“Why the Media Almost Never Gets Hypnosis Right”

Stereotypes about hypnosis abound in the media: for example, how, under hypnosis, you can be made to do whatever the hypnotist directs; how the hypnotized subject has no free will or ability to resist the hypnotist; how people can be hypnotized without their knowledge and against their will. The stereotypical mental images, too, abound, both about the hypnotist and the subject: the irresistible hypnotist, whose eyes people avoid because they don't want to look into them and be instantly hypnotized1; the sinister criminal (usually male) hypnotist who manipulates their subjects for criminal purposes2; the sensual hypnotist (usually female) who manipulates their subjects for sexual purposes3; the incompetent hypnotist who gives the wrong suggestions at the wrong time4; the unsuspecting subject5; the weak-willed subject who can't resist the hypnotist6; the ditzy subject who can't follow any suggestions correctly7; the mistakenly-hypnotized subject who complies with a post-hypnotic suggestion at the most inappropriate time8. Even the stereotypical visual images abound: swirling spirals, especially in the eyes of the entranced subject; swinging watches or sparkling crystals; blank, staring eyes (especially in anime where the eyes become completely flat disks) and even blanker voices; people sleepwalking with their arms outstretched.

Any practicing hypnotist or even someone just acquainted with the subject will say that these are exactly what they're described to be: stereotypes, no more real than any other stereotype. So then, why do they keep appearing, over and over in the media? Hasn't the hypnosis community been trying to change these stereotypes for at least sixty years, if not longer? What is causing these stereotypes to remain among the public consciousness?

The reason is that this problem is basically a communications problem, not just in that the correct information about hypnosis is not being communicated but also that the incorrect information is being communicated.

There are essentially three ways for people to get information about anything, including hypnosis:

  1. First person — first-hand experience in hypnosis, either for therapy, for curiosity, or for fun.
  2. Second person — second-hand experience, being told by someone else about their first-hand experience.
  3. Third person — third-hand experience, seeing what someone said or wrote about it through the filter of any type of fictional media (television, movies, books, etc.)

The problem is that the great majority of people get their information about hypnosis primarily and sometimes exclusively through the third person. (That's the case for just about anything.) That is because people with first-hand experience with hypnosis are very uncommon, and people who are willing to talk about their experience to others are a subset of that group. Therefore, most people get their information about hypnosis third-hand through the media, and its almost always bad.

That's because the people who create the media representations of hypnosis are themselves part of that much larger group who only know about hypnosis third-hand and rarely take the time or effort to research the subject to get it correct. And that information was from other people in the same situation, creating a chain of misinformation passed down from one generation of writers and creators to the next: lacking any first-hand or second-hand experience, writers and creators of this generation are influenced by the writers and creators of the previous generation, who themselves. lacking the same kind of exposure, were influenced by the previous generation, and so on and so on. This means that the public awareness of hypnosis is essentially formed from the stereotypes known, created and promulgated from the 1930's or earlier, with additional material (such as the sensationalized topic of the Bridey Murphy reincarnation story) added but never really subtracted along the way with little corresponding fact-checking involved.

There is also the matter that the correct impressions of hypnosis are, for entertainment purposes, boring. Stereotypical hypnosis is a very handy plot device, whether for comedy (the mistakenly-hypnotized subject, for example), drama (the hypnotized assassin) or horror (the hypnotic zombie master.) Such plot devices not only derive their power from the stereotypes but also serve to reinforce them, as well: its a kind of cultural shorthand at work that alleviates some of the explanatory work on the part of writer, freeing them to work on other parts of the story line. As such, they will be continued to be used by screenwriters and novelists for years to come.

So what can be done about correcting the stereotype, especially by individuals?

