If only some people are susceptible

 to hypnosis, how can stage hypnotists

confidently ply their trade?

* * * * * *


 The special guest was a hypnotist, who proceeded to put three members of the studio audience “under.” The three subjects, all women who wanted to quit their smoking, were put in a trance. The hypnotist told one of them that when he signaled her to wake up, she would have an urgent craving for a cigarette, but when she smoked it, it would taste like common sludge.

Like a trained seal, the subject, when awakened, furiously lit a cigarette and, after inhaling, did a take with as much flnesse as a consummate comedienne. What had been the object of her desire only a second ago now repulsed her. The very brand of cigarette she chain-smoked now tasted like a combination of chalk and paste.

You’ve probably seen other stage hypnotists at work Perhaps the most famous is Pat Collins , the “Hip Hypnotist,” who has starred in many Showtime specials and in her own night-club on the Sunset Strip . She can effortlessly trans-form seemingly normal spectators into would-be opera singers and burlesque stars.

Textbooks on hypnotism assure us that not everyone can be hypnotized and that even among those who can, there is a wide range of susceptibility and suggest-ibility. Yet stage hypnotists have been popular entertainers for over a century, relying on unknown volunteers from the audience as their subjects, and one rarely sees a hypnotist fail at his or her appointed task.

When we see a stage magician, we assume trickery. We buy our ticket specifically to see trickery. Is stage hypnosis fakery in the same sense, or do stage hypnotists know something clinical hypnotists do not?

To find out more about this Imponderable, we used many sources.

Not surprisingly, no stage hypnotists would even talk to us on the record--—or much, for that matter, off the record. But we unearthed quite a bit of material written by stage hypnotists for their fellow practitioners, as well as enough medical and scholarly material to piece together much of the story.

Most skeptics believe that stage hypnotists use confederates who pretend to be hypnotized. Actually, in the days of burlesque this was sometimes the case. Most hypnotists, even then, preferred to find confederates who could be put into a trance, for their most popular tricks involved physical stunts, such as placing the subject’s head and feet on separate chairs and having the subject’s body be as rigid as a corpse. Why didn’t the subject’s body collapse without support? Because these confederates were predisposed toward falling into hypnotic catalepsy, a condition in which consciousness is temporarily lost and the muscles become rigid. Epileptics, during severe seizures, are cataleptic, and some schizophrenics during psychotic episodes are similarly impervious to pain and suffering. With a known cataleptic confederate in hand, at least one segment of the entertainment was consistently foolproof.

Other bogus hypnotists used props to achieve their effects. Some “stopped the blood from flowing” by placing a golf ball under the armpit of the subject. The confederate simply pressed. his or her arm against the ball and circulation suddenly stopped.

These crude tricks might have worked for barnstormers who performed one- nighters in small towns, but they are dangerous. and needlessly expensive today. Unless the hypnotist can find a different stooge at every performance, the buddy confederate runs the risk of being discovered, discrediting the reputation of the hypnotist. Even the best confederate is a financial liability—an unnecessary mouth to feed. Props are also dangerous, especially in television performances, where close-ups are a fact of life . Stage hypnotists don’t need confederates or props to successfully ply their trade, but they do need to follow some of the procedures described below to ensure a successful act.

Find the Right Subject

Most stage hypnotists call for volunteers from the audience. If the subjects onstage were a random sample of the general population, the hypnotist would be in trouble. But they aren’t, for several important reasons: 1. Volunteers are self-selected candidates to be good subjects. People who go to a hypnotist for treatment are more likely to be hypnotizable than the average person, if only because their mere presence confirms their belief in the efficacy of hypnosis. Attendees at hypnotic demonstrations are even more , much more, susceptible, and volunteers, except for the professional skeptics, who  are deliberately trying to undermine the stage hypnotist (more on them later), are likely to be extremely hypnotizable.

Psychologist Martin T. Orne points out in an article in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology that “.. ... . much hypnotic behavior results from the subject’s own conception of the role of the hypnotic subject as determined by past experience and learning, and by explicit and implicit cues provided by the hypnotist and the whole situation.” To extend Orne’s thesis, if a subject, before going onstage to volunteer, believes in the power of the hypnotist, presumably because of past exposure to or experiences with hypnosis, the subject is going to be more willing to suspend customary behavior and, perhaps, more importantly, is going to feel no great responsibility for his or her behavior onstage when “under” hypnosis.

2. An effective stage hypnotist chooses subjects by carefully determined criteria. Almost every hypnotist does a “demonstration” before commencing his or her act. Usually, the ostensible purpose of the demonstration is educational—to inform the audience a little bit about how hypnosis works or to allay audience fears about what the hypnotist will maintain is not a mystical process. The actual purpose of this demonstration is to search for susceptible prospects for the act.

