Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

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Entries in hypnotism (3)


Hypnotism and Its Past

[In earlier posts that you'll find here and here, I've written about my fascination with hypnotism and my interviews and encounters with hypnotists of various types. In this post, I continue the series by scratching the surface of hypnotism's history and looking at its popular portrayal.]

For centuries, hypnotism has suffered from an image problem. The pleasant experience of surrenduring to the thrall of a book, movie, or religious experience — all similar states of consciousness — is nothing like the popular conception of hypnotism, as promulgated by novels and other forms of entertainment.Actor Lumsden Hare as the scheming hypnotist in Svengali, a 1931 film adaptation of Trilby

In George DuMaurier’s Trilby, a much-filmed nineteenth-century novel about a man’s control over a concert singer, the hypnotist Svengali makes a spectacular first appearance. He was

a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red beret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair fell down behind his ears to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from his under eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent and humorous German twists and idioms, and his voice was very thin and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.

Like Svengali’s technique, the hypnotic induction methods of many fictional characters are exercises in power, unpleasant for the hypnotized person. They demonstrate the irresistible domination of the hypnotist.

Domination was not a motivation of the early hypnotists, including mothers of millennia past who sang and rocked their crying babies back and forth to comfort them. In the eighteenth century, Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician, moved magnets over the bodies of prone patients. Mesmer postulated that a fluid called animal magnetism regulates human health, and that his magnets beneficially manipulated this life-giving energy. Mesmer’s treatment frequently brought patients to fits of high-pitched emotion, followed by a faint. Later, Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet, one of Mesmer’s students, discovered that he could guide the thoughts and actions of his patients through mere suggestion, without magnets, and he sometimes made patients dance jerkily in their chairs.

The English surgeon James Braid, who coined the word “neurohypnotism,” meaning nervous sleep, typically treated patients by holding a lit candle before and above their line of sight. He would then suddenly thrust his other hand from the candle to patient’s eyes, producing a trance. Braid frequently made patients’ limbs rise and stiffen by passing a key over them. He was the first to hypothesize that hypnotic responses arise from mental suggestions that produce physical responses. 

Sigmund Freud was a failure as a hypnotist, but not so other serious investigators of the twentieth century. Milton Erickson, M.D., an American who melded hypnotherapy with psychotherapy, freed his patients to follow their own inclinations while in hypnosis, and Morey Bernstein, an amateur hypnotist, worked closely with Virginia Tighe in Pubelo, Colorado, to carry her back to a supposed past life as an Irishwoman named Bridey Murphy. (Above is a hypnotism scene from the 1956 film The Search for Bridey Murphy.)

In 1976, hypnotist William Kroger helped Ed Ray, a part-time school bus driver in Chowchilla, California, remember the license plate number of the vehicle used by kidnapers who commandeered his bus full of schoolchildren and hid them in a moving van buried in a rock quarry. The captors’ arrest soon followed. 

Therapeutic hypnotism has come a long way in recent decades, but its popular image unfortunately remains mired in the past.


An Interview with a Stage Hypnotist

Last month, I posted the first in a series of short essays adapted from an article on hypnotists and hypnotism that I wrote for (but was never published in) Harper's magazine several years ago. What follows is the second part of the series, which focuses on my meeting with a working stage hypnotist.

I met Frank Pruden, who uses the name “Frankie Z” as a stage hypnotist, in a St. Paul, Minn., restaurant that was empty except for us. He had staked out a corner booth in the deepest recess of the establishment, and he seemed to regard all the empty seats as a challenge to fill the place with his big voice. I could see how he could send his speech to the far reaches of the high school gyms, outdoor amphitheaters, wedding halls, and fairground grandstands in which he performs. An antique advertising card showing a stage hypnotist at work

Pruden, a goateed man with receding hair, had been working a dozen years as a DJ-for-hire when one of his phobias caught up with him. Several years ago, a group of friends planned a trip to Las Vegas and asked him to come along. “You all fly. I’ll drive,” he told them. He had served as an aerial photographer in the Marine Corps, sometimes leaning out of aircraft to take pictures, but he later developed a fear of flying. “It was a control thing,” he said. “In a plane, I’d freeze up and my heart would go boom-boom.” 

This time, however, Pruden realized he really wanted to travel to Las Vegas with everyone else. He tracked down a hypnotist and not only received treatment that erased his anxiety over flying, but he also signed on for training as a hypnotherapist. He soon studied stage hypnotism, as well. Right away, he began performing before audiences. 

I shook my head, but I knew that I had been going under.

He thus fell into an old tradition of entertainment. Public demonstrations of hypnotism have drawn crowds in Europe and North America for more than 200 years. For much of the twentieth century, stage hypnotists offered the only exposure the public had to hypnotic techniques, and the performers developed most effective and innovative methods of induction. Some stage hypnotists spent years on the road. They typically treated audiences to demonstrations of somnambulism, lethargy, and catalepsy; brought audiences, through suggestion, to hysterical laughter; and showed how people could play musical instruments and sing while under hypnosis.

