Learning from a Stage Hypnotist

So I went to a stage hypnosis show, with the eager goal of going on stage and experiencing it. I wanted to have a greater appreciation of how stagecraft, lights, audience and unpredictability affected things, as well as to experience being a hypnotic subject with a seasoned professional.

Unfortunately, the night didn’t live up to my expectations, but I found myself learning a lot by negative example.

So there was still plenty of value.

These are my collected thoughts.

Bear in mind that the hypnotist was one of the most reputed stage hypnotists, with a few books and quite a legacy. I’m keeping him anonymous here because despite the experience, I don’t want to tarnish his reputation.

Firstly, it was way too expensive. At £15 I expected more of a developed show rather than a pretty waffley 90 minute presentation only a third of which attempted some hypnosis. The price greatly harmed the show – only 12 people showed up, more than a quarter of which were friends/trainees of the hypnotist. It could have been turned into a nice little intimate evening, with even greater warmth and connection, but sadly it went the other way. It felt more like “screw you guys, this is now a waste of my time”.

I’d always learned that good rapport and positive expectancy was important for hypnosis.

The rapport with the audience wasn’t great.

There was a lot of negativity in the first moments. He talked briefly about “how great would it be if you could choose how to feel, whenever you liked? Who would enjoy that?” (a few arm raises). Somehow this is (naively) tied into hypnosis and the power of the mind. He then adds “Right now, I choose to be happy. I wouldn’t normally be, only 12 of you showed up, it cost over £600 to rent the theatre, so I’ll make a huge loss. I could be really depressed about that. But, here I am, and I’m able to smile about it”.

We’re the schmucks who actually did fork out £15 to attend, and we’re made to feel guilt and sympathy for the performer. Not great for positive expectancy!

Then, lots of waffle about the power of the mind, delivered with enough vagueness to carry no actual application whatsoever. I can barely concentrate on what’s being said because the speaker is buzzing unnecessarily loudly, and his mic isn’t even working (does it need to, with 12 people? Soundcheck anyone?)

Then he relied on the same practiced-patter weak jokes that I’d seen him do in youtube videos.

Example – asking the audience to lift their hands out and bend one at the wrist. Then saying to a random audience member “oh, you did that ever so well sir… I’ve got some sweeties in the car we’ll talk later”. Maybe in front of a big, lively audience that would earn a laugh, but to an audience of 12? It just comes across as slightly forced and weird.

He also did a strange handlock party-trick that goes like this – put your hands out, thumbs pointing down, palms outwards. Put your right arm over your left, and interlock your fingers. Somewhere in the middle of doing that, whilst misdirecting, he sneakily switches one of his hands around the other way, so that by the time he interlocks his palms, he’s able to outstretch his arms and hands normally. The audience of course isn’t able to, because they followed his instructions and so their arms become twisted around if they outstretch them.

The point of this? Entertainment I guess. He tries framing it as persuasion and influence, which doesn’t make much sense.

But whats the real implication? That if you follow his instructions, you’re likely to be deceived and made a fool out of. This really doesn’t help the trust and rapport, if he’s wanting people to be open minded to hypnotic instructions later. And he should be wanting that.

The rest of the first half then consisted of mentalism – magic tricks dressed up to look like some kind of psychological phenomena.

Unfortunately I was picked to go on stage for this section. The first trick was using a forced card trick to pretend to do some body-reading and lie detection. I played the role of “student”, watching the subject with the performer, pretending to play dumb and marvel at his lie-detection skills. Excruciatingly, the performer milked this opportunity, pointing out things that weren’t really happening to further cement my “not being skilled enough to notice” against his supposed expertise.

Next up was my turn for a demonstration of the ideomotor effect using a ghostbusters type ESP card selection test. I was to choose one card out of five, place it on a stand, then limply hold his wrist and not try to guide him. He was to pick up on the subtle muscle movements, and be gradually guided to the right card by a process of elimination. Of course he already knows the card, with a choice of five its not hard to find a way of identifying the one I’ve chosen.

What I find annoying about these kinds of routines is that they absolutely don’t demonstrate the thing they’re supposed to. Why give off the impression that he’s an expert body reader and lie detector, if he isn’t? If he was, why rely on a trick? Why make people believe ideo-motor effects would work against my efforts? If they did, why not show that for real? A pendulum test, oujia board, or brief Ernest Rossi style therapy work would surely be a better way to go if the goal was to marvel at the ideo-motor effect. If not, what’s the point? Maybe its just me. Maybe I should chill out and lower my standards for what counts as entertainment.

