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It’s no secret that we love all kinds of media here at The Escape Effect. From video games to movies and more, it’s always a blast to see where escape rooms and other forms of media intersect. As escape rooms continue to evolve, we decided to take a look at where they began. Not as concepts, which can be traced back to old point-and-click games, but the idea of escaping from locks and challenges as a whole: escapology.

The term “escapology” refers to the act of escaping from confines or restraints. The people who take on this bold feat are known as “escapologists” or “escape artists.” They’ll put themselves into some crazy situations during a show. Many escapologists get their start as illusionists, escaping from confines as the build-up to a grand performance. Others dive right in and start with escapology. Victor Strange, the evil magician in Fright Before Your Eyes, also has escapology-inspired tricks up his sleeves!

Whether the escape is part of a greater stage magic performance or the focus of the show, the feats of escapology can be positively mind-boggling. Straight jackets, chains, or sealed boxes can’t even slow them down! It can be a dangerous job, especially when submerged underwater or buried in a mountain of dirt.

As Houdini’s birthday comes up this week on March 24th, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the history of escapology and how it became the thrilling performance it is today!

Escapologist Matt Johnson escapes from a sealed tank of water on the TV show, The World's Best.

What is escapology?

The field of magic is vast, and documents on various illusions can be found dating back to the 1400s. There are large-scale stage performances, close up magic tricks, and everything in-between. Tricks could be as simple as sleight-of-hand card tricks or complex disappearing acts. The field gets incredibly deep. Escapology is one branch of magic that features stunning, death-defying feats of skill.

Escape acts often feature complex, seemingly-inescapable traps. The performers will be handcuffed, bound, sealed in boxes, suspended, buried…There are so many ways to trap them, but they always find a way out. To escape these contraptions, performers need incredible dexterity and flexibility, and they often need to think fast. Some daring acts can put the escape artist’s life on the line!

In the early days of escapology, most escape artists performed their acts behind a screen or curtain, dramatically emerging at the end after escaping. In modern times, many performers will make their escapes in full view of the audience.

The origins of escapology

The word itself was coined in the 1930s, according to different dictionary sources. However, the act of escaping from seemingly-impossible restraints dates back further than that. Many magicians used the skill to some degree. For example, Ira and William Davenport used escape techniques as part of their “spirit cabinet” performance. They sealed themselves in a cabinet with bells and musical instruments, which sounded off once the door closed. When the cabinet opened again, the men were still restrained. The audience was told that it was the work of ghosts.

Escapology wasn’t the focus of the Davenport Brothers’ performance, but escape techniques were a part of how they pulled it off. There were other performers who also used practiced the techniques. Contortionist Major Zamora was able to squeeze into many unusual and narrow spaces. By extension, he also learned how to get out of them. Doc Cunningham was another notable figure, a magician who developed many versatile skills over the course of his career in the 1890s to 1900s.

Around that time, escapology started to become a bigger part of different acts. This particular branch of magic was popularized by one of the most notable names in the industry, Harry Houdini.

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini, one of the most famous people in the history of escapology.

Harry Houdini may not have been the first escapologist, but he is objectively one of the most renowned people in the field. His performances were wildly popular, inspiring many attempts to copy his success.

Houdini’s career began in 1891, with sleight-of-hand magic acts aided by his brother and, later, his wife. He didn’t see much success at the time. He started branching out into new acts, including the handcuff escape. Around 1899, he met Martin Beck, a theater owner and manager. Beck encouraged Houdini to put on more escape acts and helped get him a few shows. Houdini later went on a tour of Europe. The Europe tour was a great success and launched him into fame.

He still performed non-escape illusions, such as the “Vanishing Elephant” trick, but it’s the escapes that he became most known for. Throughout his career, Houdini added more and more tricks to his repertoire and became widely known for his daring feats. He would even challenge people to come up with obstacles for him to escape from. Some of his most famous escapes include:

  • Handcuff escapes. The trick that helped launch his career. Houdini was an expert at escaping from shackles, challenging police to keep him locked up. He was even challenged by the Daily Mirror to escape from custom-made shackles.
  • Straight jacket escapes. Sometimes tied upside-down, Houdini would have to free himself from a straight jacket. These tricks were originally performed behind a curtain, but over time the curtain was removed so the audience could watch him escape.
  • Milk can escape. Houdini was sealed in a large milk can. This was later modified to include a large crate that was wrapped in chains.
  • The Chinese Water Torture. Suspended upside-down and lowered into a water-filled cell, Houdini added the risk of drowning to the dangerous thrills.
  • Overboard box. Houdini was sealed inside of a wooden box that was nailed shut and lowered into a river. His arms and legs were bound and the box was weighted to sink into the water. When he emerged safe and sound, the audience saw that the box itself was still intact.
  • Buried alive. Shackled and buried under six feet of sand, not even in a casket, Houdini had to free himself and dig his way to the surface. This later evolved into being sealed in a casket for an hour. There was going to be another variation of this stunt, but he died before getting the chance to perform it.

