It’s that moment of chilling excitement, when spectators become frozen in a mixture of awe, anxiety, and anticipation, and a sudden silence sets upon the crowd in which not one breath is heard. This is the scenario that arises during those few circus feats involving the most inherent danger, those notable tricks that culminate in the peak of audience excitement. Since the time of the gladiators in the Colosseum of Ancient Rome, humans have always been entertained by the prospect of people in peril. Although today the crowd has evolved from carnage-craving to encouraging and supportive, many are still willing to witness a catastrophe. As Houdini himself once said, “Nobody wants a man to fall to his death but they want to be there when it happens.” Below we explore the five most dangerous tricks performed by some of the best magicians, stuntsmen, and escape artists of all time.
5. The Flying Wallendas – Seven Person Pyramid
Founded by patriarch Karl Wallenda, The Flying Wallendas were a family hire-wire act from Germany known as the pioneers of the seven person pyramid, in which the entire troupe would traverse a high-wire as a single human pyramid built on balancing poles. The group was especially distinguished for performing without a safety net, a feat that garnered a standing ovation at their first American performance in Madison Square Garden in 1928. However falls did occur, the most famous being a collapse of the entire pyramid at an Akron, Ohio performance, in which a reporter noted that “the Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying.” Although none of the Wallendas were hurt in the fall, the newspaper report is what earned the group the name The Flying Wallendas (prior to that they were known as The Great Wallendas). Nonetheless, in the years since tragic falls have occurred, killing two of Karl Wallenda’s son-in-laws, his sister-in-law, his nephew, and eventually Karl himself in 1978. Today the grandchildren of the Wallendas keep the act alive, attaining a world record in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2003 for their eight person pyramid (Wallenda’s official website).
4. Harry Houdini – Chinese Water Torture
Throughout the early 20th century Harry Houdini rose to super-stardom with his astounding escape acts and magic tricks. Arguably the most famous magician of all time, it was one specific trick that catapulted Houdini into legendary fame: the Chinese Water Torture Cell. An expansion on his milk can escape, the Chinese Water Torture Cell consisted of Houdini’s legs being locked in stocks, suspending him upside-down, lowering his body into a glass-paned tank (so as the audience could see him), and locking the stocks to the top of the tank. Houdini first performed this dangerous escape act in 1912 and called it the “Upside-Down” or “USD” (although advertising continually referred to the trick as the “water torture cell”). Contrary to pop culture, Houdini never drowned performing the act, and continued to do so until his death in 1926 from infection caused by a ruptured appendix. To this day the act has been copied and modified by countless magicians, making it a well-known fundamental of modern magic.
3. David Blaine – Frozen in Time
Magician David Blaine’s rise to fame in the late 1990s started with his up-close and exposed street magic, but accelerated with his outrageous, and sometimes downright insane, public feats of endurance. Throughout the years some of David’s most extraordinary acts include being buried alive for seven days under a 3.5 ton tank of water, a 44-day food fast inside of a sealed and suspended plexiglass cube, and being submerged in a sphere of water for seven days with only tubes for air and nutrition. But Blaine’s most daring and dangerous act was his Frozen in Time trick he performed in 2000, in which Blaine was encased inside of a massive block of transparent ice in Times Square for 63 hours, 42 minutes, and 15 seconds. A tube provided Blaine with air and water while another tube eliminated his urine. Once Blaine was freed from the ice with chainsaws, he was immediately rushed to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia, and it took over a month for Blaine to be able to walk again. Blaine has said himself that he would never attempt the stunt again.
2. Penn & Teller – Bullet Catch
The bullet catch is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most notorious of all tricks, having claimed the lives of at least 15 magicians, not to mention countless assistants and spectators as well. The illusion comprises of a marked bullet being loaded and fired at the magician who is supposedly able to catch the speeding bullet in his teeth or hand. Dating all the way back to the 1600s, the trick has been modified and revised with additional elements for added realness. One such element includes placing a glass pane between the gun and magician, thus proving the travel of a speeding bullet by the shattering of the glass. Regardless of the added effects however, the basic physics of the trick delineate the feat as a physical impossibility, leaving magicians to find different and creative ways to produce a marked bullet within their teeth to complete the illusion. Blanks, wax bullets, squibs, and magnets have all been used to create the effect, but it’s when these items are replaced with actual bullets that the deaths occur. Jealous lovers, angry stagehands, and sometimes just careless assistants have resulted in scenarios involving real bullets and real death. Modern-day comedic magicians Penn & Teller have perfected their version proving for one very impressive illusion (Penn & Teller’s Bullet Catch).
1. Philippe Petit – World Trade Center Tightrope
On August 7th, 1974 French high-wire artist Philippe Petit performed a tight-rope walk to put all others to shame, walking 1368 feet in the air on a 450 pound cable between the two World Trade Center towers. His feat, which he dubbed “le coup,” took six years of planning and preparation, in which Philippe observed every detail of the construction of the towers in order to determine the logistics of how to run his cable across the 200 foot gap, how to anchor his cable against wind levels at that altitude to prevent swaying, and how to circumvent the security measures in place to be able to complete all his preparations, rigging, and the stunt itself. By posing as construction workers and reporters, Philippe and his crew were able to go in and out of the towers to prepare for the stunt. On the morning of August 7th, Philippe set out on the wire and crossed a total of eight times, performing additional tricks such as jumps, knee salutes to the crowds below, and lying down on the wire. Soon after the stunt was completed Philippe was arrested by police, only to have all charges later dropped, partly due to the favorable attention Philippe brought to the Towers whose popularity until that point had been absent. You can catch more of the story of Philippe’s amazing crossing in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (official trailer).