Old Hat, New Hat.
Michael Goss

From Magonia 40, August 1991.

Blame your editor. His BackPage invitation to Magonia readers to predict the next Great Unexplained Phenomenon set ma a-thinking…


Set me a-thinking that each successive Great Unexplained Phenomenon which rises from the obscurity of being known to the freakish few to becoming the possession of the millions – becomes a craze, a talking point, a trend a pollutant of the airwaves, breeds a spawn of conferences and specialist magazines – poses on the cover of Newsweek, gets sniped at in Private Eye, blunders onto Wogan, struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard of on breakfast TV no more. Well, a thing like that leaves casualties behind it.

The chiefest casualty being the previous month’s Great Unexplained Phenomenon. If this really is a culture where everyone can expect a turn at being famous for a quarter of an hour (less advert breaks) the paranormal has no right to demand preferential treatment. It may be possible, even, to lay down a set of general rules governing the rise and fall of Great Phenomena.

In semi-logical order, and no more than that: paranormal phenomena breed one upon the other in the sense that popular awareness of newly (mass) publicised ones is conditioned by how well-digested the preceding ones were. Past-life regression makes more sense – seems more credibly, arguably – if you have been exposed to popular articles on hypnosis. Materialization as a concept arises, though not inevitably, from more humble seance-room phenomena. The Greys of Zeta Reticuli are less likely to be shown the door to your boggle-threshold if you condone CEIVs, and that in turn may depend on how you reacted to CEIIIs, as Andy Roberts’s article in Wild Places [1] proved triumphantly. ‘Boggle-threshold’ is a good metaphor, a coining of Renee Haynes I think, although someone is bound to tell me I’m wrong. It expands thanks to the activities of all the previous boggles. We are more likely to believe and accept if we believed and accepted the last time.

Quasi Rule 2: strictly speaking there are no `new phenomena’, merely variations on old ones. This theoretical distinction isn’t always clear to general audiences, or to newspaper editors, who tend to treat aspects on phenomena in isolation. A phenomenon incapable of variation becomes, in neo-Darwinian terms, obsolete. It need not drop out of existence; it will have its practitioners, its students and others who are prone to say with time that it has been unjustly neglected. Loss of mass audience doesn’t invalidate. I have long suspected that there was more to mesmerism than is covered by the term hypnosis; SPR investigator Brian Nisbet produced some intriguing ESP-Spiritualist

 evidence by the ostensibly outmoded means of table-tilting as late as the 1970s. But what the phenomenon loses is its charisma; quite likely it will pass into a coelacanth-style afterlife, without anyone having explained it satisfactorily. But now, nobody cares about explaining it, the real thrust, the excitement, has focussed upon something now. the direction of studies in that particular field lie with the new phenomenon, not the old… possibly or most probably.

Three: to take off into the empyrean – to make the Wogan show for instance – the Phenomenon must offer audience participation. What Uri Geller did on Dimbleby you may be able to do. Your grandmother found strange things happened when she went to that Spiritualist medium. And you? You’ve no need to stop at reading about this stuff - you can become involved, you can experience. “The Sunday People experiments with Uri at 12.30 p.m.”, announced The Paper With Guts (sic) on the front page of its 25 November 1973 edition. “Mind-bender extraordinary Uri Geller wants your help today. So stand by with any old bits of metal (for) the biggest experiment in extra-sensory perception ever staged”. At the appointed hour Uri (in Paris) would concentrate hard on whatever metal objects the 15 million People readers across Britain happened to be holding… The results filled up a page of the gutsy paper’s next issue, but did not, I fancy, impress the SPR.

Turning the pages of my 1973-1975 scrapbooks past the gellerian plethora, I’m daunted by the sheer amount of coverage given to audience-participation psychic phenomena. But I am equally fascinated at the way in which (spoon-bending revivals not counted) each phase of paranormal trend-riding drops out of sight, upstaged as it were by the next. Time then for another attempt at laying down the law.

Four: the public, upon whom the Phenomenon relies for its vitality, has an ill-defined but limited span of concentration. It becomes eventually bored, satiated. The paranormal may portray itself as an entity more important to our mental and spiritual future or to our scientific knowledge than, say, John Travolta or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, yet it is as subject to over-exposure as they. Editors, producers have to gauge both the incipient appeal of a phenomenon and its rate of exponential decay: when to play a trend for all it’s worth and when to drop it.

The foregoing is too simple, I’m aware: it ignores the fact that while same portion of the audience stay faithful to the Phenomenon, it is equally likely that new and younger audiences will come along and rediscover it. At a modest level, true-life ghost stories (essentially a conservative form) are perennially popular. There are still people who find fire-walking a vibrantly exciting topic, just as there are still people who will not miss an episode of Neighbours or a home game of West Bromwich Albion. The focus’s heady days of fame may be past, but they may come back. Or try this: during my spell as a secondary-school teacher, I was recurrently bemused at teenagers’ delight in rediscovering the sub-surface arts of what they called weeja and ipnertism. Perhaps my coelacanth gibe was misplaced. After all, someone else’s old hat may fit you nicely.

Talking of which, is there anyone out there who goes in for hat-turning? Since a prerequisite is a top-hat, I’d guess not. Punch, ever-alert to 19th century social fads was pretty firm about it though: “It is necessary to get a hat” it declared in the caption to a typically immobile 1850ish cartoon entitles ‘The Hat-Moving Experiment’. Deadpan instructions to this latest craze in drawing-room psychical research followed: “Two or more persons place their hands on the rim thereof, the little fingers of each person being in contact. In about twenty minutes or half an hour or perhaps more, the hat will begin to jump, and revolve rapidly.”

How? Why? The ‘Song of a Hat-Turner, By One who was Moved in the Highest Circles’ explained:

Some say the actions muscular,and some it is galvanic,

While others call it humbug in a scientific way;

And some there are assign it to an agency Satanic;

And vow the Devil’s in it if there’s not the deuce to pay.

Yet all around my hat I still persist in turning,

Unheeding what the sceptical and scientific say:

And tho’ perhaps a character for verdancy I’m earning

I’ve nothing else to turn for whiling the time away.

Hat-turning was a short-lived sensation, nothing more than an embryonic stage in the life history of Spiritualism. What we need to appreciate is how enthusiastically it was greeted. Punch had ample room for the craze and even more for its co-terminous near relation, table-turning, whose M.O. epidemic popularity and ephemerality it also borrowed from the hatters. The allure of table turning may be appreciated from three comments: one made when it was yet a novelty, the others some time after it had subsided. In contrast with the American-import label attached to Spiritualism, table-turning appears to have migrated to England from Europe, where the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townsend found it: “The fashion spreads from the cottage to the throne. the Emperor of Russia is reported to be engaged less in devising how to get Turkey than how to make tables revolve. Is the Emperor of Austria supposed to be in strictest conference with his minister? Not a bit of it! He is turning tables. Even of the Pope it is whispered that, when he was represented as playing at billiards… this was only a deceit way of expressing that he really was not making the balls spin, but the table itself?” [2]

So to England where a species of valediction to table-turning was pronounced by The Yorkshireman as early as 1856. It was, said the writer, an evening party regular of “some two or three years ago… In those days you were invited to `tea and table moving’ as a new excitement, and made to revolve with the family like mad round articles of furniture.” In those not-so-distant days, then, table-turning had been revolutionary in more senses than one. By 1894 Andrew Lang was speaking of it as being “deserted like croquet and… even less to be regretted.” Sic transit… Spiritualism did not require gyrating hats and tables by then. It was a movement whose history reveals a pulsating pattern whereby a Phenomenon advances in a series of evolutions, each of which constitutes a phenomenon in its own right – and in the public consciousness. In its earliest English phase (as introduced to us by Mrs Hayden in 1852, one of the first ‘big name’ American mediums or, if you prefer, ‘Yankee conjurers’) it offered discreet communications with the departed through rappings. This effect soon became a subsidiary, and a minor one at that, overtaken by more dramatic phenomena: by table turning, by other major PK-like manifestations, by apports, by automatism (the planchette, “another source of amusement, mysterious and novel” was here by 1867) [3], by materializations, slate-writing… Each advance was, in some senses, a loss. Phenomenon heralded as the core of a new science, lost their impact. It is tempting to see the ‘greater Phenomenon – Spiritualism as a whole – to have reached its evolutionary zenith. Comfortably placed though it is today, it appears to have lost its emotional impetus. Ufology took up the running a couple of decades ago: “I’m beginning to think Spiritualism’s future lies firmly behind it”, writes Kevin McClure.

But them Spiritualism itself had effortlessly and uncaringly upstaged animal magnetism just when the so-called ‘Science of Life’ was entering a new phenomenal phase as electrobiology (1851). And animal magnetism (or Mesmerism, to use a term that gradually rose to dominance) had in turn ridden in on the back of phrenology. When we consider that a cheap edition of George Combe’s `bump-reading’ text The Constitution of Man sold 100,000 copies in Britain alone we can be sure that phrenology was no minor sensation. In fact it evolved as an artifact of lecture-demonstrations, literature, coteries and controversy which Mesmerism took over in the late 1830′s, early 1840′s. Phrenology became alternative-science-as-popular-participator entertainment – as did Mesmerism. The parallels are remarkably consistent, so too the pattern of old phenomenon being overtaken by new. The danger, as Chauncey Townshend saw it, lay in the superficiality of the public:

“Let a Mesmerist tell the marvels of his experience; people prick up their ears. Let him speak of the humble utility of Mesmerism; people look down to the ground. Talk of clairvoyance; they at least start. Talk of cures; they yawn. They want the marvellous…” [4]

By now (1854) Spiritualism was giving it to them. In the long-term view Mesmerism – the focus of what some critics just three years previously decried as a mania, the focal point of evening-party entertainment and pantry ‘experiments’ which threatened to destroy Victorian edicts on rationality or propriety – was not capable of resisting the challenge. Spiritualism was more exciting, more daring… more stimulating. And easier to practice, evidently. The animal magnetists who had thrown verbal brickbats at Braid for his deglamorization of their art (hypnotism, he called it and no magnetic fluids were involved) collected them up again, borrowed the outraged moral stance of those who has criticised and attacked them, and assailed their Spiritualist rivals. A bastard version of the true magnetic power, a dangerous delusion, impious and unseemly: few had much mercy to spare for the spirit-rappers. That did not save them. Upstaged again. Caught in public wearing old hat.

Let’s remind ourselves: Mesmerism, courtesy of Braid, transmuted into hypnosis and survived; as far as popular sensation is concerned, the 1890′s witnessed an amazing revival of the Science of Life (still occasionally referred to as animal magnetism or Mesmerism), partly due to a fin de siécle explosion of interest in occultism and more, I suspect, to Du Maurier’s lachrymose best-seller, Trilby. It is foolish to draw fat, felt-tipped lines between phenomena or to vote any one of them an irredeemable fossil. Called on to review a bibliography on phrenology for Fortean Times a year or so back, I was forced to concede that phrenology is not the deadest of dead pseudo-sciences, it has adherents – look closely and you will see definite signs of respiration.

And yet… and yet. Limiting the argument to the proposition that mass public enthusiasm has a part to play in phenomenal evolution, I could not foresee any major development out of either hypnosis per se nor Spiritualism. As for ufology, you know more than I do. Could it be that with the subterranean Greys of Andy Roberts’s article we are reaching the point where Something else is ready to get up on the stage and give us a number? I just know that I wouldn’t want to be an agent for a good old down-the-middle UFO abduction manuscript nowadays.


1. Andy Roberts, ‘Subterranian Homesick Greys’, Wild Places, no. 2 (1991), pp. 14-21
2. Chauncey Hare Townsend. Mesmerism Proved True. (1854) p. 121.
3. Townsend, op. cit., p.110
4. Andrew Lang. Cock Lane and Common Sense. (1894) p.332
5. J in Once a Week, 26 October 1867, makes it clear that the planchette was no novelty in America. the following week, in response to a reader’s inquiries, OAW gives two london addresses where the new toy was available. A book entitled Planchettes; of the Despair of Science, was reviewed by The Athenaeum on 15 May 1969. The reviewer agreed with the title.

Hypnotism, the Illusion of ‘Hypnosis’ and Enhanced Testimony in UFO Reports
Part Three: Message to Magonia
Alex Tsander

Message to Magonia.

Finally,we come to the relevance of this debate to the topic of the UFO: the veridicality or otherwise of the alleged “phenomenon” of regression.

Quite clearly, this question lies at the very heart of many cases in the annals of UFO reportage, dependent as they are upon recovered memory and enhanced recollection. This being especially the case in regards the lore of alien abduction.

Memory is itself a troublesome topic about which there are many outdated notions and popular myths. Key among these being that memory is the manifestation of the brain acting as a kind of tape-recorder. Pause for a moment and wonder whether that idea could have been currency before the invention of the tape-recorder? Before the advent of photography? What then, was memory a kind of illuminated script? In fact, this is perhaps a better analogy than that of a tape recording.

Enough evidence now exists for us to reliably agree that whatever it is, memory is not reliable. It is plastic, malleable, subject to alteration, reinterpretation and corruption. In fact, enough evidence now exists that the notion of people being legitimately convicted of crimes on the basis of eye-witness testimony is coming to seem very questionable. Most readers will be aware of how hypnotic memory recovery procedures can accidentally result in false recollections. But it is also the case that this can happen where no hypnotic procedure is employed.

