Stage Hypnosis – the need for tighter regulation.

Stage Hypnosis – the need for tighter regulation.

Address to the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis: 14 March 2014


As a stage hypnotist with thirty-five years in the business, it may seem a little hypocritical to speak disparagingly of stage hypnotism. Nonetheless, despite the corporate denial of stage hypnotists, there are very real problems lurking behind the laughter.

In Britain, stage hypnosis is regulated by the Home Office Model Conditions attached to the 1952 Hypnotism Act. Under the Act, Local Authorities have the power to grant or refuse permission for hypnosis shows. A Hypnotism Licence must be obtained for all public demonstrations of hypnotism. The Model Conditions are just a list of do’s and don’ts. Private shows however, at private parties, in private members clubs, and so on, are exempt from licensing.

The main difficulty with the Hypnotism Act is that although some Local Authorities rigidly enforce the rules, in most of the country, it’s largely ignored. In the main, Britain’s stage hypnotists no longer bother applying for licences. This is actually a criminal offence, but police and local authorities don’t rate hypnotism shows very highly on their list of priorities. Anyway, it’s the licensee of the premises who gets fined and not the hypnotist, so why worry?

Some of the smarter stage hypnotists claim that hypnosis doesn’t exist anyway; they use a mixture of psychology, social compliance, misdirection, suggestion, and stagecraft. Even if that were true, there is still a need for tighter regulation.

Some stage hypnotists exploit a legal loophole. Demonstrations of hypnosis for scientific or research purposes are exempt from licensing. However, in my view, merely asking participants to fill in a brief and meaningless questionnaire at the end of a show in a pub does not constitute serious scientific study or research.

The Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists (FESH) to which a majority of stage hypnotists belong, has a strict code of conduct, which its members swear to uphold… and which ceases to exist the moment they walk on stage. Organisations representing stage hypnotists are self-interest groups whose only reason for existence is so hypnotists can impress licensing authorities. Membership of a pretend professional body does not confer competence upon a performer.

A lot of stage hypnotists use stage names – very useful if anything goes wrong and advantageous when it comes to the rules regarding payment of income tax, as nearly all the low earning chicken-in-the-basket-style hypnotists get paid in cash.

After stage hypnosis got its first outing on television in 1992, it became an overnight craze, which lasted about twelve months. There are now only twenty or so stage hypnotists on the loose in Britain, most of them woefully incompetent. A brief trawl of the Internet reveals that there are ‘stage hypnosis training courses’ available with a price tag of £200. All you need to know about human behaviour, psychology, sociology and hypnosis in a weekend and a certificate to prove it! A prime example of a little knowledge being very dangerous!

One of the problems with stage hypnosis is that an idiot can do it. The main problem is that idiots are doing it, and as long as the hypnotist can hide behind the talent of his subjects, he can mostly get away with it. If you wanted to be a TV repairman, it would not be enough to know how to change channels – one presumes that you would know something about electricity. Stage hypnosis is a vastly complex subject that requires wide ranging knowledge of a variety of related subjects.

I have studied stage hypnosis for more than thirty years and have seen clear patterns developing.

The majority of stage hypnotists do not have the faintest idea about the psychology that underpins hypnosis – I know this because occasionally I get to speak to them. The mere mention of social compliance theory or Stanley Milgram will draw a blank stare. The sum total of a stage hypnotists ‘years of experience’ is usually a few tips exchanged in a bar in Benidorm. The attitude “It works because it works and that’s good enough” is NOT good enough. The vast majority of stage hypnotists are ignorant of the possible consequences of their actions.


In 1994, the Home Office ordered an inquiry into stage hypnosis, and called in expert opinion from a panel of specialists, some from the Royal College of Psychiatry. This was in response to public concern about the safety of stage hypnosis, fueled by various sensational claims in the tabloid press. The panel of experts concluded that stage hypnosis could be considered as safe as any other activity involving the participation of members of the public. So business as usual then…

It is perhaps ironic that absurd tabloid stories, some of which were presented as ‘evidence’ to the panel, served only to support the theory that stage hypnosis was safe. Faced with a collection of ridiculous anecdotes, the professionals were more inclined to overlook the real truth.

I have always felt the Home Office inquiry, constrained as it was by a limited budget, was hurried and did not examine the real problems of stage hypnosis carefully enough. Too much attention was paid to supposed embarrassment suffered by hypnotised subjects, and whether this embarrassment could lead to other, more serious conditions.

As far as embarrassment is concerned, people are far more robust than one perhaps imagines. In any event, participation in stage hypnosis has no more embarrassment potential than being the subject of a practical joke at the office, or one of a plethora of television shows, things the subject of the prank hadn’t volunteered for. The hypnotist on the other hand is an easy target for blame, and traditionally bears the burden of responsibility for loss of face. The effect on an individual say, forced to accept demotion at work is far worse, if only because it is permanent.

Potential embarrassment is not the problem and never has been. Neither is the myth of accidental ‘re-stimulation’ of hypnotic suggestions. There are untold urban myths about people who have suddenly been transformed into clucking chickens, or have fallen asleep at the wheel due to hypnotic suggestions delivered days or weeks before. None of these stories are true; trying to find these ‘victims of stage hypnosis’ is more difficult than tracing the woman who put her poodle in the microwave, or the crew of the Marie Celeste – another made-up story by an American tabloid newspaper.

What about individuals who don’t volunteer but inadvertently fall into hypnosis in the audience? On the three occasions I have seen this happen in my own six thousand or so performances, it has been due to one of three causes;

On the first occasion, I discovered the person concerned had that very morning arrived back from a lengthy holiday in Australia. Of course the natural reaction was for the audience to assume he had somehow been affected by the hypnosis. The second occasion was entirely due the effect of our old friend, alcohol. In this case the gentleman was so drunk, he snored loudly through most of the performance, much to the amusement of his friends. And then there was an encounter caused by that most dreaded of conditions – the need for attention. In that instance, the tried and tested method of ignoring the sleeping beauty eventually worked wonders!

Volunteers in stage hypnosis sometimes ‘play dead.’ The subject does not respond to any of the suggestions, not even to the suggestion to ‘wake up’ or open their eyes. Subjects do this when they no longer wish to take part in the show but don’t know how to opt out without causing embarrassment to themselves or the hypnotist. It’s a common occurrence. It happens in most performances. Subjects play dead in the hope that the hypnotist will give up and send them back to their seat in the audience, and it’s easily dealt with by er… sending the subject back to their seat in the audience – immediately, and without any fuss.

Once a subject knows they can go straight back to their seat, that they will not be called upon again, and that they’re going to enjoy the rest of the show, that’s exactly what they will do. A simple rule once you know it, but I have seen a lot of stage hypnotists push and cajole subjects, literally forcing them into action. This of course goes far beyond social compliance. At this point, the hypnotist turns into a bully, and that’s just plain wrong. Again, the problem is that many stage hypnotists don’t know how to handle the situation because they don’t understand the nature of human behaviour! I have seen a hypnotist get into very deep water with this one, trying one thing and another, all to no avail, and in front of an increasingly concerned crowd!


I would like now to turn to the real hazards of stage hypnosis.

Being asked to perform on stage may be more stressful than volunteers first imagine. They may suddenly find themselves on very unfamiliar ground if requested to perform actions that constitute a breach of trust between the hypnotist and the volunteer, something that is common in the underground and illegal world of stage hypnosis in Britain’s pubs and clubs, where overtly sexual acts are often encouraged by the sort of audience more used to The Jeremy Kyle Show. One infamous stage hypnotist once told a female subject that when she awoke, she would believe she had just been raped!

Subjects may suddenly find themselves in a terrible dilemma. They may want to opt out of any further participation, but that’s not easy given the unforeseen and sudden demands of the social situation. There is tremendous pressure put on volunteers by unscrupulous performers. Combined with the confusion of an unfamiliar environment, bright lights and abnormally loud sound system, serious conflict can arise, which goes unnoticed (or is willfully ignored) by the hypnotist.

Most stage hypnotists are not knowledgeable enough to recognise symptoms of ‘fight or flight’. A subject in distress produces adrenalin and cortisone, which enters the bloodstream creating other effects; the lungs start panting in air and there is a danger the subject starts to hyperventilate. Stored sugar pours from the liver into the bloodstream to feed the brain, which is now working overtime as the subject searches for an escape route; the heart beats unusually fast; most noticeable is the face becomes pale as blood drains from the face so any wounds won’t bleed too much.

