Small-Town Sorcerers: When Magic Took Over Main Street

An accomplished group of professional magicians brings contortions, card tricks and mnemonics to Clayton through MAGiCon.
by Billy Warden | photography by Bryan Regan

SarahElla Phant in a straitjacket

“None of this is going to be in your story, right?” presses a woman who earlier in the evening slipped free from a straitjacket.

For the second time in 24 hours, a magician is swearing me to secrecy.

In addition to escapes, the woman, who calls herself SarahElla Phant, specializes in mnemonics (feats of memory). Her eyes flashing, she’s referring to a ribald story being shared by Joel Givens, a sleight-of-hand virtuoso who’s shared the stage with the likes of Metallica and ZZ Top. Chortling along with Givens is Alain Nu, a mentalist who just bent a spoon.

Alain Nu at MAGiCon 2022

As the clock ticks close to the witching hour, we’re packed into a tight room at First Street Tavern in Clayton. I had first vowed to keep this circle’s secrets the previous afternoon, listening with open-jawed astonishment as sorcerers revealed to peers how they teleport cards and read minds. The sessions were part of the first-ever MAGiCon, a three-day event that aims to make Clayton the center of the magic cosmos.

Harry Houdini, Carter the Great and David Copperfield sawed assistants in half and made elephants disappear on grand stages in New York City, London and Las Vegas. But here, 20 miles southeast of Raleigh, “the strip” is just a few modest blocks long, sprinkled with bars, restaurants and perky public art.

Ah, but the deck is stacked. Among Clayton’s 25,000 residents are three ambitious professional magicians, all of whom perform far and wide. There’s the aforementioned Givens, who was born here, plus Phant and Dan Harlan, a conjuring couple.

The ponytailed, frequently chuckling Harlan is a hero to modern Merlins, having created hundreds of tricks. He comes off like a high school’s most popular teacher: personable and patient with an undercurrent of knowing more than you do.

Dan Harlan at MAGiCon 2022

In the fall of 2020, Harlan was living in Ohio, Zooming up a storm for locked-down audiences desperate for diversion. Phant was doing the same from her home in Clayton. When their video streams crossed, they fell under each other’s spell. Soon they were collaborating long-distance, a creative mind meld that within a few months brought Harlan to North Carolina. “And I never left,” he laughs.

The pair soon fell in with another wizard. On a drizzly January night in 2021, Harlan was in the dog food aisle at Lowes Foods when he spotted a familiar face. “Joel Givens?” he queried. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here,” Givens replied. “What’s your excuse?”

Trucker cap-sporting Givens is magic’s bad boy, as quick with a drawly quip as he is with sleight of hand. Harlan and Phant shared their vision of eventually establishing a Clayton-based magic shop, museum and performance space. Givens was on a similar wavelength, having long wanted to contribute something unconventional to the culture of Clayton.

The trio combined powers to create MAGiCon, summoning professionals and amateurs alike to the three day happening that Phant hoped would “bring the magic community together to learn and share — and just enjoy all the characters.”

“Magicians tell you we’re going to lie and deceive you — and then we do it,” says David Darmody, studying an apparatus that will allow him to plunge a needle into his arm, producing what looks like real blood but not an iota of actual pain.

“That,” he concludes, “makes us the most honest profession.” Festooned in cascading dark hair, the grocery store supervisor by day now huddles with MAGiCon attendees in the former elementary school that is now The Clayton Center. Riffling cards and toying with new tricks, they talk shop between seminars, including their strikingly similar backgrounds.

As a kid, Darmody stuttered to the point that he “just quit talking,” he explains. “My parents consulted professionals, who suggested sports or music. My dad thought of magic.” Practicing his card skills at every break during school inevitably piqued the curiosity of the other kids, who’d sidle over and ask for a show. “Magic gave me confidence,” he says, “that I have something to share with other people.”

Mustachioed Wayne Haarhaus, another magician, grew up “shy and awkward with an authoritarian father.” He “stumbled” into magic and now, decades later, presides over magic workshops for kids. He calls himself and his comrades “curious, theatrical and a little… out of sync.” But here, trading secrets, each seems as snug as a rabbit nestled in a top hat.

Suddenly, a stranger who heretofore has kept to himself enters the conversation. “What we do is a gift to people,” he intones. “We remind them that perception is changeable. That how we view the world isn’t necessarily the way it is. That a different reality is always possible.”

This is John Midgley, the incoming president of The Society of American Magicians, which bills itself as “the world’s oldest and most prestigious magic organization” (and which the Great Houdini himself once led).

The talk turns to industry issues from post-pandemic live performances to internet “debunkers” exposing stagecraft secrets — as well as a little gossip. Soon, it’s back to class. In spaces where farm kids used to learn arithmetic, these one-time misfits turned masters of the mysterious eagerly hone the craft — around 60 in all during the course of MAGiCon.

In one seminar, Harlan divulges the details of teleporting a sock. Another, on card tricks, features Givens’ mind-boggling moves and down-home banter. And Nu, the spoon-bending mentalist who’s advertised as “The Man Who Knows,” explains how he anticipates, jots down and seals into envelopes the thoughts of strangers — before he even meets them.

But the most revealing performance of the conference is left to the public show that crowns this otherworldly weekend.

As night falls on MAGiCon’s final day, about 300 locals join for the conference’s public finale at the Clayton Center’s auditorium. Harlan’s latest trick — in which a series of ropes shrink, grow and mystifyingly merge — prompts laughs and gasps.

Then the stage lights unexpectedly dim. Harlan straps Phant into a straitjacket. A prerecorded track explains what led Phant to this place: Last year, on a rainy night, she suffered a mental break that left her wandering the streets. It had been brought on by powerful medication for a rare ailment. At a psychiatric hospital, she returned to her full faculties. Now, she’s transforming that harrowing moment into a calling card.

Onstage, as an eerie electropop tune called “Mad Hatter” pings along, Phant writhes and wriggles in a macabre dance.

Her shoulders roll and dip until they look on the verge of dislocating. She grimaces and twists.

Wait — is she stuck? At last, one arm flies loose. The contortions continue until the straitjacket slips off, a harmless husk, and she steps out of it.

The audience whoops, and later, she tells me it’s them she thinks of during the performance. “I hope next time people feel trapped, they’ll remember me in that straitjacket,” Phant says. “Some situations seem impossible. But with patience and work, we can get free. You have to be calm and do the dance.” This magic trick, she says, is an opportunity to “create empathy.”

During the raucous afterparty at the tavern, Midgely, surrounded by off-the-cuff magic and mirth, remains riveted by the escape. Unlike the other performances, it wasn’t about deception.

It was full, nothing-up-my-sleeve disclosure. And that made it perhaps the most magical moment of all.

“Wasn’t that great?” Midgely marvels. “To be so personal. To take it all to a whole different level. It was truly amazing.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.