So the notion of a process whereby the tape recording of memory can be re-wound and replayed is very dubious. We need to consider this in some detail. I am going to cheat by simply pasting in a passage from my aforementioned book, Beyond Erickson. I have made only a few modifications and one addition.

Along with hypnotic anaesthesia and hallucination, regression is one of the central elements of the lore of hypnosis. The idea that a hypnotised person can be ‘taken back’ to an earlier time in their experience like a tape-recording being re-wound has entered into the popular imagination and appears frequently throughout our culture, not merely in the claims of hypnotists but in films, plays and books where it sometimes forms a key to plot and in which its reality is never questioned.

The supposedly “authoritative” Hartland’s reference text, under the editorship of David Waxman credulously asserts the following:

“Sometimes the revised memories of the regressed subject can be checked. It has been reported that when an adult subject, regressed to her seventh birthday, was asked what day of the week it was, she replied ‘Friday’ without the slightest hesitation and subsequent investigation proved this to be true. This is a feat of memory that few of us could achieve in the waking state.” (Hartland’s, Waxman, ed.. 1989, p180).

How misleading this passage is will become apparent when we review the research on this supposed feat. Meanwhile, Harry Aaron’s described the idea in the following terms: “Scientific research has demonstrated that the mind – or the brain – seems to have the capacity for retaining all impressions which enter it, like a giant tape recorder” (Aarons, 1967).

‘Scientific research’ has shown nothing of the kind. Although someone like Aarons might enthusiastically leap to this conclusion on the basis of an interpretation of the work of Wilder Penfield. Penfield, a Canadian neuro-surgeon, performed over a thousand pioneering operations to cure some types of epilepsy. In these operations, the patient was conscious, having been given local anaesthetic to the scalp, cranium and sub-cranial tissue. The skull was opened up but, as noted earlier [in Beyond Erickson], and is indeed well illustrated by this practice, the brain yielded no sensation, let alone pain. In order to locate the specific place at which to work Penfield electrically stimulated selected sites on the cortex of the patients brain. The patient could report what they experienced in response: sometimes sounds, sometimes sights, sometimes other sensations; combinations of these things or all of them at once. In effect, resembling momentary flash-backs in time.

The reporting and popular re-reporting of such events as a patient remarking that she could hear a piano being played in an adjoining room (at home, in the past) when a certain spot was stimulated no doubt did much to help fuel the notion that the brain records everything, electrically, like a tape-recorder. Indeed, that most credulous ‘authority’ on ‘hypnosis’, David Waxman ingenuously asserts: “It was said of these experiments that the recall is total and equal to that which can be achieved with patients under hypnosis” (Waxman, 1981, p42) thereby arrogantly implying that the reality and power of ‘regression’ under hypnosis was actually more certain than the physical effects of an electrode stimulating the brain.

However, as Stephen Rose, in his book the “The Making of Memory”,( Rose, 1992 ) remarks: “… there is the problem of deciding whether what is being elicited by such stimulation is a ‘real’ memory for some event which has actually occurred, or, like a dream or hallucination, some type of confabulation. The very nature of the records means that one can never be sure about this; the Penfield studies remain fascinating, challenging, but ultimately uninterpretable.” (Rose, 1992. P 130).

Even in Hartland’s, edited by Waxman, we find the concession that: “It is a fallacy to believe that every event or experience, however trivial, is somehow registered in the mind, never to be forgotten.”(Hartland, 1989, p467)

Nonetheless, a great many writers and ‘experts’ continue to maintain exactly that. Harry Aarons was very far from unusual in holding ideas such as those expressed in the earlier quote.

Indeed, it remains commonplace for therapists to sell the notion that everything we ever experience is recorded comprehensively and with absolute veracity somewhere in our head. Even a close friend of mine who was at the time lecturer in biology at a leading medical school, in her ex-curricula capacity as a private therapist expressed exactly this dogma. Moreover, the naive conception of memory as a kind of tape recording, which can be rewound in regression has been extrapolated to ever more absurd extremes. Weitzenhoffer (1989) points out how absurd it is for supposedly intelligent professional people to treat seriously the claim that it is possible through this procedure to recover memory of intra‑uterine experience which would not in fact have been subject to processes of memory formation in the first place.

But many who consider themselves ‘hypno-therapists’ go further, and it is not unusual to see in the press or on television, hypnotists billed as “hypno-therapists” claiming an ability to routinely regress clients to earlier incarnations.

Indeed, as a hypnotist doing stage-shows I have found that the number of individuals asking off-stage if I can stop them smoking are almost matched by those asking “Can you do regression”. Invariably, I discover that by this they mean regression to a former life!

There is a need here to distinguish between various ‘strengths’ of alleged regression phenomena. At the strongest we have the metaphysical past-life regression. This is championed as a literal reality and an actual therapeutic tool by a former recovered-memory therapist, B.L.Weiss, in Through Time Into Healing (Weiss, 1992).

Then there is the ‘major’ version of present-life regression that is based on the idea that all experience is remembered and that this recording can be re-played, re-entered, zoomed into, enhanced, etc., exactly as if it were a video, championed by, among many others, the advocate of forensic hypnotism, Martin Reiser (Reiser, M. 1980; Ofshe and Watters, 1995, p37).

Then we have the ‘minor’ version of regression, which accesses repressed material or inhibited recall by giving the patient licence to report it as though really replayed; in which the reality or otherwise of the effect is not relevant to its utility in accessing and ventilating that material. This is as illustrated by William Sargent in his accounts of treating battle survivors during WWII (Sargent, 1957, 1974).

Then there is an entirely ‘soft’ version of regression which is really not even assumed to be a hypnotic reality but is a method of aiding recall and accessing memory. Such that it may not even be referred to or presented as a regression whilst undoubtedly on this same continuum. Into this camp we can put the vast swathe of ‘recovered memory therapy”, illustrated by Bass and Davis (The Courage To Heal, 1988 ). A field thoroughly examined in its full diabolical implications in Making Monsters, False Memories, Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria by Ofshe and Watters (Ofshe and Watters, 1995 ).

Into this category we can also place a ‘pure pseudo-regression’, in which it is not even considered important whether the visualised information is a memory or just something immediately imagined, described by one ‘therapist’, Renee Fredrickson, in these extraordinarily shameless terms: “Whether what is remembered around the focal point is made up or real is of no concern…” (Fredrickson, 1992).

Then, beyond this, at the extreme, we have a ‘retense pseudo-regression’ that is not even a memory strategy but is openly an act, as has been in the past used in demonstrations. In other words, the routine of acting as-though of a certain age

Clearly, what we are concerned with here are the “strongest” and “major” versions of the alleged phenomenon. The “minor”, “soft” and “purely pseudo” versions do not entail the necessary reality of a substantive and questionable phenomenon. They do, however, have very serious implications for both those engaged in such processes of recollection and those who the supposedly “recovered” memories involve.

Even without the supernatural or metaphysical dimension of “past-lives” the claims associated with regression are such that they indicate a failure on the part of those who make them to grasp the enormous implications of what it would mean. Moreover, although claims for the veracity of regression are largely accepted by an uncritical public, experimental support for this belief would be remarkable and is as yet unforthcoming.

It would be especially remarkable in consideration of it contradicting everything that is today known about memory. Although at one time it was indeed contended by some speculative psychologists that every experience is recorded for perpetuity, this is now realised not to be the case. The brain contains a vast number of pathways and potential for the registering of ‘N-Grams’. The brain, as everyone knows, is the most complex known structure in the universe. But knowledge from computing tells us that the information storage capacity required to register even one second in any one of our senses is such that even that vast potential would be used up long before we reached adulthood.

This cosmologically immense data encoding and storage requirement would necessitate a truly astronomical tape-recorder indeed. The only way that the idea of every sensation in every moment being recorded could be realised is if our brains were in some way connected to a virtually unlimited storage capacity in another dimension. A kind of neo-dualism.

At the start of the twenty-first century, one can obtain a visceral sense of this problem through our infuriating practical experience of the limitations on digital information storage, transfer and retrieval. Use digital photography, let alone video, and transmit the images over the internet, via optical relays, let alone a mobile phone and we find immediately how even some of our most powerful systems are capable of handling only a tiny sliver, not even a whole stream of the information we experience. This effect will gradually disappear; as processing speeds, bandwidth and memory capacities increase, our experience of information processing will lose the visceral sense of struggling to cope with the sheer volume of data in a picture, a sound, a moment, that at the start of the twenty-first century it is still characterised by. Indeed, compare file sizes for a book and a photograph and you can establish for yourself that a picture certainly paints vastly more than a thousand words!

Although our technology is expanding to ever more immense storage and transmission rates, today even the most powerful super-computers perform equivalent to only a tiny proportion of the work required of a human nervous system to process a single second of consciousness. Even the most extensive computer memory could not handle as much information as is stored in a few minutes of human vision; immensely more subtle than any camera yet devised.

Multiply these ratios to match the data processing and storage capacity requirements of a lifetime and we would also many times exceed the even astronomical scale of capacities of the human brain.

The only way it can manage to complete this lifetime of information-processing is by expending relatively little on memory, re-using cycles of activation and consuming resources conservatively. To do otherwise would be like trying to keep every digital photo we ever take, deleting none, on the memory card the camera came with. It would soon be full to capacity. We are obliged to delete images and re-use the space. The analogy is not precise, but is indicative of the economic principle

One researcher who has devoted a career to studying the biochemical basis of memory put it like this: “I have already made the point in connection with the filtering process of short-term memory. Information stored in such a memory need not be transferred to a more long-term store – and indeed there is a biological necessity that much of it must be filtered out if we are not to collapse with memory overload.”

The reality of human memory is that it is less like a tape-recorder and more like a tradition in a culture. A certain ritual may be passed on from generation to generation – a cultural memory. If the process is not repeated the link is lost. Any society can only devote a finite amount of resources to sustaining the most important cultural memories or traditions in this way.

Each memory is to an extent a record of the last time that it was recalled. Just as each generation of morris dancers repeats what it was taught by the last – although we may wish they wouldn’t! It is an active and dynamic process in which the limited resources available mean that only a tiny amount of the sensory information associated with only a small number of temporal junctures is retained and passed on in this way. It is possible to break the chain or improve the link, alter or insert new ones entirely. As Stephen Rose again puts it:

“Obsessed with the attempt to see how far back in my childhood I can remember, I have taken out these internally filed photographs, redeveloped and reprinted them, cropped them a little differently, made them matt or gloss, black-and-white or colour, enlarged them to fit a new frame just as much as Bergman has transformed his for public viewing. Every time I remember these events, I recreate a memory anew…” (Rose, 1992. p.35).

The fact is that it would be impossible to ‘replay’ with any accurate detail what happened in a single mundane one of your yesterday’s let alone ‘re-wind’ to an event in the remote past and not only ‘replay’ but ‘zoom-into’ and ‘pan-around’ as has often been claimed (Reiser, M. 1980).

I am reluctant to adduce a-priori arguments against the possibility of something, but in this connection there are a couple more which are so obvious that they cannot be resisted.

For a start, human vision is highly ‘hierarchical’. That is to say, at the centre of our optical field is a tiny point of focus and everything around that is progressively less focussed outwards from that centre. We perceive the world in terms of a focussed image because our eyes are continually scanning and our brain synthesises a representation from the data thus gathered. However, we do not scan, focus upon or examine every aspect or possible point of focus in our visual environment. To do so would take an infinite amount of time, because the subject under scrutiny would have changed before the task could be completed. These things considered, it is quite obvious that anyone really ‘regressed’ to a particular time and place would nonetheless still be unable to focus upon, let alone examine every aspect of their experience of that occasion at will. They could only access the same material as would have been stored as regular memory traces. If all we mean by ‘regression’ is therefore enhanced access to such conventional memory traces the core defining aspect of the alleged ‘strong’ or ‘major’ versions of ‘regression’ are passed over in concession to something ‘minor’ or ‘soft.

Considering the above also should give one pause to consider the fact that our perception of the world and our experience in time is a construct of our nervous system, integrating various sensory inputs according to diverse biological parameters and prior experiences. We do not store the original inputs. This can be illustrated by analogy to digital photography once again. Some cameras have a RAW facility which records the original data as it arrived in the processor from the imaging sensor, before processing. We can take this RAW data to our computer and then adjust it according to our desired interpretation to produce a finished image file, a JPEG. However, from this JPEG it is not possible to reconstruct the image in others of the many thousands of possible alternative forms from which it could have been constructed using the data in the original RAW file. Although it can still be slightly altered it is relatively fixed. This is one reason why professionals typically prefer a camera that produces a RAW file to one that immediately makes one of the possible versions of the image from that data and stores it solely as a JPEG. (Another reason is that of avoiding compression, which is not relevant here).

By analogy, the human nervous system is one of the latter variety of devices, lacking a RAW storage capacity. It stores as ‘memories’ the processed cognition, analogous to the JPEG. Without the existence of the analogue of a RAW file, comprising the unprocessed sensory data, it is impossible to zoom, pan and enhance even if regression were real.

All this leaves is the possibility of enhanced recall, which is a lot less than the proponents of regression try to sell us. Strictly described as hyperemnesia, this is discussed further, below. Suffice for the moment to mention the dominant question thereat being not whether psychological techniques can enhance recall, which is not disputed, but whether ‘hypnosis’ contributes anything to such techniques that would constitute evidence for its reality.

Experimental demonstration of the phenomenon of the ‘strong’ or ‘major’ versions of regression would require a complete re-think of the relationships of consciousness, memory and our connection to the physical universe.

