From Magonia 53, August 1995
“Y’know… Hypnotism is Not Just About People Making Fools Of Themselves On Stage,” confides the head-and-shoulders caricature, speaking word balloon-wise from the bottom right foreground of the “Biff Weekend” cartoon strip. “It’s Also About Flogging Videos.” (1)
Sure enough, there are the self-help home-hypnosis videos cascading down from the top of the frame like comic gifts from a benevolent Creator. But as far as many of us are concerned, hypnosis is not about them. It is about shows in which our conspecifics make fools (nay, prats) of themselves, with more than a little help, we’re led to believe, from a vibrant young man who is billed as a stage hypnotist. (Brief digression in acknowledgement of political correctness: I dare say there are also vibrant young women stage hypnotists, but they don’t seem to make the headlines. Again, my remark should not be construed as evidence of prejudice against vibrant, not-so-young stage hypnotists, though it’s true they don’t get on TV so often) (2)
The aforementioned head-shoulders/bottom-right-foreground Biff caricature had a more than accidental resemblance to Paul McKenna. As purveyor of both self-improving home-hypnosis videos and a superior TV-friendly hypno show (reputedly watched by 12 million viewers each week) he has earned the tribute of being turned into a cartoon caricature. This isn’t a comment on his act, nor upon the man himself. What it means is that he’s so well known as to be instantly recognised even when reduced to cartoon character format. If Mr McKenna’s rise to celebrity and (also reputedly) astronomical wealth is unparalleled in the annals of TV history, it is mainly because he was the first to crack the televisual tabu against broadcasting shows such as his. In consequence he has become a household name. Another, more predictable consequence has been the swarm of stage hypnotists (vibrant, male, young or youngish) anxious to acquire some of what he’s got vis-a-vis the celebrity, the cash, the overall kudos. This is where the trouble starts, if it starts anywhere…
The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna is, as I just wrote, TV-friendly – which means it is tailored to be suitable for TV and specifically for peak-viewing times. What he makes his subjects get up to is seldom more than risqué; if you want something more “adult”, try Brookside. ‘Adult’ shows are what many of his would-be, yet-untelevised rivals earn their living from. When not billed as ‘comedy hypnotism’ (to distinguish it from ‘tragic hypnotism’, of course) their acts may be advertised by that very term: adult. Some titillate with by-lines like: “not for the easily outraged” – nudge-nudge, wink-wink… say no more. (3) Basically, these are acts that span the gulf between the sexually implicit and sexually explicit.
Taking the susceptibility, amenability or even the collusion of volunteers for granted, the content of a hypnotic stage act may seem unpredictable: determined or limited, that is, only by the inventiveness of the performer (and perhaps what or how much he thinks he can get away with). In practice, it tends to be the very opposite – predictable or predictable within a little. As Paul McKenna once admitted, all the performer can present are variations upon certain well-known themes. Certain stunts with or without minor variations have become stereotyped ingredients of hypno-shows: The X-Ray Specs (where giant lens-less joke spectacles cause subjects to ‘see’ everyone about them in the nude), negative hallucination scenarios, the When You Wake Up You Will Be Elvis/Madonna/Michael Jackson, et cetera. (4) When it comes to sex routines, aficionados may expect the following:
- Being More Than just Good Friends with a Stranger: this has to be classed as potentially embarrassing for the subject(s) but otherwise innocuous. Even safe-as-milk TV shows may feature suggestions which have entranced volunteers cuddling or fondling one another, unscreened variations may involve more vigorous gropings, fumblings, kissing. As the wily hypnotist may word the suggestion so that the focus of each subject’s amorousness is the person beside them – and as that person may belong to the same sex – this shades over into:
- Homoerotic Behaviour: again, TV performers may engage in modified versions of this, male is told to stroke another’s knee… and so forth. (For maximum effect, pick two macho types for this experiment. Oh, won’t they look disgusted at themselves and each other when you snap ‘em out of it?!) The macho-man is also useful for:
- Cross-Dressing: the subject is handed female attire (the saucier the better) and puts it on in the hypnotically inspired belief he’s getting into his own clothes. Illustrative example: one recently reported show ended with “a tattooed trawlerman” in fishnet tights and Basque; for good measure he was told to respond to a musical cue by leaping into the air with a cry of, “I believe in fairies”. (5) .The direct opposite to having subjects dress in specially provided and uproariously inappropriate clothes is to have them take off their own, hence:
