How Harry Houdini Might Have Pulled Off His Most Daring Trick

Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When it comes to most people's biggest fears, being buried alive is right up there. But the master magician Harry Houdini was no stranger to stunts that would make other people sweat. In 1915, he performed a trick in Santa Ana, California, that saw him buried beneath six feet of earth. It didn't exactly go off without a hitch, however: He clawed his way out—but it nearly killed him.

Stunt expert Steve Wolf considers the buried alive illusion Houdini's most daring trick. "The margin for failure on that is zero," Wolf tells Mental Floss. Wolf is one of the stars of the new Science Channel show Houdini's Last Secrets, alongside Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen and magician Lee Terbosic. In each episode, the trio explores how the notoriously secretive Houdini may have performed his most famous tricks, as well as some of the many mysteries of his life—including whether the magician may have served as a spy, and whether his sad death on Halloween in 1926 was truly an accident.

Wolf, who has served as a special effects coordinator for several films and TV series, is a science educator for kids, and runs his own theme park called Stunt Ranch in Texas, says he's long been interested in how illusions are created and how people perceive reality through visual clues. He explains that when Houdini performed his buried alive stunt (there's some controversy among historians about whether, and how often, the trick was performed), the audience would have seen Houdini enter a coffin, watch the coffin sealed inside a crypt, and then witness the crypt being buried in several thousand pounds of sand or soil.

"A curtain would go up, and the audience would wonder if he was suffocating," Wolf explains. "And after a prolonged period Houdini would emerge, unscathed."

Master stunt builder Steve Wolf, magician and daredevil Lee Terbosic, and Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen on the set of "Houdini's Last Secrets"
Master stunt builder Steve Wolf, magician and daredevil Lee Terbosic, and Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen on the set of Houdini's Last Secrets
Steve Wolf/Science Channel

That was the theory, anyway. In 1915, the trick didn't quite go as planned, and there are reports that Houdini fell unconscious after partially emerging and had to be rescued by assistants. But Houdini seems to have been planning a more elaborate, and hopefully safer, version of the trick toward the end of the his life.

For Houdini's Last Secrets, Wolf had to figure out a version of the illusion as similar as possible to the one Houdini worked on later in life. Most importantly, it had to be safe for Terbosic to perform. That was no easy feat, as Wolf explains: "If he's in the coffin and there's truly 3000 pounds of dirt on him and the coffin implodes, that really could cause serious injury. It could crush his lungs, it could crush his heart, he could suffocate."

As with many of Houdini's stunts, there's no surviving documentation, let alone how-to notes from Houdini. That meant Wolf and his team had to rely on problem-solving, engineering, and guesswork to figure out how the magician might have done it. One theory they considered was that Houdini may have used sand, rather than soil.

"Houdini had a traveling roadshow, and sand would have been easy to transport or source locally," Wolf explains. Wolf's team explored a process called sand liquefaction, in which air pumped through sand from the bottom makes sand act like a liquid. That means anything lighter than the sand can actually float.

"Houdini had a background working with compressed air," Wolf says. "And if he'd experimented with this, he would have known you could actually make the coffin float up from the bottom of the crypt and appear on top of the sand silently, just using compressed air to liquefy the sand. We don't know that's how he did it ... but that's one of theories we explore."

The other option, which is carried out in a large-scale stunt on the show, involves trap doors. The first step was assembling the ingredients: In this case, a clear coffin and crypt, so the audience can see what's happening, at least until the curtain goes up. While Houdini would have used glass, for safety's sake the Houdini's Last Secrets team used clear plexiglass, which is less likely to shatter. The transparency also allows the audience to see Terbosic, wearing a straitjacket, inside the coffin, and watch as the thousands pounds of soil are poured on top of him.

"It's not an illusion that he's in the coffin and you see the coffin get buried. That all really happens," Wolf explains.

Steve Wolf with the coffin used in the Buried Alive trick on "Houdini's Last Secrets"
Steve Wolf with the coffin used in the Buried Alive trick on Houdini's Last Secrets
Steve Wolf/Science Channel

The secret lies in the way the coffin, and crypt, are built. Each had a trap door—or what Wolf calls "an un-obvious way to get out of the coffin." He explains that since lifting the lid of the coffin against thousands of pounds of dirt would be almost impossible, the best way to get out of the coffin is through the sides or ends. "And if that end were very close to a second trap door, [the magician] could get out of the crypt. Ideally you would want to open the trap door at an end of the coffin, and then apply direct pressure [on a second trap door], and then something would yield, and you'd be able to get out of the crypt," he explains.

The team also employed a staircase, which made it easy to climb up and pour the dirt on Terbosic. But the staircase also helped Terbosic escape—that is, once he'd gotten himself out of the straitjacket. He also had to turn his whole body around, since his head was pointed away from the trap doors. Eventually, he ended up safely inside the staircase, from which he could easily emerge, rub some dirt on himself (to make it look like he'd clawed through soil), and wait for the applause.

