Under No Illusions

Years ago, an acquaintance told me of an event in his house that left him both excited and spooked.

He was the only one at home and yet he could smell freshly baked bread coming from another part of the house.

This caused him to believe that his house was haunted and that a previous occupant was connected to bread baking in some way.

Let me give you the backstory.

 

The house

The house was built in the 17th or 18th century; so it was 200 or 300 years old.

A lot of people would have lived there over the years.

It was also very large.

I think it had three floors; maybe four, and it was constructed like a box.

There could easily have been 20 or 30 rooms in it.

As with all houses of that age, there would have been a central kitchen with a large hearth and fireplaces in all of the important rooms, including the bedrooms.

And the house would have been drafty.

I pointed out to him that give the age and construction of his house that it was quite likely that the smells were impregnated into the large fireplace in the kitchen, and that when the wind was right, those odors would be carried through the rest of the house.

What I found particularly interesting was his willingness to leap to a supernatural explanation rather than to look for a logical one.

When I pointed this out to him, he wasn’t impressed.

His bubble had burst.

 

Whether you believe in haunted houses or not, there’s an important lesson here.

It’s that quite often it’s easier to believe something extraordinary than it is to believe something mundane.

This is the key to the success of illusionists, or magicians as they were once called.

 

Illusions

When we see an illusion, we imagine that there has been some spectacular feat of magic.

Several years ago, there was a television program in which one illusionist revealed the secrets of others, a treasonous act in the community.

His goal was to push his colleagues to produce better entertainment. I

n every case, I remember being disappointed at how the “trick” was really done.

That’s because there was no trick.

The only thing the illusionist did was go to extraordinary lengths to fool the audience.

There was no real “skill” involved except that of deluding me into thinking that some kind of trick was used.

Maybe that was the point that the masked magician was trying to make.

The same is true of my acquaintance.

He, too, wanted to believe that something amazing had happened.

It saddened him t0 think that there was a perfectly logically explanation for the same circumstances.

 

Assumptions

In both cases, false assumptions were made.

The one assumed that the reason he could smell freshly baked bread was because the house was haunted.

In the other, the audience assumed that everything from the disappearance of people to airplanes, or the levitation of someone who apparently was in a trance occurred by some magical powers the illusionist had discover.

The thing is that even when we know we’re being fooled, we still want to believe that what we’re witnessing is the truth.

Why is that?

Part of it is due to a psychological principle, which is also used in marketing, what we refer to as consistency.

Once we assume something to be true, we are reluctant to admit to others as well as ourselves that we were wrong.

It’s easier to stick to our original beliefs than it is to change them.

Another reason, however, is that much of life is already rather boring; and so adding a bit of make-believe – ¬†because that’s what it is – spices up things.

If we can convince ourselves that something unbelievable is true in our lives, then that gives us a means to escape the dullness that makes up our day-to-day existence.

And so, instead of reading a fictional story, we can live in it.

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