Nonetheless, attempts have been made to obtain such evidence. In 1949, R.M.True published a report of a study in which subjects were regressed to the ages of 11, 7 and 4 years and correctly named the day of the week in which their birthday and Christmas Day occurred. Barber points out that it is possible for a determined subject to calculate this and, more importantly, that the method employed by True of eliciting the date via a yes or no arrangement (in which the experimenter asked, “…is it Wednesday, …is it Thursday,…is it Friday…” and so on) allows the subject to discern cues for the appropriate day unwittingly given by the questioner in their tone of voice. However, the damning verdict on the study is that numerous researchers have attempted to replicate the positive findings and obtained only a negative, contradictory, outcome. Including:

  • ‘Living Out ‘Future’ Experience Under Hypnosis’. Best, H.L and Michaels, R.M., in Science (1954, Issue 120, p1027)
  • ‘Experimental Evidence for a Theory of Hypnotic Behavior: 2: Experimental Controls in Age-Regression’, by T. X. Barber in The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (1961, Vol. 9, pp181-193 b)
  • ‘Problems of Interpretation and Controls in Hypnotic Research’, by Fisher, S., in Hypnosis: Current Problems. (1962, Ed G.Estabrooks, Harper, New York,
  • ‘An Investigation of Hypnotic Age-Regression’, by Leonard, J.R. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Kentucky. (1963)
  • ‘Accuracy of Specific Days Given during Hypnotic Age-Regression’, by Cooper, L.M. and Morgan, A. Hawthorne House Research Memorandum, (1966, no 44)

These studies all yielded negative findings for the supposed reality of “regression”. Which poses the question, ‘How true was True?’

Gidro‑Frank and Bowersbuch (1948) famously claimed to have restored in adults by means of hypnotic regression the ‘Babinski Reflex’, supposedly exhibited by infants of between four and six months of age. This finding has since been touted by some authors as proving that regression is real, for example by Karle and Boys (1987, p17). This Babinski Reflex was the alleged tendency of infants of that age to flex their toes in a certain manner when touched upon the sole of the foot. It is sometimes called the Plantar Reflex. It follows that, if major regression was the veritable reality that it has been claimed to be, adults who have been hypnotised and regressed to that phase of infancy should exhibit this reflex. Gidro‑Frank and Bowersbuch claimed that this is exactly what happened. However, as Barber (1969) has pointed out, the supposed Babinski Reflex” had already been shown by that time to be mythical. In a 1921 survey of nine infants no clear sign of such a reflex was found (Burr,1921). In another study from nine years later 389 infants under seven months of age were tested and only thirteen showed what might have been described as the Babinski Reflex (Wolff,1930). There is no such invariable pattern of response peculiar to that period of infancy.

It seems, observes Barber, that various authors copied their description of the mythical reflex from each other without making any critical observations of their own. Ironically, therefore, the fact that some subjects exhibited that reflex when supposedly regressed actually casts doubt upon the authenticity of what actually took place! In other words, the positive result was negative for the hypothesis! The experimenters scored an own-goal, they ‘shot themselves in the foot’, or worse.

According to Wagstaff (1981) Sarbin discerned that the subjects in the Gidro‑Frank and Bowersbuch experiment had discovered the expected outcome and had sought to deliberately satisfy what they thought of as the experimenters expectations of them. Ironically, they evidently did “no favours” for evidence of “hypnotic regression”.

A study by Parrish, Lundy and Liebowitz ( 1969 ) entailed regressing adults to the ages of 9 and 5 at which they reportedly exhibited the response to Ponzo and Poggendorf illusions appropriate to those ages. However, no fewer than three separate attempts to replicate these findings proved negative: Ascher, Barber and Spanos (1972); Porter, Woodward, Bisbee and Fenker (1971) and Perry and Chisholm (1973).

To these studies we should add the coup de grace for ‘major’ regression in the guise of an experiment reported by Barber and Calverley 1966: ‘Effects on Recall of Hypnotic Induction, Motivational Suggestions and Suggested Regression’, by Barber,T.X. and Calverley, D.S., Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Issue 71, pp. 95-107. In this experiment ‘regression’ in its various convincing and impressive aspects was successfully simulated by non-hypnotised control subjects. Those who believe in the reality of hypnotic regression could have long ago tried several simple, obvious, experiments by which they could have proven their case

Firstly, one could place subjects in a specific environment, exposing them to particular occurrences. Then, several days, weeks or months later, induce a ‘regression’ to that occasion and ask them to report what they see and what occurs. They can be asked to ‘zoom in’, ‘pan’ and ‘enhance’ just as has been done in many contentious instances of forensic regression

Secondly, subjects could be ‘regressed’ to a distant time in their own life and these various evaluations performed. They could then be regressed to that time again, after a lapse of several years, and their new accounts compared with their original accounts.

Thirdly, several subjects who had been at a given place and time could be ‘regressed’ and their accounts compared.

In each case, there would of course need to be control subjects given a matching task without ‘regression’. There are also numerous variations of these possible formulas controlling for different aspects of the situation. That we have not heard of such obvious studies having been conducted appears to indicate that either they have not been attempted or they were negative for the supposed veracity of ‘regression’.

One study that came close to such a project was only in 2002 de-classified by the CIA. Not published in any scientific context, it was conducted in 1954 in a hotel suite under the supervision of Sidney Gottlieb (who later became the head of various CIA assassination projects). Code-named ‘Monkey Ward’ the study involved a version of the first of these exercises and the last. The name of the hypnotist remains classified (it is actually inked-out on the released documents). Arguably, this study was more about hypemnesia than regression, but in any case, the results were negative. Undoubtedly, the potential for use of regression as a tool of intelligence would have been immense had it been found to have any basis in reality (Gottlieb, 1954, 2002). Presumably the truth or otherwise of memories is more important for spies than it is for therapists.

Studies of the regular memory of real-life events and its subsequent retrieval without the hypnotic element serve to demonstrate how fallacious ‘vivid’ recall tends to be. For example ‘Phantom Flashbulbs: False Recollections of Hearing The News About Challenger’ by Neisser, U. and Harsch, N., in Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of Flashbulb Memories, Ed. Winograd and Neisser, Cambridge, 1992. (Neisser, 1992

This study referred to the concept of the ‘Flashbulb Memory’, an event of significance burned into the memory permanently with everything associated with it. For example, illustrated by the idea that everyone who heard contemporaneously of the death of John F. Kennedy remember what they were doing at the time. The senior author realised that the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 constituted a similar event. The very next day, he had his students fill in a questionnaire into every aspect of the circumstances under which they had heard the news. These questionnaires were then filed away, unseen, for three years. Then the same students were gathered, asked to fill out the same questionnaire again and to express their confidence in their recollection on a scale of 1 (Just guessing) to 5 (Absolute certainty). The new answers were then compared to the original forms and scored for accuracy on a scale of 1 to 7 according to an impartial system.

Of the 44 students only three scored 7, whilst fully eleven scored zero! The average score was a pathetic 2.95. The memories were not simply wrong, they were utterly wrong: remembering having been in totally different places and engaged in completely different activities at the time of the incident. Moreover, it was those who were the most confident in the accuracy of their recall who’s memories were the most dramatically wrong!

The study developed on these findings when, the following spring, the students were each interviewed about the questionnaire and shown how wrong their memories were. In spite of this, they exhibited a shocking insistence that even though they now had the evidence in front of them, they all the same could not help remembering things according to the false memory!

Factor in a subject’s belief in ‘hypnosis’ and ‘regression’ and we can understand the powerful conviction that the procedure can induce in what may actually be entirely inaccurate recollections! In fact, this set of beliefs is undoubtedly very dangerous. Offshe and Watters (ibid) examine the case of a man now serving a life sentence in the U.S. for a murder of which there was no evidence of it having occurred, for which there was no body, nor any record of the alleged victim having ever lived, merely on the basis of his having ‘confessed’ and pleaded guilty on the strength of his belief in the reality of the ‘recovered memories’ of his estranged daughter, extracted in ‘regression’ by a cult leader! The man so believed in the truth of hypnosis and regression that he insisted that his daughters vague images of his having killed an imaginary friend in her childhood must be true and insisted on going to prison!

Over time, he too began to ‘remember’ things. One of the authors visited the man in pre-trial and was able to prove that he could easily cause him to imagine that he remembered things that definitely had not occurred but had been made up for the purpose! This is a case that anyone contemplating the question of dangers of hypnosis should study. For it illustrates that it is not the imaginary ‘state’ of hypnosis but the continued belief in ‘hypnosis’ that is dangerous.

I would agree that the ritual of ‘regression’ may provide an effective pretext for the ventilation of repressed material and as such may be a potent therapeutic tool. No better account of its power as such a tool can there be than William Sargent’s description of his work with men suffering post-combat stress. His patients were often severely afflicted with the anxieties provoked by recent immensely distressing experiences that were repressed and unaccessible by normal means. Such experiences as being trapped in a burning tank. He found that by using hypnotism he was able to overcome resistence to the access of such material and discharge a portion of the after-effects of such experiences through their re-living them in a ritual of regression. An abreaction exercise. (Sargent, 1957). However, it must also be accepted that regression is a fantasy, albeit a useful one. To deny this is dangerous and not in the psychological sense usually associated with the ‘dangers of hypnosis’.

In the United Kingdom forensic regression has been prohibited. Indeed, a committee formed to evaluate its use lead to the declaration by the UK Home Office that “There is no real proof that you can obtain information by hypnosis that could not be obtained in other ways … We do not think it is a practicable weapon for the police to use against crime.” (Inglis, 1989, p178). In the United States the practice of regression to ‘zoom’, ‘pan’ and ‘enhance’ some extremely poor witness memories into Technicolour vividness has been championed by Martin Reiser, one-time director of the Behavioural Sciences Services department of the Los Angeles Police. It has resulted in some very suspect and serious convictions. In particular the case of People versus Kempinski (1980), in which alleged regression, zoom and light-enhancement lead to the ‘identification’ of a man seen momentarily at a distance of 270ft in a dark alley at night, and on this testimony alone his trial for murder. He spent five months in custody. At the trial, an ophthalmologist testified that it would not have been physically possible to identify a person under those conditions. Fortunately, the regression testimony, shown on video, was so ridiculous and inconsistent that the accused could only be found not-guilty.

Moreover, the uncritical acceptance of ‘regression has resulted in the substantive cultural phenomenon of False Recovered Memory Syndrome. This, too, has resulted in some dreadful miscarriages of justice. These issues have very real consequences and are far from academic.

This chapter deals specifically with scientific studies and so I shall reserve observations made on the basis of my own conduct of ‘past-life’ regression until later.

There is a final point to be made, an important one, in relation to ‘soft’ regression or memory recovery in therapy. Such therapy usually entails relaxation, whether with the rituals of ‘hypnosis’ or not. There is reason to believe that relaxation aids recall (Higbee, 1988. Pp64-67, citing Yesavage, 1984; Yesavage and Jacob, 1984; Kirkland and Hollandsworth, 1980).


Perhaps the name most deeply associated with the use of recovered memory testimony and the idea of alien abduction is John Mack. Mack was professor of psychiatry at Harvard. An authoritative position, to be sure, yet inspection of his writings, conduct and thinking soon reveals him to have been a marvellously extreme example of the phenomenon which I described at the top of this essay. An ‘expert’ who is either very ill-informed or tells whoppers!

Specifically, Mack has gone a very long way out on a limb in declaring his belief in the literal truth of the claims of many of his clients, that they have been abducted by aliens. When I refer to Mack’s ‘clients’ I am, in particular, avoiding reference to them as ‘patients’. The majority of them, it appears from his published cases, are not referring to him for therapy but exegesis. He has declared the reality of the testimony of such people on the basis of seventy-six such clients, the cases of thirteen of whom were presented in detail in his best-selling book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (Mack, 1994). Mack is at pains to emphasise that it is not possible to make generalised statements about ‘abductees’; that they come from all walks of life. As one of his clients put it, with being chosen by aliens comes “…a feeling of specialness”. The relevance of which becomes apparent when we evaluate Mack’s declaration that “None of the efforts to characterise the abductees as a group have been successful. They seem to come as if at random from all parts of society.” (p16); an assertion which an audit of his declared cases flatly contradicts.

Of the thirteen, at least eight were ‘into’ the UFO culture before manifesting as abductees. This including attending UFO conventions, reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion, watching the film of the same, and watching the CBS TV series about alien abduction, Intruders, to which Mack was a contributor.

With such a small group it is easy to overlook the statistical implications. Eight out of thirteen is 61%! Again at least eight of the thirteen were drawn to Mack as a direct result of either seeing him on television, reading newspaper articles about him or being referred to him by others who knew of his belief in alien abduction. To some extent, this in itself indicates that Mack is creating a circular process of first directly or indirectly suggesting the ‘phenomenon’ in some individuals, then confirming that which has been suggested by recruiting them to ‘regression’ and in turn re-iterating the suggestion with these cases as new material.

The desire to meet aliens was explicitly stated aforehand by several of the abductees, including ‘Catherine’, of whom Mack says:< “Ironically [sic] she had recently been reading about UFO’s and ‘halfway hoping to see one and halfway hoping I don’t’” ( p143 ).

‘Carlos’ appears to have devoted much of his life to seeking contact with aliens before reporting such experiences, along with a lot of other material of a paranormal nature. The one highly successful entrepreneur whose case is discussed but whose identity is shielded seems to have been obsessed with a longing to meet aliens and, essentially, do business with them, but of an ecological and messianic kind.

