Stage hypnosis inductions are an essential part of any performance. Although most of the hypnotic preparation work is done before the volunteers ever get up on stage, the audience are there to see someone being hypnotised – and the volunteers expect to be hypnotised too. A good stage hypnosis induction, then, is part of the entertainment and a powerful convincer for everyone who’s come along to the show.
So what makes a good stage hypnosis induction? In the therapeutic and clinical hypnosis worlds, inductions are generally done by progressive relaxation. From a theatrical point of view, this is next to useless. Progressive relaxation may be effective and beneficial to the subject, but it’s not very entertaining to watch! Stage hypnotists have long recognised that their inductions have to be short, sharp and fairly dramatic.
Perhaps the most famous rapid induction is that perfected by Dave Elman, who toured the vaudeville circuit as “The World’s Youngest and Fastest Hypnotist”. There are variations and elaborations on the theme, but the basic Elman induction involves asking the subject to close their eyes and to pretend that their eyelids are so heavy that they can’t open them. When the subject gets the feeling that they can’t open their eyes, they’re invited to test it. At this point, one of two things happens. Either the volunteer finds that they can’t open their eyes, or they instantly open them – in which case the hypnotist will say something like “that’s great, you’ve tested that you can open those eyes, now close them again and test when you get the feeling that you can’t.” The hypnotist might then go on to offer deepening suggestions once the subject has their eyes firmly closed.
This outwardly simple induction is very elegant and subtle. By asking the subject to pretend that they can’t open their eyes, the hypnotist effectively bypasses all resistance – there’s no harm in pretending, after all. The subject’s own imagination creates the feeling that they can’t open their eyes. In effect, they do all the hypnotist’s work for them, but in doing so, they’ve accepted the hypnotist’s suggestions about being unable to open their eyes. Once a subject has accepted that suggestion, they’re primed to accept any other suggestion the hypnotist might make.
Interestingly, Elman’s inductions have increasingly found their way into therapeutic and clinical hypnosis. These inductions produce an effective level of hypnotic trance very quickly, and saving time is always a practical consideration, whether you’re on stage or in a consulting room.
Variations include asking the subjects to imagine holding a balloon in one hand and a heavy weight in the other, and to note how one arm becomes heavier than the other; or to hold the tips of their fingers a few centimetres apart and imagine a powerful magnetic force pulling them towards each other. This type of induction utilises the subjects’ imagination and physiology – your arm will inevitably feel heavier if you hold it out for long enough pretending to hold a heavy weight. By linking these two things to a deepening hypnotic trance, the subconscious mind accepts the hypnotist’s suggestions without any resistance.
The second type of classic stage hypnosis induction also makes use of certain physiological properties. When mammals – including human beings – are startled, they instantly freeze. You’ll have experienced this “rabbit caught in the headlights” effect if you’ve ever heard a loud noise in your house late at night. You don’t instantly start running to investigate, or running in the opposite direction. Your whole body freezes, whilst your brain rapidly scans the environment to work out what’s going on and what you need to do about it.
This startle response is the hypnotist’s window of opportunity. When the body freezes, the brain is looking for information, and it’s likely to seize upon the first direct, unambiguous piece of information it gets – in this case, an instruction from the hypnotist. This is why a lot of the old-time stage hypnotists used the word “sleep”. It may sound corny, but it’s a direct, unambiguous, easily understood command that can be delivered in one syllable.
So how do you startle your subjects in a socially acceptable way on stage? Many hypnotists use the principle of the “pattern interrupt”. We spend our lives responding to certain patterns without even thinking about it. They always happen the same way, so we respond to them entirely unconsciously. A good example is a handshake. If somebody extends their hand towards you in a particular way, you don’t stand around wondering what to do with it. You just shake their hand. But if something happens to interrupt that pattern, then you get the startle response.
For example, if somebody offers you their right hand, but grabs your right hand with their left as you go to shake, or if they pull you towards them suddenly as you clasp hands, then the startle response is activated. The accepted pattern of a handshake has been suddenly and forcefully interrupted! If that person is a stage hypnotist, then the next thing they’re likely to say is “sleep” or “close those eyes and stand still”, or something similar. The startled subconscious mind hears that command and obeys, leaving the way open for all subsequent suggestions.
Other examples of the startle response induction include gently rocking volunteers then pulling them forward or backward. Derren Brown uses a lot of this type of induction a lot in his stage and TV shows – a famous example being convincing a woman at a greyhound race track to pay out on a losing ticket by suddenly slapping the side of her ticket booth. Startle response inductions are highly effective, especially when used on a group of volunteers who have been carefully primed and selected by suggestions throughout the show.
Stage hypnosis inductions are an indispensable part of the hypnotist’s repertoire. Although they’re the end result of a long process, they’re the part the audience actually sees. They’re immensely important to the success of the show as a whole.