How Harry Houdini Might Have Pulled Off His Most Daring Trick

Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When it comes to most people's biggest fears, being buried alive is right up there. But the master magician Harry Houdini was no stranger to stunts that would make other people sweat. In 1915, he performed a trick in Santa Ana, California, that saw him buried beneath six feet of earth. It didn't exactly go off without a hitch, however: He clawed his way out—but it nearly killed him.

Stunt expert Steve Wolf considers the buried alive illusion Houdini's most daring trick. "The margin for failure on that is zero," Wolf tells Mental Floss. Wolf is one of the stars of the new Science Channel show Houdini's Last Secrets, alongside Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen and magician Lee Terbosic. In each episode, the trio explores how the notoriously secretive Houdini may have performed his most famous tricks, as well as some of the many mysteries of his life—including whether the magician may have served as a spy, and whether his sad death on Halloween in 1926 was truly an accident.

Wolf, who has served as a special effects coordinator for several films and TV series, is a science educator for kids, and runs his own theme park called Stunt Ranch in Texas, says he's long been interested in how illusions are created and how people perceive reality through visual clues. He explains that when Houdini performed his buried alive stunt (there's some controversy among historians about whether, and how often, the trick was performed), the audience would have seen Houdini enter a coffin, watch the coffin sealed inside a crypt, and then witness the crypt being buried in several thousand pounds of sand or soil.

"A curtain would go up, and the audience would wonder if he was suffocating," Wolf explains. "And after a prolonged period Houdini would emerge, unscathed."

Master stunt builder Steve Wolf, magician and daredevil Lee Terbosic, and Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen on the set of "Houdini's Last Secrets"
Master stunt builder Steve Wolf, magician and daredevil Lee Terbosic, and Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen on the set of Houdini's Last Secrets
Steve Wolf/Science Channel

That was the theory, anyway. In 1915, the trick didn't quite go as planned, and there are reports that Houdini fell unconscious after partially emerging and had to be rescued by assistants. But Houdini seems to have been planning a more elaborate, and hopefully safer, version of the trick toward the end of the his life.

For Houdini's Last Secrets, Wolf had to figure out a version of the illusion as similar as possible to the one Houdini worked on later in life. Most importantly, it had to be safe for Terbosic to perform. That was no easy feat, as Wolf explains: "If he's in the coffin and there's truly 3000 pounds of dirt on him and the coffin implodes, that really could cause serious injury. It could crush his lungs, it could crush his heart, he could suffocate."

As with many of Houdini's stunts, there's no surviving documentation, let alone how-to notes from Houdini. That meant Wolf and his team had to rely on problem-solving, engineering, and guesswork to figure out how the magician might have done it. One theory they considered was that Houdini may have used sand, rather than soil.

"Houdini had a traveling roadshow, and sand would have been easy to transport or source locally," Wolf explains. Wolf's team explored a process called sand liquefaction, in which air pumped through sand from the bottom makes sand act like a liquid. That means anything lighter than the sand can actually float.

"Houdini had a background working with compressed air," Wolf says. "And if he'd experimented with this, he would have known you could actually make the coffin float up from the bottom of the crypt and appear on top of the sand silently, just using compressed air to liquefy the sand. We don't know that's how he did it ... but that's one of theories we explore."

The other option, which is carried out in a large-scale stunt on the show, involves trap doors. The first step was assembling the ingredients: In this case, a clear coffin and crypt, so the audience can see what's happening, at least until the curtain goes up. While Houdini would have used glass, for safety's sake the Houdini's Last Secrets team used clear plexiglass, which is less likely to shatter. The transparency also allows the audience to see Terbosic, wearing a straitjacket, inside the coffin, and watch as the thousands pounds of soil are poured on top of him.

"It's not an illusion that he's in the coffin and you see the coffin get buried. That all really happens," Wolf explains.

Steve Wolf with the coffin used in the Buried Alive trick on "Houdini's Last Secrets"
Steve Wolf with the coffin used in the Buried Alive trick on Houdini's Last Secrets
Steve Wolf/Science Channel

The secret lies in the way the coffin, and crypt, are built. Each had a trap door—or what Wolf calls "an un-obvious way to get out of the coffin." He explains that since lifting the lid of the coffin against thousands of pounds of dirt would be almost impossible, the best way to get out of the coffin is through the sides or ends. "And if that end were very close to a second trap door, [the magician] could get out of the crypt. Ideally you would want to open the trap door at an end of the coffin, and then apply direct pressure [on a second trap door], and then something would yield, and you'd be able to get out of the crypt," he explains.

The team also employed a staircase, which made it easy to climb up and pour the dirt on Terbosic. But the staircase also helped Terbosic escape—that is, once he'd gotten himself out of the straitjacket. He also had to turn his whole body around, since his head was pointed away from the trap doors. Eventually, he ended up safely inside the staircase, from which he could easily emerge, rub some dirt on himself (to make it look like he'd clawed through soil), and wait for the applause.

According to Wolf, a key part of making the trap doors was using fake welds. "One of the interesting things about the trap doors was creating them as illusions, so people invited up on stage could examine the props and not figure out where the trap doors were," Wolf says. "So one of the techniques Houdini used was fake rivets and fake screws, to make you think something was fastened that wasn't. And we may have experimented with fake welds," he notes coyly. "But anyone who was visually inspecting the props would think they were mechanically sound to keep someone in."

Even once you know how the trick was done, watching it in action in the show is suspenseful. Still, it likely won't quiet the historians and enthusiasts who are trying to understand Houdini's illusions—and his life.

"I believe that most of [Houdini's illusions] are still a mystery," Wolf says. "There are probably only a handful of ways most of them could be done, and through simple diagnostics and experimenting, you could figure out which were safest and most repeatable ways to do each of them. But we don't really know for sure how he did them."

That means the myths—and the legend—of Houdini aren't likely to be buried anytime soon.

The "Buried Alive" episode of Houdini's Last Secrets premieres on January 27.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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