Do you ever watch those horror films? A girl walks alone down a corridor of an abandoned house. It’s dark, and we can hardly see anything. Suddenly, a shadow passes the back of the frame. Holy shit. WTF was that?
The girl turns, passing their flashlight over the room — nothing is there. The music gets tenser. The girl steps further down the corridor. Then, the music stops altogether. The girl breathes deeper.
We see a close-up of her face. Her eyes widen. We hear the sound of a monster approaching them. The girl looks terrified. She drops the flashlight. Pitch black. We hear her screams as the beast reaches her.
Until finally, there are no screams at all.
Our imagination is incredible.
Given the right cues, our imaginations can often muster up something even more impressive than a movie director could on-screen. Horror movies will often exploit this due to their historically low indie budgets. But there’s another reason horror movies exploit our imaginations.
We all have different fears and different levels of believability. When I described the monster in the scene, I didn’t; you did. All I said was the word monster, which forced you to imagine a monster of your own.
Some of you will only have imagined a low-lit monster's face or teeth. Some of you will have conceived a giant hairy creature, while others may have conjured up a slimy Demogorgon. One of you maybe pictured your ex.
By cuing your imagination, the director forces you to imagine the most terrifying and believable scenarios individually.
I’ll often talk about how magicians can cue their spectator’s imagination in three main ways: timestamping, drawing lines, and breaking lines. It would help if you considered all three because sometimes no visual you create in real life will beat what can go on in the spectator’s mind. Plus, what they invent themselves will often be individually magical and believable.
- Timestamping. The first magician you ever saw as a kid likely snapped their fingers or chanted a magic word. By timestamping the magic, you're telling your audience this is when the magic happens. But it doesn’t need to be this obvious — simply focusing your attention on their closed fist is enough to trigger them to imagine the precise time the coin inside their hand begins to bend. Timestamping might allow them to create a coin-bending visual far better than you could make openly, but it also psychologically stops them backtracking to when you actually bent the coin with force.
- Drawing A Line. I mention this a lot because it is essential to perform a transposition. You perhaps already do this when you make a coin magically pass through a table or jump from hand to hand. By gesturing towards the final destination as you vanish the coin, you’re cuing the spectator to draw a path for the invisible coin. The psychological effect is incredible. If you make a card disappear and then open the box on the table to find the exact card inside — people will often assume it’s a duplicate card. If you make a card vanish above the card box and gesture as though it’s falling invisibly down and into the box — people draw the line and lock in its path.
- Breaking The Line. We all hopefully already do this. Before performing a haunted deck effect, we’ll wave our hands over the pack to prove there are no wires. If you believe in drawing lines, you’ll realise audiences are constantly drawing their own lines. This doesn’t just apply to threadwork, though that’s the most obvious example. It applies to predictions, vanishes, appearances, and transpositions, too. When you vanish a helicopter, the audience will draw lines in every possible direction. Figure out which lines the audience draws by default and cut them up yourself.