When under stress, more blood is pumped into the brain than is usual as the subject struggles to find an exit strategy. Platelets in the blood that carry oxygen to the neurons are forced into millions of narrow capillaries, which expand and press against the surrounding brain tissue. The result is a headache, but like the soldier in battle, the pain becomes noticeable only after the action is over.

The most obvious and safest course of action is to immediately let the participant return to their seat where, back on safe ground, they will quickly recover their composure. But the stage hypnotist is often oblivious to what is happening as he rushes from one routine to the next. Neither does he want to let a subject go, because that’s not good for the image of the hypnotist as puppet master. Again, I have witnessed hypnotists who have a ‘carry on regardless’ attitude to their subjects. One lady who complained to the hypnotist after the show that she had a headache was advised to take a couple of Paracetamol. This cavalier attitude is surely a cause for concern.

Few hypnotists these days appear in ‘legitimate’ venues. Since the Home Office review, the majority of hypnotists are to be found in pubs and clubs where it’s normal for a hypnotist to go on stage late – 11.00pm or midnight is not unusual. By that time, more alcohol than is perhaps advisable has already been consumed, and this is one of my main areas of concern.

Subjects are asked to carry out a series of instructions that are usually  physically demanding – there is increased perspiration and therefore increased risk of dehydration and thirst. The subject will then alleviate these symptoms at the bar.

Without the clear barrier between audience and stage – obvious in a theatre – it is difficult for the hypnotist to exercise the required control at all times. There are all sorts of noisy distractions to contend with: subjects are often sent into the crowd to perform a variety of actions – all in uncomfortable proximity to an abundance of glassware. Crowds are simply not as well behaved at eleven-o-clock in a nightclub as they are at eight-o-clock in a theatre.

It is clear volunteers find it much easier to perform unfamiliar tasks when in groups than as individuals. What is interesting is that most headaches seem to occur when the hypnotist has had only one or two subjects to work with. This is common in pubs and clubs because of the small size of the audience. Stage hypnotists play the ‘numbers game’ of the percentage of people in any audience who will volunteer, and the percentage of the volunteers they will be then able to hypnotise. In circumstances where the hypnotist ends up with only one or two subjects, there is no feeling of ‘safety in numbers’ – in other words, no support group for the subject to rely on.

The importance of the group should not be taken too lightly. People are much happier performing actions in a large group without fear of embarrassment, than they are when they are on their own. The lone subject feels exposed, vulnerable, singled out and isolated, and this can pile on the stress.

The more stressed the subject, the less likely they are to want to perform. The hypnotist offers more encouragement to the subject to keep the show going, but only succeeds in piling on even more pressure, and so both become trapped in a vicious circle, neither quite knowing how to get out. Some subjects of course simply get up and walk away, but a surprising number feel unable to do so because of the huge pressure of Social Compliance.

Even on occasions when there are lots of other souls on board, subjects can be prone to feelings similar to depression usually some time after the performance, even the following day. Even when subjects have enjoyed the experience and have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the experience, there can be a sense of anticlimax when it’s over. Members of amateur theatrical groups feel this anticlimax acutely when a production comes to an end. A few words of explanation from the hypnotist will work wonders. Unfortunately, at the time these words are needed, the hypnotist is usually heading to the motorway. [In case you’re wondering, and just for the sake of completeness, I give all my participants a card with my contact details on at the end of the show.]

Certain individuals can experience emotions of regret or even aggression after a performance that can be profound. This can happen in shows where subjects are asked to perform actions requiring a degree of exaggerated aggression or hard physical effort. This is as a direct result of activity in the amygdale associated with emotionally extreme behaviour, such as losing one’s temper, and can affect the way the subject feels immediately afterwards. I have interviewed plenty of my own participants directly after a performance to be aware of this possibility and I take pains to thoroughly debrief subjects at the end of the show. Most hypnotists don’t.

One of the conditions imposed by the Home Office is that the hypnotist remains at the venue for up to an hour after the show has finished so he is available for any possible debriefing. Because the vast majority of hypnotists in the UK don’t even bother applying for a licence in the first place, this stipulation is rendered somewhat redundant. In any case, subjects are often disoriented and may not notice any unusual effects until some time later.

