©2012 Lewis Dark

A few years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a woman who ran an entertainment agency.  Trying to drum up some business, I mentioned that I did stage hypnosis.

“Stage hypnosis?” she said. “What’s that?”

I was completely taken aback.  When I recovered I said, “The demonstration of trance states for the amusement of an audience.”

“Oh, yeah,” she replied.  “You make people act like idiots.”

Well, yes and no.  Certainly, on stage, hypnosis usually consists of one person giving orders, and others obeying these orders to an incredible degree. “Sleep!” screams a hypnotist, and the volunteers go completely limp.  “Your neighbors just broke wind!” — and everyone holds their noses.  “You just won the lottery!” — and everyone jumps for joy.  “Your belly buttons just escaped, you need to find them!” and the volunteers desperately crawl over the stage in a navel hunt. “You’ve forgotten your name! You are now Elvis Presley! You are a finalist on Dancing With the Stars!”  The routines are endless, and endlessly varied. 

And genuine: volunteers invariably swear they felt compelled to follow orders, or that they can’t remember their time on stage, or that it felt perfectly natural to dance with a broomstick or play with that tame polar bear the guy had up on stage or to be terrified by that vicious pit bull even if it was made of balloons.

The first problem here is defining hypnosis: it is an altered state of consciousness not involving drugs that allows people access to their unconscious abilities. It is not sleep, it is not mind control.  Hypnosis is a cooperative learning project between a hypnotist (though I’d rather say “hypnosis teacher”) and a subject, who learns to use the powers of his or her unconscious mind. These powers include control of “automatic” bodily functions, the ability to change one’s perceptions, and the ability to change one’s attitudes to those actual or altered perceptions.

What makes hypnosis appear spooky or magical is that this learning process occurs at a less than conscious level, and therefore seems involuntary. 

How do you explain this? 

A theme of my show is this: Hypnosis isn’t particularly special; the human mind is special.  Every “hypnotic” phenomenon can occur as a result of other mental disciplines or certain circumstances. One thinks of yogis tying themselves into knots and changing their rates of heartbeat at will, of martial artists smashing bricks with their bare hands, of elderly weaklings faced with emergencies who suddenly develop superhuman strength to rescue their loved ones, of Michael Jordan winning a basketball game when he was practically dying of flu.

Hypnosis is a special method for accessing these special abilities at will.  This makes hypnosis invaluable in the fields of medicine, psychiatry, counseling, and self-help.  A patient who is allergic to novacaine or ether can have painless dentistry or surgery using hypnosis.  The hypnotic ability to change one’s sensory input, or one’s emotional attitudes, has been used to cure anxieties, phobias, and neuroses. Smokers can quit tobacco and not suffer from withdrawal symptoms, in fact completely lose their desire for cigarettes.  Even non-medical difficulties such as stage fright or an excessive sweet tooth can be ameliorated by experts using hypnosis; and you would be surprised at the names of some of the star athletes who have retained their own personal performance-enhancing sports hypnotists. 

This is what makes hypnosis valuable: it helps people.

What makes it good entertainment is that it feels good, and can be fun not just to watch, but to experience.  Hypnosis is not a state of sleep (it was named after Hypnos, the ancient Greek god of sleep, because of its resemblance to sleepwalking), but it is as restful and relaxing as a good night’s sleep.  And those same powers of mind that can solve your problems and improve your everyday life can open the doors to a world of amazing and enjoyable experiences.

These experiences are accessible to almost every person because hypnosis is an everyday experience for every person. Daydreaming, watching television, knitting, concentration on work or play or sports, even prayer, are all hypnotic states.  Hypnosis is entered voluntarily; all hypnosis is self-hypnosis; indeed, you can learn fairly useful self-hypnosis just by reading one book or listening to a one-hour audio.

The adventurous and helpful “good sports” who volunteer at hypnosis shows make a   subconscious agreement with the hypnotist.  Their wish: Make me a star of this show, get for me attention, applause and the thanks of the audience, give me unique and interesting experiences. The hypnotist, in turn, promises the following: I will direct you to the best of my ability, I will ensure your mental and physical safety, the audience will love you, and you will have fun.

And each of those fun (or fun-to-watch) experiences is a new lesson in the powers of your mind.  Are you stuck to your chair?  Your dentist would like you to be effortlessly immobile. Is your neighbor suddenly wearing a clown nose and mouse ears?  You can make your angry boss seem equally unthreatening.  Did you forget there was a number between 6 and 8, and you now somehow have eleven fingers?  You can forget a stressful or worrisome situation while carrying out your life’s regular duties, and deal with your special problems when you’re good and ready. 

Many hypnotists direct their volunteers to take a beachfront holiday; some subjects hallucinate this so vividly that they sweat, and they return from these vacations incredibly well-rested.  During my show I tell the volunteers that I will show them the funniest cartoon they’ve ever seen.  What I show them is a page of meaningless squiggles, and they fall out of their chairs laughing.  The humor may be hallucinated, but the laughter is real.

Every good stage hypnotist walks a line between entertainment and education, between hilarity and ethics, between good taste and apparent cruelty.  I don’t think I make people act like idiots; I help them have fun.  And fun that’s good for them.  Though I never did get a booking from that agent.

Lewis Dark has been performing as a stage hypnotist since 1995.  He is a Certified Hypnotist affiliated with the National Guild of Hypnotists and a member in good standing of N.A.M.E.  He is based in Chicago.  Learn more at his website,

 A shorter version of this article was published in the e-newsletter of the National Association of Mobile Entertainers, who provides group-plan liability insurance for stage hypnotists.’