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Stage hypnosis is hypnosis performed in front of an audience for the purposes of entertainment, usually in a theatre or club. Expert opinion is divided over whether participants' responses are best explained as being due to an altered state of consciousness ("hypnotic trance") or by a combination of deliberate deception and ordinary social psychological factors such as disorientation, compliance, peer pressure, and ordinary suggestion.
A modern stage hypnosis performance regularly delivers a comedic performance rather than a demonstration to impress an audience with powers of persuasion - effects of amnesia, mood altering and hallucination are demonstrated in a normal performance. Stage hypnosis performances often encourage audience members to look further into the benefits of mind powers.
Stage hypnosis evolved out of much older shows conducted by Mesmerists and other performers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Scottish surgeon James Braid developed his technique of hypnotism after witnessing a stage performance by a Swiss Mesmerist called Charles Lafontaine in 1841. Braid recounts similar performances by "electro-biologists" in his day, e.g., the following pamphlet for an "electro-biology" performance by a Mr. Stone which begins by clearly emphasising that a "waking state", as opposed to hypnotic or Mesmeric somnambulism, was being employed.
Persons in a perfectly wakeful state, of well-known character and standing in society, who come forward voluntarily from among the audience, will be experimented upon. They will be deprived of the power of speech, hearing, sight. Their voluntary motions will be completely controlled, so that, they can neither rise up nor sit down, except at the will of the operator; their memory will be taken away, so that they will forget their own name and that of their most intimate friends; they will be made to stammer, and to feel pain in any part of their body at the option of the operator – a walking stick will be made to appear a snake, the taste of water will be changed to vinegar, honey, coffee, milk, brandy, wormwood, lemonade, etc., etc., etc. These extraordinary experiments are really and truly performed without the aid of trick, collusion, or deception, in the slightest possible degree.
These are identical to many of the demonstrations which became central to subsequent "stage hypnosis", in fact it seems that little changes except the name and the introduction of the hypnotic induction, etc. Likewise, the novelist Mark Twain similarly recounts a Mesmeric performance which clearly resembles 20th century stage hypnosis, in his autobiography.
The absence of any reference to "hypnotism" in these early performances, indeed before the term was coined, and the fact that they often lacked anything resembling a modern hypnotic induction is consistent with the skeptical view, that stage hypnosis is primarily the result of ordinary suggestion rather than hypnotic trance. Indeed, early performers often claimed that they were influencing their subjects by means of telepathy and other supernatural powers.
Others, however, were delivering performances that displayed the wide range of hypnotic manifestations to their audiences. In the United States, for example, in the 1890s, there was a small group of highly skilled stage hypnotists, all whom were managed by Thomas F. Adkin, who toured country-wide, playing to packed houses. Adkin's group included Sylvain A. Lee, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert L. Flint, and Professor Xenophon LaMotte Sage.
Throughout the 20th century, despite adopting the term "hypnotism", stage hypnotists continued to explain their performances to audiences by reference to supernatural powers and animal magnetism. Ormond McGill, e.g., in his Encyclopedia of the subject wrote in 1996 that:
Some have called this powerful transmission of thought from one person to another “thought projection”. The mental energy used appears to be of two types: magnetic energy […] generated within the body and telepathic energy generated within the mind. […] The two work together as a unit in applying Power Hypnosis. The operation of the two energies in combination is what Mesmer referred to as “animal magnetism”.
However, this is not what Braid meant by "hypnotism", a term coined in opposition to theories of Mesmerism, to stress the fact that the results were due to ordinary psychological and physiological processes, such as suggestion and focused attention, rather than telepathy or animal magnetism. Indeed, after meeting with Mr. Stone, experimenting with his own subjects, and presenting his findings on such performances to the Royal Institution, Braid concludes,
There is, therefore, both positive and negative proof in favour of my mental and suggestive theory, and in opposition to the magnetic, occult, or electric theories of the Mesmerists and electro-biologists. My theory, moreover, has this additional recommendation, that it is level to our comprehension, and adequate to account for all which is demonstrably true, without offering any violence to reason and common sense, or being at variance with generally admitted physiological and psychological principles.