Given that in at least ten of the cases (76%) the abduction experience entailed metaphysical, ‘spiritual’ or environmental messages to humanity it must be considered significant that at least twelve of the cases (92%) involved such people, with a manifest tendency to ruminate upon metaphysical, ‘spiritual’ and paranormal topics prior to presenting as abductees. This including a ‘health care worker who’s experience in Tai Kwon Do lead him to believe that he was struggling with immense powers in the form of an almost uncontrollable personal abundance of “Chi” and who sought Mack to help him ‘work through’ this challenge. He also believed that he had an alien girlfriend called Velia.

The aforementioned artist, poet and writer, called ‘Carlo’, claiming to be “of mixed Spanish, Scottish, Irish, German and German-Jewish extraction” with a surname “…somehow related to the Spanish Armada” yet who grew up in a Catholic family in Pennsylvania, sought to relate his special alien-reincarnation connection to the Hebridean isle of Iona.

At least two others harboured a belief in their recollection of past-lives, including a company secretary who ‘remembered’ having been a wealthy North African trader, ‘Omrishi, in the fifteenth century. She believed herself to be “An energy form given a body to carry out a certain mission” (p259). A hotel manager stated that he had a “dual human / alien identity”, whilst yet another man had been maintaining a sexual relationship with a “human-alien hybrid”.

If we leave aside the use of cognition-affecting drugs by 15% of the group (one of them connected the abductions to using LSD, and at least one other used cannabis) the abductees can clearly be characterised as largely composed of people with fantasy prone personalities. The measure of this being perhaps the fact that in spite of all these assembled flights of metaphysical, ‘spiritual’ and apocalyptic ruminations in which they engaged, not a single individual so preoccupied reported having actually read metaphysics or theology, practised a formal religion or studied the environment. Their ruminations were thus of the vague, ‘woolly’ or ‘alternative”’kind that indeed characterise the important ‘messages that these abductees were in turn instructed by aliens to convey to the rest of us.

Such cosmic messages of absolute importance as that which ‘Ed’ received telepathically at the moment of orgasm from a female alien who had sex with him as a teenager: “The way humans are conducting themselves here in terms of international politics, our environment, our violence to each other, our food and all that.” (p53) About which Mack comments “Although the information was largely new to ‘Ed’ it somehow ‘made sense’ to me.” (p54) Presumably Ed wasn’t “up to” Mack’s intellectual standard, seeing as “his father was a machinist”, he was “working class” “and all that”. So maybe, in Mack’s conception of the world, such a fantastically original critique of international politics, ‘our food and all that’ would be beyond Ed’s capacity to invent.

Mack is keen to emphasise that the abductees do not as a group appear to exhibit pathological morbidity. He excuses the lack of psychometric testing of any but one of the cases on the grounds that it is an expensive procedure; something which sales of the best-selling book ought surely have rectified in time for later editions. However, ruling out pathological traits as a characteristic of the group does not eliminate psychodynamic processes as the latent source of presenting attributes in the individual case. In other words, we need not imagine the abductees to be mentally ill in order to recognise that their idea’s about being abducted by aliens may be a manifestation of other, possibly repressed topics in their lives. Topics that in conventional terms might be thought of as the unconscious reality underlying the manifest content of the clients imaginings.

Although of the thirteen cases, nearly all sought Mack specifically with the declared intention of unearthing experiences of alien abductions in the past, and some even begun to have them to order, as it were, after starting to see him, they nonetheless mostly presented with latent problems of a personal nature. In not fewer than eight cases (77%) there can be identified personal problems that relate directly to the imagery and manifest content of the “alien-abduction” scenario. For example, in at least five of the cases (38%) there was at least some indication of having been sexually abused in childhood (relating directly to the sexual abuse by aliens). In one case the abduction episodes were reported in regression to begin at about the same period of her childhood at which her parents separated. Thereafter her family moved continuously, prompting the remark “Perhaps we were Gypsies at heart”: (like the aliens, thought to wander space and time perhaps!) A ‘psychotherapist’ began to present with dreams of alien abductions ten days before the birth of his first child.< Another client who had lost an eye in his youth ‘remembered’ violent deaths in the adolescent years of former lives.

Several other cases involved recent bereavement crises. One social-worker began to have alien encounters ten days after her mothers death. In another case ‘abduction’ experiences began one year exactly after the death of an important relative. In two cases bereavement in adolescence related clearly and directly to the manifest content of abduction episodes obtained by regression to the same period.

In one case, a woman who referred to her grandfather as a ‘benevolent’ figure in her past, when regressed to the same period as his death and to the same geographical location ‘recovered’ a memory of an encounter with a wise and benevolent alien. A striking parallel offering a very straightforward explanation of the content of the regression but which Mack nonetheless does not consider. Instead, he creates the implication that the grandfather might actually have been some kind of illusion created by the aliens

So whilst Mack may fairly rule out mental-illness as characteristic of abductees, we cannot ignore the fact that most of the cases that he recounts exhibit strong correlations between the manifest-content of their alien encounter tales and distressing events in their personal life. Indeed, I use the term ‘manifest content’ with specific reference to the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams. The irony here being that Mack actually does with his clients’ dreams the very opposite of what previously a psychiatrist would do. Instead of taking the bizarre images in a dream and interpreting them in terms of the dreamers real life-events, he interprets the mundane aspects of those dreams as a mask for truly bizarre experiences. Connections which in some cases the client had not previously considered. It is in itself very worrying that a professor of psychiatry at a leading medical school would have done this

Although Mack is at pains to emphasise that the abductees are not suffering from a mental illness and he does not explicitly raise the obvious psychological processes underlying the alien experiences reported in many of the cases, he nonetheless finds it significant that the subjects make vivid expressions of distress during regression to the alleged episodes. In particular, he boasts that a film which he made of one of the regressions was so distressing that some among a group of sceptics whom he showed it to turned away. Whilst not questioning his version of events I would wonder if those who turned away would agree with his interpretation of why they had done so?

Moreover, the most that such a display of anguish might feasibly prove is that the subject believes in the reality of the supposed recollections, or perhaps only that they can vividly imagine the experience being described. After all, as a hypnotist, one is able to induce a great range of apparent emotional states. Then again, someone merely watching a movie can be induced to tears, anger or distress. Additionally, the subject who presents with a problem in terms of an alien abduction experience that may be masking real psychological objects of distress will naturally be inclined to express the pain in terms of any regression to that supposed occurrence. Here then are at least three commonplace explanations for Mack’s subjects displaying distress, the citation of which displays evidently proves nothing.

In a way, I take pride in the fact that a part of me has never grown up. Too big a part of me, some might say. But I can take my mundane peculiar experiences and construct from them as baroque an elaboration of fantasy as anyone: involving reincarnation, aliens, conspiracies, secret experiments, etc, etc, etc. The difference is that I know that these are only fantasies. Whereas, that section of the population referred to as having a ‘fantasy prone personality’ (Wilson and Barber, 1982) often fail to distinguish between these flights of imagination and the reality around them. I have conceived fantasies of being the reincarnation of a thirteenth century Albigensian martyr and thought how odd it is that Arthur Guirdham found through regression so many who truly believed this of themselves in close geographical proximity to where I live! (Inglis, 1989). I have known a Siberian ‘Princess’ who I could have imagined to be the reincarnated form of the mummified warrior-priestess of Alma Ata. When it comes to imagination and flights of fancy, Mack and his abductees have nothing to hold a light to my creativity, yet I am not even a professional fantasist. Interestingly, Whitley Strieber, author of the best-selling first-hand account of alien abduction, Communion was already a professional fantasist. His previous work included Wolfen, a tale of mysterious killings in a derelict ghetto wrought by a pack of intelligent wolves. The film version, starring Albert Finney as a Mack-like investigator into this ‘unexplained’ – in a sense alien ‘phenomenon’, used a distinctive wolf’s-eye-view technique. This visual conceit was later copied in the alien-murder abduction movies Predator and Predator Two.

These considerations present us with a rich context of creativity rife with alien imaginings against which backdrop the written-as-though-true tale of Communion, itself turned into a film only eight years later, takes on a different complexion. To be fair though, the garbled narratives full of arid cliche and fetid B-movie grand-guignol that comprise Mack’s ‘cases’ are bereft even of any spark of originality or invention. They are quite so obviously a feeble regurgitation of third-rate books and movies that it is hard to understand how an intelligent man could take them seriously for even a moment. The supposedly profound ‘spiritual’ messages conveyed are the stale generalities of Seventies’ sub-Rousseauesque Eco-Politics. The ‘clinical’ procedures described are the clumsy bumbling-about of extra’s in a fifties space movie or the Roswell Autopsy film. The spaceships and costumes resemble cheap props, silver and gold-spray-painted and made from egg-cartons. The ability of aliens to fly through walls yet their need to peer primitively through windows is but one of many contradictions that pepper these scripts like holes in a Swiss cheese.<

The elaborate “explanations” of the perpetual suspension of linearity and chronological, spatial and physical consistency as symptomatic of a ‘higher reality’ is like a pathetic attempt by a talent-less film director to rationalise a lack of plot by attributing to it a spurious artistic profundity!

His example illustrates the mutual self delusion of hypnotist and subject in yet other ways. A strong factor at play throughout Mack’s case accounts is that of his directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, suggesting abduction experiences to his clients. This, as I mentioned earlier, can be seen in the way that his appearances in and influence upon the media, convey suggestions to potential abductees. Their attention is captured, rapport created by his deploying references to various trivial and commonplace experiences that a minority of subjects will recognise that they have had. Among these, those who are easily suggestible will be liable to attach to these experiences certain significance that the ‘good doctor’ asserts, regarding his status as legitimising the indicators of having had abduction experience.

Suggestions are floated onto this rapport base and what is in effect an open-ended set of pacing statements. What are known to magicians and mind-readers as Barnum Statements (after P.T.Barnum the circus impresario). These are statements so calculated as to maximise the likelihood of being coincidentally applicable to the individual they are addressed to, like a weather forecast. His vivid description of the paradigms of abduction experiences constitute the ideational content that he is suggesting.

This all taking place before he even meets the subject. From among that pool of potential subjects so reached, those who are sufficiently suggestible as to have already bought-into the scenario on offer, whether as a result of his suggestions or beforehand, will be the minority exhibiting extreme predisposition to acceptance of this fantasy who actually make the effort to meet him. Thereafter, the process with any subject so extremely predisposed is inevitably going to be easy.

Moreover, not only does Mack accept and reinterpret under his own imprimatur the claims of those who present him with the manifest belief that they have been abducted by aliens (most of the cases) but he also displays an ample ability to convert a ‘neutral’ client to such an interpretation of events. Indeed, he represents a very powerful example of the way in which an operator employing hypnotic regression can influence the content of his clients supposedly recovered memory.

This is clearly demonstrated in his own account of the case of ‘Catherine’, a 22 year old music student. As quoted earlier, she recounted having already been reading about UFO’s and harbouring a desire to have an alien encounter. On the day after she had gone out for a drive at night there were local press reports of aerial activity, being some form of meteor shower in the region in which she had been driving. Moreover, she declared a period of forty-five minutes during that drive which she could not account for. These are the kind of coincidences that typify Macks cases. They are used to imply the desired interpretation of events yet actually beg certain questions that rarely get asked. Such as, how frequently did Catherine go out for a drive by night (perhaps hoping to see her UFO)? Surely this occasion was not unique. And if she was liable to go for such drives it ceases to be a notable coincidence that she did so on an occasion preceding a meteorite fall. Does Mack have any idea how frequent and common-place meteorite showers are? The total mass of celestial material raining down on the Earth is of the order of several thousand tonnes a year! Moreover, of any evening selected at random, how likely is it that Catherine would have been able to account for every minute. In other words, how numerous in reality would be periods of forty-five minutes or more that cannot be accounted for? Indeed, ask yourself, how hard would it be to find a period of forty-five minutes of which one can remember nothing in any evening of a day or two ago. Especially involving a car journey! One can really only remember something when there is something there to remember. Forty-five minutes of vague rumination on an empty country road furnishes us very little to recall later.

So commonplace is the inability to recall the events of a car journey that M. H. Erickson used this as an example of an ‘everyday trance’. Or would Mack say that those frequent periods of ‘hghway hypnosis’ as it has often been called, are all incidents of alien abduction? So that we would have to count even the estimable Dr Erickson among America’s millions of abductees!

That ‘Catherine’ sought out Mack to confirm her ruminations about the possibility of having had an alien experience is not then remarkable. Specifically, she presented him with no actual indications or recollections of such an event other than these. Plus the fact that she had since experienced “…an unexplained nosebleed, the first in her life.” I would wager that most nosebleeds are ‘unexplained’ to the person having them, and possessing no explanation for a commonplace event does not make it unusual. Nor of course does it mean that it cannot be explained by someone with the appropriate information. Whilst the implication of Mack’s stating it to be the first in her life is that it was unusual, he elsewhere cites frequent nosebleeds as also unusual. Moreover, we do not know whether ‘Catherine’ would have attached any significance to or remembered the nosebleed had it occurred at any other time. How many nosebleeds has one had in ones life? When? Would she really be able to say with certainty that it was the first?

Mack then found that ‘Catherine’: “scored positively on most of the questions indicative of possible UFO encounters in a book about abductions.” Yet, apart from these vague points, there was nothing to indicate that any such thing might have happened. Delving further, Mack found that she had a fear of needles! Not normally assumed to be due to nasty experiences at the hand of aliens. But in this case so assumed to be. Finally ‘Catherine’ said she “… was in something of a career crisis, feeling that ‘I’m not using all of the skills that I have’

Is a “career crisis” an odd thing for a student to have?