Most hypnotists use a couple of old chestnuts for this demonstration. They may put the audience as a whole “under” and inform them they have just eaten a tremendously sour lemon. By carefully scrutinizing the reactions of an audience with its eyes closed, the hypnotist can easily spot promising prospects. Even more commonly, the hypnotist will ask audience’ members to squeeze their eyelids together. Then the audience is informed that their eyes have been shut and cannot be opened. The hypnotist asks the audience to try to open their eyes. Those who can’t open their eyes have passed the test.

The hypnotist is likely to socialize a bit with the crowd, encouraging some verbal interaction, which serves to loosen up the audience for the act, but much more importantly allows the hypnotist to observe other behavioral traits that determine successful volunteers . In general, the hypnotist is looking for highly sociable people, uninhibited types who will not fear looking foolish in front of other people. People who are terrified at the prospect of losing control of their emotions are the worst candidates for hypnosis. The hypnotist wants to find friendly but trusting types, who will be willing to subordinate their egos while onstage. These psychological factors are as important in scouting prospects as the lemon or eye tests, and audiences rarely have an inkling that the hypnotist’s repartee is masking crucial preparatory work. Although you won’t see this part of the act on a good television program, stage hypnotists use this type of warm-up on talk shows before proceeding with their act—it is a crucial diagnostic tool for the hypnotist in screening subjects.

The hypnotist is faced with one more major problem in selecting subjects. Even if the hypnotist discovers the best prospects in the audience, it doesn’t mean they will volunteer. Folks tend to be skeptical when the hypnotist selects subjects; they are much less suspicious when volunteers are sought. Furthermore, there is another advantage to selecting “real people” from the audience--—they will be friends of others in the crowd, heightening audience interest and enthusiasm.

So how does the hypnotist get to work on the most susceptible audience members while supposedly asking for any volunteers? Obviously, if enough people volunteer who passed the pre-tests, the hypnotist should select them . If some of the most promising prospects are recalcitrant, the solution is to allow volunteers to come onstage, but to perform difficult tricks only on those who have shown a disposition toward susceptibility. Several manuals for stage hypnotists suggest that the good hypnotist diplomatically but firmly approach those who are not susceptible and simply ask them to leave the stage. Many hypnotic stunts do not require the entire group of subjects. In the talk show we watched, for example, only one of the three subjects was used for the most demanding stunt. When group stunts are needed, the hypnotist has many tricks in order to induce subjects to conform to the behavior of the rest of the group (see below).

Pressure the Subjects to Behave in the Desired Manner

The hypnotist is at a tremendous advantage over the subject during the show. A volunteer mission is a submissive one. It is amazing that so many people are willing to go onstage and risk losing control in front of hundreds (or in the case of television) millions of people. Yet, there is no problem hiring recruits for shows like Let’s Make a Deal or Truth or Consequences. the latter of which didn’t even provide much financial compensation for fans willing to humiliate hemselves. It is impressive what good sports the “bargainers” are on Let’s Make a Deal, dressing and acting outlandishly in order to attract Monty Hall’s attention and then smiling as they trade boats they have won for a basket of hard-boiled eggs. The same contestant might cry buckets if she lost a wallet with fifty dollars in it. It is unclear whether game show contestants are in a trance, but hypnotists have many tricks to make their subjects as compliant as Monty Hall’s contingent. Here are some of the pressures, usually exerted by the hypnotist, that encourage volunteers to become docile subjects.

1. The volunteers should be made to feel that the success of the act weighs on their shoulders. Unlike magicians, who use volunteers as comic foils, the hypnotist makes sure the subjects know how important they are. This places tremendous pressure on subjects, since they tend to be nervous to begin with and have now been told that the hypnotist is dependent upon them.

2. The alien world of the stage, especially with lights, cameras, microphones, etc., places the subjects in a vulnerable position. And more likely to feel dependent upon the hypnotist.

3. The audience, unwittingly, acts as a major source of pressure on the subject, and a good hypnotist will intensify this phenomenon. Much of the time while onstage, subjects have their eyes closed. Their only sources of information are the voices of the hypnotist and the studio audience. With their laughs and applause, the audience rewards “good” behavior and punishes, if only with silence, “bad” behavior. Usually, “good” behavior is defined as outlandish behavior, and subjects, who are by no means incapable of sensing audience reaction, want to please the audience as well as the hypnotist (and many hypnotists get laughs from the audience by making sarcastic comments about reticent subjects, making it even harder for subjects not to conform to the wishes of the hypnotist). Of course, exhibitionists love to perform in front of an audience and feel the same performance pressure that professional actors would. Hypnotists love “hams,” since any bizarre behavior they exhibit will be credited to the hypnotist rather than the subject. One ham can nullify the harmful effects of a stage full of duds.