- The Striptease: this, as far as I’m aware, is not judged suitable for television although mostly restricted to (a) male subjects only who even then (b) strip down to their underpants only and (c) usually as a finale to the show. (Perhaps once you have reduced a bunch of guys to their underwear, the audience won’t expect you to cap that achievement. There again, they might hope you’ll try.) In some venues, however, the strip may continue and become absolute, witness the reported comment of one subject’s embarrassed girlfriend: “You saw everything when Jack took his clothes off.” (6) A kind of sexual-discriminatory code operates to protect female subjects from exposing themselves in the same way or to the same extent. Still, under the ever-popular hypno-illusion they are the World’s Greatest Stripper, they may lose all except bra/pants and some reports speak of women going topless. (7) Arguably and assuming he could find a subject who would comply, a hypnotist who went beyond these sartorial confines would be risking more than a few cancelled bookings. However, he could always fall back on good old:
- Simulated Sex: most definitely not suitable for TV as we know it today and an easy target for journalists composing one of the “sick sex hypno show” pieces in which this article of mine is interested. Subjects engage in what critics of 1920s Negro dance styles referred to as ‘dry screwing’ with a variety of unlikely objects, in which cuddly toys frequently figure. In one case summarised by Magonia, the female victim thought she was enjoying the services of Patrick Swayze when in fact what she was enjoying was whatever services you can expect from an inflatable doll when you haven’t taken your clothes off. (8) On the same (low) level is:
- Oral Sex: well, not really, but the female subject who thinks she is sucking at a lolly/ice cream is actually gobbling away at a vibrator. (9)
Before the atmosphere steams up completely, a few things ought to be conceded. These reports all come from papers consciously, industriously and mayhap deviously constructing “sick sex porno-hypno show” articles. This may not disbar them as evidence, but it should be taken into account. More important are the non-hypnotic suggestions of those who claim that hypnosis has little if anything to do with anything that the subjects do (or did … or are alleged to have done). Their argument would be that nothing occurred here that might not have occurred without hypnosis. Also, there is a difference between acted-as-if (simulated) acts and actual, for-real (performed) acts. Even agreeing that some hypno-shows may include volunteers who are capable of gross exhibitionism, people who don’t need to be hypnotised to perform in a “hypnotic” manner – admitting also that for them hypnosis may be a fair excuse for behaving irresponsibly and coarsely – I would still question a too-general application of this hypothesis.
Let’s leave that difficult question for the moment. The published evidence affirms that certain stage hypnotists spice up their acts with routines which are sexually implicit or explicit.
In most cases, the sexuality remains a hint. The hypnotist implies he can make his subjects do anything (‘sexual things’) but is careful not to risk putting that notion to the test. This is a sort of verbal lubricity, the audience being invited to think that if the performer can get his volunteers to behave as outrageously as they are seen to do then he could also get them to do a lot more outrageous (‘sexual’) things besides. Such appears to have been the ploy utilised by the hypnotist re-christened by the Sun of 12 January 1994 ‘Watt Sleaze’. His opening address to the audience implied he was willing to live up to such a soubriquet, holding out the promise that anyone who took part might have their greatest sexual fantasies realised. “If you want a sex orgy”, the headline quotes him as announcing, “well shut the doors and start right away.” (10) Disappointingly from the reporter’s point of view, perhaps, nothing in the act that followed came close to the orgiastic. The performer merely pointed the audience’s collective imagination in one direction and then headed off in another.
Elsewhere, though, stage hypnotists appear to sell the idea of their power over the subjects by frankly sex-orientated routines. It is hard to think otherwise about a recent Sunday Mirror report of an ‘adult’ show staged by Alex Tsander in which we are told of women instructed to think they were having sex on a train, copulating with a pink toy elephant (not that the colour makes much difference), having the biggest orgasm of their lives and licking the hypnotist’s boots every time he cued them with the word, “Grovel”. (11)
It was, in the opinion of Dr Sue Blackmore who accompanied the reporters, “a tawdry display of manipulation”, wherein the hypnotist “exploited his power for too long… Many of the tricks seemed designed for his own gratification”, and were “more like humiliation than entertainment”. Then we have the delightful scene in which, by way of a change, the hypnotist became the one to suffer from an induced suggestion. Under the spell of thinking that he was negotiating a future booking, he handed the undercover reporters “a sick album of snaps of his past stunts at pubs, clubs and private parties”, encouraging them with the promise that if hired, “I can make it as blue as you like”.
Ever since the days of the animal magnetists, stage hypnosis has passed through cycles of popularity. Each has been accompanied by recriminations and accusations of harm to volunteer-victims.
