Enchanted by the power of on-screen magic

Serena Arthur explores how our perceptions of magic transform throughout life

A few weeks ago, I looked into a crystal ball and saw myself. There was no vision of a family or a premonition of unimaginable wealth. There was just me, my younger eyes glued to the TV. I was watching a family of three sisters, balancing all the complexities of life whilst repeatedly saving San Francisco.

There were images of the practice of scrying, the Book of Spells, and the beautiful bond of sisterhood. This was an instant reminder of a programme from childhood, captured in what the label underneath revealed was a 1582 crystal, owned by the famous magician, John Dee.

It is no coincidence, then, that this exhibition is so aptly named ‘Spellbound’. “Do you believe in magic?” the posters advertising the Ashmolean’s exhibition of magic, ritual, and witchcraft ask. Whatever your answer is, the possibility of a “yes” always seems to hover just around the corner as you walk around the exhibition.

It is this element of perpetual possibility within the realm of reality that drew me back to my fond memories of television shows such as Charmed. Though the episodes that I watched as a teenager were repeats, with the original series airing from 1998 until 2006, the Halliwell sisters still seemed like they were a part of the world and time in which I lived, magical powers or not.

Though I certainly wouldn’t answer “Do you believe in magic?” with a confident “yes”, they made it impossible for me to give a confident “no”, either.

After an episode of Charmed or Once Upon a Time, or even Doctor Strange, it feels like somewhere in the world there has to be people who can do things that most people can’t. Maybe even magic.

Nevertheless, the majority of people would answer the Ashmolean’s question with a “no”. In fact, shows such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm, which both reinvent the fairytale, revolve on the fact that the majority of the world are completely ignorant to the supernatural scenes around them.

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Even when magic appears in plain sight, it is transformed into something that any person can understand as real or reasonable. Any declaration of magic to the disbelieving world would be ascribed as being purely psychological, proof or not.

In Once Upon a Time, a well-known Wonderland character states: “You know what the issue is with this world? Everyone wants a magical solution to their problem, and everyone refuses to believe in magic.”

But children seem to be exempt. Generally not as weighed down by the problems of reality as adults are, they tend to be much more filled with the possibilities of imagination.

Seeing magic play out onscreen, in what looks like the real world, gives people of any age the ability to suspend their disbelief – to escape the expectation of logical thought that pervades our world and use the belief of a child to step, temporarily, into a another.

Watching magic performed onscreen opens our minds to it, making us slightly surer that, though our own Hogwarts letter may have been lost in the post, someone out there might still have received theirs.

It is no wonder that Harry Potter continues to stay so popular when sometimes just the possibility of ‘a magical solution’ can be enough to get through the week. Here at Oxford, with the stress of ever approaching essay deadlines, we do need that possibility. But Oxford’s link to magic is more than that. As a private bubble that protects students from the stresses of the real world and reality of adult life, it is the perfect place for fantasy.

Oxford’s ancient architecture and position of removed mystery makes it easier to believe that anything is possible. It’s the perfect setting for an exploration of the magical world.

It is unsurprising, then, that so many authors have turned to it when writing. The city forms the perfect setting for a number of famous book series including The Bone Season and His Dark Materials, both, uncoincidentally, written by previous Oxford undergraduates Samantha Shannon and Philip Pullman.

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In July, filming began in Oxford for a new BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials, produced by Bad Wolf. This is the same production company behind new TV show, A Discovery of Witches, also based on a popular book series. The series will star James McAvoy (Split, Atonement, X-Men) as Lord Asriel, Dafne Keen (Logan) as Lyra. Lin Manuel Miranda (creator and star of Hamilton) is set to play balloon pilot, Lee Scoresby.

I cannot wait to watch both of these shows.

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