Finally in this segment, a girl was asked to choose from three coloured circles. She chose red, he claimed she was unconsciously, subliminally influenced by the black X on the back of it. She assured him it was because it was her favourite colour. The “persuasion” element came off as slightly embarrassing and pointless.

What was the point of this lengthy segment of mentalism, in a hypnosis show? To build belief and awe in the performer? If so, it was a hugely misjudged idea. The overall suggestion was a) he’s out to trick you, b) he’s full of shit c) he’s more interested in making cheap digs at people and shaming them in snidey ways than encouraging warmth, trust and connection.

By this point, I really didn’t trust this guy at all, and didn’t feel like he respected or cared for the audience experience.

After just forty-five minutes, an awkward fifteen minute break.

The second half gets more hypnotic.

The performer does his best to lose what little positive expectancy and trust there was by announcing that he might not be able to hypnotise anyone with so few, that maybe his friend (an excitable woman trainee/hypnotherapist/lifecoach/reiki healer) could help him out, and that we should just go with it and play along.

Some suggestion tests, that were delivered with no compelling persuasion or belief at all. Heavy book, light balloon, magnetic fingers, magnetic hands. I can be responsive to such things, but wasn’t here, because there didn’t seem to be any suggestion of positive belief. It was more like “okay schmucks, lets see if this works”.

Despite that, I volunteered to go on stage, with one other guy, and the trainee woman in the middle.

The performer asked me what my background in hypnosis and NLP was. I have no idea how he picked up on this, maybe from my comments during the lie detection mentalism routine. I played dumb – read a book once, seen some Derren Brown shows.

He was then quick to dismiss Derren, and make a fool of me in the process, by saying “well Derren isn’t a hypnotist, he’s a MAGICIAN”. A soft laugh from the audience. What? Derren trained in hypnosis before magic, and is a deft practitioner of suggestion. What’s this guy talking about? Are they mutually exclusive? Should I apply the same logic to the performers lame magic tricks? It really irked me, especially when I was a little nervous about the idea of being on stage about to humour his hypnosis routine. By that point, he could forget the idea of “playing along”, he hadn’t earned it.

He hypnotised the woman first, who went out like a light for whatever reason (possibly hypnosis, possibly compliance). Then for me and the guy, he strangely chose to do a progressive relaxation induction. This surprised me, it was a poor choice. Whilst I’m sat there with my eyes closed, feeling the audience members watching and the bright lights, a slow relaxation induction gives way too much time and space for intrusive thoughts and awarenesses. Then a ten-to-one deepener, which is just as laborious and ineffective.

Yet, amazingly, he went straight from that into a post-hypotic command to sleep. He said “nod if you understand”. I didn’t nod, because I didn’t understand why I should do that. Then he said again “WILL, NOD IF YOU UNDERSTAND” like I was a naughty school kid. So I nodded, thinking “ok, I understand, but I don’t agree, and I’m not playing along”.

Then he went into “laughing at a comedy film”. Stupid music came on. Smiled, because I felt so awkward and embarrassed. Here I am, finally on stage in a stage hypnosis show, head bowed and eyes closed, listening to stupid music in front of an audience, where the performer apparently believes I’m hypnotised and will want to laugh at nothing. Excruciating. I start running through scenarios of opening my eyes and whispering “I think I’ll just opt out now” and how this will affect things, what if the others see or hear and feel discouraged also.

The performer seems frustrated with me, and makes jokes about me not having much of a sense of humour. I found this irritating. He didn’t even check for hypnosis.

He came over to me, asked me to open my eyes. Did a stiff arm routine – but not in a hypnotic, automaticity, “happening” kind of way as a result of suggestion. He asked me to make it stiff so he couldn’t bend it. Ok. Make it stiff so I couldn’t bend it. Ok. Now test, and whilst keeping it stiff, try to bend it. What the fuck? That’s like saying “don’t move your feet from the floor, but try to walk”. Is that supposed to be hypnosis? Its just a conflicting command. Its a million miles from the suggestive elements of the Elman eye closure induction for example. When I kept my arm stiff, he then waved in front of my face saying “sleep” (the post-hypnotic command), saying I was hypnotised.

