The Spook Racket

Magicians Todd Robbins and Teller take on the supposedly supernatural in their bloody off-Broadway sensation Play Dead


On July 13, 1930, an audience of nearly 6,000 crowded London's Royal Albert Hall to spend a few hours with the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The world-famous creator of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Doyle had also been an outspoken believer in ghosts, Ouija boards, ectoplasm, and other dubious forms of paranormal activity. "That I am perfectly certain is surely demonstrated by the mere fact that I have abandoned my congenital and lucrative work, left my home for long periods of time, and subjected myself to all sorts of inconveniences, losses, and even insults, in order to get the facts home to the people," Doyle wrote in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures. Who better to deliver a public message from beyond the grave?

So joining Doyle's widow and assorted relatives onstage was the medium Estelle Roberts, who previously claimed to have made contact with the late King George of Greece. "He is here!" Roberts finally shouted to the restless crowd waiting for a sign from the renowned author. "He is here!" Lady Arthur Conan Doyle later said she was convinced, though a reporter covering the event for the Saturday Review wasn't so sure. "I should like to have heard Sherlock Holmes examining the medium at Albert Hall last Sunday," he wrote, "for the methods that were employed were hardly reminiscent of Baker Street."

That's putting it mildly. "This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain," Holmes told his trusty sidekick, Dr. John Watson, in 1924's "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire." "The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." It's one of the resounding ironies of English literature that while Doyle was willing—even eager—to believe the ridiculous claims of every second-rate charlatan working the spook racket, his celebrated creation never once abandoned rigorous logic or the scientific method.

I'd like to think the spirits of both Doyle and Holmes are present at New York's Players Theater, where the unsettling and wickedly entertaining off-Broadway spook show Play Dead has now entered its sixth month of residence. Co-written and directed by Teller, the shorter, quieter half of the magic duo Penn & Teller, and starring Teller's co-author and fellow magician Todd Robbins, Play Dead is basically a 90-minute séance, conducted with devilish charm by Robbins, and featuring ghosts, nudity, blood, audience participation, and multiple acts of extreme violence. Significant portions of the show take place entirely in the dark. And I do mean entirely. I couldn't see anything, not the row in front of me, not the person beside me, not even the hand I held directly in front of my face. It should go without saying that all sorts of unnatural things happened when the lights went out. "Tonight, with your consent," Robbins intoned in the ghoulish manner of a midnight carnival sideshow, "I'm going to invite death to come out and play."

This isn't the first time Teller has tackled the shady world of the supernatural. In the inaugural episode of Bullshit!, Penn & Teller's provocative and gleefully libertarian Showtime series, the duo debunked the bogus claims of the superstar medium John Edward, explaining in careful detail exactly how the Crossing Over host has been able to hoodwink his vast audience into believing he can "talk" to the dead.

Unlike Bullshit!, however, Play Dead never hits the audience over the head with its message. Instead, Teller and Robbins simply put on a more spectacular show than the hucksters ever could. Play Dead announces that it's all an act and then proceeds to convince you otherwise with a series of dazzling and uncanny magic tricks. I won't spoil the fun, but suffice it to say I didn't always trust the evidence gathered by my eyes or my ears.

And that's where the debunking comes in. "Forgive me," Robbins told one woman in the audience after mesmerizing her with a message from her dead friend. It was a simple piece of information, yet it was something Robbins had no earthly business knowing—except that he did know it. Just imagine the sort of damage, financial or otherwise, a less scrupulous magician could do with such talent and trickery. Indeed, just think of how much money frauds like John Edward and Estelle Roberts have raked in from their pliable marks.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Teller and Robbins stand flat-footed upon the ground. They don't believe in the afterlife and they despise those swindlers who prey upon grief. "The dead are dead, but they do exist in one place. They exist inside us," Teller recently told Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen. They're alive in our memories, Teller explained. If the dead happen to have been our relatives, they may live on inside our genes. But that's it. No ghosts need apply.

So while Play Dead makes its audiences laugh and scream with terror and delight, there's also a subtle and crucially important message creeping through: Beware.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine.