Written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
Whether a hypnotherapist, street hypnotist or comedy stage hypnotist, the people you hypnotise are likely to have seen at least one television programme or movie featuring hypnosis. This blog explores some of the areas where hypnosis has been used on screen, as well as how it’s use may have introduced and perpetuated some of the common myths about hypnosis.
Hypnosis in children’s movies
Early cartoons, such as Warner Bros ‘The Hare-Brained Hypnotist’ (1942) starring Bugs Bunny and his adversary Elmer Fudd, has Bugs being hypnotised by Elmer, but then turning the hypnosis onto Elmer. Interestingly they talk about co-operation being needed for hypnosis.
Disney makes plentiful use of hypnosis concepts, such as in the 1992 animated version of ‘Aladdin’ and the later 2019 live action animated musical version, as well as Maleficent, and even the Jungle Book (“Trust in me…”). Indeed, popular cartoons, such as ‘Scooby-Doo’ also imply that hypnosis generates obedience (perhaps some parents would hope that it did!). Daphne is instructed in one scene to, “watch the pretty coin of gold and you will do as you are told” to which she replies, “I will do as I am told master”.
Even for a perhaps younger audience, two Barbie movies employ the concept of hypnosis being used by bad people. In the ‘Barbie and the Diamond Castle’ movie (2008), the evil Muse, Lydia uses hypnosis, whilst in ‘Barbie: A Fairy Secret’ (2011) Crystal is a lovesick villain who uses hypnosis.
Another computer-animated superhero movie, this time a comedy, ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ (2017), had a wide audience, based on it grossing $125 million worldwide! It focused on a plot around two students who hypnotise their elementary school principal (using a 3D hypno-ring) into thinking he is an underwear and cape wearing crime-fighting superhero at the click of their fingers. No wonder that many people expect that hypnosis occurs at the click (snap) of a hypnotist’s fingers.
The highly popular 2018 computer-animated superhero film ‘Incredibles 2’, grossing a staggering $1.2 billion worldwide (18th highest grossing film ever), features hypnotised superheroes and hypnotic goggles that induce ‘mind control’. Although it will likely be recognised that this film is make-believe and fantasy, it can still connect to some people’s perception of hypnosis and feed into related myths.
Hypnotic exploitation in movies
Hypnosis isn’t restricted to cartoons or animations, nor to obscure ‘B movies’ with an unknown cast. For many years, well-known actors have starred in movies with a hypnosis element. The 1949 film ‘Black Magic’ starred the famous Orson Welles as Joseph Balsamo (aka Count Cagliostro). Here, although Joseph Balsamo learned from Mesmer with a view for healing applications, he exploits hypnosis for wealth and fame and later, interfering with court witnesses. Control and manipulation are popular perceptions gained from movies, such as a few years later, with ‘Blood of Dracula’ (1957) where hypnosis is used for control and obedience, even remotely.
Exploitation is a popular theme. In ‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion’ (2001), starring Charlize Theron and Dan Aykroyd, a corrupt hypnotist uses hypnosis to get an efficiency expert and insurance investigator to steal jewels. The hypnotist uses cue words (“Madagascar” and “Constantinople”) to later put them back into hypnosis after they volunteer for a stage hypnosis show. This type of perception can cause concern for people not just thinking about hypnotherapy, but also volunteering for stage hypnosis shows or participating in street/impromptu hypnosis.
Hypnosis and ‘mind control’
The Manchurian Candidate (1962, 2004) was based on a novel (Richard Condon, 1959) of the same name. The 1962 version starred Frank Sinatra and had Angela Lansbury in a supporting role. The movie introduces the concept that a hypnotised person could commit brutal murders and also that programming can occur with amnesia that it had taken place. The later version (2004) had a cast which included Denzel Washington (Major Bennett Marco) and Meryl Streep as Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (US Senator). In this version, Eleanor uses trigger words to control Marco. Whilst the movie can give prospective hypnotherapy clients concerns about being controlled, it also shows that the ‘hypnotic mind control’ can be (and was) resisted. Interestingly, the daughter of Frank Sinatra, Tina, was a co-producer of the film and the remake does not always follow the original film plot.
Hypnotic obedience seems to have carried through many versions of Bram Stoker’s horror novel ‘Dracula’ (1897), from the Dracula (1931) to the spoof ‘Dracula: Dead and Loving It’ (1995) with Mel Brooks and Leslie Nielsen, which shows Dracula using hypnosis on solicitor, Thomas Renfield, making him his slave. Also, there is a fun scene where Dracula hypnotises the movie’s heroine, Mina, and the suggestions cause some confusion, which demonstrates how literal the subconscious mind can be in hypnosis.
Hypnotic amnesia in the movies
Amnesia is a popular theme in movies as well. In ‘The Court Jester’ (1955) staring Angela Lansbury and Danny Kaye, a maid hypnotises an entertainer and in hypnosis he has no recollection of the plan he has in his non-hypnotised state. In this movie, hypnosis is also portrayed as giving someone special skills, as the maid also later hypnotises the entertainer to become a master swordsman to win a sword fight. This could contribute to the views of many hypnotherapy clients who have asked for a hypnotherapist to ‘make’ them do or not do something without having to put in any work themselves.
In the aptly titled movie ‘Trance’ (2013), a psychological thriller, an auctioneer is involved in an art theft, suffers a head injury and amnesia and is sent to a hypnotherapist to regain his memory, yet this is just the start of a multi-layered and complex plot. It does show how closely hypnotic fantasy can appear as reality. The 2012 film, also ‘The Hypnotist’ shows the use of hypnosis to uncover information and access memories.
In ‘Now You See Me’ (2013), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) finds out about a husband’s romantic indiscretions and lets his hypnotised wife know about them. After extorting the husband for a few hundred dollars, McKinney then gives the hypnotised wife suggestions to forget the conversation completely (which, as you might be aware, would be fairly unlikely to take place in real life).
It can be useful for a hypnotist or hypnotherapist to spend some time watching movies that feature hypnosis… By understanding what your client or participant may have been exposed to via movies can better help you frame what you are doing in a way that both dispels the myths they have encountered and sets more realistic expectations. Thus, helping the hypnosis session to be more effective, whatever the intended purpose.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this blog on hypnosis in the movies, and if you have any more questions about this topic, or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks