On Saturday, Nov. 17, Michael Howell will voluntarily put himself in a precarious situation: Shackled from hand to foot, Howell will be enclosed in a coffin and buried. He'll scramble to escape before time—and luck—run out.
This stunt, and much of what Howell does as an illusionist and magician, is to help raise funds for Rose Ranch Animal Rescue in rural Marana. The rescue is located on 12 acres of a 30-acre family property.
The drive to the place is scenic, with cotton fields and broad vistas along the way. Once on the dirt road leading to the ranch, I passed pedestrians and a man on a tractor. They all waved. It was a nice respite from the busy streets of Tucson.
Howell gave me a tour of the rescue and introduced me to the various animals. I saw roaming donkeys Dolly, Molly and Georgia. Beans, the potbellied pig, snorted a greeting, and two peacocks strutted in their enclosure. I saw chickens, doves, horses and baby goats. The atmosphere was peaceful, and even the animals seemed relaxed.
Howell said he's been running the rescue for eight years on his own and takes in only what he can handle. With $2,000 a month spent on food, and another $1,500 on medicine, vet bills and supplies, it is a big undertaking.
His buried-alive stunt is one way to raise money and attention for the animals.
"I was thinking, 'What would be a good way to get known in the community and nationally?' If someone at this level in my career can pull off an event like this, people will think, 'What can he do next?' The more I am known, the more people will come to my shows, so I can support the rescue," Howell said.
Howell started performing at the age of 2 in his family's Arizona Rose Theatre Company. As a toddler, he was mesmerized by magic and even mimicked a trick he witnessed. At 15, he entered his first magic contest and placed second in the Arizona Stage Magician of the Year competition. Now, at 23, he has a busy schedule.
"I perform my tush off. I did more than 30 shows in October. Birthdays, bar mitzvahs, corporate events—you name it, I do it," he said. Howell also teaches magic to kids three times a week at Twin Peaks Elementary and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton schools.
Howell's most-dangerous stunt to date was Harry Houdini's Chinese water-torture cell. With shackles around him, he was lowered into a glass tank of water—and he escaped. While his passion is magic, Howell realizes that stunts like that sell tickets. And ticket sales help support the rescue.
When asked why animals are so important to him, Howell looked at the big picture. "Animals have a purpose in life. ... These animals are put here to balance the world. ... I believe animals are here to help people, and in return, people help animals. It's a give and take.
"These animals are very healing. I take them to hospitals so people can pet them. You see a lot of smiles on faces. They feel love from the animals. ... It's all about energy and healing."
While friends and family think Howell is "crazy" for doing the buried-alive stunt, he said, "The operative word is 'believe.' With the power of belief, I've been able to do so many things."
He reflected back on his escape from the water-torture cell, and on other trying circumstances. In all instances, he believed in a positive outcome. He will no doubt use this mindset to help him escape his burial.
When we spoke, Howell said he was preparing for the event and felt confident about it. "I'm very happy to have the ability to believe and have faith. The power of believing makes everything happen."