‘Houdini and Doyle,’ ghostbusters extraordinaire, debut on Fox

Fox's new historical fiction drama "Houdini and Doyle," pits spectral manifestations against scientific measures and tested observations, pitting blind faith against healthy skepticism.

Michael Weston (left) and Stephen Mangan of Fox’s “Houdini and Doyle.” (From Fox promo material)

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2016 — One of the latest new TV series attempts to answer the question, “What would happen if…” This latest Fox network offering, “Houdini and Doyle,” pits spectral manifestations against scientific measures and tested observations, pitting blind faith against healthy skepticism.

In “Houdini & Doyle,” the great escape artist and magician joins forces with Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a devout believer in the paranormal, to uncover the truth behind crimes with a decidedly supernatural aspect.

Harry Houdini (left) and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Harry Houdini (left) and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle actually did know each other in real life, having met in London in 1920. After witnessing Houdini walk through a brick wall during his stage act, Doyle became convinced of the illusionist’s supernatural powers.

Unfortunately, Houdini could not dissuade the gullible Doyle from his wrong-headed notions without disclosing his methods. And a good magician never reveals the secrets behind his tricks.

Doyle, for his part, was a true believer. He became interested in Spiritualism in 1886, the same year he wrote “A Study in Scarlet,” his first Sherlock Holmes story. He joined the British Society of Psychical Research, which was attempting to find evidence proving the existence of the paranormal. In addition, like novelist Charles Dickens before him, Doyle was also a member of the Ghost Club.

doyalAdIn 1930, the year of Doyle’s death, came the publication of his book, entitled “The Edge of the Unknown.” In it, he speculates that some ghostly phenomena are merely impressions on a medium called the “ether,” through which the planets of our solar system were believed to move in their orbits around the sun.

“The air is a mobile thing and could not carry a permanent impression. But is the ether a mobile thing?” asked Doyle. “We could conceive the whole material universe embedded in and interpenetrated by this subtle material, which would not necessarily change its position since it is too fine for wind or any coarser material to influence it… The block of ether upon the stairs is the same as it always was, and so conveys the impression of the past.”

The existence of “ether,” or “luminiferous aether,” was actually disproved 25 years earlier with the publication of a theory its author called “Special Relativity.” It was formulated by a former Viennese patent clerk named Albert Einstein.

Doyle was a little behind his times.

Harry Houdini, on the other hand, was no fan of Spiritualism, believing spirit mediums claiming to communicate with the dead to be frauds.

Houdini in his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell.
Houdini in his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell.

When in 1924, Scientific American magazine offered a $5,000 reward to any spirit medium that could produce a genuine “visual psychic manifestation,” Houdini was among the magazine’s six judges.
When medium Mina Crandon, known to her Boston followers as “Margery,” held a séance for the Scientific American panel, her spirit guide (or “control”) was less than kind to the skeptical magician.

“It remained for Harry Houdini, the magician, to be cursed up, down and cross-wise by a voice from the other world,” the United News of Oct. 18, 1924 reported. “Houdini, you ______, get ______ out of here and never come back. If you don’t I will,” the angry spirit was reported to have said.

“This just expressed Mrs. Crandon’s feeling toward me,” said Houdini, “for she knew that I had her trapped [in a fraud].”

Thanks to Houdini’s uncovering of the tricks employed by mediums — tricks some members of the Scientific American committee nearly fell for — the prize was never claimed.

“It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer,” Houdini told the Los Angeles Times.

Getting back to the Fox series, the new show takes liberties with the date of the initial meeting of Houdini and Doyle, setting it in 1901 instead of 1920. The pair of them meet in the office of Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Horace Merring, and ask to conduct a parallel investigation into a murder at a home for unwed mothers run by nuns.

An eyewitness to the murder, a nun, insists the killer was a ghost.

“Every time you arrive at the scene of a bloody murder, the first thing you have to do is to find the ones left behind,” Doyle (Stephen Mangan) tells Merring. “The ones who’ve not been physically harmed, but on whom all the pain will land; who have had their loved ones ripped away from them forever. But what if that wasn’t the truth? Every religion, for centuries, has told us that death isn’t the end. And now, thanks to the many staggering advances in science, we may be able to actually prove it. Nothing is as it was just ten years ago. Maybe not even death.”

“What a complete and utter load of crap,” says the blunt and skeptical Houdini (Michael Weston). “Death is scary. Death should be scary. Con artists and fools shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘science’ in defense of a dream.”

And in this dream of an adventure, Houdini and Doyle will cross paths with the likes of American inventor Thomas Edison, British poet William Butler Yeats and French composer Claude Debussy.

“I am a great admirer of mystery and magic,” Houdini once said. “Look at this life – all mystery and magic.”

“Houdini & Doyle” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central on most Fox network channels.

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