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Stage hypnosis

Stage hypnosis is hypnosis performed in front of an audience, usually for the purposes of a comedy show. Apparent effects of amnesia, mood altering and hallucination may be demonstrated.

The causes of behaviour exhibited by volunteers in stage hypnosis shows is an area of dispute. Some claim it illustrates altered states of consciousness (i.e., "hypnotic trance"). Others maintain that it can be explained by a combination of psychological factors observed in group settings such as disorientation, compliance, peer pressure, and ordinary suggestion.

History: Stage hypnosis evolved out of much older shows conducted by Mesmerists and other performers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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 sceptical 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.

Throughout the 20th century, despite adopting the term "hypnotism", stage hypnotists continued to explain their performances to audiences by reference to supernatural powers.

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 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.

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 centre 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". 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.)

According to experts such as Theodore X. Barber and André Muller Weitzenhoffer, stage hypnosis traditionally employs three fundamental strategies:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 tends to assume.

4. 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.

Role of hypnotist and subject: Due to stage hypnotists' 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 their 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 "hypnotised" 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

"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.

Subjects: In a stage hypnosis situation the "hypnotist" chooses their participants carefully. First they give the entire audience a few exercises to perform and plant ideas in their minds, such as:

only intelligent people can be hypnotised

only those who are open-minded to being hypnotised and willing to participate.

It has been alleged that 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, extroverted 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 tap dancing, singing like Elvis or clucking like a chicken.

The desire to be the centre 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'. Yet, whilst this accounts for some situations, it does not accord with those where hecklers, uncooperative audiences and those who wish to "disprove" the hypnotist create a set of negative expectations, uncooperative atmosphere and opposition which the performer must use skill to overcome.

Law: 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 in 2003. If stage hypnosis is performed at a public venue a permit must be acquired from the local authority.

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.