However, modern stage performers often continue to misuse the word "hypnosis" in describing their shows and encourage misconceptions about hypnotism by confusing it with Mesmerism for dramatic effect.
Mesmeric and other stage performances changed their names to "stage hypnotist" in the 19th century. They had originally claimed to produce the same effects by means of telepathy and animal magnetism, and only later began to explain their shows in terms of hypnotic trance and suggestion. Hence, many of the precursors of stage hypnosis did not employ hypnotic induction techniques. Moreover, several modern stage performers[who?] have themselves published criticisms which suggest that stage hypnosis is largely the result of sleight of hand, ordinary suggestion, and social compliance, etc., rather than hypnotic trance. Most notably, the well-known American magician and performer, Kreskin, has frequently carried out typical stage hypnosis demonstrations without using any hypnotic induction. After working as a stage hypnotist and magician for nearly two decades, Kreskin became a skeptic and a whistleblower from within the stage hypnosis field.
For nineteen years I had believed in [...] the sleeplike "hypnotic trance," practicing it constantly. Though I had nagging doubts at times, I wanted to believe in it. There was an overpowering mystique about putting someone to sleep, something that set me and all other "hypnotists" apart. We were marvellous Svengalis or Dr. Mesmers, engaged in a supernatural practice of sorts. Then it all collapsed. For me anyway.
After experimenting with his own subjects for several years until he was satisfied he could perform "stage hypnosis" without any hypnotic induction or trance, he concluded, "The battle of semantics may be waged for years, but I firmly believe that what is termed 'hypnosis' is, again, a completely normal, not abnormal, response to simple suggestion." An outspoken skeptic regarding stage hypnosis, Kreskin not only actively debunked stage hypnotists' claims, but went so far as to offer a substantial monetary reward, $25,000, to anyone who could prove the existence of hypnotic trance. The reward has been unsuccessfully challenged three times. While debunking the "sleep-trance" concept, Kreskin, like other skeptics adopting the nonstate position, was keen to emphasise that he felt the value of hypnotic suggestion had been frequently underestimated.
Role of deception
Due to stage hypnotists' showmanship, many people believe that hypnosis is a form of mind control. However, the effects of stage hypnosis are probably due to a combination of relatively ordinary social psychological factors such as peer pressure, social compliance, participant selection, ordinary suggestibility, and some amount of physical manipulation, stagecraft, and trickery. The desire to be the center of attention, having an excuse to violate their own inner fear suppressors and the pressure to please are thought to convince subjects to "play along".[page needed] Books written by stage hypnotists sometimes explicitly describe the use of deception in their acts, for example, Ormond McGill's New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnosis describes an entire "fake hypnosis" act which depends upon the use of private whispers throughout:
[The hypnotist whispers off-microphone:] “We are going to have some good laughs on the audience and fool them… so when I tell you to do some funny things, do exactly as I secretly tell you. Okay? Swell.” (Then deliberately wink at the spectator in a friendly fashion.)
- Participant compliance. Participants on stage tend to be compliant because of the social pressure felt in the situation constructed on stage, before an expectant audience.
- Participant selection. Preliminary suggestion tests, such as asking the audience to clasp their hands and suggesting they cannot be separated, are usually used to select out the most suggestible and socially compliant subjects from the audience. By asking for volunteers to mount the stage, the performer also tends to select the most extraverted members of the audience.
- Deception of the audience. Stage hypnotists are performers who traditionally, but not always, employ a variety of "sleight of hand" strategies to mislead their audience for dramatic effect.
The strategies of deception employed in traditional stage hypnosis can be categorised as follows:
- Off-microphone whispers. The hypnotist lowers his microphone and whispers secret instructions to the participant on stage, outside the audience's hearing. These may involve requests to "play along" or fake hypnotic responses.
