Not long ago, I watched the 2007 J.J. Abram’s TED Talk about unseen mysteries and the potential that they represent. A centerpiece of the talk is a “mystery magic box” from Tannen’s Magic Shop, which Abrams bought as a young boy. Abrams still has it and shows it to the audience during his fascinating speech. The box was sold as a “grab bag”—the contents of the box were bought sight unseen, and promised a greater value in merchandise, $50 worth of magic tricks, than the $15 it sold for. Abrams, however, preferred the promise of what the box contained over its actual contents and has never opened it.
This started me thinking about the nature of mystery and how it relates to the performance of magic. The word “mystery” is high on the list of what most magicians would say their performances provide, but I think there’s an important aspect of this that is often overlooked.
An objective analysis of most magic shows would find that the experience of mystery is almost entirely one-sided. That is, all of the mystery is experienced by the audience, who are kept in the dark about certain details that the magician withholds and exploits.
This might be why many audience members slip into “analytical mode” when watching magic, and why some are so hungry to discover our secrets. Clearly, the mystery of the magic show is not unknowable; it is merely temporarily unknown.
But the Mystery Box is something entirely different, isn’t it? It is a shared mystery, that cannot be solved except by intentional action. The clerk at Tannen’s most likely didn’t know precisely what it contained, certainly Abrams’ Grandfather, who took young J.J. to Tannen’s didn’t know, and as we’ve established, neither does J.J. The simple fact is, nobody knows, and thus the box is a true mystery. Unlike the magic trick, we are all in the dark, and there exists no imbalance of knowledge, and thus power, in our relationship.
And I find that idea to be singularly delightful. So I was thrilled when I recently discovered an inexpensive and tangible way to share the idea of the mystery box with my friends and family.
Believe it or not, it’s all thanks to Mattel and their “Mystery Cars” line of Hot Wheels toys. Hot Wheels, of course, are the venerable metal toy cars that were incredibly popular when I was a kid, and continue to be big seller today.
Every season, Mattel comes out with whole new line of Hot Wheels cars, including a subset of cars they sell in “Mystery Cars” packaging. These special edition packages prevent you from seeing which car you’re buying; it could be any one of 24 different cars. The Mystery Car packages are easy to spot at your retailer, the car is hidden behind a black plastic bubble decorated with an embossed question mark. The package artwork features a car that is shrouded with a flame-covered tarp.
When I stumbled across the Mystery Car display in my local Target store, I knew immediately that I had found my own version of the mystery box.
The script I use when presenting one of these cars as a gift is a personal and sincere expression of the importance of mystery. It includes re-telling elements of Abram’s story, how Hot Wheels were a favorite toy of mine, and my belief that in today’s society where secrets are rare and virtually any answer is just a Google search away, choosing to intentionally not know something can be a beautiful reminder of life’s important, unanswerable, questions.
I also point out one modification that I’ve made to the car’s packaging. Mattel, while they have created a wonderful thing with the Mystery Cars, were apparently afraid to fully embrace their creation. On the back of the package there is a carefully placed hole, approximately the same diameter as a pencil. This allows the purchaser to see a tiny bit of the car inside. Mostly you see a wheel, but the color of the car is also clearly visible. While this may be a concession to the collector, or perhaps to parents who wish to protect their child from the disappointment of receiving a car that they already own, I find the hole misguided and, frankly, offensive. (Yes, I take mystery very seriously.)
So what I do is cover the hole with a small piece of opaque tape, as shown in the photo. When I present the gift to someone, I point this out and tell them “If the suspense is too much for you, you can remove this tape and get a tiny peek inside. You won’t see much, but when you realize how dirty this makes you feel, you’ll find the strength to resist opening the package.” This line always gets a laugh.
I suppose that some magicians will dismiss this as just a ninety-cent toy, given to adult, with a lot of made-up justification and no magic effect. But done in the right context, I’ve found it to be more powerful, because it’s more personal, than any trick. If the concept speaks to you, I hope that you will use it or find another way to share the gift of mutual mystery with the people in your life.
Notes: Abram’s Mystery Box is also featured in the May 2009 issue of WIRED magazine. My thanks to David Parr, for alerting me to Abram’s TED Talk, and to Craig Conley and the participants of the July 2010 Chicago Magic Workshop for their helpful feedback about Wheels of Mystery.