There is a possibility that the performer thought he had to sell himself – thought that his supposed customers wanted it blue and wouldn’t book him unless he could prove that, as in the Chelsea FC song, Blue is the Colour. What the future holds for acts like his, though, may bring blues of the old-fashioned sort.
Ever since the days of the animal magnetists, stage hypnosis has passed through cycles of popularity. Each has been accompanied by recriminations and accusations of harm to volunteer-victims. Currently we are seeing the latest and greatest manifestation of this two-way process, with reports of traumas, severe mental disturbances and emotional as well as occasional physical harm done to subjects. (12)
There is no point in pretending this is a non-issue. There is no point in pretending that hypno-act volunteers deserve whatever they get purely because they are volunteers and have therefore exposed themselves to avoidable risks. There is no point in pretending there are no risks or that all the reported cases of harm, physical and emotional, are fabrications. things have started to go wrong.
A name of someone for whom it went wrong, allegedly – a name which crops up like a memento mori whenever the press engage in another minatory treatment of stage hypnosis – is that of the late Sharron Tabarn. Her obituary reads: age 24, mother of two – volunteered as subject in unlicensed pub hypno-show at Leyland, Lancashire; instructed by hypnotist that she would awaken from her trance as if 10,000 volts had passed through her (or words to that effect). Found dead in bed five hours later. Coroner’s verdict: epileptic seizure, death by natural causes.
I have been working quite hard to avoid saying that Sharron Tabarn died as a result of that hypnotic suggestion. I feel safe in saying that something of that kind was implied, however, since practically every account I have seen of the case has already done so. Mrs Tabarn’s mother, Margaret Harper, went further than that. Pointing out that her daughter hadn’t suffered a seizure before, she was quoted as stating that “Hypnosis brought on her fit”. Mrs Harper went on to launch the Campaign Against Stage Hypnosis, an organisation which has become increasingly prominent as the newspaper coverage of the hypno-show controversy progresses. This, of course, owes much to the way journalists target useful, quotable persons and organisations when researching their material – persons to whom they can say, “What is your reaction?” and get a usable, quotable reply. (We often get the feeling that the interviewer has a better-than-vague idea of the answer before the question is asked; also that the person concerned has been chosen to respond to that question because the interviewer already has a better-than-vague idea of what the answer will be.) Another obvious source for “reaction quotes” on hypno-shows, was, of course, Paul McKenna. Towards the proposal to implement a ban on stage performances he was, unsurprisingly, not sympathetic, even when reporters laid the fact of the Tabarn case in front of him. “It’s like saying that because only one restaurant is responsible for food poisoning, all restaurants should be banned.” (13)
Mr McKenna’s opinion was sought again in November 1994 when an out-of-court settlement made 25-year-old Ann Hazard about £20,000 richer, though most would agree it was a poor return for what happened after she’d volunteered as a subject during a stage hypnosis show at Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre some six years before. (14) At one point in the performance, Mrs Hazard asked hypnotist Robert Halpern if she could use the lavatory and was allegedly told to go by the quickest route or exit. (15) Hypnotised subjects sometimes respond with dreadful over-literalness to suggestions. It appears that in Mrs Hazard’s case taking the ‘quickest exit’ involved jumping off the four-foot stage, whereupon she broke her leg in two places.
Unable to follow her sports interests, given over to moods of irritability and to nightmares, she decided to take legal action. This was not without precedent. In March 1952 a 23-year-old shop assistant named Diana Rains-Bath had brought an action for negligence and assault against a stage hypnotist and had won damages, though the sum eventually awarded to her wasn’t the sort that anyone could retire on. (16) As already mentioned, the Hazard affair ended in an out-of-court settlement – and also a press conference and more calls for a ban on stage hypnosis. Glasgow Council had already pre-empted this, vetoing such displays in all halls and theatres under its jurisdiction. More significantly, the case strongly implied that in future stage hypnotists might be held liable for any proven harm incurred by folk who took part in their acts.
By now it was evident that some newspapers were on the lookout for scandalous, if possible lubricious hypno-stories, inviting readers to contact them at once with personal anecdotes of “life-changing” experiences at stage shows. Typically, these invitations were appended to articles critical of hypnotic entertainments in tone if not in direct statement and it was understood that when they talked about “life-changing” experiences, they meant ones which had changed somebody’s life for the worse.
