“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.


  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 comments to “Why the Media Almost Never Gets Hypnosis Right”

  • Donald Michael Kraig

    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

    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.