Nonetheless, she as yet did not claim to remember an actual alien encounter. Until Mack had been to work on her. This started with his instructing her to: “…see what other memories would surface in the days to follow and asked that she call me in about a week.”

This is clearly a suggestion to her that she should create such ‘memories’. For a start, it constitutes an Ericksonian ‘presupposition’. Secondly, he is implicitly declaring that as a figure of authority he not only endorses her manifest desire to move on to detailed imagining of such an event but expects that very thing of her. This is implicit in his expectation that she would have something to tell him when she called as instructed a week later.

It happened that she did not call back a week later but wrote to him nine months later ( ! ) to report, as she carefully put it: “…impressions (memories is too strong a word)…” Plus, the report that she had become ‘panicky’ whilst watching the movie version of Communion (the supposedly true story of an alien abduction saga, so told as to hopefully make viewers feel uneasy, as such movies are intended to). Also, she had “seen an odd light” and, to splendidly round things out she had discovered a small ‘unexplained’ scar under her chin.

These few scraps of whispy, ethereal rumination are recounted on p144 of Mack They were enough for him to invite her back to begin a series of five hypnotic regression sessions spanning eight months. Such that by p147 she was recounting vivid ‘recovered memories’ of alien abductions, full of lurid detail and long, complex plot-lines involving her childhood and that “…feeling of specialness” attached to the attentions of the aliens (the attentions of the top alienist, as seen on TV). Moreover, these tales not only encompassed all of the usual stereotyped clichés that Mack expects to find but went on into tales of pregnancies caused by aliens, babies in incubators and a guided tour of rooms full of alien foetuses kept in towering banks of a kind of automat sandwich-vendor.

Mack concludes his discussion of ‘Catherine’s’ case with the observation that “…it raises more questions than it answers”. Quite! Leaving aside the fact that an explanation of a clients situation should by definition leave fewer questions at the end, not more, yet other questions arise along the lines of:
1) Is Mack aware of what he is doing?
2) If he is, why is he pretending not to be?
3) If he is not, how can he be so obtuse?
4)Is he really as susceptible to believe those fantasies which he foments in others as he seems?
5) What are the implications of his example for all other procedures involving hypnotism and regression to ‘recover memory’ of events that are part of the usual operators’ set of expectations?

It has been established that regression does not in reality constitute the objective and literal re-winding of a hypothetical ‘tape’ of memory as it is so widely pretended to be. Yet it is nonetheless a powerful device for the exploration of issues concerning either the subject or operator or both. It is capable of facilitating the articulation of sensitive repressed material, overcoming the social barriers to the expression of such material: fears, delusions, imaginings, ruminations and indeed memories. But it does not in reality fulfil the claim to objectively recover otherwise non-accessible memory nor can it permit the replay of, or going to, the remembered occasion as is so often pretended.

What it can do is facilitate the ventilation of material in terms of such a notion. This can result in the subject becoming convinced of the objective reality of their own thought content and also that which has been suggested to them as well as that which the operator, consciously or more often unconsciously, leads them into imagining.

Curiously, Mack even describes one case involving a very disturbing young man who had earlier induced the suggested response of an alien experience in a poor unwitting therapist in whom he inspired terror. The therapist had initially refused to accept his reports of alien abduction but after intense interaction possibly engendering an amount of counter-transference and a high degree of rapport, she began to relate to him terrifying experiences that had been occurring after their meetings and which she could not explain. Clearly, if Mack’s client was not fabricating this tale the therapist in question must have lacked a sense of professional detachment from her patient and the development of dyadic interaction involving suggested alien experiences makes an interesting parallel to that between the client and Mack himself.

I have written extensively and in some detail in Beyond Hypnosis, about Mack, his book and his cases. Having done so, came an incident which I recounted therein as follows:

I find it an immensely entertaining and apt fact that whilst working on this section, Mack’s vivid descriptions of his cases eventually induced me to have a suggested alien-abduction experience! It went as follows:

Logicus-Interruptus: A Suggested Abduction Experience.

I awoke in what seemed to be the middle of the night, with a sense of an eerie presence. “You aren’t fooling me…” I thought “… I read too much of that John Mack last night, is all.” Then I dosed off slightly. Then I was suddenly aware that there were three creatures alongside my bed, standing shoulder to shoulder and apparently trying to lift me up. They were about three feet high and had oblate heads like the eponymous protagonist of Hey Arnold. My subconscious must have made an oversight here, because, as I later realised, given my preferred style of Japanese bed, very close to the floor, even such ‘little fellers’ would have been towering over me. Yet, at the time this didn’t occur to me and instead I decided that I should scream out aloud for help, the warning cry “Alieeeeee…” At which point, my ‘Hidden Observer’ unwilling to ‘cry uncle’ for any bunch of floating midgets, I awoke, realising swiftly that in some sense I had been ‘had’. As I lay back, now fully awake and aware of the inconsistencies in the dream, I reflected on how very easy it had been for John Mack, through a book, never having met me, to have induced such a vivid experience by suggestion. In a mind ruminating upon the topic and fertilised by the myriad symbols and metaphors that litter the accounts of ‘abductees’ testimony that he had assembled, I could not have been the only person to be so affected …

Of course I cannot prove that I had this experience and you may choose not to believe my testimony. But why on Earth would anyone choose not to believe such a modest claim as to have had one,s dreams influenced by a book and yet be willing to believe the extremely lurid and bizarre claims of the supposed abductees that they have had their lives influenced by alien creatures from another dimension?

Then I turned on my bed-side television finding Scooby Doo and Scrappy. The Great Dane Scooby, along with his drug-addled friend Shaggy, tried to infiltrate a gang of villains by donning monster costumes: So the dog was convincingly behaving as a human in order to impersonate something non-human, then was discovered by real humans who reacted as if he were one of them. Then, to chase some villains, the dog Scooby inhaled into a mail-bag, inflating it to gigantic proportions and thereby creating a balloon that carried him and his friends into the air, zooming after the fugitive truck. Later, Scoob’ again impersonated a human to go on a date with a short-sighted girl who’s glasses were in for repair and thus believed his odd way of talking was due to his being a Dane! When she finally saw how right her brother was that someone had “fixed her up with a real dog” she kissed him anyway and the hound was flattered.

Scooby Doo lives in the same universe as John Mack. Mack’s ideas and his book represent superb illustrations of the processes of the folies a deux. The term first used by Orne to describe the dyadic interaction of hypnotist and subject in which each fuels the others fantasies. Moreover, those instances of the use of hypnotic regression which he specifically recounts illustrate clearly the tendency for the technique to serve as a vehicle for the induction of confabulation in others, reinforcing such flights of fantasy in the operator.

There are many cases to illustrate this in the annals of forensics, therapy, and ‘past life regression’. The data accumulated over decades of research endorses this interpretation. Mack and his case accounts serves as a point of intersection between these considerations and the topic of UFO investigation.

In my opinion, recognition of the confabulatory nature of hypnotic ‘regression’ would in no sense hinder the discussion of UFO cases. On the contrary, the repeated citing of material recovered using ‘hypnosis’ does a great deal to discredit the testimony of such witnesses as are interviewed using such techniques. As in many law enforcement jurisdictions (such as the UK, the use of ‘recovered’ testimony or that ‘enhanced’ by “hypnosis” should be excluded from investigations. It contributes nothing of factual substance. It reveals a naiivete (at best) on the part of the investigators. It muddies the waters!



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Hypnotism, the Illusion of ‘Hypnosis’ and Enhanced Testimony in UFO Reports
Part Two: Hypnotists and their Delusions of Power
Alex Tsander


Hypnotists and their Delusions of Power

In the nineteenth century there were scores, if not hundreds of legal cases hinging upon a nefarious individual compelling another to do their bidding by means of hypnotism (Laurence and Perry, 1988). In most of these, there were very much more obvious explanations. Typically, it involved a sexual dalliance which, when uncovered, was claimed by a woman to be the result of the man having put a hypnotic spell on her. Interestingly, in most cases, she didn’t claim she was being so abused until the relationship was discovered by a third party, usually the husband or parents. The allegations involved such “phenomena” as being hypnotised by telepathy, mere eye-contact or enchanted notes and such like. The culprit was generally some lowly individual such as a gardener or stable-boy.

Hypnotic ability used for a long time to be associated with the dog-cunning and sinister earthiness of the ‘lower classes’ and social ‘scum’. Look at George Du Mauriers Trilby and we find this in the disgustingly anti-Semitic but also class-inferior depiction of the character Svengali. But this feeling was not entirely without basis in truth. For dog-cunning is very largely about psychological manipulation and society’s ‘scum’ are generally very adept at it. The hostility towards stage hypnotism exhibited by sections of the hypnotherapy lobby is very much framed in terms of an unconscious class prejudice. Irrespective of the actual social composition of stage hypnotism as a profession. Although I for one bill myself as a ‘Prole’ and see no reason to apologise for the fact that my performances generally cater to ‘lower class’ sensibilities, exhibited as they are by audiences of all classes.

Fig. 14. The author as” Svengali in the Victorian setting of the Llandoger Trow, Bristol, c. 1992

Pause here to consider the two distinct phenomena that we need to address. One is that it is clearly possible to manipulate people. There is nothing controversial about that. It is part of life. Moreover that this manipulation can be formalised into techniques. Call them salesmanship, counselling or hypnotism, among others. The other phenomenon, quite distinct from such normal psychology is the alleged ability to control someone by means of the induction of a supposed state of ‘hypnosis’.

Criminal cases in which a hypnotic ‘power’ is alleged or incidentally adduced continued throughout the twentieth Century and always offer a feast for the press. However, upon examination it invariably becomes apparent that hypnotism played no part in the actual crimes alleged or even proven to have occurred. A typical report of this type ( it is a genre unto itself ) from the present day involves a ( male ) hypnotherapist accused of molesting a ( female ) client. A terrible but very useful book “Open to Suggestion” by Robert Temple catalogues many such cases ( Temple, ). Typically, newspapers refer in lurid to a “hypnotist” abusing his “power”, to have his way with the victim. But reading on we find that his assaults involved no hypnotic procedure. The fact is that there is a long history of therapists physically molesting their clients. Inevitably, some of these are hypnotherapists. It is invariably a crude ( even fumbling ) assault and hypnotism plays little or no part in it. Then again, ask yourself, had it done so and were “hypnosis” such a powerful reality as is claimed, with efficacious amnesia, post-hypnotic suggestions etc, how on earth would such crimes be remembered by their victims?

In passing, I should mention a similar ‘thought experiment’ regarding the alleged power of hypnotism and stage hypnotists. They are only in it for money; if ‘hypnosis were the bona-fide ‘state’ characterised by awesome mind-warping potential as continues to be pretended, then any decent stage hypnotist, having established his power over innumerable bank managers, company managers, civil servants, estate agents, students destined for profitable and powerful careers in choice professions, among his volunteers over a few years, could retire a wealthy and powerful person in no great time at all! The reality, however, is quite plain and there to see. The most successful stage hypnotist in modern times, Peter Casson, continued working until his seventies, shortly before his death. Stage hypnotists in general do not retire at all. They do not earn enough to afford to!

In the Twentieth Century the attempt to demonstrate a bona-fide power of hypnosis was a continual saga. One of the most often cited figures in this connection being John ‘Jack’ Watkins. Watkins worked for the U.S. Army, under the auspices of which he conducted a number of sensational ‘experiments’ that are forever being cited by pundits as evidence of the power of hypnosis. Forcing classified rocketry secrets out of a secretary, making a soldier attempt to kill an officer under the delusion that it was a “dirty rotten Jap”. Actually succeeding in having a subject throw acid into the face of a technician – marvellous! – this being supposedly an ‘experiment” that went wrong. But I cannot help but think that Watkins was secretly pleased at the result. He was obsessed with the idea that he could compel others to do as he wished. This incident was perhaps his greatest, most often cited piece of supposed ‘evidence’.

It proved nothing. Watkins’ experiments take us right back a century to the kind of pseudo-science which Clark Hull had castigated so scathingly (Hull, 1933).

Any bright school science student could point out that these stunts lacked the very most basic prerequisite of a scientific experiment, a control condition. Most people who cite these pseudo-experiments as “evidence” for their faith in the “power” of “hypnosis” either do not know or choose to ignore the fact that when Watkins’ famous snake-handling stunt was repeated with non-hypnotised control subjects, they complied with the command to reach for the venomous reptile as often as those who did so supposedly “under” the “power” of “hypnosis”. Watkins’ work was trash!

The ultimate illustration of this kind of rubbish and of Watkins’ somewhat creepy obsession is found in his paper about supposedly forcing a subject to become hypnotised “against her will”. I emphasise that it was a female subject to give a sense of the kind of prurient and rather morbid flavour of the article. Many people cite it as “evidence” but few seem to have actually bothered to read it or they might be embarrassed to have mentioned it. The entire “study” consisted of the power-crazy professor going up to a nurse in a canteen, putting (a miserable amount of) money on the table and challenging her to stay awake in return for that reward, before launching into an unendurably tedious bunch of “you are getting very sleepy” malarkey. Reading between the lines of the paper it is obvious to anyone but a man who wishes to think that … as stated on the jackets of pulp guides …”the power of hypnotism can enable you to have any woman” that the tedium went on for about twelve minutes before the nurse realised the only thing that would shake off this nutter without causing a disciplinary hearing was to pretend to what he wanted

As for Watkins’ other stunts, they do not either sustain sensible scrutiny. For a start, how would he have known that what the secretary ‘revealed’ actually was classified information? Even if a third party who knew was asked, would he say ‘no’ and have the crankey professor go on probing with the danger that something really would pop out? Wouldn’t it be safer just, like the nurse, to give the nutter what he wanted and say “yes, its real data, amazing professor, you’ve done it”.