4. The hypnotist’s opening remarks subtly indoctrinate the audience into believing the idea that hypnotizable people are superior types. During the hypnotist’s introductory lecture, much stress will be placed on the fact that hypnosis is a learned activity, one that requires some practice and concentration. The hypnotist will usually add that creative, imaginative, and intelligent people make particularly good subjects, and that not everyone can be hypnotized. Even skeptics in the audience will probably be misdirected by this spiel. They would assume that the hypnotist is merely trying to entice recalcitrant volunteers by flattering potential prospects “smart enough to take advantage of this opportunity”—a classic sales technique—or merely attempting to justify what seems like a superficial undertaking. If this part of the lecture increases the number of audience volunteers, it’s fine and dandy. But the main purpose of the hypnotist’s stress on the wonderfulness of highly susceptible people is to put the ego of everyone who walks onto the stage on the line. If a person fails to “go under” and “perform,” it will reflect badly on them—they are “uncreative” and “rigid” compared to the good subjects. The hypnotist’s lecture is also designed to stifle skeptics and would-be hecklers, particularly skeptics and would-be hecklers who are planning on volunteering expressly to prove to their buddies that hypnosis is all fake. If the hypnotist can convince an otherwise cynical person that he or she is inferior if unable to be hypnotized and thus might be looked down upon by the audience, the hypnotist is put back in control.

5. The hypnotist makes asides to the subjects while onstage, conversations to which the audience are not privy. 0. McGill, whose

1947 Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism and subsequent Professional

Stage Hypnosis are classics in the field, recommended that the hypnotist misdirect by turning his or her back to the audience, pretending to do some technical work in inducing hypnosis, and then rather aggressively ask the subjects, out of hearing range of the audience, to help him fool the audience. According to McGill,

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred—if the performer has any ability whatsoever, he can “stage whisper” his instructions to the subject, and receive full cooperation. With his back to the audience, the hypnotist is in a perfect position to whisper instructions and requests to the subject in a low voice.

This type of blatant tampering with subjects is rare today, and McGill eventually modified his stance slightly. But he remained insistent that a skilled performer could get a subject to act on instructions even if the subject was not actually in a trance . If a hypnotic trick is misfiring, McGill suggests whispering to the subject and asking the subject to follow the instruction even if he or she doesn’t “feel it.” If done properly, the audience never knows what is transpiring:

These intimate asides spoken quietly and personally to the subject are important to youj stage handling of the hypnotism entertainment . The audience hears only the major portions of your comments which describe and explain each experiment, but the subject receives full benefit of your confidence which makes him feel responsible to concentrate well and respond successfully to each test. Further, such handling increases the direct influence of your suggestions.

This principle of basically conducting two shows at the same time, one for the audience and the other for the subject or subjects is an important factor .. .. .. in your successful staging of the hypnosis show.

All of these pressures upon subjects, some of which are self-inflicted, combine to produce the behavior that the hypnotist desires and can even lead to what hypnotists call simulation. When subjects are simulating, they are not in a hypnotic trance but act as if they were. Several scientific experiments have indicated that responsive subjects will do what they think the hypnotist wants them to do, not necessarily what they are feeling or imagining at that particular point in time.

A friend, let’s call him Dave, told us the story of his first brush with hypnosis. The hypnotist, when first inducing hypnosis, told him, “You feel your arm rising from the armrests of the chair.” Dave did not feel his hand rising . He wondered whether the hypnotist’s instructions meant that he should try to raise his arm or whether it meant that he would feel his arm move involuntarily. Dave still did not feel his arm rising. Finally, he told the hypnotist he didn’t feel his arm rising. “Lift your hand off the armrest, and then you’ll feel your arm rising,” instructed the hypnotist. Dave willfully lifted his hand and did feel his arm rising.

Was Dave hypnotizcd? The hypnotist said he was. The phobia for which he sought treatment was eliminated through hypnosis. Yet he couldn’t perform a simple task like lifting his arm involuntarily. But what if Dave’s first hypnotic session had taken place onstage, with hundreds of people in the audience? Would Dave have felt confident enough to say, “I don’t feel my arm rising”? Probably not. He most likely would have simulated a hypnotic state, lifted his arm, and succumbed to the pressures of the hypnotist.

So What’s This Hypnosis Stuff All About?