Some years after Houdini’s death, the term “escapology” was coined. Along with “escape artistry,” it has been used to refer to these bold performances and the ones that followed. The performers became known as “escapologists” and “escape artists.”

Houdini has one of the most enduring reputations in the history of magicians and escape artists. Almost 100 years after his death, his name is still synonymous with inexplicable escapes. Skilled illusionists are often referred to as “the next Houdini” or “another Houdini.” Small children might even be called “little Houdinis” when they sneak out of their cribs or around baby gates (though that usage is more tongue-in-cheek humor).

The modern escapology

Over the decades, as technology advanced and more people studied the art, acts became more complex and spectacular. Because of the legacy he created, many acts that Houdini performed became staples of escapology. Handcuff escapes and straight jacket escapes (suspended or not) are some of the most well-known. Each evolution of a stunt inspires the next. Feats become bolder and, sometimes, more dangerous.

Magician Lee Terbosic recreates Harry Houdini's straight jacket escape.

Recreations of famous acts are also very common nowadays. Some people try to recreate them as they originally took place, and others will adapt them to include a modern spin. For example, while Houdini pioneered the suspended straight jacket escape, it has been replicated many times. Not content to simply recreate Houdini’s feats, performers put their own spins on the act. Alan Alan was the first to set the rope on fire for a suspended straight jacket routine (which also inspired many others to do the same).

Since many performers get into escapology as an extension of magic acts, the evolution of magic has also fed into escapology. New technology and techniques help magicians defy the eye and fool their audiences. Some of the tools can also create complex and mind-bending traps for the escape artist.

Other notable escape artists

Doc Cunningham

As mentioned before, Doc Cunningham was a versatile magician. His show saw a number of changes over the years. He began as a stage magician, as many escape artists did. He performed various sleight-of-hand tricks and other acts, like catching a bullet in his mouth.

Over time, the focus of his performances transitioned to escapology. Handcuff escapes were a signature of his, and he even challenged policemen to restrain him. He was putting on escape acts around the same time as Houdini and was seen as his rival.

Around the 1910s, he started another transition, this time to mentalism. There were a few more shifts towards the end of his career. He even spent a few years working with a circus.

Alan Alan

Alan Alan was a charming and charismatic magician whose unique tricks had a powerful influence on the world of magic. He rose to fame after a near-disaster in 1949, when a “buried alive” performance went wrong. That stunt didn’t deter him at all. He dazzled audiences for years after, with close-up illusions that were both funny and stunning.

Some of his escapology acts also became staples of later performers, such as the burning rope straight jacket escape mentioned earlier. He was the first person to make that daring escape and many people have copied it over time.

Alan Alan has appeared on television shows, like The Magic of David Copperfield, and he ran a magic/joke shop in London up until the mid-1990s.

Dorothy Dietrich

Dorothy Dietric is a modern-day magician and escape artist who became famous for pulling off the dangerous “bullet catch” trick. She has gone on to perform various stage shows and expand on various sleight-of-hand techniques.

She has also performed and many daring escape acts, from the burning rope straight jacket escape to a sealed water tank. She was heavily influenced by the story of Houdini and has replicated many of his acts. Her skill as a performer has given her the nicknames, “The Female Houdini” and “The First Lady Of Magic.”

In addition to her work as an illusionist and escape artist, she also works to preserve the legacy of Houdini. She runs a traveling exhibit dedicated to Houdini’s acts and has even helped uncover a copy of one of Houdini’s movies, The Grim Game.

Michael Griffin

Michael Griffin is an escape artist that has won many awards over the course of his escapology career. Some of his wildest stunts include being chained underwater and breaking out of a heavily sealed packing crate. He also escaped from a public hanging, where his hands were cuffed behind his back. it took him only 37 seconds to break free.

These bold and dangerous stunts have given him an amazing reputation as someone who can escape any situation. He’s so confident in his skills that he offers a $100,000 reward to anybody that can devise a situation that he can’t escape from.

His performances have been aired on television many times, from America’s Got Talent to Masters of Illusion.


Why not play our unique ghost hunting escape room Fright Before Your Eyes? You’ll uncover the secrets of an evil illusionist, backstage of an abandoned theatre.


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