Chris Carter is sitting in a restaurant on Lincoln Avenue playing with our minds. He hands a book to my friend Sue and tells her to pick a word. Any word at all. Memorize it. Think about it. Now close the book.

We wait while he studies Sue’s face. The book is one of those quick reads you find at the airport. This one is called Fatal Sin.

Carter asks for the first letter. It’s an e, says Sue. After a couple false starts, Carter begins jotting down letters on a piece of paper. He turns it over: the word is “eyeglasses.”

“How did you do that?” Sue exclaims. “That’s amazing.”

While he believes in ESP, Carter, 35, doesn’t claim to have psychic powers. “People can broadcast their thoughts in ways beyond words,” he says. “What I do isn’t really an ability. It’s a combination of skill and processes.” Still, he can call the serial number on currency, tell you what’s in your purse, and even cause a lightbulb to explode, all while his eyes are taped shut.

As a student at Illinois Wesleyan University, Carter majored in theater and psychology. “I’ve always had an interest in everything that was weird, bizarre, paranormal, science fiction–anything on the fringes,” he says. While doing doctoral work in theater history at the University of Michigan, he started developing a show “using psychological methods to interpret people’s body language.”

Now living in Sleepy Hollow, Carter tours the country, visiting as many as 150 college campuses a year, to perform his mentalist act. Mentalists, says Carter, are not magicians or psychics but something in between. “They tend not to be accepted in the magician community.”

In his new audience-participation show, Christopher Carter Messes With Your Mind, he tells stories, performs illusions, and features the stunts and tricks of three of history’s most famous mentalists. Alexander, “the Man Who Knows,” worked from 1910 to 1920 and popularized an act in which he would answer unspoken questions.

At the end of his show, he often declared that “one day the science of psychology will be taught in universities.”

Of all his claims, this was the one audiences found most outlandish.

Lulu Hurst, the “Georgia Magnet,” was a petite teenager who worked during the 1870s and ’80s. In her act she caused grown men to be hurled around the stage as if propelled by some powerful electromagnetic force. “She would hold up a broom or umbrella and no one could knock her over,” says Carter. “This was a huge sensation at the time.” In reality, Hurst was practicing a kind of hypnosis.

A blindfolded Washington Irving Bishop would drive a team of horses through city streets to find a single needle that had been hidden by a committee of civic officials. One of the officials would be attached to Bishop’s wrist with a wire, but would not guide him. During the 1880s and ’90s, thousands would line city streets to watch this feat. Bishop was actually practicing “muscle reading,” says Carter, a trick he uses regularly during his own performances.

“Unconsciously you want me to know where you’ve hidden something,” Carter says, “and your muscles have a behavior that tells me where you want me to look. You are actually leading me to the object.”

“The mind,” he continues, “is the last great unexplained frontier. I want theatergoers to leave my show deeply astonished, feeling that they have been introduced to and experienced a rare and wonderful entertainment tradition. And perhaps become aware that sometimes reality is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Carter performs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 from May 22 through June 10 at ComedySportz, 2851 N. Halsted. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Call 773-549-8080.

–Vicki Quade

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.