According to Wolf, a key part of making the trap doors was using fake welds. "One of the interesting things about the trap doors was creating them as illusions, so people invited up on stage could examine the props and not figure out where the trap doors were," Wolf says. "So one of the techniques Houdini used was fake rivets and fake screws, to make you think something was fastened that wasn't. And we may have experimented with fake welds," he notes coyly. "But anyone who was visually inspecting the props would think they were mechanically sound to keep someone in."

Even once you know how the trick was done, watching it in action in the show is suspenseful. Still, it likely won't quiet the historians and enthusiasts who are trying to understand Houdini's illusions—and his life.

"I believe that most of [Houdini's illusions] are still a mystery," Wolf says. "There are probably only a handful of ways most of them could be done, and through simple diagnostics and experimenting, you could figure out which were safest and most repeatable ways to do each of them. But we don't really know for sure how he did them."

That means the myths—and the legend—of Houdini aren't likely to be buried anytime soon.

The "Buried Alive" episode of Houdini's Last Secrets premieres on January 27.

12 Facts About Revenge of the Nerds For Its 35th Anniversary

Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

In the summer of 1984, nerds were mainly perceived as guys who wore pocket protectors and had tape on their glasses. But in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs was inventing the type of nerd culture we’re familiar with today. Decades later, nerds rule the world.

Revenge of the Nerds starred then-unknowns Anthony Edwards, Robert Carradine, Curtis Armstrong, James Cromwell, Larry B. Scott, John Goodman, and Timothy Busfield. In the movie, the jock-filled Alpha Beta fraternity bullies the geeks on the campus of Adams College, so to fight back, they form a frat chapter under black fraternity Lambda Lambda Lambda (Tri-Lambs), and take down the jocks. The movie’s plot and title come from a magazine article published around that time about Silicon Valley innovators—who just happened to be nerds.

The film, which was budgeted at $6 million, only opened on 364 screens (it eventually expanded to 877). Somehow the movie had legs and grossed $40,874,452 at the box office and ranked as the 16th highest-grossing film of 1984. It was successful enough to spawn three sequels, none of which were as popular as the original. To celebrate Revenge of the Nerds' 35th anniversary, here are some geeky facts about the underdog comedy.

1. Greek officials at the University of Arizona objected to the movie being filmed on their campus.

The movie filmed at the University of Arizona, and involved the college’s Greek system. The Greek officials didn’t want the movie to be another Animal House, so they threatened to halt production. “We meet with the sororities, and we’re worried we’re about to deal with a bunch of feminists who are pissed because this is a fairly sexist movie,” the film’s director, Jeff Kanew, told the Arizona Daily Star. “I just say to them, ‘Look, I have kids, and I’ll tell you now, I’d let them see this movie. It’s about the triumph of the underdog, not judging a book by its cover. This is a good movie.’” The filmmakers won, and the Greeks allowed them to film there.

2. The set was one big party.

Ted McGinley—who played Alpha Beta honcho Stan Gable—told The A.V. Club: “I was so embarrassed to say Revenge Of The Nerds.” Kanew cast him because he saw him on the cover of a Men of USC calendar, sold at the University of Arizona bookstore. His good looks attracted “hot girls” from the UofA campus to watch the dailies with the cast and crew. “They had beer and pizza and sandwiches,” McGinley said. “I mean, you just don’t do that on movie sets. It was just so much fun, and I thought, ‘It can’t be better than this!’”

3. Curtis Armstrong knew it would be a good movie, even though his character wasn't fully fleshed out.

Curtis Armstrong filmed Risky Business but then was unemployed for a year before he got Revenge of the Nerds. “You have to realize the character of Booger in the original script was non-existent almost,” Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly. “What was there was just, ‘We’ve got b*sh!’ and ‘Mother’s little d**chebag’—those kinds of lines. I was looking at it and thinking, ‘How do I take this and even begin to make it likeable or accessible?’”

With its strong cast, writers, and director, Armstrong said, “It has to be a good movie. But I wasn’t sure how it was going to be taken as opposed to Risky Business, which was sort of an art-house-type movie. This was very much broader and very much cruder, but it had a message that went beyond sex jokes.”

4. The scenes between Booger and Takashi were improvised.

The actors would bring ideas to the director and vice versa, creating a lot of improvisation in the movie. In one scene, Booger and Takashi (Brian Tochi) engage in a friendly game of cards. But unbeknownst to Takashi, Booger tricks him. “We ran and got our cots, and Brian and I were next to each other,” Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly. “It wasn’t planned that we would be next to each other. It just happened that way.”

The production asked the guys to “come up with something” for them to film. “We had nothing at all!” Armstrong said. “We went to the prop people, and they had a deck of cards. And that’s where that scene [and Booger’s whole bit about taking money from Takashi] came from. And they liked it so much that, every time Takashi and I were in the room together, we would have to come up with something else.”

