Regular readers of my blog may remember that my first academically published papers were on hypnosis (as I recounted in a previous blog I did on hypnofetishism). Consequently, I’ve always had a passing interest in stage hypnotism although some of those that I’ve seen sail close to the wind in terms of their ethics. In fact the following online query raised some of the sort of questions I have often asked myself when watching such shows:
“My in-laws recently attended an ‘adults only’ hypnotist show in Las Vegas. The hypnotist selected audience members to be hypnotized. I’m sure you all know the drill here. The selected individuals did all sorts of sexual (or inferred sexual acts) from masturbating a teddy bear to having an orgasm when another sneezes…Is it ethical? Is it a form of abuse if these people were not in full control of their capacities? I would think in this day of lawsuit happy lawyers a participant could easily sue a hypnotist for ‘suggesting’ this type of behavior”
Over the last few years there have been a number of high profile stories about ‘X-rated’ stage hypnotists. For instance, in 2012, Colin Adamson’s “raunchy hypnosis show” was banned for being “too rude” by the University of Kent’s student union after the hypnotist got his participants to simulate sex acts and lap dances on stage. Some of those on stage were made to believe they were having orgasms while others simulated masturbation. One of the women that was hypnotized into believing she had been touched indecently by someone watching the show and was left ”too upset to speak”. Sadaeva president of the University of Kent Feminist Society was “disgusted” and was quoted as saying: “[Adamson] shows a lack of empathy towards rape victims and all women, and a lack of basic human decency – he has no place at a student union”.
One infamous case of problems with someone that participated in stage hypnotism was recounted by Dr. Michael Heap in a 2000 issue of the journal Contemporary Hypnosis (as well as on his own website). Heap was an expert witness for the defendant in a case he calls ‘Norman versus Byrnes’ (Mr. Byrnes was the defendant, the stage hypnotist; Mr. Norman, the plaintiff was the person on stage under hypnosis). Dr. Heap began by briefly reviewing the main issues:
“Mr. Norman’s story is that on Wednesday June 30th 1993, he took part in Mr. Byrnes’s stage hypnosis show at a hotel. At some point in the show Mr. Byrnes offered to help Mr. Norman give up smoking. Amongst other things, he gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion that from now on cigarettes would taste foul. Towards the end of the performance Mr. Byrnes suggested to his volunteers that as they were sitting in their chairs they would feel more and more sexy. He then hit his microphone repeatedly calling out ’10 times more sexy’, ’20 times more sexy’…..and so on. Mr. Norman seemed to become carried away; he stood up and made thrusting movements at the chair. Mr. Byrnes then suggested to the participants that when they went to bed that night they would feel even 50 times more sexy than they did then. Mr. and Mrs. Norman both confirmed that when they went to bed that night, as soon as Mr. Norman laid down on the mattress he started shaking violently and bouncing up and down. Mr. Norman claimed that he was having sexual intercourse with the mattress and that indeed he did find the mattress sexually attractive. Thus he continued simulating intercourse with the mattress and the other contents of his bed, with the exception of his wife”.
Mr. Norman had sex with his hotel bedroom furniture for about four hours (1am to 5am). When Mr. Norman stopped at one point to smoke a cigarette he became violently sick. On resuming his furniture sex, Mrs. Norman managed to stop the activity by blowing cigarette smoke into her husband’s face. Over the following days, Mr. Norman’s sexual urges diminished during the day but the uncontrollable urge to have sex with the furniture and other domestic appliances came back each night in the hotel room. Mr. Norman and his wife reported that the objects that became sexually attractive included all the bed’s contents, the hotel ceiling, a variety of ornaments in the hotel room, the room’s armchair, the hotel bath, and a tumble dryer. Dr. Heap then reported:
“On Monday, five days after her husband’s stage hypnosis experience, Mrs. Norman went to see a lawyer; on Wednesday Mr. Norman went to see his doctor. He was prescribed antidepressants and several days later his doctor ‘performed hypnotherapy on him to remove the post-hypnotic suggestion’ and this appeared to be successful. However, about three weeks later he was referred to a psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas, with ‘depression and delusions’ and violent behaviour. Dr. Thomas saw Mr. Norman on October 18th…Dr. Thomas ascribed Mr. Norman’s problems to Mr. Byrnes’s failure to take him ‘out of the hypnotic trance’…Things appeared to go quiet, and Mr. Norman did not receive any medication or treatment for these problems until four months later…Mr. Norman continued to present with a bewildering array of mental symptoms variously diagnosed as dissociative state, hypomania, hysteria, Ganser’s syndrome, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid psychosis and schizo-affective disorder”.
Mr. Norman’s legal team then secured the services of a consultant psychiatrist Dr. James, who was former official of the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis. Dr. James then made a number of allegations of negligence against Byrnes (e.g., Byrnes didn’t establish what the exact counter-suggestion should have been to dispel the post-hypnotic suggestion). Dr. Heap then claimed:
“When I consider these serious allegations against Mr. Byrnes, I cannot help hearing in my mind the music ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. Dr. James casts Mr. Byrnes in the role of an inept would-be wizard whose task, under the stern eye of a properly qualified master wizard, is to discover the best counter-spell or incantation that would lift the evil curse with which he had previously inadvertently bewitched Mr. Norman…This case came to trial in September 1997. I sat in Court every day…but on the fifth day, long before the defence had opened its case, the trial collapsed. Mr. Norman’s financial backer withdrew, his legal aid having already been rescinded. The reason for the latter was as follows: had Mr. Norman won his case, the compensation that he would have received would have been claimed back by the state to offset the considerable welfare and sickness benefits he had received while indisposed. Thus he would have been financially no better off and legal aid is not granted when such is the case”.
Dr. Heap was under the view that Mr. Norman was “clearly malingering in his claims to have been afflicted with his unusual sexual compulsions”. Heap claimed that there were grounds for considering Norman’s symptoms as a factitious disorder (like Munchausen’s Syndrome).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Heap, M. (2000). A legal case of a man complaining of an extraordinary sexual disorder following stage hypnosis. Contemporary Hypnosis, 17(3), 143-149.
Heap, M. (2001). Some stories about hypnosis. The Skeptical Intelligencer, 3(4), 29-35
Heap, M. (2014). Some stories about hypnosis. Located at: http://www.mheap.com/hypnosis.html