Sunday, October 23, 2011

Did Houdini have claustrophobia?

This is an odd one -- an incident that I've never heard of before. It comes via a letter from Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman that I found among The Culliton Papers, and relates a bizarre accident that Houdini was involved in in Boston in 1922 [see update].

While doing research for his book, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, Ken uncovered a clipping from an unidentified Boston newspaper dated January 11, 1922. Under the headline, HOUDINI IN FALL, the paper describes how Houdini was badly hurt "a couple weeks ago" in a traffic jam on the Boston Elevated railway.

When the trains were stalled by a short circuit, Houdini forced open the door of his car. He then jumped a four foot space to the roadbed of the bridge, and then dropped 12 feet to the street. On landing, he hit a piece of ice and his feet shot out from under him. Houdini fell on his hip, "wrenching it badly." He was, however, able to continue his engagement in Boston without canceling.

There are a few ways to think about this incident. As this is 1922 and Houdini is still in the thrall of being a movie "action hero", this could be yet another example of Houdini attempting to play the role of real-life action hero with predictably un-movie-like results. This hearkens back to another incident while filming Terror Island on Catalina Island when Houdini tried to rescue a stalled boat in the bay and was almost drowned himself.

But there is another, much stranger way of reading this.

I can't help but think about how this curious story helps support Bernard C. Meyer's provocative theory, put forward in his 1976 book, Houdini: A Mind in Chains - A Psychoanalytic Portrait, that Houdini may have suffered from latent claustrophobia, and that his escapes where compulsive attempts to "master" his anxiety disorder.

Meyer notes how in several real-life situations in which Houdini found himself unexpectedly "trapped", he would fly into rages or act out in ways that could be classified as claustrophobic panic. One famous example was when he was jokingly locked into a telephone booth at the Savoy hotel. He flew into a rage, kicking and banging at the door until the terrified prankster let him out. Meyer also suggests Houdini's famous seasickness could be partially attributed to the disorder. Bess even once had to tie him to his bunk for fear that he would make good on his threat to throw himself overboard.

So here we have another example, and a classic one at that. According to Wikipedia, "a typical claustrophobic will fear restriction in at least one, if not several, of the following areas: small rooms, locked rooms, cars, tunnels, cellars, elevators, subway trains, caves, airplanes and crowded areas."

So what do we think? Was Houdini playing action hero that day in Boston? Was he having a claustrophobic panic attack? Or did he just have somewhere he really needed to be?

The doctor is in.

UPDATE: While this was reported in the paper in 1922, it's likely this happened during the week of December 19, 1921 when Houdini was playing Keith's Theater in Boston.

Also enjoy:


  1. I for one am not onboard with the idea that Houdini was claustrophobic. I do not think he'd have continually presented the types of escapes he did IF he were claustrophobic. I'd say the phone booth incident was a matter of potential embarrassment not claustrophobia.

    As for the stunt in Boston where he got hurt, it's hard to say exactly. He may have just been late for an appointment. Or perhaps rather than Houdini being claustrophobic, perhaps he was just impatient. My two cents. Still, a cool article as always!

  2. I'm actually with you, Dean. But I've always had this Meyer theory in the back of my head and reading about this '22 incident made it jump up front.

  3. I don't think it's so far fetched. I have often wondered how he could stand being in such tiny spaces but given his temperament, this sounds like a very Houdini thing to do. Confront the thing you fear the most but do it on your own terms.

    If you look at it that way, it seems to explain why he might have overreacted when someone else locked him in or he found himself unexpectedly trapped somewhere. He was not in control of that particular situation.

    In any case I think the control issue would explain the leap from the elevated train.

    By the way, the doctor says to put this in Best of.

  4. Very well said, melbo. It's really not as outrageous an idea as it would first appear. Something certainly drove Houdini. Could it have been a need to overcome an anxiety disorder? And recall how Houdini talked about the key to the Shelton test was "remaining calm". Fun to speculate at least.

  5. We're just speculating here, but I agree with melbo. The confinements in his act were self-chosen and he KNEW he had a way out.

    These other confinements were against his will and he had no way out -- except the extreme measures of throwing himself off a ship or leaping off a high platform.

    Of course, his reaction each instance of involuntary confinement may have its own motivation (professional embarrassment, avoidance of suffering, etc.). But collectively they do suggest panic in the face of true confinement.

  6. I don't think there's any compelling reason to believe Houdini was claustrophobic. If he was, wouldn't there have been many more tangible accounts over the years from Bess, close friends, family, medical professionals, news sources, etc.? It is fun to speculate, but I think confirmation bias plays a huge role when it comes to these sorts of beliefs.

  7. As for the telephone-booth incident: Think about it. You're Harry Houdini. The very foundation of your image and career is built upon the claim that you can escape from absolutely, positively, any contraption conceived by man. You spend years cultivating this image to earn fame, fortune, and an unshakable reputation for being the semi-immortal King of Escape. Then some smart ass locks you, the Great Houdini, in a telephone booth as a last-minute prank, and you can't get out. This would infuriate you, especially with the thought that newspapers might get a hold of the story. Kicking and banging? Hell, I'm surprised he didn't rock back and forth until the phone booth tipped and shattered, then beat the living daylights out of the prankster.

  8. Very true, Tom. :)

    BTW, this story was picked up by the papers. There's a clipping in Gibson's Original Houdini Scrapbook.

  9. It's true he didn't like being mocked. There's an anecdote about a magician at a banquet who asked him to help in a trick. The other magician put two glasses of water on the back of his tabled hands and turned out the lights. Not a happy ending...

  10. There's loads of interesting psychological stuff about Houdini - Why did he feel the need to perfrom escapes, what was his fascination with danger? I remember hearing a story once that claimed he almost drowned as a child, hence the creation of the Bridge Jump, the Overboard Box, and the Water Torture Cell, all to concour his fear. Being able to concour it probably would have been important to him, too, looking at the way he was brought up. There was a lot of pressure on him to help provide for his family to help them 'escape' their poor conditions - "The greatest escape I ever made was leaving Appleton, Wisconsin" - and he probably wouldn't have received much respect, being a Jewish immigrant. All that could give someone an almost obsessive desire to succeed and not appear weak in any way. Maybe being genuinely 'trapped' in a situation that was outside of his control just brought those fears of being helpless and down-trodden flooding back to him?

    Crikey, this is interesting! :)