5. Lambda Lambda Lambda exists in real life.

On January 15, 2006, the University of Connecticut founded the co-ed social fraternity. It’s “unaffiliated with Greek Life” and is “dedicated to the enjoyment and enrichment of pop culture and to the brotherhood of its members. Tri-Lambs does not discriminate based on race, gender, religion, class, ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

6. Booger's belch came from a camel.

In one of the film's more memorable scenes, Booger and Ogre compete in a belching contest. Booger takes a swig of beer and lets out a robust seven-second belch and wins the contest. But the effects were added in post-production. “I can’t even belch on command,” Armstrong told USA Today. “If you said to me, ‘Can you belch now?' I couldn’t do it.”

To make up for Armstrong’s dearth of gas, “They wound up finding a recording of a camel having an orgasm,” Armstrong said. “They took this sound and blended it in with a human belch.”

7. Curtis Armstrong wrote a bio for Booger, but it turned out to be about himself.

Because his character wasn’t fully developed, Armstrong wrote a one-page bio for Booger. Years later he re-read the bio and realized he and Booger had similarities. “I’d basically retold my life as Booger without even being aware of it,” Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly. “[One detail] was that [Booger] used nose-picking and belching as a defense mechanism because [he’s] insecure. Now, mind you, I did not pick my nose and belch because I was insecure. However, I was insecure growing up. I didn’t have dates or anything like that; I was not good around girls. But I had other ways of defending myself other than being crude and picking my nose. When I look at it now with some distance, I realize all I was doing was writing about myself.”

8. A Dallas test screening almost killed Revenge of the Nerds.

The film tested well in Las Vegas—an 85—but when the Fox executives took the movie to Dallas, the number dipped. “You’re gonna send us to Dallas to screen a movie that celebrates nerds and in which the black guys intimidate the white football players?!” director Kanew told the Arizona Daily Star. The movie scored in the 60s, which caused Fox to cut marketing for the film and only release it on 364 screens. “I don’t really understand what happened, but it hung around and grew and grew and grew,” Kanew said.

9. Poindexter was originally named after a prop guy.

When Timothy Busfield auditioned for the movie, his character didn’t have many lines, so he had to read Lamar’s lines. At the time, the character was named Lipschultz, after the prop guy. All that was written for the character description was “a violin-playing Henry Kissinger.”

“There was one line Lipschultz had in the original, but our prop guy was named Lipschultz, and he didn’t like the fact that there was a nerd named Lipschultz, so they changed it to Poindexter,” Busfield said during a San Francisco Sketchfest Nerds reunion. Busfield found Poindexter’s costume at a thrift store and showed up to the audition with his hair parted, and danced to “Beat It.”

10. The sequel to Revenge of the Nerds afforded Anythony Edwards a pool.

Anthony Edwards told The A.V. Club that he didn’t want to appear in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, but acquiesced because the producers talked him into it. He’s hardly in the film, but the money he earned afforded him a simple luxury. “I ended up with a pool in my backyard that I called the Revenge of the Nerds II pool,” Edwards said. “Not that I’m complaining, but they seriously overpaid me for my weeks of work on the film, so I used it to put in a pool.”

11. A remake (thankfully) got shut down.

After two weeks of filming in the fall of 2006, a Revenge of the Nerds remake stopped production. Emory University in Atlanta pulled out of filming, but according to Variety, the real reason was because a Fox Atomic executive “was not completely satisfied with the dailies.” The cast included Adam Brody and Jenna Dewan.

12. Revenge of the Nerds pushed nerdom into the mainstream.

“I’m not going to say Revenge of the Nerds was responsible for everything in nerd culture, but I do think you could make an argument that that attitude began with the last scene in Revenge,” Armstrong told HuffPost. “The last scene—the scene I probably love above all in that movie—we’re at the pep rally and come out in front of everybody as nerds, and encourage these people of different generations to join them in their nerdness. I get teary thinking about it, and you could certainly make an argument that that was the beginning of embracing nerd culture by everybody.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

The Office Star Ellie Kemper Wants to Do a Reunion Episode

NBC - NBCUniversal Media
NBC - NBCUniversal Media

While rumors of The Office getting a reboot have been swirling around for years, the outlook on that happening any time soon doesn't look good. But a reunion episode might just be possible.

Ellie Kemper, who played Erin Hannon in the beloved series, recently stopped by Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen to dish about the sitcom and her thoughts on whether it might be making a return to the small screen: "I would love there to be a reboot, but I don't think there will be. So, that's a sad answer," Kemper admitted. "But maybe like a reunion episode? That would be fun."

E! News reports that Kemper isn’t the only cast member that wants to get the band back together. Jenna Fischer, who played Pam Beesly, also thinks a reunion episode would be a hit. “I think it's a great idea," Fischer said in 2018. "I would be honored to come back in any way that I'm able to.”

A key player in the series' success, however, is not so enthusiastic about the idea. Steve Carell, who played the infamous Michael Scott, doesn’t think a revival would be well-received. "The climate's different," Carell told Esquire back in 2018. "I mean, the whole idea of that character, Michael Scott, so much of it was predicated on inappropriate behavior. I mean, he's certainly not a model boss. A lot of what is depicted on that show is completely wrong-minded. That's the point, you know? But I just don't know how that would fly now.”

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