be attempted by trained professionals. I should know because I tried to hold my breath while writing this article, and it was bloody difficult.
On June 11th, 2019, David Blaine arrived in Manchester as part of his UK Tour: Real or Magic. Although my interest in magic had been dwindling for a couple of years, I couldn’t resist going to see it. After all, it was the hottest ticket in magic; almost every magician had nabbed one, and I’m so glad I did, too.
It was one of the most astonishing pieces of live theatre, let alone magic shows, I have ever seen.
I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s genuinely a show that I have frequently referenced in the years since. Partly because the magic in the first act was so jaw-droppingly good, from his incomparable card-to-mouth trick to his incredible support act from Asi Wind, but it was the second half that truly stuck with me: Blaine held his breath underwater.
Theatrically, it was pretty simple. No music, no bravado, we all sat and watched a dude just floating in water whilst a timer hovered above him. Out of context, it sounds a little creepy, sure, but nobody could take their eyes off of him. One by one, as each second slowly ticked by, members of the crowd began to cheer for him, growing louder and louder, so much so that the closer we inched to the ten-minute mark, the energy in the room became palpable. It was as if we were witnessing a historical event or the final race at the Olympic Games.
I did not doubt that what Blaine was doing was real, so how could his body endure something so gruelling? And not just once, but night after night? And, more importantly, why?
Well, Blaine is famously partial to the odd death-defying stunt. Throughout his career, he has been buried alive, electrified, and suspended in a glass box without food for forty days, to name but a few. Most recently, he floated across the Arizona desert, dangling from nothing but a big old bunch of helium balloons, reminiscent of a Pixar classic.
This is all quite unusual when you consider how he started off doing Ambitious Card on the telly. In an excellent David Blaine Analysis video (or Blainalysis, if you will), Jack Rhodes argues that the juxtaposition of extreme endurance stunts and close-up magic helps suggest that perhaps the card “tricks” are also real.
This is, as Jack puts it, one ‘ballsy double bluff.’
Now, out of all the stunts that made Blaine a household name, why did he choose to end his show that night in Manchester with a breath hold?
Blaine has talked about his childhood obsession with Houdini, and his influence certainly shows. But in the late '80s, a news story about a boy trapped under a frozen river who survived 45 minutes of submergence without brain damage truly inspired him. 'If the boy could survive without breathing for that long, there must be a way that I could do it,’ Blaine thought. Furthermore, being the showman he is, he planned to break the world record on prime-time television.
The idea was easier said than done.
There are numerous risks to holding your breath, as you can imagine, such as reduced oxygen levels, higher rates of CO2 in your bloodstream, lung injury, cardiac arrest, blacking out and dying, and those are just the fun ones!
So, with the consultancy of top neurosurgeons and doctors, Blaine explored other ways of achieving the effect, as, after all, he is a magician. This included a device aptly named a ‘rebreather’, which was ‘a tube from Home Depot, with a balloon duct-taped to it'. That didn’t work. Then he tried holding his breath in perflubron rather than water, a chemical so high in oxygen you could theoretically breathe it.