The premise of magic is much the same as the premise of art—the allure of magic is much the same as the allure of theater and art. Mages imagine some result, some reality they wish to make actual, and they work magic to do so. Playwrights, meanwhile, imagine realities that they make happen—if only onstage and for a brief time. Painters imagine realities and make them come into being.
Now, you’re right to point out, “Yes, well, one of those is imaginary—and we want something real.” Or, “All of those sound pretty imaginary. We want real things. Actual things.”
For the audience, sitting at a theatrical production—or a movie or a TV show—if they can immerse themselves in the production, then the art temporarily replaces their reality with its own, and they experience that reality. Of course, several factors have to align together for this process to work.
I’ll begin with the first factor that comes to mind: the audience has to suspend disbelief for a time. Every medium has conventions associated with it, and if an audience can become habituated to those conventions, then they can ignore that what they see is art or not real and trick themselves into accepting its “reality,” unless something happens that jars them out of the experience. Those conventions often play into historical context. If an audience feels unfamiliar with Elizabethan English as a convention of Shakespearean drama, then they will have a harder time suspending disbelief. By the same token, if audiences feel unfamiliar with soliloquies and bare, minimalist stages, then those conventions will alienate the audience. For a more modern example, consider how the faster frame rate for The Hobbit films was different and new enough to alienate many audience members, but people can adapt to frame rate changes and other medium conventions. Ultimately, if you can suspend disbelief, then you can immerse yourself. Of course, production values and good acting and a comfortable viewing experience can help.
In a way, the audience has to enter a trance state conducive to immersing themselves in the reality of the work of art. The audience should feel comfortable enough to watch and immerse themselves. The elements of the work can help trigger (generally light) trance states through the rhythm and movement and staging and pacing and action and music and sound on stage.
Secondly, the audience will generally only respond to works and topics and themes and characters in which they can feel invested, in which they can imagine themselves, and in which they can feel some kind of emotional sympathy or attachment. The work also cannot be so at odds with the audience’s perspective or worldview—at least overtly or oppositionally so—otherwise, the audience will likely grow defensive and adversarial.
Again, you’re right to point out that we’re still talking about imaginary things and not actual magical things. I would argue that real things are still happening, but maybe not the real things you’re interested in. I would say that intention matters here. Most theater and cinema and art intend to entertain and to make money through the public consumption of the art. And often, these intentions are successful with many folk. Other intentions—changing peoples’ minds about a subject, convincing people to do something or to believe something—other intentions also are often successful, at least for some audiences. Art, rhetoric, sophistry—representationality of most any kind—people have often accused these activities of having an occult character to them (Puritans and Evangelicals, in particular, but by no means only them).
In the past, I’ve occasionally used the term con/perception or some variant, and I’ve used this term to point to the linking of conception and perception. Long ago, I realized that I could only perceive what I could conceive of in some way and could only conceive of what I could perceive in some way. On a daily basis, I rarely encounter circumstances or phenomena within mundane reality as I experience it here in the United States that I do not already have a context for in some way. That is, most everything I encounter falls within some known for me. The most obvious site for me to point to for an example of where perception and conception fail to come together is in the hard theoretical sciences. Physics and other disciplines keep coming up against the limits of what the scientists can perceive via their instruments and can conceive of in making rational sense of the universe. In most cases, this breakdown happens at the limits of humanly perceptible scales: the absolutely macro-scale of the cosmos and the micro-scale of the subatomic world. Accordingly, science keeps trying to perceive harder through supercolliders and super-telescopes and computing power and so forth in order to conceive how the universe works on these scales. By the same token, science has to conceive of new ways to perceive the universe to try to make sense of it. How do we look for dark matter? How do we unify our understanding of gravity and relativity? Different scientists imagine, conceive of different approaches and explanations and test them and try to perceive what they’ve imagined to discern if it’s “real.”
When it comes to the occult, a similar principle of imagination is at work. We don’t like to admit it because it makes the entire enterprise appear as delusion and make-believe and purely subjective in character. I began this post by looking at magic’s theatrical and aesthetic associations on purpose, and I want to emphasize that every enterprise and discipline thrives on applications of imaginative, creative engagement. If you cannot perceive something to conceive of it, then you imagine it first and then see if you can conceive it. Or, if you can imagine conceiving of something, then maybe you can perceive it.
This process can be really dangerous on a social and psychological level, or at least really subversive. And the most common site people encounter such a subversion is in imagining what other lives and people and realities can be like. After all, if art can be immersive, then art works to lure us into immersing ourselves in art’s alterior, alternative realities—and to imagine ourselves within those realities. Or it lures us into imagining ourselves as someone else within that alternative reality.
This use of art is why diversity and representation are important in art, especially popular media. Imagine you’re a white person watching a television show about a poor African-American family living in the projects. They’re a family like any other, with parents working to put food on the table, kids going to school and being kids. The program has humor, so it works to disarm you and the distance you might try to maintain and your resistance to the program in the first place. The program has emotional investments that lure you into sympathizing with characters. Maybe you spot how your family has had similar working class problems. Imagine how immersed you can become, almost like you’re standing right at the edge of the fourth wall, in their living room, watching them eat and joke and tell stories about their days and problems. Imagine crossing into that room and asking if you can sit and talk with them. Imagine, even, imagining yourself as someone in that family. I can only imagine what such a program (and I’m thinking of Good Times, I have to admit) does as an immersive alternative reality if you’re African-American. If nothing else, I can imagine comparing that family’s reality to your own, leading to critiquing how the program presents that family but also maybe critiquing your own experience. However, any person watching that program will wind up doing the same thing but from their perspectives and experiences.
Now, with magic, most persons’ daily experiences are likely not particularly magical. And the idea of doing magic can seem strange. However, many folks who dabble with magic wind up having odd, occult, uncanny, magical experiences. Often times, those experiences are more intense and “real” than for folks who are trying to do magic everyday. Often, though, those newbies touch the edges of that magical side of the world, see there’s something there, and they pull away and return back to the mundane reality. After a point, the experience fades, and they even forget the utterly strange things they encountered. Chaos Magic talks about the psychic censor as being at work here. And there’s something that gets at us to convince us that magic isn’t real—or that we should just forget about it all and go back and watch some more Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead or some football.
I would argue that magic, art, culture, psychology, con/perception, disbelief, the psychic censor all come together. I’ll be going into these topics as I move forward in this current series, talking about what I’ve termed halthaya, hurur, and mûl-ôl. I glanced against many of these notions back when talking about Talker, but if I’m going to talk about magic, then I think I need to talk about what keeps us away from the magic. Many polytheists and other pagans have recently (within the last few months) addressed how the modern world disenchants us from experiencing the enchanted reality of the world, and I’ll be going into my take on that topic as I move forward.
We’re often the ones who get in the way of the magic, but other things help us get in the way.
 One comment I remember hearing at the time was that the frame rate made it easier to see how the props were, well, props and not actual swords and staves, and the costumes seemed just a bit more costume-like rather than regalia or armor. Here, since the audience had not habituated to the frame rate, the illusion of theater and cinema fell apart, and the frame rate exposed the artifice.
 If you want your criticism of art and “mere” entertainment and consumerism and reproduction, see Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno’s The Culture Industry and Aesthetic Theory, Benjamin’s Illuminations (edited by Arendt), Baudrillard’s theories on simulation and simulacra, and Foucault, of course. Or, my mind goes to these writers and magic.