I asked Pruden to demonstrate the method of induction he uses. “I made up my own,” he said. “I ask them to take deep breaths, to let go of their thoughts, to lose the stress and tension from their bodies. I tell them to relax their muscles from their head to their feet and to go to a special place that only they know. They can float and feel relaxed on their own personal cloud.” Abruptly Pruden stopped and stared at me. “You’re not going under, are you?”

I shook my head, but I knew that I had been going under. I’m one of a minority, estimated at 20 percent of the population, who easily succumb to hypnosis. (All told, 90 percent of people can be hypnotized, which excludes those with major psychoses, mental disabilities, and other cognitive disorders.) Throughout Pruden’s patter, I felt a familiar detachment build within me, a sensation that I was suspended in the restaurant rather than sitting there. I watched Pruden’s lips move, heard his voice, and took in his words with great attention. Everything else receded to the background. The feeling was no different from when I am comfortable and relaxed while daydreaming, reading an engaging book, or spellbound in a movie theater. I have seen it in my children when time flies for them while they’re having fun at a birthday party. 


At a Convention of Hypnotists

This past weekend, The Guardian of London published an excellent article by Vaughan Bell on the resurgence of hypnotism in the treatment of a variety of behavioral disorders. The report reminded me of an article I wrote six years ago on assignment for Harper’s magazine about the conflicts between clinicians who practice therapeutic hypnosis, lay hypnotists who cover some of the same ground, and stage hypnotists interested only in entertaining audiences. I attended a hypnotism convention, interviewed several hypnotists of different stripes, and underwent hypnosis myself.Poster advertising a hypnotism stage show, circa 1900 

Harper’s did not publish my story, so over the next several weeks I will post parts of it here. 

* * *

I saw my first stage hypnotism show seven years ago at the annual convention of the National Guild of Hypnotists, and the presenter was the world’s most famous hypnotist-entertainer, Ormond McGill. The author of many books, including The New Encyclopedia of Hypnotism, McGill at 92 may have slowed a few steps on the stage, but he had not lost his ability to charm a crowd. [He died a few months after this convention.] Wizened, balding, and wearing prominent eyeglasses, he was dressed in a velvet suit with a bowtie and vest. He sat on a stool and told the audience that his show’s objective was to teach how to control the mind. Then he got down to business and took volunteers from the audience.

To induce a hypnotic state in his volunteers, he ordered the lights dimmed, evoked Oriental mysticism, and chanted phrases about “the abyss of the inner self.” It all seemed theatrical and old-fashioned, but McGill soon seemed to have his group in a trance. The volunteers complied with his suggestions to move to hula music, pretend to guzzle champagne and get drunk, and dance to the Blue Danube Waltz. He singled out one volunteer and told her to return to the audience and fall asleep in her chair. She slumped as soon as she took her seat.

At this convention, which was held in Marlborough, Mass., the lobby of the host hotel teemed with hundreds of hypnotists, mostly middle-aged people. Some wore suits and tailored outfits that they clearly found uncomfortable, and others gave up any pretense of formality and dressed casually in denim, plain cotton shirts, and sandals. Among both men and women there were many wearers of crystal amulets on necklace chains; the men seemed predisposed to goatees. One of the most devilish goatees was attached to the chin of the late Dr. Rexford North, a founder of the National Guild of Hypnotists, whose portraits filled an exhibit on the organization’s history at one end of the lobby.

Many in attendance were mid-life career switchers: people working in counseling, sales, teaching, and other professions, who saw hypnotism as a skill that could carry them along more exciting paths. I also met clinical psychologists, holders of Ph.D.s, college drop-outs, stage entertainers, psychics, scientists, law enforcement officers, people who perform past-life regressions, physicians, and one woman who brought with her a small dog that she pushed around in a stroller and fed with a baby bottle.

Some of the conventioneers possessed undeniable hypnotic skills. The convention workshops featured repeated instances of participants employing highly creative inductions — the patter and techniques by which a hypnotist places a client into a suggestible state that bypasses the barriers of the conscious mind — that sometimes made the recipients drop into somnambulism within seconds. In controlled studies, hypnosis has helped patients suffering from a wide variety of maladies, including allergies, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcers, hemophilia, headaches, the adverse effects of cancer treatment, tinnitus, asthma, fibromyalgia, and impotence — not to mention a range of psychological problems.

Other presenters put their hypnotic talents to questionable purposes.  In one ballroom, a well-known hypnotherapist related her experiences in pulling clients back to past lives as noblewomen, poets, and military leaders. (None apparently had been a peasant, slave, criminal, or common soldier.) Another workshop leader offered techniques to persuade skeptical clients that they had really indeed been hypnotized. But there was little discussion of the hypnotists’ biggest chronic problem, a sense that practitioners with few scruples were harming clients and damaging the reputations of everyone else. Degreed healthcare providers who use hypnotism in their practices — licensed psychologists, social workers, and physicians — feared that uncredentialed hypnotists were treating ailments that required professional care.