The episode with the attack on the officer bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of scenes which I have hundreds of times observed in shows. Where the ‘assault’ (on, for example, the man who supposedly stole the volunteers’ million pounds lottery winnings) may appear very real to the audience but on close observation (and in video replay) can be seen to be merely a pantomime of a genuine act of aggression. I hasten to add, such outbursts are not suggested by me, but sometimes arise out of the scenario, which I monitor closely, specifically for the very reason that these pseudo-actions can give the illusion of being real


Fig 15. Men kissing women’s feet on post-hypnotic cue whenever the women shout “grovel”.




Fig 22. (below) Note the incredulous man in a singlet ….



 Fig 23. (above) Then outside ( in his skivvies )…


Fig 24. Then in the street…weeks after first hypnotised.

This is a kernel point. That it is possible in a non-theatrical context for a hypnotist to induce what is in effect a “performance” that in essence differs nought from the kind produced in a stage show. This can then be interpreted as a bona-fide effect whilst in reality it is a transient illusion. A classic example has been provided for us by Mr Paul McKenna. A while ago the performer made a play of demonstrating the supposed “power” of “hypnosis” to effect instant cures of phobia. On two different TV shows he took subjects with a phobia of dogs back stage and when they returned, lo, they showed no fear of the mutt brought on for the purpose.

The clue is again in the words I used. They showed no fear. That does not mean they were cured. It does not even mean they felt no anxiety. It means exactly what the words say: “They showed no fear”. It is easy to induce a subject to act as though they are afraid of something. It is easy to induce a subject to act as though they cannot see the hypnotist. It  does not mean that in fact they are afraid of that object, or actually do not see the hypnotist ( as research outlined earlier confirms ). By the same token, it is going to be easy to induce a person to act as though they are “cured”. For the time that the “cure” is on display! It does not mean that this “cure” will continue off-stage. In effect, it does not mean that it is in any sense a cure whatsoever! It is merely an act. An illusion.


Worse than this arose when Mr McKenna tried to “cure” a woman’s fear of heights. They took the poor dear, supposedly now “cured” up in a cherry-picker to do a bungee jump. Even though this was edited footage, it was still mightily apparent that she was, in terms that the “punters” would favour, “cacking herself”. She was clearly terrified. McKenna and assistant simply kept on at her to do the jump until it was clear they were not letting her back down, literally. Again, like that nurse borne down upon by Watkins. She did it and we were then presented with this as “proof” of a cure. When in fact it was not even the illusion of a cure, but perhaps in the mind of Mr McKenna and crew.


Interestingly, Milton Erickson actually let slip that even in “real” therapeutic situations, the job of the hypnotist was to get the patient to act as though cured and to continue doing so long enough that they forget that they are only acting!  A stunningly crisp and clear summation of these patterns of activity (see footnote, below).


These are examples from “therapeutic” scenarios, but the same principle applies to attempts to demonstrate the “power” of “hypnosis” to effect compliance. When Watkins’ subject “attacked” his officer, I suspect that something of the same kind was occurring. It was, like the examples cited, an illusion which Watkins eagerly bought because he wanted it to be real.


In any case, the subsequent half century to Watkins’ famous stunts saw a plethora of carefully designed experiments on the capacity of “hypnosis” that makes an interesting contrast to concurrent work on the influence of normal social psychology upon behaviour. For, whereas non-hypnotised subjects were shown time and again to be liable to exhibit obedience in response to carefully created social situations, the reverse was found for “hypnosis”: that it proved quite incapable of producing compliance with even trivial “anti-social” tasks. For example, “hypnosis” was found quite incapable of inducing American college students to cut up the Bible or the flag of the United states! Indeed, in one cunningly devised study, female subjects were found less likely to respond favourably to a lesbian proposition when told they would do so “under hypnosis” than non-hypnotised control subjects! Crucially, these subjects were all approached by the experimental stooge and given a “pass” when away from the laboratory, in the “real” world, after they had concluded what had been presented to them as the actual experiment. Again, Milton Erickson had already long before this said in an interview that he and his colleagues had found that their wives had been found to be less willing to accede to sexual demands when sought via hypnosis!



Fig 25. One of the authors volunteers at a show becomes a “Chippendale”.


If you look at photographs of my early shows, before I ‘sanitised’ the act,  a few of which are reproduced here, you will see how, as a stage hypnotist, I could exercise a remarkable degree of influence over the behaviour of some volunteers. I had them feigning sexual acts, with each other, toy animals and the furniture, performing bondage acts, licking boots, running around naked, in front of audiences, after the show or in private situations. I even had women trying to go home with me or attempting (whilst I resisted) to perform acts upon my person. Although I stopped suggesting that when I found it too much to handle!




Fig 29. The author at work in his early “pre-sanitised” days! Note, the girl is still fully dressed.



Fig 32. Three men and a woman with their friends outside a bar where they had met Alex Tsander one night in 1993.



Fig 33. The authors volunteers have a gay menage a trois!


Fig 34 The authors shows became more conservative




As even the Sunday Mirror had to concede, I demonstrated a talent for getting people to do what I wanted (Knowles and Rowe, 1994). But this would NOT be possible simply by performing a hypnotic induction, effecting the appearance of hypnosis and proceeding only upon the basis of assuming such to be real. That would NOT be sufficient to elicit such compliance. On the other hand, such compliance can be elicited WITHOUT the presence of a supposed state of hypnosis or trance. It is the influence of the social-psychology of everyday life rendered laser-like into a coherent procedure!


A veritable goldmine of such revealing insights as cited here is to be found in the invaluable three volumes of Conversations with Milton H. Erickson (Haley, ed., et al, 1985) as well as en-passant in the four volumes of Innovative Therapy: The Collected Papers of Milton Erickson (Rossi, ed, 1980), Advanced Techniques in Hypnosis and Therapy (Haley and Erickson, eds.) and Experiencing Hypnosis: Therapeutic Approaches to Altered States (Erickson and Rossi, 1981). However, the best concise guide to Erickson ever published, not only endorsed by him but which he used to distribute himself, is Jay Haley’s Uncommon Therapy (Haley, 1977). It, too, offers a revealing insight into the non-hypnotic realities of Erickson’s ‘hypno-therapy’.


Hypnotism, the Illusion of Hypnosis and Enhanced Testimony in UFO Reports.
Part One
Alex Tsander

Hypnotism, the Illusion of ‘Hypnosis’ and Enhanced Testimony in UFO Reports

By that hypnotist once known as ‘The Sleazy Trickster’

Alex Tsander

 Fig 1.The author at work in more recent times.


In this article I intend to address for the present readership the issue of the nature of hypnotism as it relates to the practice of “regression”, “memory enhancement” and “assisted recall”. Particularly in the interrogation of UFO witnesses. In order to do so, I must preface the discussion with a much broader survey of the entire topic of hypnotism, its nature, associated myths and realities.

Few topics are of as broad and enduring fascination as that of hypnotism. There are few topics so widely and fundamentally misrepresented. There is virtually no other topic about which commonly accepted “expert” opinion, as it is represented in the popular media and expressed by practitioners, is so utterly and blatantly wrong

That is a pretty strong assertion. But it is one that is so very easily substantiated. Let us just take a look at several examples of assertions widely made by “experts” on hypnotism and generally “accepted” as “fact” by both public and practitioners.

One of the most greatly respected British “authorities” on hypnotism in the latter Twentieth century was David “Dads” Waxman. Waxman was founder and president of the Medical and Dental Hypnosis [sic] section of the Royal Society of Medicine  and eventually took over the editing of the ‘Bible’ of British hypnotherapy, Hartland’s Guide to Clinical and Medical Hypnosis. In this capacity, Waxman repeated one of the great ‘chestnuts’ of hypnotic mythology. That a person can be induced by hypnotic suggestion to become so profoundly deaf that a pistol can be fired near their ear and yield no reaction ( Waxman, 1989 ).

Leaving aside the idiocy of performing such a stunt ( the victims hearing would be wrecked whether they showed a reaction or not ) the rumour of this alleged “demonstration” has been repeated by various authors over many decades and none has ever provided a reference for its actual occurrence. It is apocryphal (Van Pelt, 1958). But nor is that important. What is of crucial importance is that three decades before Waxman repeated this myth in the authoritative pages of Hartland’s, T.X.Barber had used a very simple experimental ploy to demonstrate that deafness supposedly induced by hypnotic suggestion is utterly fallacious.
This was reported in the paper “Experimental Study in Hypnotic Behaviour: Suggested Deafness Evaluated by Delayed Auditory Feedback”, British Journal of Psychology, 55. 1964. (Barber and Calverley, 1964).

The study entailed subjecting volunteers who protested profound deafness and behaved consistent with that condition when it had been suggested, to ‘Delayed Auditory Feedback’. Simply put, ones own voice when fed-back via earphones at a moments delay renders most people incapable of normal speech. You may have experienced this when talking to someone via their mobile if the receiver picks up and relays your own voice back to you. A very disturbing phenomenon occurs which, personally, renders me incapable of continuing in more than fits and starts. It certainly rendered the supposedly “deaf” hypnotic subjects incapable of continuing to speak normally! Ergo, they were not in reality deaf, no matter how good a “show” they put on (Barber and Calverley, 1964).

In fact, this experiment confirmed the findings presented by Sutcliffe in an earlier and now historically significant paper, ‘Credulous and Sceptical Views of Hypnotic Phenonmena: Experiments in Ethesia, Hallucination and Delusion.’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 62. 1961. (Sutcliffe, J.P. 1961).

Take another simple example. How tirelessly is it repeated by myriad ‘experts’ that a hypnotic hallucination is as solid a ‘phenomenon’ as seeing the real thing! Heavens … take away this precious assertion and you must begin to wonder what is left? Indeed, the truth, once apprehended, really should give one pause to wonder what in reality is left of the ‘phenomenon’ of ‘hypnosis’. It was H.W.Underwood who in 1960 recognised a very simple test for the ‘veridicality’ of this effect. He reported it in the paper ‘The Validity of Hypnotically Induced Visual Hallucinations’ , Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 61, 1960. When a person who is hypnotised and reports ‘seeing’ a suggested image of lines converging upon a vanishing point and then ‘superimposes’ this image upon a ‘target’ of parallel horizontal lines, they should see the ‘Ponzo Effect’. The parallels appear to bend. That is what we see when the lines are really there.
Now, anyone who knows this can pretend that they see the parallels bend. But that does not explain the fact that those who pretend to see the converging lines superimposed upon the parallels do not report the bend! In fact, non-hypnotised subjects told to ‘imagine’ the radial lines report the effect as often as those who have been hypnotised and report the positive hallucination! Only the subjects shown the real lines actually experience the illusion and report it consistently ( Underwood, 1960

Now lets move on to the biggest whopper of them all. ‘Hypnosis’ is a ‘state’ of ‘relaxation’, right!

Well, that’s what every “expert” from Dads Waxman to Paul McKenna tells us isn’t it? That’s what is tirelessly stated as a matter of fact by every ‘authority’ wheeled onto television and radio isn’t it? That’s what all the guides to hypnotherapy arrayed on the heaving ‘alternative therapy’ shelves of high street bookshops say, isn’t it? Well, whatever one else may believe, agree, or disagree about in the annals of hypnotic research, it is certainly a fact that hypnosis is definitely not inherently a ‘state’ of relaxation. In fact, numerous hypnotists themselves have professed as much for nigh-on a century. But lets not bring hearsay evidence into this. Let us not even cite the research of Ludwig and Lyle whose hypnotic induction method entailed having the subject pace up and down intensely whilst they shouted at them (Ludwig and Lyle, 1964). No, let’s just jump to a really glamorous piece of research, conducted by no less a traditionalist and defender of most orthodox opinions on ‘hypnosis’, Ernest Hilgard. In was conducted conjunction with his colleague Eve Banyai and reported in the paper ‘A Comparison of Active Alert Hypnotic Induction with Traditional Relaxation Induction.’ American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. 19. 1976.

In this study, Hilgard and Banyai famously demonstrated the practicality of hypnotising subjects who are not merely awake, but riding exercise cycles and becoming more alert as they ‘go under’! (Banyai and Hilgard, 1976).

These are but three instances of two things. Firstly, what Barber called the ‘lore of hypnosis’, that is, the collection of beliefs and assertions that are passed on from writer to writer, generation to generation. Secondly, that a gigantic gap exists between that set of assertions and the actual facts as established when they are put to the test. Pretty much the same pattern applies to virtually everything that pundits have asserted over the years about the phenomenology of ‘hypnosis’. There is in fact, nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be done with ‘hypnosis’ that cannot be done without. Which means that none of those ‘phenomena’ constitute any kind of evidence for such a state. Indeed, the very notion of the existence of such a distinct phenomenon as ‘hypnosis’ is bereft of support. But that does not mean that hypnotism is not a reality! Confused? It’s simple really. Read on and I shall explain. I shall explain. In due course

Clearly, there exists a distinction between bona-fide scientists, psychological researchers who are not professionally involved in the hypnotic industry and the vaunted scions of various professional bodies who represent those who are. Those who rely upon the widespread dissemination of blatant falsehoods in support of the claims and promises they make for their art. Hypnotherapists and “clinical” hypnotists. Such are the “experts” popularly endorsed by the media and publishers of self-help guides.