- Failure to challenge. The stage hypnotist pretends to challenge subjects to defy a suggestion, for example, "You cannot stand up out of your chair because your backside is stuck down with glue." However, no specific cue is given to the participants to begin their effort ("Start trying now!"). This creates the illusion that a specific challenge has been issued and effort made to defy it.
- Fake hypnosis tricks. Stage hypnosis literature contains a large repertoire of sleight of hand tricks, of the kind used by professional illusionists. None of these tricks require any hypnosis or suggestion, but depend purely on physical manipulation and audience deception. The most famous example of this type is the "human plank" trick, which involves making a subject's body become rigid (cataleptic) and suspending them horizontally between two chairs, at which point the hypnotist will often stand upon their chest for dramatic effect. This has nothing to do with hypnosis, but simply depends on the fact that when subjects are positioned in the correct way they can support more weight than the audience tend to assume.
- Stooges. Several experts, including Kreskin, have stated that stage hypnotists have been known to make use of stooges (also called horses) who travel from show to show. A stage hypnotist may only require a single stooge because by using him first for each demonstration real subjects from the audience will tend to follow his lead and imitate his responses. Moreover, for the climax of the show, the hypnotist will often focus on one or two subjects to demonstrate more difficult and dramatic responses involving apparent hallucinatory experiences. A single stooge can be used for this purpose.
Having not only had a chance to watch famous stage hypnotists of the 1940s and 50s such as Slater and Polgar at work but having also had a chance to have fairly extensive personal contact with other stage hypnotists, I believe I can throw some light upon the situation. To begin with, one should be aware that many stage hypnotists use stooges or plants.
Role of hypnotist and subject
Due to the stage hypnotist's showmanship and their perpetuating the illusion of possessing mysterious abilities, the appearance of a trance state is often seen as caused by the hypnotist's power. The real power of stage hypnosis comes from the trust the "hypnotist" can instill in his subjects. Subjects have to cooperate and be willing to follow instructions and the hypnotist will employ several tests to choose the best subjects. Some people are very trusting, or even looking for an excuse to abdicate their responsibilities and are apparently able to be 'hypnotized' within seconds, while others take more time to counter their fears.
Suggestion is very powerful and a good hypnotist will know how to deliver suggestions that can create better entertainment for the audience. In his book Deeper and Deeper by Jonathan Chase, he talks about delivering suggestion, more importantly, The Super Suggestion a phrase he coined in his first published book in 1999
"From this moment everything I say to you. Every single thing I say, no matter how silly or stupid it seems will instantly become your reality. Everything I say will instantly become your reality."
He emphasises the use of repetition but warns that when they have accepted the suggestion then everything that the hypnotist says to them after this point will become an irresistible suggestion.
In a stage hypnosis situation the "hypnotist" chooses his participants carefully. First he gives the entire audience a few exercises to perform and plants ideas in their minds, such as:
- only intelligent people can be hypnotized
- only those who are open-minded to being hypnotized and willing to participate.
These suggestions are designed to overcome the natural fear of trusting a stranger with the greater fear of becoming an object of ridicule as one who is unintelligent, unsociable, and joyless. Out of the crowd the hypnotist will spot people who appear trusting, extraverted and willing to put on a show. The hypnotist starts them off by having them imagine ordinary situations that they have likely encountered, like being cold or hot, hungry or thirsty then gradually builds to giving them a suggestion that is totally out of character, such as sing like Elvis or cluck like a chicken.
The desire to be the center of attention, having an excuse to violate their own inner fear suppressors and the pressure to please, plus the expectation of the audience wanting them to provide some entertainment is usually enough to persuade an extrovert to do almost anything. In other words the participants are persuaded to 'play along'.
In some countries, there are laws and guidelines regarding stage hypnosis.
In the UK, the Hypnotism Act 1952 governs the use of hypnosis in public. The original Act was amended in 1976 and again following another young woman’s death after she had been hypnotized on stage. If stage hypnosis is performed at a public venue a license must be acquired from the local authority and the local authority is advised to monitor the performance to ensure that all guidelines are followed. It is illegal to hold any form of stage hypnosis in a public house or theatre (amongst other venues) unless the local authority has issued a license for this.