In fairness, I have never heard of a bona-fide case of a subject suffering after-effects that could be described as long-term. True, some volunteers have reported to me that they felt disappointed if the hypnosis didn’t work, but I counter this by explaining that some people are more suggestible than others and that this depends on the circumstances and the time available. Then again, life is full of little disappointments.

If a volunteer does decide to seek medical advice as a result of any unpleasant after effects, there is always the possibility that their first port of call will be their GP. The GP is likely to refer his patient to the nearest hypnotherapist because he has little knowledge of hypnosis himself, and so the safest and most obvious course of action is to refer to someone who, one assumes, knows what they’re doing. However, only a tiny minority of hypnotherapists are likely to be able to grasp the real cause of the problem, simply because they do not have an understanding of the dynamics of stage hypnosis.

Because of the historical antipathy toward their stage counterparts, a lot of hypnotherapists seize on the opportunity to make their deeply held prejudices known to their new client, which is a massive negative suggestion in itself. At an unconscious level, the subject may feel that he has to continue with the behaviour – after all, he’s ill – the nice caring therapist told him so – he has been ‘damaged’ and he has now convinced himself of it. Eventually he will asked to appear on a television programme entitled Hypnosis Ruined My Life.

Hysteria – for example compulsive or uncontrollable giggling and occurs a lot in stage performances – is highly contagious and can spread among subjects like wildfire. Again, the simple solution is to send the affected person back as quickly as possible, thus isolating them from the rest of the group, or more accurately, isolating the rest of the group from them. Once a subject is back on familiar ground, any problems evaporate with a rapidity that borders on the miraculous. Again, and I don’t wish to labour the point, I am continually astonished by hypnotist’s lack of basic knowledge. I have heard proposals ranging from “tell her to shut up” to “give her a slap.” This is an indication of the standard of stage hypnotism in Britain today.

Hypnosis is a state of imagination, so what one minute is purely imaginary can, the next minute, suddenly become very real, and so there are a host of imaginary problems, many of them based on erroneous preconceived ideas, that all have the potential to become all too real and take on an disproportionate importance of their own. The imagination can run riot in hypnosis and a hypnotist needs to be fully aware of the potential pitfalls.

Any participants that do experience problems, even though they are relatively minor and unlikely to be long term, have no way of reporting their distress, and no one to report it to. Members of the public are unaware that stage hypnotists need licences.

In conclusion, the real problems of stage hypnosis fall into four main categories:

First, there is a lack of knowledge and insufficient training endemic in the business;

Second, is the gung-ho attitude of the majority of stage hypnotists;

Third are the problems associated with alcohol;

Finally, there is the problem of hypnotists ignoring the licensing rules.

To summarise, I passionately believe that hypnosis is safe if experienced in the right environment and under the right conditions. There is a world of difference between a hypnotist who performs in an appropriate environment, working with suitable material and appropriate safeguards, and a hypnotist who charges in where angels fear to tread.

I do not believe for a moment that banning stage hypnotism outright would amount to anything more than a rather draconian censorship, and it would be nigh on impossible to find Parliamentary time to introduce a new or updated Hypnotism Act.

I believe the solution is actually very simple. After the 1996 Home Office inquiry into stage hypnosis, a Circular was sent to the six hundred or so Licensing Authorities in England and Wales. The Circular (Home Office Circular No. 39/1996) continued to give local authorities the power to allow, regulate (but not ban outright) public demonstrations of hypnotism.

What is needed now, and as a matter of urgency, is an updated set of Model Conditions.

New Definitions of ‘Public Performance of Hypnotism’ and ‘Demonstration of Hypnosis’ should be introduced for the purposes of licensing. The definition should explain the difference between Performances of Hypnotism for entertainment purposes and Demonstrations of Hypnotism for scientific, clinical research or educational purposes. The definition should exclude any loopholes. Licensing Authorities should take into consideration the difference between a Performance of Hypnotism for entertainment purposes, which would require a licence, and a Demonstration of Hypnotism for medical or psychology students, which would not require a licence.

