Stage Hypnosis – How and Why it Works

A stage hypnotist performing on stage

At least one in three clients who visit a hypnotherapist for the first time will ask about the phenomena known as stage hypnosis. People are fascinated by the subject. In this article I shall attempt to offer a convincing explanation of the difference between what we do as clinical hypnotherapists and what the stage performer does.

If you have ever been to see a stage hypnosis show or seen one on TV, then you will have no doubt seen people doing all sorts of strange things; looking through imaginary x-ray glasses and behaving as if they really ARE x-ray glasses, as though they really CAN see people with no clothes on, eating an apple that the audience can clearly see is an onion, and strutting about the stage like a chicken. Why do people do these things? Well, there is no reason for them NOT to. It really is as simple as that. But to explain exactly how and why stage hypnosis works, let’s start at the beginning…

The selection process

The stage hypnotist is a clever psychologist, quickly sorting out, from the volunteers, those who are most likely to be easily hypnotized and those who will be happy to go along with the act. The hypnotist will easily ‘weed out’ the suspicious, the timid/very shy, the determined-to-prove-they-can’t-be-done, the neurotic, and those who have been dragged unwillingly onto the stage by their ‘friends’, leaving just about the easiest ‘subjects’ to work with.

The hypnotist will then choose the best of those that are left. Not that the others can’t be hypnotized, it is just that he prefers to work with the easy ones – and why not? This is entertainment, whether you agree with it or not. The stage hypnotist’s job is to put on a show that the audience will enjoy. It is what his or her future success is based upon. No club or theatre owner will willingly book an act which does not entertain, after all.

Once they have been selected, the proficient stage hypnotist will say something like: “Now, you six are the cream of the crop – the best, which is why I selected you. And the ability to accept hypnosis has been proven to be linked with intelligence, so that says something about you all…” Just think about that statement for a powerful suggestion!

The psychology of stage hypnosis

When, on stage, after an astonishingly brief induction delivered by a confident ‘operator’, the participants are told to ‘sleep’. There are not a lot of people who would have the nerve, in front of an audience and under stage lighting, to say to someone who is known by all present to be a hypnotist: “Sorry! It hasn’t worked!” Many will believe it has not worked, but they will not think the fault lies with the hypnotist – they will think it lies with them!  Plus, of course, they have been told that the ability to accept hypnosis is linked to intelligence and they are not about to reveal that they are not intelligent after all.

So they ‘sleep’, whether they feel as if ‘something’ has happened or not. Now they have done it. They have tacitly accepted that they are hypnotized, and because everybody knows they are hypnotized, they will have to do whatever they are asked to do – within reason.

Some will know ‘it’ has worked; they were the ones who believed without question that they would ‘go under’, believed almost without question that some special force is at work. Their belief system ensured that they would have become hypnotized as soon as the hypnotist so much as looked at them. But they will not actually feel so very much different from the others.

Belief, expectation and a willingness to perform

Here is another thing about stage hypnosis that is definitely worth considering, and it is linked to the fact that hypnosis has far more to do with the person or people being hypnotized than the hypnotist. If I were to be announced on stage as a famous hypnotist who has honed his hypnotic powers in the mysterious East, and who was going to hypnotize the entire audience within one minute, it’s odds on that 90% of that audience would go into hypnosis almost as soon as I walked out on the stage, never mind when I performed some sort of dramatic ritual or other. But if I was announced as a long-distance lorry driver and part-time actor who was going to pretend to be a hypnotist and seek to hypnotize the entire audience, then my task would be a lot harder, if not very nearly impossible.

Hypnosis tends to make people feel relaxed and more confident within themselves, less inhibited, so those selected will cheerfully perform the small ‘tasks’ that they are asked to do. We cannot know for sure whether or not they would perform such acts in a normal waking state – shyness, introversion and inhibition will cover a multitude of secret wishes and desires, in both the male and the female. The bespectacled and spotty youth may harbour a fantasy of being a raunchy Rock and Roller, while an exhibitionistic, would-be public striptease dancer may well lurk within the psyche of a ‘respectable’ and distinctly middle-aged mother of two.

Hypnosis helps to lower the natural inhibitions of an individual. This allows people to do what they would really like to do. Because hypnosis relaxes inhibitions, they may then feel able to behave in an extrovert or outrageous way, that they would normally find ‘impossible’. They volunteered knowing full-well what was likely to happen. But it’s important to be clear… they are not being MADE to do anything – they are being ALLOWED to do something.

Hypnosis will not ‘make’ people do things that they genuinely would not WANT to do. It is the moral code, the true underlying belief of what is wrong and what is right that cannot be breached by hypnosis. It might be breached by convincing the subject in some way that the proposed action actually fitted in with their moral belief, or by trickery of some sort. But that would not be hypnosis, it would be a psychological process known as reframing, just as easily carried out without any form of hypnosis at all. A simple command given under hypnosis could not do it, however skilled the hypnotist, however slick his patter.

Also, let’s not forget that the hypnotist has sorted out those who actually want to be there, want to join in with the fun and who are very well aware of what is expected of them. Besides which, they will often have been told that they can easily ‘disown’ anything they want to afterwards by simply saying: “Well, I was hypnotized, wasn’t I?” But at all times, they most definitely do know what they are doing – which is usually nothing more than they might do for fun at a party after a drink or two – and will often believe they are only pretending to be hypnotized.

They are wrong. They are hypnotized, but there really is no such thing as a hypnotized feeling, so they cannot recognize that fact. Stage hypnosis is not a ‘con’ but it is showmanship.

Over the years I have spoken to many people who have participated in stage hypnosis shows. Asked how they felt, many said that they ‘didn’t go under’ but had pretended they had, out of embarrassment. The majority who insisted they were ‘well gone’ soon changed their mind as they realised that they were talking to a professional in the field who knows that there is actually no such thing as a ‘hypnotized feeling’. They gave anything between a complete retraction and a mild qualifying statement – “Oh, well, of course I did ham it up a bit… but only a bit, really.” One or two insisted that whatever, they were truly ‘out of it’. Hmm. Only got their word for that, of course. If they were, how do they know that they were? Think about that and you will see the anomaly.

The stage hypnotist vs. the clinical hypnotherapist

Hypnosis is hypnosis, and there are no special varieties for the stage entertainer. But there is a world of difference between the stage hypnotist and the clinical hypnotherapist, besides their job title. The stage hypnotist is a skilled user of ‘razzmatazz’ and relies heavily on the confidence of his approach, showmanship, belief and the willingness of his subjects to perform simple ‘tasks’. The clinical hypnotherapist relies on his or her knowledge of the human psyche, a caring and compassionate manner, an understanding of the phenomena surrounding hypnosis, and a clients who are prepared to accept help with the change they seek.