When challenged by the media on the subject, stage hypnotists have an endearing way of agreeing that there are rascals who ignore local licensing requirements and guidelines, the 1952 Hypnotism Act and much else besides. They freely admit there are a few who get volunteers to perform unsuitable and sometimes dangerous stunts. But of course, the interviewee scrupulously declares that he is not one of the reprehensible band. So far, one of the few stage hypnotists who might say that and be believed was also the best known, Paul McKenna.
Ignoring a few less-than-mesmerised TV pundits, the press had always been good to Paul McKenna. Most found him an ideal subject for cosy ‘human interest’ articles. In the best tradition of celebrity journalism, we heard all about his Kensington flat, his days as a disc jockey, his girlfriend (how he proposed to her – and where); even the man who made his waistcoats came in for a mention. (17) Interest in TV’s latest star was sustained between the end of his first series and the start of the next (autumn 1994) by carefully timed articles of this homely kind. On 1 July 1994 a Sun ‘exclusive’ by Peter Willis announced that McKenna had just clinched a £2.5 million, two-year deal with ITV (designed, it was said, to prevent his defection to the BBC) which would enable him to branch out – “hypnotism will take a back seat for now as he concentrates on more widely ranging family shows”. (Of these, we’ve seen no sign so far.) October brought another Sun ‘exclusive’ revealing that he was holding secret hypnotherapy sessions to combat the Duchess of York’s stress and also her recurring weight problem. (18) In all this time, no hint of scandal. As we’ve seen, McKenna’s only contact with anything resembling it took the form of well-considered ‘reaction quotes’ arising from other folks’ alleged misfortunes or misdemeanours. Writing about him in Fortean Times that same year, I remarked on the odd fact that there’d been so few complaints about him. That disguised the truth, which was that I hadn’t heard of any at all. (19)
Making such a statement probably brought down a curse on me, on Paul McKenna or upon both of us. With his second Carlton TV series at the end of its Monday night run, the dailies for 14 December 1994 named him in the context of what sounded a notably serious hypno-scandal which took on added significance from the coinciding announcement of a governmental decision to review the rules relating to stage hypnosis performances.
Chris Gates (aged 26) had allegedly been transformed from a robust fishing and martial arts enthusiast to someone with the mental state of an eight-year-old after having taken part in a McKenna show at High Wycombe the previous March. Acting and presumably believing he was only eight, the sufferer couldn’t be expected to furnish the press with much information on the matter, but his girlfriend could and did. On stage, Mr Gates had responded to instructions to become a ballerina; he had taken part in one of the most popular seen-on-TV McKenna routines, a spoof version of “Blind Date”. But according to his girlfriend, he had also been left unattended in a ‘regressive’ state throughout the show’s interval and thereafter suffered a noticeable psychiatric deterioration. He complained of headaches – of being scared of God – of someone controlling his thoughts – of voices in his head. He refused to wash his hair or to hang clothes in his wardrobe for reasons plainly outside the realms of rationality. Hospitalised at last for (it was said) acute schizophrenia, Mr Gates was described today as, to all intents, an eight-year-old needing adult supervision and whiling away his time with puzzle-books. (20)
Solicited for ‘reaction quotes’ yet again (but under somewhat less positive circumstances than usual) Mr McKenna denied ever having used regression techniques on stage. He also pointed out, quite legitimately, that Mr Gates’s mental troubles might have surfaced even had he not taken part in the High Wycombe show: “He ‘blames hypnotism’” ran one attributed remark, “but there was never any evidence to prove that.” Evidence notwithstanding, the implied relationship between the two events – between Mr Gates taking part in the hypno-show and the onset of his mental disturbances – seemed suspiciously causal. This was heightened, arguably, by a Charing Cross Hospital consultant psychiatrist’s opinion that the “emotional impact” of the trance may have triggered the subsequent breakdown.
There was an element of glee in some quarters that at last someone had “got something on McKenna”. (Too brash, you see – too self-satisfied. Too successful.) His figurehead role in his profession – and let’s remind ourselves that the public has come to identify Paul McKenna with stage hypnosis and vice versa – gave the allegations immense weight as regards the campaign to ban such shows. How this episode will affect his career as a mass-entertainment celebrity remains to be seen. At the time of writing (February 1995) we are waiting for news of the Government’s assessment of the rules regulating hypno-shows. It seems likely that changes will be introduced; the future for the McKenna wannabees isn’t bright and the Man himself may have to make a few revisions to his act. The question, as always, comes down to whether new laws need to be implemented or whether existing ones could be more effective if they were more vigorously enforced.
For instance and limiting discussion to ‘sick sex hypno-porno shows’ – aren’t these events already covered by existing laws? I confess to being quite confused by all this. What follows are a few random and quite likely refutable thoughts on the topic.