The Advent of a Scientific Study of Hypnotism

fig2Fig 2. Clark L. Hull.

Obviously, purveyors of snake-oil have been around since the very origins of hypnotism and Mesmerism before it. They have long had a knack for devising various “experiments” that are in fact stunts for the demonstration of the supposed “power” at their disposal. As Clark L.Hull pointed out (Hull, 1933 ) these ‘experiments’ were a travesty of scientific practice, lacking control conditions or any kind of baseline data. They ‘revealed’ feats by hypnotic subjects that were in most cases later shown to be perfectly normal for non-hypnotised people. A classic example being the “experiment” by Heillig and Hoff (Heillig and Hoff, 1925) which showed that when hypnotised subjects were told to ‘hallucinate’ food, the contents of their stomach (pumped out) exhibited reactions consistent with the type of food suggested. Sounds phenomenal! But when the experiment was repeated properly (that is, with control subjects) it was found that exactly the same thing happens when the food is merely imagined by non-hypnotised people! Moreover, it gets worse … merely talking about food has the same effect. Even in the instance of one subject who was both blind and having no sense of smell! (Hull, 1933).

It is worth noting that whilst myriad phenomena were attributed to hypnotic subjects (‘seers’ or ‘mediums’ ) over the rise of the Nineteenth Century, from time-travel to telepathy, as the era waned these claims fell away. What was left, the standard ‘lore of hypnosis’ then came in for rigorous scientific scrutiny from the nineteen twenties onwards.

There had been antecedent stabs at a study. The French Royal Commission of Inquiry into the practice of Mesmerism under the tutelage of a number of scientists including Benjamin Franklyn conducted an informal experiment that demonstrated the status of ‘Animal Magnetism’ to be that of a placebo, avant-la lettre. Whilst in England, Haygarth conducted a study of the alleged effect of Perkinean therapy (an import from America, every bit the rage in Britain that Mesmerism was in France) which is now regarded as the first instance of a controlled double-blind clinical trial in history (Haygarth, 1801). Then Paul Young conducted a brief study of hypnotic phenomena in the early Nineteen-Twenties before the grand master of scientific psychology Clark Hull took the stage.

Hull is known principally as one of the ‘fathers’ of American Behaviourism. His ingenuity in experimental design and the rigour with which he articulated this discipline in practice was proportional to his scorn for the scientist-manques who had littered the field before him. Characters like Binet and Fere who thought it marvellous that a hypnotic subject could hold an arm rigid for a length of time that it was later discovered is absolutely normal in a non-hypnotised person. Hull made the acute and enduringly relevant observation that such ‘manky’ pseudo-scientists were by and large clinicians. That medicine, strictly an art, is all too often confused with science not least by its practitioners, with the result that many arrogantly assert their dabblings as scientific when it is nothing of the kind (Hull, 1933). Moreover, that such people enjoy an authority and status as scientists to which they are utterly unentitled. It is an observation of especial relevance in the present day. When anyone with a degree in medicine seems to think themselves entitled to make pronouncements on ‘hypnosis’ as though it were their peculiar province although the topic is not covered in any orthodox medical curriculum (Roet, 1986, p247).


Fig 3. The author with “Human Bridge” routine

Much has been made of this. In fact, any fit person can do it. If they know that they can. The challenge for the hypnotist is, a) to get a complete stranger to do it and, b) without that person already knowing that they can indeed achieve this effect.

Fig 4. Another example from one of the authors informal bar sessions, circa 1993:


Fig 5. The author has sometimes used two at a time:


Fig 6. In this instance the author has set up THREE subjects as the Bridge:


Fig 7. In this case one subject is more comfortable than the other:


Fig 8. In this publicity shot, the ‘volunteer’ is actually a professional model:


 Hull established a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, later moved en-bloc to Yale. The studies recounted in his book “Hypnosis and Suggestibility: An Experimental approach” (1933 ) addressed many of the key ‘phenomena’ of ‘hypnosis’. His work in the field was eventually stopped due to complaints from academicians, supported by … none other than the medical faculty, who in that instance attributed to hypnotism the status of an occult art

The pattern which emerged from the work of Hull’s team had two aspects. Firstly, that many supposed hypnotic phenomena are without basis in fact. Secondly, with long term significance, that the phenomenon of suggestion is real, but occurs in both hypnotised and non-hypnotised subjects. Most evidently (and objectively measurable) in the effect of unintentional ‘ideomotor’ movements induced by verbally engendering the expectation that they will occur.<

It is one of the tragedies of the annals of hypnotism that Hull’s work was so brutally terminated upon the basis of that terrible union of ignorance and arrogance that he had himself warned against. Hull’s importance to research in hypnotism has largely been forgotten, supplanted by the absurdity of his being touted as the ‘teacher’ of that archdeacon of credulity and principal latter day snake-oil merchant, Milton Erickson. Reading Erickson’s own version of events, it is quite clear that that particular medic thought that it was he who had taught Hull (‘Conversations With Milton Erickson’, Vol 3, p151)!

Or as one teacher put it to a friend of mine regarding their son, “You can’t teach anything to someone who knows everything”

Realism versus Credulism.

fig-9Fig 9. Milton H. Erickson

It was Milton Erickson who came to utterly dominate the field of hypnotism in practice, in the twentieth century, which his career straddled like a colossus. Of course the most renowned dabbler in hypnotism in the nineteenth century, J.M.Charcot, had established his reputation upon the basis of very solid research in neurology, earning him the soubriquet the ‘Napoleon of The Neurosese. Erickson’s patently fantastical claims among a million words of books, papers and interviews almost entirely escaped critical examination (the exceptions being in a colloquium featuring his friend A.M. Weitzenhoffer and part of one chapter in Against Therapy by Jeffrey Masson) until I published Beyond Erickson in 2005. In the sub-title I chose to refer to him as ‘The Emperor of Hypnosis’. It was the translucence of his robes that I had in mind. Robes that in the minds of his generations of disciples were those of a veritable wizard. A preternatural ‘phenomenon’ unto himself, able to hypnotize by a glance, to conjure hallucinations with a whisper, to distend time and warp space, to control people by his breathing! His accounts of such super-human feats actually sustain not the slightest credence. Some of the ‘papers’ that he published in the magazine that he both founded and edited for the purpose (The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis) verge upon a travesty.

His reasoning processes are feeble and subordinate to devious attempts at deception (Tsander, A. 2005. p131-142, Erickson, 1965). He has no understanding of the principle of the control condition in experiments at all (Tsander, A. 2005. p146.) His conception of what constitutes ‘research’ beggars belief. Typically, he published ‘papers’ by his wife, relating a ‘study’ conducted whilst out window-shopping one day in New York, twice (Erickson, E.M. 1962, 1966, Tsander, A. 2005 p120)

Nonetheless, Erickson was a man of great ingenuity and inventiveness. He single handedly invented or otherwise appropriated and promoted a huge range of highly innovative hypnotic techniques. If you wish to call him a genius, I would not demur, though I refrain from such ultra-quotidian epithets myself. Erickson, through his writing and decade upon decade of touring presentations forged a new vision of the practice of hypnotism as an adjunct to therapy if not a methodology unto itself.

However, it becomes apparent upon close scrutiny of Erickson’s accounts of dozens of cases that hypnotism was a relatively minor, often indiscernible aspect of his ‘strategic therapy’. His techniques often amounted to hectoring, cajoling, bullying, arm-twisting, blackmailing and otherwise dog-cunningly tricking his patients into actions that would have a direct practical effect upon their circumstances and prospects.

The classic example of this is his ‘treating’ a lesbian and a gay man, each of whom faced problems in their professional lives as a result of their clandestine inclinations, this being in a less than open era. Erickson saw the ultimate criterion of mental health as being married with children. Yet he also saw that the biggest problem facing these clients were their obvious lack of a partner rendering them suspect in the eyes of their employers. His ‘therapy’ consisted of telling each of them that at a certain place and time they would bump into the solution to their problem and then arranging it so that they would literally walk into each other! They soon entered into a marriage of convenience. The “therapy” worked! What had ‘hypnosis’ to do with it?

This brings us to the distinction that I raised earlier between ‘hypnotism’ and ‘hypnosis’.

‘Back in the days’ the former referred to the art or technique of inducing and manipulating the latter, a distinct condition or ‘state’. Distinct from either waking or sleep states; akin to a neurological condition such as a temporal lobe epileptic seizure. But Erickson did something very cunning, much in keeping with the commercial, salesman-like way in which he created his empire of the hypnotic: he eradicated the distinction, using ‘hypnosis’ to cover both sides of the equation and every other aspect of the field related to it.

The elision took, resulting in today’s absolute confusion in terminology. Every air-head on the block waffles on about ‘hypnosis’ this and ‘hypnosis’ that, whether they be referring to a technique, its putative effect, its application, the business it sustains or the lifestyle it may finance. I.e, “Paul McKenna is in hypnosis!”. As one person recently said to me “I’ve my house, my car, my truck and my boat and hypnosis paid for all of it, so it must work.” The result is a consequent woollying of any discussion of the field. Why would Eskimo’s have dozens of words for types of snow ? Because it permits of a refinement in the precision with which one can discuss the topic, so important to them. By the same token, if one cannot distinguish between the art, technique, practice, effect, manipulation, application or business of the hypnotic, how can one begin to order clearly ones thinking on the topic?

For Erickson, this terminological ploy served to imprint hypnotism and hypnotherapy with a distinct new style that was specifically his. It may have been useful to him. But it has left us this heinous legacy. Whilst Erickson’s status as grand Wizard of the West grew during the nineteen nifties, sixties and seventies, spawning new therapies from successive generations of disciples, Jay Haley, Ernest Rossi and then Bandler and Grinder, inventors of NLP; genuine scientific study of hypnotism continued in the wings.

By the nineteen eighties a vast body of data on hypnotic phenonema had been accumulated. None of it lent any credence to the now discredited belief in a distinct state of hypnosis. Many had sought the Holy Grail of evidence of such a thing. Many still do. More often, however, it is a case of pundits and the kind of hollow ‘experts’ referred to earlier, misinterpreting the more impressive seeming data obtained from research into the electro-physiology and vascular ‘economics’ of the nervous system. The FMRI studies of Gruzelier and those of Benedetti are typical of work from which the brightly coloured data leave the mis-interpretors “blinded by science”. Such research indicates differences in the way ‘good’ hypnotic subjects use their brain as opposed to ‘poor’ ones, not the existence of a unique type of neural function induced by the actions of the hypnotist still less causing an experience. It’s a simple confusion easily clarified by comparison with music. A ‘good’ pianist’s brain shows different patterns of activation whilst playing a piano than a non-musicians does when trying to do the same. It does not mean that playing the piano is caused by the ‘state’ of activations that correlate with it!

There is an even more pithy analogy. Suppose one tells the subject to lie when under the scanner. Asked “Is the moon made of green cheese?” they reply “Yes”. Compared to a non-lying condition their brains may well light up differently. Does that mean that this pattern, glibly dubbed a ‘state’, causes them to lie? Clearly, the proposition is preposterous!

This leads us to the orthodox view of hypnotic behaviour found in academic psychology. Sutcliffe, in the paper cited earlier refers to the two ‘schools’ or positions in relation to hypnotism outlined above as ‘scepticism’ and ‘credulism’ (although I prefer ‘realism’ to ‘scepticism’). T.X.Barber referred to a ‘New Paradigm’ in thinking about hypnotism. This implying literally a paradigm shift in our conception of the topic in terms of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1962).

It originated with the concept of hypnotic behaviour being the product of the subject enacting ‘cognitive strategies’. ‘Strategic enactment’. Strategies of thought that generate a subjective version of events. The poor hypnotic subject, lacking the strategies, fails to imagine the ‘negative hallucination’ that is my becoming invisible when I ‘suggest’ it to them. They continue to see admit that they see me. The good subjects on the other hand effectively trick themselves into imagining that they cannot see me. They force me out of their awareness the way a school-kid does the miserable prospect of the impending academic year!

The same goes for such things as amnesia. It is quite commonplace for someone to choose not to remember something; ‘hypnosis’ doesn’t come into it.

Such a way of thinking about hypnotic behaviour ties in with current research revealing the plasticity of cognition and memory as well as the influence of social cues upon behaviour. Everybody now knows about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, in which manifestations of obedience were shocking, having nothing to do with ‘hypnosis’ but being raw, pure and unadulterated to a frightening degree (Milgram, 1963).

Between these lines of consideration we find that everything hypnotic is ultimately accountable without ever needing to any longer adduce a special state of ‘hypnosis’. Just as notions of demonic possession used in primitive societies and by our ancestors to ‘explain’ aberrant behaviour could be dropped with the advent of concepts of the unconscious and psychodynamics, so the ‘explanation’ of hypnotic behaviour and interactions in terms of an unknown state of hypnosis becomes redundant in an age of social-psychology. There is nothing left for the concept of “hypnosis” to explain.