Further, there is an urgent need to close off loopholes which are endemic in the stage hypnosis business. In my view, and in the view of many psychologists (some of whom you have already heard today) the regulatory system, and therefore the licensing rules MUST be extended to those performers styling themselves, persuasionists, mind control experts, mind magicians, Tibetan mind control exponents, or whatever! [This definition would not include mentalists (the name Derren Brown springs to mind) who work with well understood magic tricks.]

In addition, I believe that licensing authorities should be empowered to carry out random alcohol tests on performers. I suspect there will be much resistance to this, as I can report that many stage hypnotists enjoy a drink or three both before and during shows. Again, this calls into question the standard of stage hypnosis in Britain! I don’t think at this stage there is any further need to illustrate the potential problems inebriation contributes to a hypnotists ability to manage his performance.

The licensing of entertainment hypnosis should be extended to private premises, such as British Legions, Working Men’s Clubs and holiday camps etc.

The hypnotist rather than the licensee of the premises should apply for the licence. Under the present system, it is the licensee of the venue that applies to the Local Authority for the Hypnotism Licence. Most licensees will have a relationship with the licensing division or the Licensing Committee. However, the practice of ‘rubber stamping’ applications should stop. The granting of a Hypnotism Licence should not be a bureaucratic exercise, but rather should concentrate on the suitability of the hypnotist as well as the venue.

A new and updated circular could give Local Authorities more power when it comes to deciding whether a particular venue was a suitable environment for stage hypnosis, using their unique local knowledge. Authorities could (and should) refuse licences in places known to be rowdy or in places where alcohol is the main attraction. This would obviously have the effect of stopping hypnosis shows in pubs, nightclubs and bars but should not affect theatres or public halls, where audiences are normally not allowed to take drinks into the auditorium and the environment is much more controlled. Theatre managers are more responsible than pub landlords and therefore the behaviour of hypnotists is more likely to be held in check.

The number of subjects taking part in a performance of stage hypnosis should be limited to a maximum of 10 in any performance, as it is impossible for the hypnotist to continually monitor the behaviour of large groups of people.

Subjects should not be kept in hypnosis for longer than a few minutes (say 10 minutes) at a time and should be given regular breaks during the performance.

ANY and all activities (including hypnotic and post-hypnotic suggestions) must only be carried out in the general performance area. This clause would exclude hypnotic ‘stunts’ carried out during intervals in the auditorium or in the bars or outside the general performance area. This again is a matter of common-sense and has obvious health and safety considerations.

The hypnotist should draw the audience’s attention to the fact that anyone who is pregnant, or who is under the supervision of any medical practitioner, such as a doctor or other health professional, including mental health professionals, should not volunteer to take part in the performance.

Subjects should be made aware that they have the right to withdraw from the performance at any time.

Any demonstrations of physical strength should continue to be banned, particularly catalepsy.

At present, some Local Authorities ask if the hypnotist is a member of a professional organisation. This, in my opinion, is a pointless exercise. Membership of any organisation pertaining to represent stage hypnotists is insufficient proof of the ability or responsibility of the hypnotist. Ideally, stage hypnotists should sit a written exam before being permitted even to apply for licences.

I would prefer to see some sort of formal qualification in psychology from a recognised British academic institution, such as an AS level qualification, diploma or degree in psychology. However, some would argue that the inclusion of such a condition would be too heavy handed. Therefore I am going to suggest that all stage hypnotists attend a one-day course, similar to the speed awareness courses offered to drivers. Proof of attendance should be the minimum requirement before licences can be granted. The Local Authority would then be able to satisfy themselves as to the suitability of the hypnotist applying for the licence.

It is my belief that the penalties for breaking the rules, particularly when it comes to performing unlicensed shows, should be more rigidly enforced.

There should be a complaints procedure set up whereby volunteers or other members of the public can seek redress for poor treatment. This could be in the form of a website set up by the Home Office, the address of which could appear on cards handed to subjects at the conclusion of a performance.

I hope by now it is clear that something needs to be done to protect not only members of the public, but the reputation of hypnosis in general.

I am going to distribute copies of this talk, together with some relevant source material during the break. In the meantime, I thank you for your attention and look forward to answering any questions during the break. Please feel free to ask.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2013. All rights reserved.