NEW YORK – If you're looking for an escape, a city street performance might be the answer — one with lock boxes, handcuffs and maybe even a water torture chamber or a giant block of ice.
Harry Houdini (search) is long dead, but escape art (search) is alive and well, fueled by attention-grabbing stuntmen like David Blaine, reality shows like "Fear Factor" and even recent, true life-or-death situations.
Blaine on Friday will begin his most difficult stunt to date, in which he'll be suspended in a locked box for 44 days over the Thames River (search) in London — with only water to get him through.
"David Blaine has done a few of the things Houdini did, but Blaine has given these things a renaissance" that stems from the hype, challenge and public nature of Blaine's stunts, said John Moehring, editor of MAGIC magazine.
Though Blaine is often characterized as an escape artist, he doesn't actually break loose of the binds he gets himself into, but instead endures them in front of spectators. His most high-profile stunts have included being buried alive for several days, encasing himself in ice and standing atop a 10-story high pole for 36 hours.
Still, Blaine's escapades in the allied arts have helped create buzz around escape art's revival.
The popular NBC reality show "Fear Factor" and its copycats have also renewed interest by having contestants endure escapist-style situations.
"'Fear Factor' is tapping into the exact same emotions escape artists have used," said modern-day escapist Mark Cannon, who performs stunts with his wife Sheila around the world. "'Fear Factor' in a way has allowed people to try similar things that test their physical merits as well as their resourcefulness."
Cannon added that because of the many life-and-death situations and extraordinary stories of survival that have played out in recent years, escape stunts "are more relevant and meaningful today."
"In this modern era of terrorism and horrible things that have happened, people are being forced to confront their own mortality more than ever," he said.
In addition to performing — and accepting challenges from the public like Houdini did — Cannon organized the first escape artists' convention last spring and established an online catalog that sells handcuffs, locks and other tools of the trade.
He has also resorted to his share of extremist antics. Recently he got himself out of a triple-locked solid steel diamond-plated box while his hands and feet were shackled. He also escaped from a 6-foot-high water torture chamber (a container filled with water) and hung upside down from a hot air balloon while confined by a strait jacket.
Cannon is drawn to art for the adrenaline rush and the mind-over-matter control it requires. The appeal for the public, he believes, is about the mystery of escapism and the victory involved when the obstacle is overcome.
"When the little guy takes on these insurmountable challenges, it becomes a metaphor for life," Cannon said. "When the guy or gal finally escapes and the audience cheers, it's because they themselves feel a release."
But not everyone is impressed with take-it-to-the-limit feats.
"I don't really care about it," said Anne Dienna, 28, of New York, where Blaine has done most of his stunts. "I think it's kind of silly."
Thirty-something Long Island resident Cristina Barden, who works as a store planner in Manhattan, said she finds escape art interesting, but hasn't seen Blaine perform.
"I'll read about it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch. I don't need to stand there for 30 days watching him frozen in ice," Barden said exaggerating the time he spent in the ice. "But if he wants to do it, that's great."
Even the magic industry turns its nose up at escape artists.
"Some magicians call them the wrestlers of the magic industry," Moehring said. "The problem is, you know the person is going to get out. There's no mystery to escapes. So what's the entertainment in that?"
Cannon disagreed, saying escapism does have mystery because spectators never know how, or if, the artist will go free. He also said the art represents the human condition.
"Escape artists are tapping into the potential all of us have," he said. "If you can first deal with your own personal issues and overcome them, most people are capable of incredible things."