Stage Hypnosis – The Skeptic’s View

Stage hypnosis has long had something of an image problem. It’s often denounced as manipulative and exploitative, a dubious entertainment that routinely humiliates people. It’s also attacked on two rather contradictory fronts. On the one hand, stage hypnotists are dismissed as frauds and charlatans. On the other, they’re seen as irresponsible users of dangerous mind control powers. So just how accurate is the skeptic’s view of stage hypnosis?

The first criticism, that stage hypnosis is somehow morally wrong, is really just a matter of personal taste. As every stage hypnotist would be quick to point out, the audience is composed of paying adults, who are fully aware of what to expect from the show and what being a volunteer is likely to involve.

Some stage hypnotists may suggest that events are beyond the subject’s control. In truth, however, the performer is very careful to select only those people who can be trusted to put on a good show. Introverted people who are uncomfortable being the centre of attention do not make for good entertainment, so they are highly unlikely to end up on stage (if they even attend the show in the first place). The stage hypnotist’s success depends on bringing an agreeable band of willing and extroverted people before an audience and helping them to put on a show. As such, stage hypnosis is no more manipulative or exploitative than karaoke. Paul McKenna’s description of it as “3D karaoke” is a good analogy.

Whether stage hypnosis is somehow fraudulent is a more complex question. No doubt there have been some stage hypnotists who used stooges planted in the audience, in just the same way that some stage magicians have used accomplices. Just because some performers choose crude or unsubtle ways to obtain their effects is no reason to dismiss the practice as a whole.

The comparison between stage magic and stage hypnosis is a telling one, since both performers are trying to achieve an overall effect – the effect that an audience has paid to see. Showmanship, misdirection and deception all play a part in this. Ormond McGill, author of the seminal Encyclopaedia of Genuine Stage Hypnosis (1947), was quite open about the role of deception in stage hypnosis routines. Entire acts can be based on “off-microphone whispers”, basically asking the volunteer to play along with the hypnotist’s suggestion to fool the audience. Of course, the hypnotist would need to be very sure that the volunteer would actually do this!

Other sleight-of-hand tricks include routines that look hypnotic but which aren’t, such as the “human plank” trick where the volunteer is made rigid and suspended between two chairs. This has more to do with physiology than hypnosis. Or the stage hypnotist might make a “fake challenge”, for example, suggesting that the volunteer cannot open their eyes but never actually asking them to try. From the audience’s point of view, this looks like a hypnotic challenge has been issued, when it hasn’t. If the volunteer was asked to try and open their eyes, they might well do so!

All of this is sleight-of-hand, and as such, a legitimate part of any show business act. In other ways, however, the stage magic/stage hypnosis comparison is misleading, since nobody watches a stage magician expecting to see real magic. Everybody knows that the performer is creating an illusion, and the fun is in suspending disbelief or trying to work out how it’s done. With stage hypnosis, there’s always the question about whether the volunteer is “really” hypnotised or not. This is more difficult to answer, since there’s always been a lot of disagreement about what hypnosis actually is, and whether it’s a special, identifiable state or not. Some skeptics dismiss the whole thing as the product of suggestion, but this just pushes the whole question back another stage – after all, what is “suggestion” if not a form of hypnosis?

Most practitioners of hypnosis these days, whether clinical, therapeutic or stage hypnotists, tend to define hypnotic trance as a highly focused state of attention. By that definition, participants in a stage hypnosis show are most definitely hypnotised, as everything the hypnotist does is designed to focus their attention on acting out their suggestions. Modern research linking hypnosis to the REM state (Hypnosis and Trance States, A New Psychobiological Explanation – J. Griffin, I. Tyrrell, 1998) also ties in with this, since a lot of the bizarre behaviour displayed on stage is actually very common in dreams – seeing things that aren’t there, acting out of character, adopting different voices and so on. Hypnosis, and all of its associated phenomena, such as amnesia, sensory distortion and age regression, is an everyday state that we all dip into and out of every single day of our lives. The stage hypnotist just creates and uses that state deliberately, for the purposes of the show.

Finally, there is the idea that stage hypnosis is somehow dangerous. In the UK, the 1952 Hypnotism Act was introduced to protect the public from bad or unscrupulous hypnotists. In effect, a stage show claiming to use hypnosis has to be licensed by the local authority. A slew of bad publicity and high profile court cases led to a review of the Act by the Home Office in 1995. Their report concluded that “there was no evidence of serious risk to participants in stage hypnosis, and that any risk which does exist is much less significant than that involved in many other activities.”

Of course, people are fully entitled to be skeptical or dismissive of stage hypnosis, just as they are fully entitled to be dismissive of stage magic or stand up comedy or any other type of entertainment. However, to see stage hypnosis as inherently wrong is simply unjustified. It’s a form of entertainment that you may or may not enjoy, depending on your personal taste.

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