Stories are Powerful, Magical Things

In Act 2 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tortured prince notes, “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The bard is making the point that what’s good or evil really depends on your perspective. After all, one man’s poison is another man’s cure, right?


For in this world, on a very human level, there is real evil and there is real good — and the stories we tell have the power to tap into both.

What many of us fail to understand is that we are all storytellers in some way, and we have the power to sow the seeds of light of darkness by the tales we tell. For good or for ill, we sway the opinion of global audiences by spinning the yarns that help shape the way others view the world.

Professional storytellers often share messages of meaning to guide us through this world. Sometimes, they play with our minds for sheer entertainment, while other political or corporate raconteurs tell us tales to manipulate, control or push their own agendas. There is a certain magic in convincing people that what they are seeing and hearing in a story is real, true, and authentic when in reality, we’re often just taken away by a compelling narrative told by a charismatic teller.

Recently, Raymond Joseph Teller (no pun intended), half of the magician team Penn & Teller, wrote an article about the art and power of manipulation through magic.

He stated that magic is about understanding — and then manipulating — how viewers digest the sensory information. This is the power of visual storytelling through slight of hand and optical trickery.

The great magician provides us with 7 key principles that are used to create a magical story and deliver the trick.*

*As you read, note how this magic could be used in myriad ways to shape the stories of politics, economics, and societies and cultures from around the globe :

1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.

2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.

4. Keep the trickery outside the frame. I take off my jacket and toss it aside. Then I reach into your pocket and pull out a tarantula. Getting rid of the jacket was just for my comfort, right? Not exactly. As I doffed the jacket, I copped the spider.

5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks. Every night in Las Vegas, I make a children’s ball come to life like a trained dog. My method — the thing that fools your eye — is to puppeteer the ball with a thread too fine to be seen from the audience. But during the routine, the ball jumps through a wooden hoop several times, and that seems to rule out the possibility of a thread. The hoop is what magicians call misdirection, a second trick that “proves” the first. The hoop is genuine, but the deceptive choreography I use took 18 months to develop (see №2 — More trouble than it’s worth).

6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself. David P. Abbott was an Omaha magician who invented the basis of my ball trick back in 1907. He used to make a golden ball float around his parlor. After the show, Abbott would absent-mindedly leave the ball on a bookshelf while he went to the kitchen for refreshments. Guests would sneak over, heft the ball and find it was much heavier than a thread could support. So they were mystified. But the ball the audience had seen floating weighed only five ounces. The one on the bookshelf was a heavy duplicate, left out to entice the curious. When a magician lets you notice something on your own, his lie becomes impenetrable.

7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely. This is one of the darkest of all psychological secrets.

Teller manipulates for fun and entertainment, but these same principles are also used to tell stories for the sole purpose of control and conquest.

Back during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Psychological Operations Division launched a campaign called “Wandering Soul,” playing off of Vietnamese beliefs about death and the afterlife.

It’s the Vietnamese belief that the dead must be buried in their homeland, or their soul will wander aimlessly in pain and suffering. Vietnamese feel that if a person is improperly buried, then their soul wanders constantly. They can sometimes be contacted on the anniversary of their death and near where they died. Vietnamese honor these dead souls on a holiday when they return to the site where they died.

U.S. engineers spent weeks recording eerie sounds and altered voices — which pretended to be killed Viet Cong — for use in the operation, with the intended purpose of instilling a sense of turmoil within the enemy, the desired result being for the soldier to flee his position. Helicopters were sometimes employed to broadcast recordings, in which the voices called on their “descendants” in the Viet Cong to defect and cease fighting.

If you want, you can listen to these disturbing sounds here:

So, what’s the lesson here?

Simply this –

Stories are powerful, magical things that humans have used to communicate ever since we’ve been on this planet. It’s important that all of realize the power we have inside ourselves and the power that’s being used to frame our thoughts every day, in everything that we see and hear.

Knowing this, maybe we can be more aware of the tales we tell and the ones we’ve been told since the day of our birth… That’s the trick.

For as we say in the Folktellers Universe, “Whoever holds the story wields the power.”



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Josef Bastian

Josef Bastian


Josef Bastian is an author, human performance practitioner and often an odd duck.