Suppose for a moment that the Hazard case had been settled in court instead of outside one. Suppose also that the verdict had been the same, that is, in favour of the complainant. (As it might have been: the Rains-Bath case could provide a valid precedent, showing as it does that injured subjects can win damages from a hypnotist.) Since it appears that hypnotists can be held liable for actions performed by their subjects against their own safety or against their own interests, could the latter be construed to encompass sexual acts carried out as per hypnotic instigation which the subject retrospectively felt were damaging to his/her emotional health or social status? If so, might a woman pointed out in the streets of her home town as someone who’d publicly simulated sex with a fluffy pink elephant sue on grounds of emotional harm or similar?
I suppose she would have to show that, in a normal state of consciousness sans the specific hypnotic instruction, she would not have simulated sex with said fluffy elephant. That connects with one of the most recalcitrant questions concerning hypnosis: can or can not a person be made to carry out acts other than what would or might be performed in his/her normal state of consciousness? Again, the act of volunteering to be hypnotised might be taken as consent to the act – unless (in a form of diminished responsibility plea) the subject counter-argued that she consented only to the act of being hypnotised, not to the act which came out of it, responsibility for which is down to the suggester, the hypnotist.
So the volunteer-subject argues that she did not know what being hypnotised would lead her into. Might it not be shown that the act of attending an ‘adult’ show and of volunteering to take part in it was tantamount to prior awareness? That anybody attending such a show would have some inkling of the things she might be involved in as a result of volunteering, so that in effect the subject acquiesced in a process which carried a strong possibility of emotional distress?
The Hypnotism Act 1952 clearly states that a licence is required from the local authorities controlling other forms of entertainment before an exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnosis can take place. (21) Prosecutions arising from contravention of this or other parts of the Act seem rare. Licensing authorities vary in their willingness to think hard before granting hypno-show authorisation; Westminster Council is said to be diligent about examining the content of each performers act but others appear to be less bothered. It has been suggested that not all performers and/or promoters are aware of the need to obtain such a licence and that some quietly ignore it; the Leyland (Lancashire) show in which Sharron Tabarn took part was described in at least one press report as “unlicensed”.
All this may be incidental, beyond indicating that stage hypnosis is regulated under existing entertainment licensing laws. Other laws, notably those regarding public decency, govern what may be staged in places to which the public are admitted. I’ve been talking about suggested actions of a sexual nature; this, after all, is what press coverage of “sick sex hypno shows” presents as one of the chiefest causes for concern. Are these shows not covered by those laws? Realistically, perhaps, those laws may be unenforceable. They may be too expensive in terms of legal costs to be enforced. Many pub striptease acts play fast and loose with the laws of pornography, for example; the offenders could be prosecuted but (unless someone complains strenuously) they seldom are. The same might apply to some stage hypnosis shows.
In any event, all these finicky little problems go away if we follow a particular trend in current thinking about hypnosis, namely that hypnosis doesn’t really exist. A few paragraphs back, I slipped in the phrase, ‘normal state of consciousness‘, the understanding being that the hypnotic state is not normal, but ‘altered’ or somehow ‘different‘. The school of thought just alluded to proposes that it isn’t. “Hypnosis may stand as a term of convenience, but it is not a genuinely distinct state. You may even consider it to be a “cultural invention … a fantasy, like the belief that you are possessed by the devil”. So says Dr Graham Wagstaff of Liverpool University in an interview with a rather unconvinced Peter Hillmore (22)
Dr Wagstaff is not the first researcher to suggest that ‘hypnosis’ is an invention (and perhaps an unnecessary one); the experimental work of Theodore X. Barber in the 1960s aroused considerable discussion as to the extent to which the phenomena put forward to establish the discrete character of the hypnotic state could be duplicated, even simulated, by non-hypnotised persons. (23)
But it is Dr Wagstaff who has emerged as a leading proponent of the idea that we may not need to consider hypnosis as anything more than a spurious name for a collection of psychological mechanisms, not as an authentic or unique condition. Speaking in an edition of Equinox just before Christmas 1994, he went as far as to say that before too long the word would have dropped out of usage and the concept itself out of sight. Along with it, presumably, would go any notion of prosecutions or regulations to do with hypnosis. You can’t prosecute and don’t need to regulate what does not exist.
So hypnosis does not exist – the stage volunteers aren’t hypnotised – the routines they perform are not “hypnotic”. If there is no concession to the idea that “hypnotic suggestions” are carried out in a state other than normal, surely any indecent act performed is punishable, the offender blatantly transgressing the “Indecency Laws” and without any extenuating excuse, such as the averral that they would not have performed that act in a “normal state”?
