POUND — Not too many people would consider getting buried alive much of a career move, but for Wise County's homegrown wizard of the weird, going six feet under is just another step in achieving his lifelong dream as a professional theatrical magician and escape artist.
Known fairly well in recent years around Southwest Virginia for his magic act, 34-year-old Eugene Mullins of Pound finally set his magical childhood dreams into action about 10 years ago, whether at kids' birthday parties or local festivals, honing his skills and craft with the determination to one day make it big.
"It's something I've always wanted to do. It's something I really enjoy doing. I like seeing the look on people's faces when I perform magic. And kids love it," he recently told the Times-News.
By day, Mullins delivers parts for Caterpillar. On days off and performing nights, he can be found performing sleight of hand and other magic in front of audiences wherever his act can be arranged — he said he did 22 performances in one recent month — and escape artistry is packed into his magic hat as well.
From boyhood, Mullins was always fascinated by magicians and their craft in general and the legendary Harry Houdini specifically.
Harry Houdini was always my hero. I always wanted to be like him. I hang upside down in straitjackets and escape handcuffs and water tanks. I've escaped jail cells and all kinds of different stuff," he said.
Among Mullins' bag of escape stunts really is a bag. He does a mail bag escape, and of course the famous straitjacket escape, along with the metamorphosis box and the water-filled milk can escape. He has also jumped off perfectly good bridges while bound by chains and handcuffs into the watery depths below and obviously does it quite well.
Mullins has performed his “Crazy Escapes” stage show in theaters and arts centers all over Southwest Virginia such as the Lee Theatre and the Appalachia Cultural Arts Center. He performed at the Bristol Food City Family Race Night this year, and also performed his death-defying escapes at the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair, Scott County Fair, and Miner's Park in Big Stone Gap.
Houdini set the standard for escape artistry back in the day, but the one stunt he never tried was an escape from the grave. Mullins said Houdini was planning a buried alive escape for 1927 but could not escape an untimely death in 1926. On Halloween night, no less.
What Houdini was unable to try, Mullins will, and in a salute to his hero, at least close to Halloween. At 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 at the Wise County Fairgrounds, during a Central High School baseball team annual fundraiser called Carnevil — a sort of outdoorsy Halloweenish Haunted House — Mullins will perform feats of magic and, to cap off his performance with what truly is a scary proposition, get buried in a pine box.
The idea is not to stay buried for long, of course.
"It will be my first time buried alive. My first time trying it. Six feet deep. Old timey pine box coffin. And the reason I want to do this, Harry Houdini never got to do this even though he planned it to be his next escape in 1927. But he died on Halloween night in 1926," Mullins said.
"Yeah, things can go wrong. There's been escape artists who have died trying it. I think moving through the dirt will be one of the biggest obstacles, of course. But really, the greatest obstacle will be getting out of the coffin."
Leaving as little to chance as possible, Mullins said he has been "working with a couple of engineers so the coffin won't collapse under the weight of the dirt. Yeah, you can't be very claustrophobic doing this sort of thing. I've been training to hold my breath for a long period of time. I do a lot of water escapes, so I've trained to do that quite a bit."
Still, there will be an element of risk. And an element of risk always attracts a crowd, something Mullins hopes will be the case to help out the CHS baseball team along with his, pardon the pun, emerging career as a magician and escape artist.
"We hope to draw a good crowd for it," he said.
Performing good deeds is Mullins' favorite sort of magic feat. He performs many times during the year for good causes, particularly for special needs and underprivileged children, especially during the Christmas season and during Wise County's Relay for Life.
Earlier in the day before attempting his buried alive escape on Oct. 22, Mullins will perform at the annual Special Needs Ball in Coeburn, as well as a benefits show to help raise funds for the town's Ringley Park Expansion, a project that will include special needs playground equipment.