Thought provoking, mystifying and amusing, comedy stage-hypnosis, frequently perceived as an excellent form of entertainment. Stage hypnotists, commentators and researchers have served to illustrate a number of factors, specific to stage performances, providing valuable insight into the illusion and deception involved in stage hypnosis. Often people equate hypnotherapy with stage-hypnosis, formulating ideas of hypnosis and hypnotherapy based on perceptions of stage-hypnosis. I feel it is very important to demystify hypnotherapy and thus, I believe it is therefore necessary to demystify stage-hypnosis. This article aims to give a brief overview of the deception and misdirection involved in stage performances, as opposed to hypnosis or psychology. Indisputably, stage-hypnosis contains trickery and conspiracy and differs greatly from hypnosis used in the professional context of a clinical setting.

Misleading and persuading the audience that the hypnotist has a source of power, that they somehow acquired the skill of telepathy through training, undeniably involves creating an illusion. Many stage performers refer to themselves as illusionists. Hypnosis is therefore, not an accurate description for much of what is occurring on the stage. Ormond McGill, who was originally a magician, wrote New Encyclopaedia of Stage Hypnosis, which is an excellent read for those of you who find the topic of stage hypnosis interesting. Paul McKenna refers to New Encyclopaedia of Stage Hypnosis, as ‘truly a goldmine of information’. The book cleverly outlines the abundance of tricks used in stage hypnosis. It contains numerous examples of tricks used by stage-hypnotists commonly referred to as ‘hypnotrix’ or ‘fake hypnosis’ which entail misleading the audience and ‘sleight of hand’.

‘Most laymen…believe that in demonstration of stage hypnotism the subjects behave in a very special way because they are in a special state (“hypnotic trance”). In fact, much of the lore about “hypnotic trance” seems to derive from the performances that are observed in stage hypnotism. However, appearances are at times misleading and especially in so in the case of stage demonstrations’ (Barber et. al., 1974).

One example of a common and well-known ploy used in stage hypnosis consists of, requesting participants adhere to instructions they receive via a microphone. The participant listens to the instructions of the voice via the microphone such as, ‘Blink! Now blink again, great! And blink again and now close your eyes please’. The supposed hypnotist on the stage, in an authoritarian and domineering tone (which cannot be heard by the participant) is suggesting ‘your eyes are heavy, extremely heavy, you try to keep them open, but you will fail to do so…’ Thus, the hypnotist suggests he has control over the participant mind. This is just one version of what is commonly referred to as ‘private whispers’.

Another tactic used by stage hypnotists as a convincer is the ‘human plank’ (full body catalepsy). This trick presented as supposedly hypnotising the subject, so that their entire body is rigid. The tactic consists of the participant suspended between two chairs and a man or woman standing on their chest. Hypnosis is a completely inaccurate explanation for what actually takes place during this particular performance. This trick can be demonstrated by placing any individual, (even a petite woman) in the correct required position, between two supports or props and they will in fact, be able to bear the weight of another person on their chest. For example, a petite woman is likely to hold a weight of approx 250lb. The weight, which one can support, obviously varies depending on the individual. Sceptics have demonstrated the trick, in order to demystify stage hypnosis. Such tactics involve using the human body’s capabilities. This ploy among similar tactics, referred to among stage hypnotists, as ‘self-working’.

It is also noteworthy to mention that, those who volunteer to participate in stage performances give permission to the hypnotist. In other words, as one might say, they are up for the laugh. Barber et. al., 1974, published an important and influential review of stage hypnosis. They proposed that successful stage hypnosis requires the selection of hyper-suggestibility or heightened suggestibility in participants, using specific techniques and then selecting from this sample those who are extroverted, in a large audience statistically there are likely to be approximately 10% suitable volunteers.