In the past, stage hypnosis has been banned in several countries in the world including Denmark and some states in the USA. Today, the only country to enforce a law against hypnosis is Israel, where it is illegal to perform any kind of hypnosis without a license given to doctors, dentists and psychologists.
- J. Braid, Neurypnology, 1843: Chapter 1.
- Quoted by J. Braid, Electro-Biological Phenomena Considered Physiologically & Psychologically, 1851
- Author of The Practice of Hypnotic Suggestion (1901). One of his specialties was hypnotizing per medium of the telephone; poster at  
- Herbert L. Flint was the author of Flint’s lessons in hypnotism; a comprehensive work on scientific suggestion as applied in hypnotism, mesmerism, personal magnetism, magnetic healing, psycho-therapeutics, suggestive therapeutics and similar manefestations of mental development and control (1915); poster at 
- Author of Hypnotism as It Is: a Book for Everybody (1897). Xenophon LaMotte Sage was the stage name of E. Virgil Neal; see Conroy, (2009), passim, especially pp.27-40.
- Ormond McGill, The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnosis, 1996: 24
- Braid, J. (1851). Electro-Biological Phenomena, etc.
- Kreskin, The Amazing World of Kreskin, 1973: 143.
- Kreskin, The Amazing World of Kreskin, 1973: 152
- Yapko, Michael (1990). Trancework: An introduction to the practice of Clinical Hypnosis. New York, New York: Brunner/Mazel. p. 28.
- Wagstaff, Graham F. (1981) Hypnosis, Compliance and Belief, St. Martin's Press, New York. ISBN 0-312-40157-4
- McGill, Ormond. (1996) The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnosis, p. 506.
- Barber, Spanos & Chaves. Hypnotism: Imagination & Human Potentialities (1974), p. 105.
- Kreskin. The Amazing World of Kreskin (1973), p. 149.
- Weitznehoffer, Andre. The Practice of Hypnotism (2000), p. 400.
- Chase, Jonathan (2005) Deeper and Deeper the secrets of stage hypnosis - p. 101
- Conroy, M.S., The Cosmetics Baron You've Never Heard Of: E. Virgil Neal and Tokalon, Altus History LLC, (Englewood), 2009. ISBN 0-615-27278-9
- Crawford, H.J., Kitner-Triolo, M., Clarke, S.W. & Olesko, B., "Transient Positive and Negative Experiences Accompanying Stage Hypnosis", Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol.101, No.4, (November 1992), pp. 663–667.
- Echterling, L.G. & Emmerling, D.A., "Impact of Stage Hypnosis", American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Vol.29, No.3, (January 1987), pp. 149–154. [plus editorial comment, see Mott, T., pp. 147–148.]
- Echterling, L.G. & Whalen, J., "Stage Hypnosis and Public Lecture Effects on Attitudes and Beliefs Regarding Hypnosis", American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Vol.38, No.1, (July 1995), pp. 13–21.
- Harling I.G., Nyrup M.A., "Mischief - Radical Hypnosis & Mind-Control", Spellbound Books, 2010 ISBN 978-87-990481-2-0 - 'Mischief' is the author's previous books, 'Sleight of Mind' & 'Geist' in one title.
- McGill, O., Professional Stage Hypnotism, Westwood Publishing Co., (Los Angeles), 1977.
- McGill, O., The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism, Anglo American Book Company, (St. Clears), 1996.
- Christopher Caress "Hypno Tricks", No.1, 2010
- Meeker, W.B. & Barber, T.X., "Toward An Explanation Of Stage Hypnosis", Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol.77, No.1, (1971), pp. 61–70.
- Nadis, F., "Of Horses, Planks, and Window Sleepers: Stage Hypnotism Meets Reform, 1836-1920", Journal of Medical Humanities, Vol.22, No.3, (Fall 2001), p. 223-245.
- Christopher Caress "Sleep Easy", An inside look into the world of Stage Hypnosis with a modern approach No.1, 2011