Secrets of Stage Hypnosis

20 September 2017

STAGE HYPNOSIS HAS OFTEN BEEN BLAMED for giving therapeutic hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, a bad name. I think both have their place in modern life, and ignorance is largely responsible for the confusion.

Cartoon of a hypnotist with top hat and cane, swinging a large pocket watch

Most of the apprehension people have about hypnosis stems from watching stage shows where members of the public appear to have been taken control of and are commanded to do ridiculous things against their will. This isn’t the way it works at all, but that’s how it looks and it’s the impression people walk away with.

As you’ve already learnt from reading some of the other pages on this site, hypnosis, or more specifically a trance state, is something a we all naturally drift in and out of to varying degrees throughout each day. Stage hypnosis merely takes this phenomenon to a more extrovert level.

Different forms, same thing

Consider a day out. You’re a spectator watching a Formula One racing event. It’s thrilling, it’s entertaining, it could be classed as a little risky even, but has it stopped you driving your car on the highway? Do you equate driving your own car with driving round that racetrack?

No; the two are just different forms of the same thing, and you don’t associate everyday driving with hurtling round the racetrack at 200mph! Stage hypnosis and therapeutic hypnotherapy are merely different forms of the same thing too.

Stage hypnosis – selection & preparation

At a stage show the hypnotist asks for volunteers rather than selecting people at random. That way he can be sure that any participants are natural extroverts, willing to ‘perform’ in front of others.

A willing subject

For hypnosis to be effective, the subject must want to be hypnotised. If not then they simply won’t be! That’s another reason the hypnotist asks for volunteers. It ensures they won’t be resistant.

Once on stage the hypnotist performs a few more subtle tests and suggestions to determine just how suggestible his volunteers are, selecting only those he knows will perform the best. He probably even threw some subtle suggestions at them in the the audience beforehand, noting their response.

So by now he has a few carefully selected victims willing volunteers who he knows are naturally suggestible and natural show-offs. He can’t really fail, can he?

Natural behaviour patterns exploited in stage hypnosis

The hypnotist also draws on a lot of natural behaviour patterns too; things that are nothing to do with hypnosis but which can all be used to enhance the illusion.

People want to fit in

Most people like to fit in and comply, so they’re hardly likely to go against his suggestions, or the actions of their fellow volunteers up on stage. They don’t want to spoil the show and, despite being rather extrovert, they don’t want to draw unfavourable attention to themselves by not complying. Have you ever agreed with somebody or gone along with something just to fit in, I wonder?

People abhor confusion

The human mind abhors confusion, and will do almost anything to resolve it. Being up on stage, the audience gazing up at you, bright lights shining you in the face; it’s not a very natural experience for most people. It’s confusing, it’s bewildering, and when faced with that situation a person will often take any suggestion given if it might lead them out of that state of confusion.

The hypnotist plays on this phenomenon, offering a suggestion that provides a way out, if only by means of distraction from that current situation. Have you ever found yourself in a strange or unfamiliar situation and somebody gave you a suggestion? I bet you took it readily because it offered a way out.

People like to be liked

People love to feel appreciated; they like feeling good about themselves. So when they start to ‘perform’ on stage and the audience warms to their antics, they love it. It encourages them still further, and it only takes a gentle push in the desired direction from the hypnotist. He’s like the ‘director’ instructing the actors how to perform.

A common (mis)belief about hypnosis is that people are under some sort of ‘control’. So, believing that to be so, the person cannot be responsible for their behaviour and this somehow lowers their inhibitions. In normal life a person is responsible for their actions, hence they’re far more critical of them. But believing that whatever happens they aren’t responsible for it, they often act more casually. Thus the participants are far more likely to act in a rather silly way without their usual fear of embarrassment.

Mental magic

So you can see, a lot of stage hypnosis is really only natural human behaviour patterns that the hypnotist is exploiting for good effect. A sort of mental illusion if you like. In fact the term ‘mentalist’ is often used to describe the person using such ‘mental magic’.

I suspect many people who have been hypnotised on stage probably haven’t been. They experience all the unfamiliar confusion of being on stage and performing to an audience, and that’s a new feeling to them. Not knowing what being hypnotised actually feels like, they easily attribute those unfamiliar feelings to that of being hypnotised.


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