Equinox: The Big Sleep was a good programme, if you ignored the unhappy attempt to capitalise on the title by staging it as a Chandler PI case complete with sardonic Marlowesque voice-over. Dr Wagstaff was one of the best things on it, especially in a segment where he replicated a number of ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ hypnotic stunts with a man who was not hypnotised. (He freely confirmed that he wasn’t. Ah, but perhaps he’d been hypnotised to say that. Ah, but Dr Wagstaff affirmed that he hadn’t.) The biggest obstacle to his propositions gaining more attention is that most of us persist in wanting to believe that hypnosis is a genuinely unique state. Stage performers owe their living to that attitude. We get a buzz out of supposing that subjects do what they do because of hypnosis, even if sometimes we harbour a few suspicions that they may only be ‘acting’ or ‘pretending’ to be hypnotised.
The Big Sleep also had Dr Wagstaff at a Blackpool hypno-show and interviewing some of the people who’d taken part as volunteers in it. Since hypnosis doesn’t exist, evidently, it follows that people can’t be hypnotised – so what had caused them to do all the crazy things they did? Compliance … task motivation … et cetera. Dr Wagstaff went over this when he talked to Peter Hillmore, making the point that TV shows like The Generation Game prove “many people are more than happy to make fools of themselves to please the compere”. Does this mean that Bruce Forsyth is really a hypnotist? Is Paul McKenna really Bruce Forsyth? While you’re about it, savour the televisual irony that one of the more amusing routines in the last series of ‘he Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna’was a spoof version of… The Generation Game’.
But then Peter Hillmore came back with what sounds a nice objection pointing towards a distinction. In The Generation Game contestants know what they are doing is making them look ridiculous; they laugh at themselves as they do it. In hypno-shows you rarely see participants laugh at themselves. The laughter is directed at them and they often appear confused by it. Or as Mr Hillmore wrote, the volunteers “continue with their absurd actions in spite of the laughter, not because of it”. (24)
One more thing: as the audience, we are doing the laughing – not merely condoning the act, but encouraging it. If we’re worried about hypno-shows, we ought to remember that we aren’t forced (or hypnotised) to watch them. There is evidence that audiences, familiarised through what they have seen on TV or elsewhere, expect to be shown certain tricks like the now cliched “X-Ray Specs” routine. ‘All Your Favourites’, promised a poster for a hypno-show in Thurrock recently – implying that we not only knew all about hypnotists’ routines, but have connoisseurs’ preferences among them. Performers sometimes admit to feeling the pressure of their public’s expectations. “Audiences love it”, said Andrew Newton of his men-stripped-to-underpants trick. “When I used to do late-night spots in Liverpool, they used practically to demand it.” (25) And there are some venues where the audience demand tricks more audacious than that. Outside TV’s enchanted circle, more overt sexual stunts may become standard items. People want to see them and they aren’t happy if they don’t. The hypnotist who doesn’t oblige, the hypnotist who doesn’t come up with the simulated sex routines, risks being the hypnotist who doesn’t get many bookings.
Is there a case for redefining where the responsibility for what goes on at ‘hypno-porno’ shows lies? Is there a need for new laws to control what goes on or might go on at these shows? Is this all a waste of time, because hypnosis doesn’t exist?
Is there a lawyer in the house
1. Guardian Week-end supplement, 11 Feb. 1995, p. 6
2. Female stage hypnotists do not appear to have been over-prevalent at any period in entertainment history. In Mystic London (1875) the Rev. Charles Maurice Davies writes of seeing a Miss Chandos, “a very pretty young lady indeed, of not more than 18 or 20 years of age” with “a Mystic crop of long black curls, which waved about like the locks of a sibyl” and his phraseology suggests there were others who, like her, bid for popularity on the mesmeric public-lecture circuit at this time. Miss Chandos evidently made adroit use of her girlish charm: “When she asked for volunteers I thought the room had risen on masse”, wrote Davies (slightly miffed that he was too far back from the stage to get a go). “Everybody wanted to be mesmerised.” Perhaps the best-known and most successful female stage performer is or was Pat Collins, who enjoyed Hollywood modishness in the early 1960s and capped it with a cameo role in Divorce American Style (where she hypnotises Debbie Reynolds, of all people).
