Stage hypnosis, as the name suggests, is hypnotism performed in front of an audience for entertainment. Reviled and revered in equal measure, stage hypnotists have been legislated against, treated with suspicion and disdain, and denounced, paradoxically, as both seedy charlatans and dangerous Svengalis with almost supernatural powers of mind control. Despite this, stage hypnosis shows remain as popular as ever. Most people who think about hypnosis will think of a stage hypnotist encouraging their subjects to sing like Elvis or eat raw onions like apples.
There can be few theatrical entertainments, then, with such a long, colourful, controversial and successful history. Hypnosis has always had a theatrical element to it, right from its earliest days when it was known as “mesmerism” (and before that, if you consider the rituals of many early religions as a form of hypnosis and theatre). Franz Mesmer himself liked to perform mass inductions by connecting people together with a rope and charging it with “mesmeric force”, whilst wrapped in a swirling cloak and playing ethereal music on his glass harmonica.
Mesmerism swiftly fell out of establishment favour, but found a natural home on the stage. Mesmeric performers toured the 19th century music halls and vaudeville shows, presenting sensational entertainment under the guise of scientific demonstration. Charles Lafontaine, for example, used mesmerism to render his subjects impervious to pain, electrocuting them with batteries and burning them with candles to prove it. James Braid, the founding father of modern clinical hypnosis, developed an interest in the subject after seeing a Lafontaine performance in Manchester in 1841.
This crossover between stage and clinical hypnosis has continued right up to the present day. Dave Elman, author of the classic Hypnotherapy (1964), took his rapid style of induction into therapeutic work, after years playing the vaudeville circuit as “The World’s Youngest and Fastest Hypnotist”. Ormond McGill, “The Dean of American Hypnotism”, was an equally respected figure in hypnotherapy and stage hypnotism, writing the definitive Encyclopaedia of Genuine Stage Hypnotism (1947). In the UK, Paul McKenna, best selling author of self help books, rose to prominence with his hypnosis stage and TV shows.
So what can you expect from a stage hypnosis show, and how does it work? Broadly speaking, most modern stage hypnosis shows are played for laughs (stage magicians and “psychological illusionists” such as Derren Brown also use elements of hypnosis in their acts). Stage hypnosis shows are a form of comedy – the days of serious, or pseudo-serious, demonstrations are long gone.
Although each performer will have their own individual approach, stage hypnosis shows tend to follow the same format. Volunteers are selected from the audience, placed in hypnotic trance, and encouraged to act in all sorts of ways that are out of character or outside their usual range of experience. Classic stage hypnosis routines involve hallucination, altering mood or producing amnesia. Volunteers might be encouraged to behave like animals, children or famous people, or to believe that they have X-ray vision, or to forget their partner’s names. The effects can be quite startling, for both audience and volunteer!
The stage hypnotist gets results by a variety of means. Careful selection of volunteers certainly plays a part – the last thing a performer wants is a volunteer who refuses to co-operate or who won’t put on a good show. There is also the role of expectation. The audience, who have, after all, turned up expecting to see hypnotised subjects acting in weird and wonderful ways, are primed to play their part before they even get to the theatre. This can be reinforced with subtle suggestions from the hypnotist during the show, eg, “only intelligent people can be hypnotised”. A suggestion like that significantly increases the chances of getting compliant volunteers. Finally there is the role of misdirection and deception, the time honoured skills of the stage magician. Some hypnotists may well use stooges, just as some stage magicians use accomplices planted in the audience, but this is unsubtle, to say the least, and is easily found out.
The actual hypnosis, in the sense of an induction performed on stage, is the final piece of the jigsaw, a little piece of theatre in itself that reinforces the work that the performer has put in beforehand. Everything about a stage hypnosis show is designed to bring a group of volunteers to the stage who are willing to go with the process and entertain the rest of the audience. Paul McKenna calls it “3D karaoke”.
There will always be those who dislike stage hypnosis, but this is true of just about any branch of show business. In the end, that’s exactly what stage hypnosis is – show business and pure entertainment. To see it as anything else is to miss the point entirely.