From the very beginning, the therapeutic and entertainment aspects of hypnotic practices have always been intertwined. Mesmer and many other practitioners of mesmerism and later hypnotism (e.g. Jean-Martin Charcot), besides their private therapeutic practice, often made public demonstrations in a theatrical manner. These demonstrations, apart from serving educational and publicity purposes meant excellent entertainment.
Similarly today, some (often lay) hypnotherapists engage in some form of stage hypnosis to earn money this way, while also promoting their private practice. Most of the renown stage hypnotists, apart from demonstrating entertaining hypnotic effects, have also advocated the therapeutic uses of hypnosis. However, nowadays these two sides of hypnosis are more separated, especially if we think about comedy stage hypnosis. Most therapists who work with clinical hypnosis do not engage in stage hypnosis. On the contrary, they strive to distance themselves from it, emphasizing to the public the differences between the two sides. They also aim to dispel misconceptions about hypnosis that are widespread mainly because of comedy stage hypnosis. In certain countries law defines and restricts the practice of stage hypnosis, separating it from clinical hypnosis.
However, lamentably in the public mind, hypnosis is most often associated with preconceptions derived from seeing comedy stage hypnosis scenes in television for instance. These wrong and harmful preconceptions include: ‘In hypnosis you lose yourself, lose consciousness’; ‘Hypnosis makes you do embarrassing things, things you do not really want’; ‘You fall under the influence of the powerful and omnipotent hypnotist’.
The truth is though, what clinical hypnotherapists emphasize to their clients: In hypnosis, you stay ‘yourself’ in every way, you do not lose consciousness. You will remember the work you did in hypnosis. You only accept suggestions that you want to, that you find beneficial. All hypnosis is essentially self-hypnosis: The hypnotherapist guides and teaches you how to use the power of the mind to create changes for yourself. Clinical hypnosis is a well-established form of treatment for various issues. It has its own science, professional associations, training requirements for its practitioners and it has links to acknowledged schools of psychotherapy.
Stage hypnosis is a form of entertainment, with a specific setting, specific strategies and purposes, and with different levels of training and professionalism on the part of the hypnotist.
Let’s see some of the strategies stage hypnotists may use to enhance the entertaining hypnotic effects.
Perhaps the most important strategy stage hypnotists use is selecting the most suggestible people in the audience through suggestion tests and observation. They can be really good at this. Stage hypnosis shows may demonstrate ‘true’ hypnotic effects, but some (mostly comedy stage) hypnotists use strategies of deception to ensure entertainment.
They may use ‘stooges’, who facilitate (true) subjects’ responses by demonstrating (acting as if they are true subjects) the desired ways of responding first (a phenomenon very similar to the results of the famous conformity experiments of Solomon Asch). Stage hypnotists may deliver ‘challenge suggestions’ without prompting the ‘trying out’ of the effects, hence giving the impression that they are working. E.g.: ‘Your arm is so heavy now, that you cannot lift it no matter how hard you are trying‘ And if the hypnotist doesn’t challenge this buy saying: ‘Go on and try as hard as you can to lift that arm’, neither the subject nor the audience can have ‘proof’ of the suggestion working.
The hypnotist can also instruct the subject to act in certain ways switching his microphone off, that will leave the audience unaware of these ‘extra’ instructions. The hypnotist might sell stunts or tricks as hypnotic phenomena. The famous ‘human plank’ is such a stunt, that is spectacular, but is quite easily done by almost anybody without any hypnosis.
The hypnotist might instruct the subject to take on a certain posture and suggest a movement that is so antagonistic to that posture that it is very difficult or even impossible to do even without any hypnosis (e.g. sitting with the head tilted back and the hypnotist with his finger on the subject’s forehead asks him to try to get up from the chair).
And of course with a big audience, and often cameras, social pressure is a strong force that facilitates the desired responses on the part of the subject, feeding our dilemma about the pretence or ‘true’ nature of the responses.
With these in mind, even clinical hypnotherapists can learn some useful, creative variations of suggestion tests, hypnotic inductions and deepening techniques from recognized stage hypnotists. There are plenty of original, potentially effective variations of these kind of suggestions in the repertoire of recognised stage hypnotists (such as Ormond Mcgill or Gil Boyne, who were skilled hypnotherapists as well). Some of these effective variations can be for example built in the hypnotic skills training of clients.
For me, stage hypnosis also demonstrates that stimulating expectations and motivation in simple ways (within a special context) alone can lead to impressive effects without necessarily using long hypnosis protocols.