3. “Not for the easily outraged”: as mentioned in ‘The Human Zoo’ columnist Jon Ronson’s “It’s a trance of a lifetime” (Guardian Weekend, 31 Dec. 1994) which followed an evening at FiFi’s Palace of Dance near Dudley with rubber-clad stage hypnotist Alexxx.
4. The X-Ray Specs routine was popularised (if not actually invented) by the American George Kreskin. Practically all stage hypnotists currently performing have incorporated it into their acts. Negative hallucinations are ones which prevent the subject from seeing (or appearing to see) any object which the hypnotist designates as invisible, e.g. as where the performer suggests that he himself or some other person will be invisible to the subject. A good way to create the illusion of things moving psycho-kinetically.
5. “Lads Strip for Gay Bathtime” (Sun, 11 Jan. 1994, pp 22-23). This was part of that paper’s three part end amazingly sexsational exposé of stage hypnosis.
6. David Jack, “How hypnotist made my man strip naked for sick sex show …as shocked crowd watched” (Sunday People, 1 May 1994, pp 10-11). Ah, but how many of them walked out? Among the other alleged hypnotic indiscretions of this subject was a confession that he wished his girlfriend would get on top more often and “do more of the work”
7. Until comparatively recently (in most venues, at least) the World’s Greatest Stripper involved female subjects in no-thing more outrageous than mimicking a bump and grind routine, the hypnotist specifying “… but you will not take off your clothes”. (This was traditionally accompanied by a knowing took that told the audience that unless he’d said that, the subject certainly would have taken off her clothes.) In an interesting but questionable incident at the Wallasey nightclub Tramps in 1980, two females instructed to dance to that old favourite “The Stripper” were said to have ignored the hypnotist’s injunction and actually went much further than many professional striptease artistes and had to be hustled off stage (“The Stripnotist”, Sun, 23 June 1980, p. 11). The fact the volunteers were both go-go dancers may or may not have some bearing on these events. Ironically, the hypnotist reported here as distraught (“It was awful… I just want to forget all about it.”) and as taking a pride in having a “family” act was Les Power – a name which featured in the same paper’s “sick sex hypno show” series of Jan. 1994.
8. As reported by John Rimmer (Magonia 51, Feb. 1995, p. 20), taken from the Sunday People, 24 Dec. 1994. (interesting sexological point: can an inflatable doll ever be used for anything other than simulated sex?)
9. Allegedly featured (and condemned, of course) in the Alex Le Roy act described by Chris Blythe in the Sun’s “Dirty Trancing”, 10 Jan. 1994. Mr Le Roy’s tete-a-tete with the reporter elicited much boasting of sexual conquests accredited to hypnosis. By contrast, Andrew Newton’s with Gary Bushel) for the Sun ‘s TV Super Guide (no date, late 1994?) produced the complaint that “The pubs are full of third-rate hypnotists ripping off my act” and also the threat of taking Paul McKenna to court for pirating his ideas. However, it also included a cautionary tale of an unnamed hypnotist whose typically unprofessional act included the vibrator/oral sex stunt.
10. This was the last of the three-part Sun expose cited in Note 5 above.
11. “Hypno show began as fun but it ended in sex shame”, by Hilary Knowles and David Rowe, Sunday Mirror, 18 Dec. 1994, pp 14-15.
12. Since at least 1983 several newspapers have quoted Dr Prem Misra, a psychotherapist who to some extent specialises in treating the negative after-effects of stage hypnosis performances. See, for example, Anthony Howard’s ‘Blunder the Spell!’ (Daily Mirror, 2 March 1994, p. 3) where Dr Misra was said to have handled sixteen ‘severely disturbed cases’ among hypno-show volunteers. This article was published just prior to Dr Misra’s appearance on BBC1′s Here and Now programme in which the dangers of such shows provided the theme.
13. Daily Mirror, 29 March 1994, “The show must go on says McKenna”; cf. “Paul: Stage Ban is Unfair”, by Caroline Sutton, 2 April 1994 – possibly the Sun
14. Many national papers for 4 November 1994 carried reports on this case; my summary uses material from the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Sun of that date.
15. The career of Robert Halpern, perhaps the most oft-publicised Scottish stage hypnotist, has provided the theme for numerous press reports, including some which make him sound worthy of the cliché ‘no stranger to controversy’. It appears a matter of fact that his shows revived the declining fortunes of Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre; in its 4 September 1980. issue The Stage & Television Today (p. 3) credited him with achieving 95% capacity audiences in the 1400-seater venue over the traditionally dead summer season. Occasionally criticised by older members of his own profession but something of a folk-hero amongst younger Glaswegians, Mr Halpern suffered from a general concern over possible bad after-effects among hypno-show volunteers (News of the World, 24 April 1983, p. 3) and more recently a series of eight scheduled London performances was terminated after just three shows when Westminster City Council reacted to alleged complaints of sexual innuendo, etc. (Sunday Scot, 26 May 1991.)