Hypnosis has been mystified to the point of ridiculousness. Most reputable hypnotists will admit that it is a form of concentration. Many psychologists see hypnosis as a form of unconscious role-playing, with the hypnotist supplying the scenario. Some experts see hypnosis as little else but the expansion of a subject’s ego to include the hypnotist’s consciousness. Stage hypnotists understand all of these principles and always see to it that subjects are deprived of any extraneous sensory input. The hypnotist wants subjects attuned only to the hypnotist.

One researcher compared the hypnotist-subject relationship to that of a mother and baby. Just as a baby sees the mother’s breast as a part of his or her own body, so subjects see their hypnotic experiences as coming from within themselves rather

than through the instructions of the hypnotist. Hypnosis melts the ego, according to Lawrence S. Kubic and Sydney Margolin:

It is this dissolution of ego boundaries that gives the hypnotist his apparent “power”; because his “commands” do not operate as something reaching the subject from the outside, demanding submissiveness. To the subject they are his own thoughts and goals, a part of himself.

This view of hypnotist as Machiavellian manipulator, written in 1944, would be disputed by many today . The current thinking is that otherwise healthy individuals cannot be persuaded to do anything against their will while under hypnosis, including acting like a fool in front of an audience.

But these scary implications of hypnosis are virtually irrelevant to the stage hypnotist, who cares much more about a smash show than whether subjects were in a deep trance . As Theodore X. Barber, a tireless demystifier of hypnosis, states, “The successful hypnotic entertainer is actually not interested whether or not the subjects are really hypnotized. He is interested in his ability to con his subjects into a pseudo performance that appears as hypnotism—to get laughs and to entertain his audience.

For the dirtiest little secret of stage hypnotists is their most potent weapon: It is not necessary to hypnotize subjects in order to get them to act as if they were hypnotized. Barber and various other partners have devoted a great deal of time to experimenting with this subject. Barber, for example, will tell subjects, while fully awake, that a brief period of time will seem like a long time. When later asked to approximate that period of time, those subjects planted with the suggestion reported that the time period was much longer than a control group. Barber was able to induce extremely strong hypnoticlike reactions in fully awake subjects. Eight percent of his subjects would immediately respond to at least seven out of eight maneuvers involving physical reactions (e.g., “You can’t stand up—try it,” o r “You are very thirsty . . . dry and thirsty”). Significantly more subjects would respond to one or two commands.

Kenneth Bowers, in his book Hypnosis for the Seriously Curious, corroborates that many people “under hypnosis” will respond to similar simple commands, particularly the old favorite your arm is getting heavy.” He claims that 20 percent can respond satisfactorily to a suggestion that they are unable to smell a bottle of household ammonia.” In a random group, someone will always be responsive to almost all suggestions, no matter how difficult, while others will be unresponsive to all suggestions, regardless how simple . The stage hypnotist, of course, must find those responsive subjects.

Barber and collaborator William Meeker theorize jn their excellent article “Toward an Explanation of Stage Hypnosis” that the very fact that stage hypnotists define their act as hypnotic rather than as mere suggestion increases their chances of success. Barber and Calvtrley ran an experiment in which they told one group they would be part of a hypnotic experiment and the other that they were being tested for the ability to imagine . After that point, the two groups were treated identically. They were then tested on a scale of suggestibility that Barber had developed. The subjects in the “hypnosis experiment” proved to be “significantly more responsive to the test suggestions than those told they were participating in an imagination experiment.” Why were they more responsive?

Postexperimental interviews with subjects suggest the following tentative answer: When subjects are told that they are participating in a hypnosis experiment, they typically construe this as implying that (a) they are in an unusual situation in which high response to suggestions and commands is desired and expected, and (b) if they actively resist or try not to carry out those things suggested they will be considered as poor or uncooperative subjects, the hypnotist will be disappointed, and the purpose of the experiment will be negated. .

Since the introduction of one word, hypnosis, into the experimental situation raises subject’s responsiveness to suggestions, we can expect a high level of suggestibility in the stage situation which is inevitably defined as hypnosis and which includes a performer who has been widely advertised as a highly effective hypnotist.

Precisely. There is such a thing as hypnosis. It has been used effectively as an anesthetic for patients allergic to medicinal alternatives. It has helped countless people regain concentration, dissolve phobias, lose weight, and delve into their past.

But because it is “only” a form of meditation and concentration, the canny stage hypnotist has an advantage over ocher magicians . Hypnotists have two chances to execute their tricks. If hypnosis fails, then the entertainer’s knowledge of human nature, which we have sketched only in bare outline, can be used to induce subjects to act identically to those who are put in a trance. The audience doesn’t know the difference. And most of the time, the subject doesn’t know the difference either.



Copyright @ 1986, 1987 by: David Feldman

William Morrtow and Company , Inc.

105 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016

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