This brings up two fundamental misunderstandings about this sceptical as opposed to the credulous view of hypnotism (Sutcliffe, 1961), particularly in relation to the work of Barber and his colleagues, Chavez and Spanos. The use of control subjects who are not hypnotised but can produce the same effects as those who are, often provokes a response that Erickson himself raised in an interview: “Because it can be done without hypnosis does not mean it cannot also be done with hypnosis.” The whole point of such control replication of hypnotic ‘phenonema’ by non-hypnotised subjects is that unless there is something that is peculiar to the alleged ‘state’ and which therefore cannot be replicated, there is no reason even to raise the possibility that there might ALSO be another explanation, i.e. ‘hypnosis’.

Analogy: The suspect was with his wife when she was shot, had his fingerprints on the gun, had told the neighbours he was going to kill her, had powder burns on his hand and was found sat across the room from the body when the police arrived. But it could be that it was a purple dwarf wot-done-it, hypnotised the man, made him tell the neighbours he was going to kill her, put the gun in his hand and pulled the trigger, jumping out the window before the police arrived. After all, the window was open! Well, it could be that that explanation is true! But it is also fundamentally absurd to prefer it. It is what’s known as ‘Occams Law’.

The other misunderstanding of these ‘social psychological’ explanations of hypnotic behaviour hinges on the words ‘role play’. Which is understandably interpreted by the general Joe but also by those who ought know better (Waxman, et al) as equivalent to saying ‘playing around’ or ‘pretending’. In the context of social-psychology this most definitely is not what it means!#

Roles are culturally engendered programs of behaviour that govern social interaction. A conception originating quite outside of research into hypnotism, in the area of social-psychology (Goffman, E. 1959). When operating unconsciously as un-considered habits of behaviour and thereby unopposed they constitute a powerful set of tracks directing the conduct of every conventionally adjusted person in everyday life. In extremis, we see how such roles can be characterised by an aspect of intense compulsion, as indeed illustrated by that aforementioned famous work of Stanley Milgram. That study has been followed in the decades since by a large body of similar research. Some of it utterly eye-popping. Take Sheridan and King’s repeat of the Milgram study in which subjects were enjoined to give real electric shocks to visibly distressed puppy dogs (Sheridan and King, 1972)!

Bickman’s study in which it was shown that merely appearing to be an authority figure empowered an individual to have members of the public (who had no idea they were part of an experiment) obey a command to give money to a complete stranger. Famously, again, Zimbardo’s U.S. Navy sponsored experiment revealing how volunteers fall easily into the roles of abuser and victim when cast in a guard and prisoner relationship (Zimbardo, 1972). Research which, incidentally, leaves anyone familiar with it not in the least surprised by events at Abu Ghraib and speechless at the jaw-dropping naiivete of reporters who continue to wonder who ‘ordered’ it. Such behaviour is a default condition under such circumstances. It need never be policy for it to occur in the absence of oversight by external authorities.

Social psychological processes do not only influence actions but perceptions and experience itself. Our cognitive processes are increasingly recognised as almost completely malleable and very, very unreliable. To put it very briefly, when we are not careful to use artificial methods to prevent it, we tend to see what we expect to see and that expectation tends also to be determined by our culture, society or context. This tendency reaching right into the fundamental processes of neuro-physiology, where traditional ‘feed-back/up’ models are being supplanted by a conception of vision in particular, that allows for ‘feed forward/down’ (Churchland, Ramachandran and Sejnowski, 1994).

Against the background of such a broad and far-reaching field of research it becomes increasingly easy to understand the interaction between hypnotist and subject. The hypnotist employs methods, including the manipulation of expectation, context and subsequent recollection of the interaction, which engage multiple subtle aspects of normal behaviour. The good subject is one who is responsive to these influences and in response has what they recall as being a hypnotic experience. That including both the objective (compliance with the hypnotists demands) and the subjective (belief that they could not resist, had really experienced ultra-normal effects, etc).

We need not expect the hypnotist to be aware of how his methodology engages social-psychological influences any more than any person need be aware of such things occurring every day, in their every interaction. All he needs is to repeat those conditions and actions that have been found to produce the desired response. It is like pointing out that sometimes kicking a faulty appliance in a certain spot makes it work properly. One does not need to know why! People who have not a clue how the internal combustion engine works can still drive a car! Meanwhile, the subject will be all the more responsive for not having such a critical awareness of what is taking placeIn fact, however, many if not all hypnotists, especially stage hypnotists, often implicitly acknowledge this reality in the way in which they go about setting up the subject. Indeed, many hypnotists explicitly acknowledge it. I have been publicly advocating such an acknowledgement on the part of all hypnotists since 1995 (in The Stage and Television Today, second week of January).

This brings us down to the basic distinction between ‘hypnotism’ and ‘hypnosis’, something I said I would explain, earlier. It is a critical matter of semantics upon which debate commonly founders. So you must ensure that you have a total grip on what I say in the next paragraph before going any further.

It is this: we need no longer waste our time looking for a supposed ‘state of hypnosis’. All hypnotic behaviour can be explained in terms of normal psychology. ‘Hypnosis’ doesn’t exist; BUT, hypnotism, that body of techniques that has been found efficacious in inducing certain behaviour in an appropriate subject, most definitely works, as I have demonstrated with thousands of volunteers over the past two decades.

To be hypnotised then, is to fall under the influence of many subtle factors that, in truth, already affect us in every aspect of our existence as a social animal. What distinguishes the response of a simulating or ‘fake’ subject from one who is ‘really hypnotised’ is the fact that the latter, in contra-distinction to the former, interprets or experiences their response to (they process and interpret their own sensations and actions induced by) that methodology as being that of a special condition not of their own making or volition!To put that another way: ‘hypnosis’ is an illusion; ‘hypnotism’ is the methodology by which that illusion is created. It is analogous to the relationship between stage magic and the illusion of magical occurrences which it creates.


The implications of the new perspective outlined above are many and far-reaching. They are perhaps most explicitly illustrated in the context of stage hypnotism

The demonstration of hypnotism and, before it, the ‘magnetism” of Mesmer et al, was from the very outset inextricably entangled with the process of discovery and ‘application’ of these ‘phenomena’. This cannot be stressed too highly. Mesmer himself was a showman. His therapy practice was a theatrical undertaking. His successors and those who contradicted his views, paving the way for hypnotism as we know it, such as the Abbe Faria and Baron Du Potet de Sennevoy (a fictional title) actually gave regular performances in direct concurrence with their teaching and therapeutic work. Our own James Braid, to whom is attributed the very word “hypnotism” (although in fact it had been in use fifty years earlier in France) actually lifted his techniques from observation of the French stage performer Charles La Fontaine.

fig-10 Fig 10. J.M.Charcot, ‘Napoleon of the Neuroses’

Numerous significant figures in the history of hypnotism in the nineteenth century whether a layman promoter of the art, a medical practitioner or a pioneer of some sort who was not also a performer either acquired their techniques from such performers or themselves gave lectures that were in fact stage shows under a spurious cloak of academic authority. The chief example being none other than that Napoleon of the neuroses Charcot himself, whose lectures at the Satpetrier hospital were luridly theatrical affairs, open to the general public and for a time a must-see event! Even Charles Dickens travelled to Paris for the specific purpose (Thornton, 1976)

This duality continued into the twentieth century and is exemplified by, again, none other than that ‘Emperor of Hypnosis’, Milton Erickson; a man who wrote scathingly of his disgust for stage hypnotism yet who built his reputation as a hypnotist upon the ‘demonstrations’ that he staged throughout the U.S.A and Mexico.

Reading his own accounts of such lectures it is apparent that they were nothing of the kind but, as a matter of fact, stage hypnotism masquerading as a pseudo-medical demonstration.

The importance of stage hypnotism in this history is that all the major alleged hypnotic phenomena ultimately derive from things ‘demonstrated’ in a theatrical context. Whilst modern hypnotherapists take great pains to disassociate themselves from stage hypnotism (although there are some who honestly conduct both practices) the truth is that the entire fabric of their art and its continuing credibility in the mind of the public is almost solely the product of the illusions created on stage. A client in a hypnotherapy session is essentially required to yield very little by way of a dynamic response to the suggestions of the operator. The veracity of the major hypnotic phenomena is essentially untested in the hypnotherapist’s experience because the induction of such things does not arise in their practice. So they continue to believe in the reality of such things essentially on faith … because it is stated as so in the annals of their art, the ‘lore of hypnosis’. Moreover, that belief system is maintained by the continuing demonstration of the illusion of such phenomena in stage shows.

Stage hypnotism could exist in the absence of hypnotherapy. The reverse is not at all certain.

Fig 11 et ibidem (11b to 11e). The author at work in the early nineties.


So what really happens in stage hypnotism is utterly pivotal to an understanding of the true nature of hypnotic ‘phenomena’

Let us leave aside those clowns who use stooges. I know of no examples and against the backdrop of my extensive experience it would seem to be a perilous practice to contemplate. Even though one uses entirely genuine volunteers who one honestly has never met before, the accusation that they include stooges is commonplace. To use such stooges would be to court suicide, or at least a severe kicking. How would one work several times a week, year in and year out, around the country but also repeatedly in the same places without either recruiting armies of these hypothetical stooges or having them recognised in their serial appearance? Certainly the nineteenth century practice of using regular subjects or ‘mediums’ was liable to their being stooges. But the environment in which modern stage hypnotists work is so utterly different. The bottom line being, after paying the stooges, in addition to ones legitimate road crew and other expenses, how on Earth would it ever be profitable?


Fig 12. The author practising on strangers met in a bar, 1991.

So I think the stooge scenario is preposterous, for the public would see through it in a trice and it wouldn’t be profitable. However, I am also sure that some operators must have tried that avenue. Maybe one or two A and E wards have treated them after they had been rumbled by the punters! So let us assume stoogery may occur. Now let’s leave it out of the picture. An irrelevance.

Next take a look at some of the crude attempts made by Barber et al to “explain” stage hypnotism (Barber et al, 1979). I will not go into detail, but they are an embarrassing addendum to the work of a man I admire and respect. Anyone who tried to use such obvious tricks as suggesting numbness in the arm of a volunteer whilst making him clutch a ball in his arm-pit (interrupting blood flow) would be subject to ridicule. Moreover, no audience would give a fig for such a routine as a man having his arm go numb. Crikey, what was Barber thinking? What audiences want to see are gross and very loud, very visual aberrations of normal conduct. At the very least their friends being attacked by imaginary ants and mosquitoes, talking Martian, ordering ‘Pigs Piss’ from the bar, searching the audience for ‘stolen’ parts of their anatomy, feigning sexual congress with toy animals, giving birth to others, etc, etc, etc. The kind of behaviour which I have been inducing complete strangers to engage in for the past two decades!


Fig 13. One of the authors volunteers at a show searching for his stolen penis, mid-nineties.

So how DO we explain this panoply of the ‘phenomenal’ if not by adducing the actual ‘phenomenon’ of ‘hypnosis’?

Again, let us leave aside those factors which would be utterly unreliable as a prop for such proceedings. You cannot expect to turn up at a pub where there might be … as sometimes happens … only ten people, and expect to reliably discover, time after time, several of them willing to do as you say simply out of a desire to make themselves the centre of attention. Such people do exist. But they are far from representative of the volunteering public in my experience. Not least because relatively few of the people that I select as volunteers want to take part in the first, sometimes second, or even third instance that I may ask them to do so!

Don’t even mention the influence of alcohol. It helps people to volunteer. It contributes nothing to their chances of being selected. The less intoxicated the volunteers are the better. This is not at all a controversial point.Yet I maintain that there is no ‘state’ of ‘hypnosis’ at work. So how is the ability to induce such behaviour to be understood?

The clue is in the question. As a hypnotist I induce behaviour, not ‘hypnosis’ The hypnotic induction indeed plays a part in this. But the mere fact of having successfully ‘induced hypnosis’ is in most cases not sufficient to obtain from the subject anything by way of a substantive or even interesting response. The process has to be much broader than that. It entails manipulation of all influences upon the subject, from before we even meet them (the information given in advance publicity), to include the working environment, their friends, the audience, and a plethora of variables impingent upon proceedings from their initiation, through the hypnotic induction, and onwards beyond this.

There are two things that one learns from the close observation of a few thousand hypnotic sessions. Firstly, that the behaviour of subjects on close and sustained scrutiny is quite inconsistent with what one would expect were hypnosis to be an actual, bona-fide ‘state’. I devote an entire chapter to describing such observations in my book Beyond Hypnosis: Hypnotism, Stage Hypnotism and The Myth of Hypnosis (Tsander, 2005b) Secondly, that it remains nonetheless possible to create the impression that such a state exists in the mind of onlookers and subjects alike.

At the very least to induce complete strangers to enact the entire panoply of hypnotic ‘phenomena’ with no material incentive. A third observation, occasionally engendered in the odd instance of a sloppy performance (everyone slips up in their work from time to time) is that if one does not take care to govern all necessary variables in order to induce such behaviour, the mere hypnotic induction will of itself yield only a trivial response! The importance of this consideration is discussed again in my book The Art and Secrets of Stage Hypnotism. (Tsander, 2006).

In other words, the hypnotic induction is neither sufficient nor necessary to explain hypnotic behaviour as it is commonly induced in live demonstrations.

There are many insights to be gained from adopting this viewpoint. For a start, whilst it is a very big topic unto itself which I am not going to address here, it is worth glancing in passing at its relevance to that recurring theme of compulsion. This, surely, is at the heart of the general thinkers conception of what it is to be hypnotised: blind obedience.

Continued …


Blue is the Colour: The Hypno-Show Controversy. Michael Goss

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.
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.