STAGE HYPNOSIS AND HISTORY
One of the earliest narratives of the kind of hypnosis that is now used in stage hypnosis shows came from an account written in the late 1770s. A man named Abbé Bourgeois wrote an excited eyewitness account about seeing a famous priest in Europe, Johann Joseph Gassner, perform exorcisms.
Father Gassner was not deliberately attempting to entertain. He was exorcizing the demons from two nuns, who had been kicked out of their convent because they kept having convulsive fits. According to Bourgeois, one of the first things that Gassner did, after having each nun kneel down in front of him, was to ask if she “will agree that anything he would order should happen. She agreed.”
Then, to prove to the people watching that he had control over the demons purportedly possessing the nuns, Father Gassner “called forth in turn the…manifestations of grief, silliness, scrupulosity, anger, and so on, and even the appearance of death. All his orders were punctually executed.”
We recognize today that the cooperative nuns were actually in hypnosis. Stage hypnotists are well known for shifting people quickly from one emotion to another in the skits they conduct to entertain audiences.
It was wise of Gassner to get the nuns to agree to follow his instructions. In stage shows, hypnotists know that a major key to success is getting a verbal contract with the volunteers onstage, making sure that they will agree to do absolutely everything they are instructed to do!
I teach my clinical hypnotherapists to create a similar contract with their clients by saying something like, “To achieve the goals you want, all you need to do is follow my simple instructions exactly. Do you agree?”
This kind of contract isn’t about giving the hypnotist some kind of weird power over the client or about the hypnotist getting a rush from being a control freak; it is simply to ensure the compliance that is going to be necessary down the line so that the person being hypnotized will accept the suggestions s/he wants, for instance, that she become a non-smoker or that he is going to sleep more soundly at night.
Father Gassner had other factors working in his favor. To be successfully hypnotized, an individual must have at least one, and preferably more, of four attitudes towards the hypnotist:
- FEAR: They must fear him. (Most enlightened hypnotists don’t use that method any longer!)
- RAPPORT: They must really like him a lot. (The most common thing I hear when people complain about hypnosis not working for them is that they didn’t like their hypnotist.)
- RESPECT: They must respect him. (We don’t particularly have to like someone to admire what they do.)
- PRESTIGE: He must have prestige in their eyes. (This isn’t the kind of prestige that a person gets from wearing an expensive watch or belonging to the best country club. It refers to being elevated in the client’s eyes. Fame is one way to do this. Being acknowledged as an authority figure is another form of prestige.)
To get volunteers to comply with their demands, some stage hypnotists act mysterious and powerful; they combine fear with respect. Others tell jokes, act friendly, and work hard to establish rapport, getting their audiences to like them in a very short time. Still others rely merely on their reputation and fame: prestige.
We don’t know how personable Father Gassner was, but he certainly had prestige. He was very famous for his exorcisms. One imagines that the people he exorcised might also have felt more than a bit of fear, as well as respect!
During Gassner’s peak time, the 1770s, Europe was experiencing a shift from superstition into what is called the Enlightenment. People had (mostly) stopped hunting for witches to burn at the stake, but instead were embracing rational thought and science. Because of this, the belief in demons possessing people was not as popular as it had been in previous centuries. Thus, there was plenty of controversy surrounding Father Gassner’s cures. He was wildly popular with large numbers of people, but others vehemently opposed him.
Father Gassner’s detractors decided to investigate what was behind his cures. In those days, when someone was going to be investigated, a commission would be formed by a university or a group of scientists, much in the same way that current-day investigations in the USA are held by a Congressional committee.
Commissions were set up to investigate Father Gassner’s work, and the royals who were in power in Europe followed the findings of these commissions with great interest. They got someone very famous to testify. Franz Anton Mesmer, whom we know as the Father of Hypnotism and from whom we get the word mesmerize, appeared in front of one of those commissions in November, 1775. He demonstrated to the commissioners—again, in the same way stage hypnotists do today—how he could make someone’s convulsions appear and disappear in rapid succession simply by pointing a finger at him.
Mesmer said that no demonic possession was involved in this process; he was simply using a power he had newly discovered which he called “animal magnetism.” Mesmer claimed that Father Gassner was unconsciously using animal magnetism. Animal magnetism would later evolve into modern-day hypnosis, and today we would claim that both Gassner and Mesmer were unconsciously using hypnotism!
As a curious footnote, three years later in Paris, another commission was formed; this time it was to investigate Mesmer’s cures. This commission was headed by Benjamin Franklin. (They actually looked into the work of one of Mesmer’s students, as the great man managed to duck out of being investigated himself.) The commission wound up discrediting the work of Mesmer, much as he had attempted to discredit the work of Father Gassner, and concluded that all of Mesmer’s cures were due simply to "the power of suggestion”!
© 2014 by M. E. Raines, Academy for Professional Hypnosis Training
1. Ellenberger, H. F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.
2. Waterfield, Robin (2002). Hidden depths: the story of hypnosis. London: Macmillan.