July 30, 2009
Banachek bending a fork (Photo by Joe Nickell)
Billed as “the world’s #1 Thought Reader,” the mentalist Banachek travels the world astounding even skeptical audiences. I caught a special performance by my friend and colleague when he gave a lecture to magicians in Amherst, New York, on June 16, 2009, sponsored by Elmwood Magic.
Consulted by such magical greats as David Blaine and Penn & Teller, Banachek was also the lead magic advisor for the initial four seasons of Criss Angel’s television hit show “Mindfreak.” Banachek remains, according to one magic review, “the only mentalist to have convinced scientists he possessed ‘Psychic Powers’ only to later reveal he was fooling them!”
That transpired in 1982 when he (then young Steve Shaw) and a friend, Michael Edwards, posed as psychics. They were tested at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in St. Lonis, Missouri, where they wowed the parapsychologists. One, Michael Thalbourne, even coined the term psychokinete to describe the two referring to their apparent ability to produce psychokinetic (mind-over-matter) effects. The psychokinetes appear to use only their brainwaves to bend metal, more various objects, and demonstrate other seemingly paranormal powers.
In fact, the young men were magicians, part of an investigative effort by James Randi that came to be known as Project Alpha (see Skeptical Inquirer 7:4, 24–33; 8:1, 36–45; 8: 2, 186–188). Criticized by some as “sabotage” and “trickery,” the project was also termed “commendable” and “worthwhile.” It demonstrated that some scientists—being both credulous and ignorant of conjuring techniques—can be fooled into believing in psychic powers. As a result of the revelations, the McDonnell Laboratory closed permanently.
Banachek went on to become a world-famous mentalist, still seeming to accomplish the impossible. At his Amherst performance, he let friends and admirers in on the secrets of “psychokinetic” cutlery bending (see my accompanying photo) and other seemingly psychic marvels. For example, some 20 spectators were asked to write secrets about themselves on slips of paper; these were collected in a bag, a spectator drew out several, and another spectator selected one, then stood back-to-back with Banachek. The mentalist asked the spectator to concentrate and form a mental image of something on the slip. Banachek then sketched that picture!
How did he do it? Very well, of course. Oh, you want to know how it’s done. Can you keep a secret? Well, so can I! But it’s not secret that Banachek is a great practitioner of the seemingly psychic arts. We skeptics can be thankful for the integrity that keeps him on our side.