Successful stage performance relies on willing volunteers from the audience; however, they also frequently incorporate plants or stooges. Stage-hypnosis tactical use of plants or stooges, as ‘volunteers’ acting as role-models, encouraging and motivating the others on the stage, as well as placing a demand on the volunteers to go along with the show. It therefore, has to be said that there are some elements of psychology involved in stage performances. The psychological factors contributing here include peer pressure, the significant influence of the imagination, in addition to, the prevailing demand characteristics of the stage and the audience. All of these components are integral to the stage performance.

An important factor, highlighted in various stage performances, is the occurrence of amnesia in participants. Notably, regarding hypnotherapy it in fact a disadvantage to experience amnesia. A professional hypnotherapist wants their clients to remember what was suggested. If one experiences elements of amnesia, the professional therapist will address this issue. Therapy is of benefit when one is capable of remembering what went on during hypnosis and can take the insight gained and skills learned with them outside the therapy session. It has been found that the vast majority of people are fully conscious while in hypnosis. 5% of the population do however, report an element of amnesia. Thus, 95% of the population are aware and experience a full recollection. Stage hypnotists use methods to select the small number of people who do experience amnesia for their performance (exploring the various methods used by the stage performers is beyond the scope this article). The stage hypnotists delude the participants and audience by informing them that through their power that the individual will forget everything that went on during the performance.

‘Stage hypnotists are showmen first […] none have any special power or knowledge placing them above other hypnotists. Their greater success is most often more apparent than real. Their one advantage is that they can select the subjects they work with, as well as what they do with them. (Weitzenhoffer, 2000: 401, author’s italics)

It is important to remember that frequently stage-hypnotists have training in stage magic consisting of skilled illusion, in many cases ‘smoke and mirrors’ and ‘sleight of hand’ (Barber et al. 1974). There are numerous strategies and indeed the list is extensive of tactics stage hypnotists use to convince their audience of their magical telepathic ‘power’. Attempts to associate their performance with hypnosis and classifying it as such seems to be for the purposes of creating an air of mystery and distracting the audience from what is actually occurring on screen or on stage. It is largely therefore, for commercial publicity.

‘Go to any large bookshop nowadays and you will most likely find that their shelves are liberally stocked with books about hypnosis and its numerous applications. Pick out any such book at random, open it anywhere and look anywhere on the page. The chances are that what you are reading is plainly wrong, is misleading, is questionable, has little support, or requires significant qualification for it to be accepted as a valid statement.’ Heap, 2006

In conclusion, stage hypnosis involves a combination, in varying degrees, of optimising physiological and psychological phenomena, creating an illusion and misleading the audience. Marketing these forms of entertainment, as hypnosis is a method used in an attempt to deter scepticism, whilst endeavouring to provide a more plausible explanation and intrigue their audiences. This invariably leads to great confusion and misunderstanding regarding the professional practice of clinical hypnotherapy. The benefits and application of clinical hypnotherapy are vast. Evidenced based clinical hypnotherapy is an extremely effective intervention in aiding clients in achieving relief from anxiety and stress. Hypnosis used in a professional context enables one to discover inner strengths, to gain insight, clearer perspective and self-awareness. Unfortunately, chiefly due to the attention and media coverage which stage performers receive, too frequently, people begin to equate hypnotherapy with stage-hypnosis, or base their perception and attitudes towards hypnosis on misinformation provided on screen on or in the content of ‘pop psychology’ books. I therefore believe that, it is the task of those in the field of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy who use hypnosis in treatment plans, to draw attention to the misinformation provided on stage, on screen, in new age therapies and ‘pop psychology’ books.  In highlighting the validity and effectiveness of evidence based clinical hypnotherapy we raise awareness of this effective method used in treatment plans, which can potentially aid one, in coping with life’s difficulties, develop psychological resilience, well-being and achieve long-term gains.

For more information, specifically addressing the performances of Celebrity Mentalists and Illusionist see Spectacular Psychology or Silly Psycho-babble?by Simon Singh This includes excerpts from his article on Derren Brown.