A good start is to protest these stereotypes when they appear. For example, when the "Charlie's Angels" episode 'Attack Angels' first aired, the American Psychological Association sent the network a letter of protest concerning the rampant stereotyping of hypnosis in the story. The news of the protest especially served to show just how wrong the portrayal was in the episode, and possibly a few people (hopefully including a few Hollywood people) learned the difference between stereotype and reality.

Another is to participate in the World Hypnotism Day, which is January 4th, which is an event intended to do just that. This is a time when any and all professional hypnotists, hypnotherapists and anyone else who use hypnosis in their professional career make their case known to the public news media about the reality of hypnosis. The organizers of World Hypnotism Day and their associates will help promoting the events on their website and assist local efforts in this cause.

But hypnosis professionals should not just concentrate on just that one day: these stereotypes directly impact their profession on a continuous level and they should therefore be continuously acting to combat these stereotypes, and the perfect time to do so is in combination with self-promotion. They should understand that it is in their best professional interest to defend their profession by renouncing the stereotypes and informing the public of the reality of hypnosis.

And even the non-professionals who are interested in hypnosis and who are reading this can do this: they should already know when they see a hypnosis-related stereotype, and they should call it as such to their friends.

All in all, its up to the people who know hypnosis and understand how the stereotypes damage the appearance of it in the public arena to do what they can to improve it. How they do it is up to them.


Footnotes:

  1. The famous stage hypnotist Pat Collins suffered from that stereotype: I have read that she would be having dinner with friends (including people such as actress Tuesday Weld and actor Roddy McDowell) and they would suddenly fall into a trance because they were focusing their attention on her eyes and, since they knew she was a prominent hypnotist, on some level they were following the stereotype that maintained they would be hypnotized at that point and so they were. She was not amused. It may also be the reason she wore sunglasses, albeit very elaborate sunglasses.
  2. For example: Svengali, just to name one, although his purpose for hypnotizing Trilby was more for financial gain than anything more sinister. Fu Manchu, for another.
  3. For example: Fah Lo Suee, daughter of the above mentioned Fu Manchu.
  4. The old joke about the hypnotist who says "Shit!" on stage and how everyone hypnotized responds.
  5. For example: Elizabeth Hardy in "Young Sherlock Holmes", who has no idea why Moriarty is directing the reflections from his ring into her eyes, only that they are making her eyes heavy and her feel sleepy.
  6. For example: Trilby ala Svengali as commonly pictured.
  7. For example: Melody from "Josie and the Pussycats" who, when hypnotized in one episode, responded to the direction to respond "Yes, Master" with "Yes, Mister Mustard".
  8. For example: Balki from "Perfect Strangers"  was mistakenly hypnotized into thinking he was Elvis whenever he hears a bell ring and is about to be audited by the IRS.

2 Responses to ““Why the Media Almost Never Gets Hypnosis Right””

  • Donald Michael Kraig says:

    I would respectfully suggest that the problem is much deeper. Specifically, fiction (novels, movies, TV shows, etc.) do not use hypnosis per se, they use a mythological form of control as a "plot point."  The goal is not to present hypnosis factually, but to move the story along. It goes back at least as far the novel Trilby (1894) and the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Seizing on the concept of one person controlling another became a popular tool to move a plot forward. The question is, "How could this control be accomplished?" The answer: hypnosis.
    In the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a man reveals to the news media that he did not actually do what he was credited with. A newspaper reporter says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Nobody will believe the facts.
    And that's what's happened with hypnosis. The myth used to move story lines has become legend. Now, as a hypnotherapist, part of our job is to "de-mythify" hypnosis to clients. It's part of what we do. We can rage against the tide the legend, but it's like trying to hold back real ocean tides with a bucket.

  • HypnoMedia says:

    I agree that one of the problems is that hypnosis as it is depicted in the media is more of a mind control device than what it really is. As a plot device, it can't be anything else. That is what we have to change in the minds of the average person but as you say, its a hard thing to do. But someone has to do it: as a hypnotherapist, you're on the front lines of this so you have my sympathies and my support.

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