16. In March 1952 at Sussex Assizes, shop assistant Diana Rains-Bath sought damages for negligence, breach of contract and assault from American stage hypnotist Ralph Slater relating to her participation as a volunteer in one of his Brighton Hippodrome performances in 1948. It was alleged that during the show Slater had jerked her head sharply and painfully forward (presumably to rehypnotise her – Miss Rains-Bath had spontaneously slipped out of trance at the time) and had also forgotten to cancel the successful suggestion that she was a baby crying for its mother. Miss Rains-Bath was subsequently treated for depression and anxiety neurosis by Dr J S Van Pelt of the British Society of Medical Hypnotists who, it transpired, was mounting a campaign against stage performers. This was one detail emergent from the lively exchange between the doctor and Mr Slater, who took over the conduct of his own defence when his counsel withdrew, being unable to concur with the direction in which Slater wished the defence to proceed. Miss Rains-Bath was initially awarded £1,000 damages on the negligence plea, £107 special damages and £25 for assault. However, in July 1952 a Court of Appeal overturned the negligence plea award, allowing only that for damages to stand and in December that same year it was announced that Miss Rains-Bath had dropped the special damages claim. The case is believed to have been a factor in the passing of the 1952 Hypnotism Act which received the Royal Assent on 1 August that year and became operative on 1 April 1953. Most national dailies carried reports of the hearing; this summary is compiled from those in The Times, 1, 12, 14, 21, 25 and 27 March, 20 July and 13 December 1952.
17. “Star Paul Casts A Spell On His Friends” (People Magazine, 21 November 1993, pp 12-13) was composed almost entirely of snap-quotes from persons close to Paul McKenna professionally or socially. In case you were worried about it, the tailor of the McKenna waistcoats at this period in his life was Tom Gilbey.
18. Sun, 20 October 1994, pp.26-27. If we believe the reports of certain papers (which a lot of us don’t) this was not the Duchess of York’s first experiment with hypnotherapeutic weight-loss. Claims of similar ‘secret treatments’ (though not with Mr McKenna) were made in November 1986 – and subsequently denied. Come to think, I haven’t seen any actual confirmation of these more recent (Sun) claims, either.
19. ‘The Hipster of Hypnosis‘, Fortean Times, 74, April/May 1994, p. 53.
20. This summary includes Pascoe Watson’s ‘McKenna’s Trance Left My Boyfriend Like A Child’ (Star, 14 December 1994, p. 11) and – more detailed, if only because there were more pages – ‘My Man Became A Child After McKenna Hypno Act‘, by Roger Kasper and John Chapman (News of the World, 18 Dec. 1994, pp. 13-15)
21. Clause 1 (1) states that “any authority in an area empowered to grant licences for the regulation of places kept or ordinarily used for public dancing, singing, music or other public entertainments of the like kind” shall also have the power “to attach conditions regulating or prohibiting the giving of an exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnotism on any person at the place to which the licence relates”.
22. ‘Peter Hillmore’s Notebook‘, The Observer, 29 January 1995, p. 25
23. Theodore X Barber, Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach. New York, Van Nostrand, 1969. In his first chapter of Hypnosis for the Seriously Curious, (New York and London, W W Norton, 1976, paperback edition, 1983) Kenneth S Bowers provides a review of the evidence that hypnotic behaviour can (in his words) be faked.
24. Cf the remark from Dr Prem Misra (note 12, above): “The fun is always at the expense of the individual.” I think it may be legitimate to point out that when interviewed in the wake of their hypno-performances the majority of volunteers affirm that they enjoyed the experience, even if they are now aware of having made themselves look a trifle foolish.
25. Roger Tedre, ‘Hypnotism takes the country by trance‘, The Observer, 6 November 1994, p. 13. Andrew Newton was perhaps the first of the ‘younger generation’ of stage hypnotists to attract national publicity. Apart from the success of his late-night Liverpudlian shows (see main text) he managed to obtain a licence that enabled him to become the first hypnotist to perform on a central London stage in 35 years (“All eyes on the hypnotists seeking West End fame”, The Observer, 16 January 1987) and ushered in the TV boom from which Paul McKenna benefited greatly with a one-hour, one-off ITV programme in December 1993. He now has his own series on Sky TV.