Sleight of Mind

A Ph.D. in E.S.P. has treated the local illusionist Mysterion better than an M.B.A.

Halloween, 2008 / No. 21
Photograph by Thomas Blanchard
Thomas Blanchard

It’s awfully mean to compare someone you’re fond of to Michael Jackson. And yet, whenever I see Mysterion the Mind Reader gallivanting through Parkdale, I think of M. J., pre–nose job, in the horror-film-within-a-music-video “Thriller,” trying to warn off his sweetie pie in the poodle skirt before he turns into a bloodthirsty werecat. Like Michael, Mysterion is “not like other guys.”

You can believe his often-spun story about having a parasitic twin cut from his stomach or not (I don’t), but there’s no denying Mysterion is one natural-born freak. Long before he concocted his popular psychic-entertainer act and declared himself a “Ph.D. in E.S.P.,” Mysterion was the kind of boy for whom every day was Halloween. Today, he puts his eccentricities to work as a performer. From his home base in Parkdale, he haunts the West Queen Street West strip, booking himself into pubs and clubs, where he does magic tricks and paranormal treats as part of an olde tyme sideshow. You don’t even need to pay to catch his act, as he’s often found delighting strangers on the street with sleights of hand, or giving them a good unanticipated spook from behind. Somehow, Mysterion has managed to make a pretty good living out of being a weirdo.

To religious scholars, “mysterion” is a Greek word referring to something that is beyond the normal apprehension of mortals. But our man the mentalist says his stage moniker is more inspired by Spider-Man’s comic-book foe Mysterio, a master illusionist and special-effects wizard. One might suspect it’s also a nod to the Mexican wrestler Rey Misterio, since Mysterion’s a big wrest-ling fan. It could be a derivation of all three. Like the Marvel comics universe, Mysterion’s mythology is being constantly written and rewritten to suit his ever-changing audience. After several years of shadowing him, I’ve learned enough to know his birth certificate doesn’t actually say “Dr. Maximilian Mysterion.” But grilling him about his offstage life still feels tricky, like trying to build a house of cards. And so we’ll just have to wade carefully through this tale together, like skeptics in a carnival funhouse, for there is both amazement and truth to be found here, inside the weird world of Mysterion the Mind Reader.

Walking into Mysterion’s apartment is like taking a trip to a midway. Before I can even ask about all the creepy curios on display, Mysterion thrusts a plastic laser gun into my hand and fires up CarnEvil, a full-size arcade game plonked down in his living room. Soon I’m shoot-shoot-shoot-reloading, trying to keep up with him. My death is swift and merciless, and Mysterion cackles. His walls are alive with monster-movie posters. He’s got an entire room filled with wrestling figurines and other collectible toys. There’s a Victorian miniature dollhouse that, when you lean in close, reveals a tiny plastic Mysterion living inside, fingers to his temples in his classic mind-reading pose. (For twenty dollars he’ll sell you your own Mysterion action figure kit to paint and pose as you like.)

But not everything is child’s play here. Seconds after our game ends, Mysterion is whipping up gourmet grilled sandwiches and jockeying calls from agents looking to book him for everything from bar mitzvahs to burlesque shows to banking luncheons (his high profile clients include C.I.B.C. and Indigo Books and Music). If corporate gigs seem at odds with his Queen Street scenester image, they’re not. Mysterion revels in his ability to straddle art and commerce—he is both the freak show and the carnival barker.

“I know that can be confusing to some people,” he says, “but I think a lot of artists don’t have business sense. And it’s unfortunate, because their talent is being thrown away. I see people with great marketing skills with a subpar product who are able to finance their art and grow. And then I see people with fantastic abilities and they don’t have even a simple business plan, so they sit and wonder why they are not getting work. It’s sad. Not me. I won’t lose opportunities.”

Mysterion’s attitude explains why he is so easily recognized, even by those with no interest in magic. From Breakfast Television to Kenny vs. Spenny, there’s no camera he’s ashamed to mug for. He’ll start a sleight-of-hand routine on the streetcar. Bend spoons during dinner parties. Read your mind without warning while you’re waiting for a drink at the bar, particularly in Parkdale, where a night out without running into the guy with the white streak in his pompadour and a trick up his shirt sleeve is an increasingly rare experience. This desire—nay, compulsion—to cause a scene appears to be an inherent impulse, a switch that never turns off.

Lifting his shirt, Mysterion reveals a long, dramatic scar across his stomach, the souvenir from a deep cut in his flesh (and the former home of his aforementioned parasitic twin, or at least that’s the tale). “I remember being in the park or at the beach as a kid and everyone just gawking at it,” he says. “‘You’re that three-year-old freaky kid who doesn’t realize you’re different.’ I didn’t have any intent to scare anybody, but innocently, I did. So that perhaps is where some of my bravado stems from, being able to show that off.”

Born north of Toronto, in the former city of North York, thirty-four years ago this October 31st (so he claims), Mysterion was raised in government housing by his single mother and grandmother. His mom, Maggie, a God-fearing Irish lass, still lives in the same neighbourhood, often venturing downtown to watch her son pave his way to hell hosting devilish burlesque shows or summoning dark powers to read strangers’ minds. One night at Clinton’s Tavern, I watched Mysterion subject the feisty brunette to a very up-close-and-personal striptease. But while Maggie put on an air of shock, it was obvious she was part of the act.

“She is a rather loud and overly extroverted individual,” Mysterion says of his mother. “And she’s a good sport. She’s used to my torment. I used to suck on blueberries and lie on the steps and pretend I had wrenched my neck and fallen down dead. My dad is Moroccan Jewish. Maybe that’s where I get my mystic powers, from my dad. But I get my superstitions from my mom.”

The origin of his morbid sense of humour is more of a mystery. As a youngster, Mysterion would feed cookies baked with laxatives to his classmates. He also once locked his younger cousin in a broom closet with a plastic skull, delighting in his frightened cries and screams.

“There was this mean streak that I guess I do have inside of me,” Mysterion says. “If you ask me why, I don’t know. I’ve always liked the idea that I can freak someone out, on whatever level that is. I used to tell my other cousin, Chantelle, that our house was haunted, setting things up and making her believe it, acting all freaked out myself so she wouldn’t go in certain rooms. It was a thrill.”

As an adult, the prankster found a new kind of kick when he moved to Toronto’s Kensington Market, in 1996. He joined an Oi! band, the Blatherskites (memorialized on the out-of-print compilation Brewed in Canada), and took up amateur wrestling under the moniker the Blue Angel. But it was while working in the kitchen of the Parkdale rockabilly bar the Cadillac Lounge, in 2002, that he renewed his love of freaking people out with magic and the Mysterion character was born.

For years he had been amassing a collection of oddities—macabre museum treasures such as Fiji mermaids, witches’ teeth, and grotesque body parts swimming in jars. “I can remember one winter’s night, before I started performing,” Mysterion says. “I had no money in my pocket. I put a baby in a jar in my briefcase and took it over to Mitzi’s Sister, with a sticker on it that said ‘CONJOINED TWINS.’ People would try to look at it and I’d say, ‘It’s a sideshow exhibit I’m carrying around. If you really want to see it, I’ll take a toonie.’ It was so freezing that night, minus twenty or something. But I made my way through Parkdale to the Rhino and the Caddy. I got to Sneaky Dee’s and the Queenshead and Squirly’s, and into the Gladstone—when it was not what it is now. Twelve bars I went into that night. I got home at three in the morning, pissed drunk, with a hundred and eighty dollars in my pocket. And I thought, ‘I’m on to something.’”

That spooky something grew from a few arcane artifacts and mentalist feats to a full-blown production when Mysterion started inviting other weirdos into the act, many of whom still perform with him today. There’s his sidekick, the Wolfman, who writes much of Mysterion’s onstage shtick. Various girlfriends have been featured, from bodacious burlesquers to bloody human pincushions. Kindred spirits the Blue Demons often perform as his house band. The show is a combination of low-rent cabaret, Victorian parlour, and punk-rock house party. And while some of his mental tricks are truly amazing—he never calls himself a psychic, but his ability to probe thoughts is unsettling—his “sleights of mind” almost take a back seat to simply creating an environment where bizarre characters abound and anything can happen.