At this point, I had the very vivid thought of “this guy really doesn’t understand what hypnosis is. All this shit is compliance engineering. My imagination isn’t wrapping itself around any of these suggestions or implications, and it wouldn’t because I don’t trust you and you don’t even believe in what you’re attempting to do”.

But this is why my experience of being a subject was so valuable – to see what kinds of things might run through a subjects mind.

I hated the idea of being misunderstood – and do generally. I hated the idea that if I bowed my head and closed my eyes, people would gasp as though I was somehow hypnotised, and the performer would allow this to boost his ego with no regard for my actual experience. Why I should let that happen? He’d had this air of smug criticism all night, a strange pervasive negativity and disdain for people leaking through the cracks. Why should I offer anything in return?

If he’d been warm, friendly, sincere (i.e. not just rote-learned working-club style jokes) and confident with what he was doing, I think I would have responded much better. I’d have wanted to for a start. A few forceful, rapid inductions would have worked as an effective springboard into some inner-letting-go.

Then he went straight into a “forget the number three” routine. Amnesia phenomena, just like that. Worked on the woman (of course), but not for me or the other fella. Then not being able to lift a heavy bottle. Same results. We just hesitantly, awkwardly lifted the bottle.

Then that was the end of it, which was actually a huge relief. He thanked us, we returned to our seats.

Really, is that it? The hypnotic element amounted to about 10-15 minutes after the suggestibility tests and waffle, and the only hypnotic effect was his friend hanging off his every word. I can’t say I just attended a hypnosis show – I don’t really know what that was.

In our seats, he tried to do a group “happy place” kind of thing, but it was a bit rushed, forced and not particularly engaging.

Outside in the bar, I chatted to some of the other attendees. This part of the evening was pretty interesting.

The other guy who was on stage, although not responsive to any of the tests or routines, seemed a bit spaced out and said he felt like he was still up there on stage. The chances are actually very high that he is highly hypnotisable, yet still didn’t respond to the suggestions, likely because they were worded so poorly, or delivered with conflicting expectation and incongruence. Maybe he just didn’t trust the guy either.

Another “hypnotist” audience member (training via a very over-priced distance learning course – how is that even possible?) claimed to be able to hypnotise anyone. The trainee woman marvelled at how she wasn’t able to lift the glass, and how unfair it was that we were. An older hypnotherapist chap made himself known, so I asked him this: “if the subconscious is automatic, does that mean that the conscious mind must be also?” He misunderstood the question and started telling me about the subconscious, as well as some vague but of course remarkable client stories. Oh well.

The performer emerged, and I asked “when you’re out on stage and there’s a small audience like tonight, do you absolutely believe you will still be able to hypnotise people, or do you doubt it?” His answer was “a bit of both really”.

I’m not really sure what that means, but then the whole night was a bit like that.

Then I asked why he didn’t do more rapid, forceful inductions like I’d seen on one of his videos with a larger, American crowd. His response was “that was appropriate for the audience, they were much bigger. You have to adapt to the audience”. This didn’t make sense to me. I’ve thought about it since, and it still doesn’t make sense. A more forceful, rapid induction would have definitely been more effective for me than a prolonged, progressive relaxation. My mind is fast and wanders all the time – it shouldn’t be given time to do what it wants and hang on to conscious control. It needs to be directed for automaticity to occur. Oh well.

Someone else brought up the idea of actual hypnosis, and showing us fascinating things. He defensively argued that the evening is just entertainment, that is all. It shouldn’t be about teaching, illustrating ideas or anything like that. Just entertainment.

The performer then asked “the important thing is, did you find it entertaining?” I nodded, compliantly as I had on stage, but really I was thinking “well, mildly, but no more so than listening to someone chatting in a pub”.

Strangely enough, I do actually like the guy. I didn’t think his show was very competent, and the showmanship and audience rapport was definitely lacking. He’s been doing this for decades though. Maybe people don’t get more effective, maybe they lose a bit of inspiration, a bit of motivation, a bit of give-a-shit factor as time goes on. Maybe he’s tired and just trying to make a buck. Maybe he was genuinely blown out by the small audience (it must be a worse-nightmare scenario to deal with that as a performer). So I can empathise.

Was it worthy of attendance? Yes, but for completely different reasons to what I initially expected.

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