Hypnosis, Houdini and Hurt: Caught in a Trance


An odd but thought-provoking conversation with a Manchester taxi driver leads Dan McLaughlin to give a brief history of hypnotism, and to consider the ethics behind the act.

As a student journalist, I am taught the various forms of sources: social media, press releases, websites, phone conversations with the authorities. However, I have not been taught that the best form of finding a story or inspiration is by having a good old yarn* with taxi drivers in Manchester.

From his wife’s arthritis to why Guy Fawkes should have succeeded in blowing up Parliament, the conversation strayed to my interests and hobbies. I do not think the taxi driver particularly cared about my extra-curricular activities, but the drive to MediaCityUK was long and arduous. I casually mentioned I partake in the act of hypnosis from time to time.

I began to delve in mentalism when writing a play that was largely ignored upon its debut, called The Haunting of the Civic. In 2010, I began to research the rise of spiritualism, techniques used by clairvoyants and the history of magic. There are no definitive books and papers on mastering hypnosis, but one has to read between the lines to discover the art form. The research turned me into a sceptic, leaving my Roman Catholic faith to that of an atheist; I could call it my ‘Damascus moment’, but that could be interpreted as insulting.

By H.M. Dixon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By H.M. Dixon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The verb in which one describes the process of hypnosis is ‘practising hypnosis’, and it is indeed very apt. As a naive 16-year-old, I attempted to hypnosis my peers. This started with simple acts of suggesting they have forgotten their name, to being stuck in their seat. This later developed into inducing a state of drunkenness in a trance; which would lead to a cheap night out.

The act was improving. I thought that this was because I was getting better through practise, but then I discovered this was strictly not the case. I was developing a reputation, and that reputation guided the participants into a trance easier. Hypnosis is about authority. And since there were little to none hypnotists in a small East Lancashire town called Oswaldtwistle, I became the expert in hypnosis.

The best way I can describe the process of hypnosis is through this analogy:

If a GP approaches you in the street, wearing all the usual paraphernalia of the trade, and tells you that you are displaying the symptoms of a common cold you will start to display these symptoms although you may not have them, because you are conditioned to react to authority.

So equally, if a strange looking man who calls himself a hypnotist tells you that you are starting to feel sleepy, you start to believe it and respond as you are conditioned.

By the U.S. Printing Co., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the U.S. Printing Co., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s, a sociologist and psychologist called Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment which monitored the willingness of subjects to perform acts ordered by an authoritative figure, even though it conflicted with their personal conscience. The subjects were told they were taking part in a memory exercise, and they were assigned the roles of a teacher and a learner. If the ‘learner’ got an answer incorrect, the ‘teacher’ had to administer an electrical shock. The voltage, they were told, would rise each time the ‘learner’ got an answer wrong. The ‘learner’ was, of course, an actor. The purpose of the experiment was shown how far the subjects would go under authority figures; some would have administered fatal shocks, if they were not hypothetical. The aim of the Milgram Experiment was to find a way to answer the question:

Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?

Derren Brown, in his wonderful Tricks of the Mind, describes the first real hypnotist: Franz Anton Mesmer of 18th Century Paris. Brown called Mesmer’s methods are “fantastically theatrical” and notes that Mesmer would greet his subjects wearing a purple cloak whilst carrying a giant magnetic staff. This leads us to another point: hypnotists have to be a bit strange.

By Lwp Kommunikáció, courtesy of Flickr

By Lwp Kommunikáció, courtesy of Flickr

I am known to be a bit of a misanthrope, and indulge in eccentricities like wearing tweed and reciting obscure literature. During my discovery of hypnosis, the idea that I can practise hypnosis was potentially acceptable because I was the intelligent, odd guy who kept himself to himself. If it was handsome Jim, his friends would have immediately dismissed him and his methods as poppycock. Handsome Jim may be an authoritative figure in the sports at school, but Dan is an authority in all things abnormal.

Back to the taxi in Manchester. We are now on Langworthy Road, and the driver is enthralled in my brief history of hypnotism.

“Go on then,” he remarks, “Hypnotise me now!”

“Not whilst you are driving!”

And then something remarkable happens.

“Can you hypnotise me? I mean, for real? I want to lose weight. Can you hypnotise me to stop eating all the wrong food and the wrong drink? I’ll pay you whatever you want!”

He is sincere in his questioning. But I feel hugely uncomfortable. As a sceptic, I believe that psychics, mediums and many hypnotherapists are vultures upon the vulnerable and the grieving. Their parasitical nature makes them prey on human beings in need for monetary gains. I would love to help this man, and I am sure through some sessions there will be a way to find a way to help, but hypnosis is an aide; not a bona fide solution. I turn down the invitation for a fee.

By the McManus-Young collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the McManus-Young collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This reminds me of a tale about infamous illusionist, Harry Houdini. Before his prominence as a magician, he entered the trade of the newly founded Spiritualism (a trade created by the Fox Sisters whom would later be exposed as drunken frauds, but the phenomena had already been released by then). With his wife, he toured America as Professor and Mademoiselle Houdini, clairvoyants. He wrote:

The beautiful simplicity of their faith – it appealed to me as a religion – suddenly gripped me . . . from that day to this I have never posed as a genuine medium. I was brought to a realisation of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed . . . I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realised that it bordered on crime.

(The Secret Life of Houdini)

After quitting the trade, the magician struggled financially until his emergence as one of the greatest magicians. There was a profit to be made in spiritualism, as there is in hypnotherapy – which I deem as a very similar form.

There is responsibility to be maintained in hypnotism. When practising it, one must consider the ethics. Will this affect the subject emotionally? Are they mentally stable for this experiment? Unfortunately, ethical standards do not seem to be a priority with some hypnotists and I certainly would not be taking advantage of a lovely gentleman, in a vulnerable state of mind.

And all of this from a conversation with a Manchester taxi driver. I told you, student journalists can gain wonderful stories from the least likely of places.

By George Du Maurier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By George Du Maurier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

*Yarn (noun) is a long continuous length of interlocked fibres, suitable for use in the production of textiles, sewing, crocheting, knitting, weaving, embroidery, and rope-making.

Or just a lovely conversation (verb).

(Oxford English dictionary)