True to his self-proclaimed business sense, Mysterion says professionalism is the key to his success. “My basic rule of thumb is that you’ve gotta get your ass out there and you’ve got to do it whether it’s for a penny or a thousand dollars—do the show as if it’s for your mamma on her dying bed.”

His other rule is “always dress better than your audience,” which he does—usually in vintage suits and ties, although lately he’s also taken to wearing mismatched shoes.

But for all his ambition and hustle, Mysterion doesn’t dream of Vegas or Broadway lights, which is probably wise. While his profile grew somewhat in tandem with magicians such as David Blaine and Criss Angel, Mysterion doesn’t share his big-name counterparts’ commercial flair. Look past his psychobilly scenester appearance, the tattoos and the slicked-back hair, the creeper shoes and the retro style, and you’ll see a short man who walks with an unusual gait, a kink in his neck. The flip side to his gregarious, unreserved persona is the penchant for taking things too far for polite company. He is a misfit among misfits. As such, he feels more connected to other oddball club performers here at home, from his competitors in Carnival Diablo to his peeler pals in Skin Tight Outta Sight. (He helped the latter spearhead the first Toronto Burlesque Festival this July.) Mysterion also hates to fly, so he sticks around town, attending the occasional magic meeting—it’s true, Toronto has secret magician meet-ups!—content to be part of the city’s own particular cast of creeps.

When asked whether he feels accepted in Toronto’s arts community beyond the circus-like environs of Parkdale, Mysterion takes an atypically long pause: “Yes. But I don’t think it comes from my show. I think it comes from longevity and, dare I say, that I’m not going away. People realize that they have to accept me.”

There’s another element at work here, something out of his control. Even in creative circles, magicians rank somewhere below poets on the list of performers most people could do without. Mysterion is keenly conscious of his place on the entertainment fringe, but gladly rises to the challenge. A typical Mysterion performance involves comedy and costuming, acting and physical stunts, improvisation within a compelling narrative, and a show-stopping finale—often at pay-what-you-can prices.

“There’s film, TV, theatre, commercials, then magician, comic, juggler, mime,” he says. “It’s a totem pole, but it’s a very biased and bullshit hierarchy. I’ve seen horrible actors and fantastic mimes. I think the idea that magic is not a viable form of art is only there because magicians have not been able to perform in other formats, to walk into odd venues. That’s why my greatest talent is that I have the ability to adapt.”

Mysterion is currently in the process of adapting once again. Aside from working on a TV pilot and assuming the management duties of the local stranglehold wrestler the Kentucky Butcher, he has spent much of 2008 in semi-seclusion, redeveloping his act. He knows people have seen it all before, that he needs to suspend their disbelief once again. The sideshow displays are slowly being phased out, and he has recently introduced an extra-spooky gallows routine that he claims puts his very life in danger. Mysterion has performed feats like this before, but smaller ones that only risked damaging his hands. This time, he’ll be slipping a noose over his head—chosen by an audience member from a row of four neck-snapping real ones and one fake—and hoping his powers of persuasion and mind-reading hold (him) up. He’s even offering ten thousand dollars to anyone who can prove the real nooses are fakes.

Mysterion hopes his dedication to his craft will eventually lead to what he wants most—to dwell amongst ghosts and ghouls all the time, to combine his passions for collecting terrifying trinkets, documenting historical horrors, and performing spook shows into an all-inclusive environment where he can live out his nightmares and invite others to share in supernatural mysteries year round. He continues to collect his taxidermied creatures, specimens in jars, and historical artifacts. He has just purchased a set of waxed heads—an African man and woman—from Madame Tussauds, and spent a good twenty minutes of my visit browsing for haunted human skulls on-line.

“I’m not a person who does things like take vacations or play outdoor sports or drive a nice car, what most normal men in their thirties would want,” he says. “I would prefer a human skull and a snake. I worked hard to have these things you see around me, but this is not the be all and end all. I want to get a home—not just to live in, but as a performance space, an art space, with a small museum. My dream house is a haunted house.”

Liisa Ladouceur is a poet, arts reporter, and real live goth living in Parkdale who likes arcane words and dead things. Her dream date is Jack Skellington. Last updated Halloween, 2008.