In showbiz, there are few acts that have a retro kitsch factor on the level of a stage hypnotist. We imagine a man with a black, bushy moustache, twisted and curled like a villain’s in an old black-and-white silent film. He’s wearing a silk cape and a turban while he rocks a medallion back and forth, droning in a monotone voice: “You are getting veeeeery sleepy.”
It’s the sort of thing you don’t see that much anymore.
A while back we had the pleasure of talking to one of the most famous stage and comedy hypnotists, Steven Spellmaster. He never did the whole cape and turban thing. His shtick was to have unsuspecting participants make absolute dicks of themselves – get them to act like chickens, or aeroplanes. Lots of people think it’s bullshit, but Spellmaster assured us that it is 100 per cent real. He even visits a hypnotist for personal reasons – kind of like seeing a therapist, except you’re asleep the whole time and afterwards you might have the urge to peck the ground for seeds at the sound of a clapping hand.
While today hypnotists are found mostly at corporate events – getting Mike from marketing to act like Lady Gaga – or even in therapy situations – trying to get people to ditch smoking and drinking and other fun things – the idea of hypnotism is as old as anything else in human history. It’s like breathing: we all have the ability to hypnotise and be hypnotised. Ancient texts from India and Egypt confirm this, and we’ve all seen gurus and mystics perform incredible feats of strength and endurance while in a trance state.
In the Western world the practice was popularised during the eighteenth century. Franz Mesmer, from whom we get the term “mesmerise”, was one of the first mainstream hypnotists. He was equal part occult magician and scientist, and the basis for the archetypal cape and turban hypnotist. Mesmer theorised that hypnosis was caused by an ethereal fluid he termed “animal magnetism”, which was transferred from practitioner to patient. He would wear a cloak and play mystical tunes on his glass harmonica while he tied up his patients with rope, along which he passed his animal magnetism. Of course he was hopelessly wrong – there were no magic fluids being passed. And hopefully no fluids of any variety, quite frankly.
He may have been wrong about the fluids thing, but there is no doubt that hypnotism can be very effective in the hands of a skilled practitioner. Sometimes a little too effective.
History is littered with bizarre stories of unwitting people being put under a hypnotic spell to do something they really shouldn’t have done. Like murder someone. For example, in 1894, a wealthy farmer called Anderson Gray from Sumner County, Kansas, was embroiled in a lawsuit. To silence one of the witnesses in the case, Thomas Patton, he went to his stablehand Thomas McDonald and told him that Patton was spreading rumours about his wife. The two ended up in an argument, and the next day Gray returned to his stable hand and apparently hypnotised him, telling the young man that he would have to kill Patton or Patton would kill him first. McDonald tried to resist, but the power of Gray’s hypnosis was too strong. The young stable hand went out into the woods where Patton was riding and shot him through the heart. He wasn’t even a good marksman – the power of hypnosis had turned him temporarily into a perfect sharpshooter.
Spellmaster told us that you can never use hypnosis to make someone do something they don’t want to do, but the judge in this case apparently held a different opinion. Gray, the hypnotist, was arrested and sentenced to hang, while McDonald, who fully admitted pulling the trigger, was let off scot-free.