The portrayal of hypnosis in films has fascinated audiences for decades, often leading to misconceptions and myths about this psychological phenomenon, and simultaneously driving people like myself mad. I thought I’d critically review a bunch of notable films featuring hypnosis, examining how these portrayals measure up against scientific understanding and clinical practice. By delving into the accuracy of these representations, I’m also aiming to dispel some common myths and provide a clearer picture of what hypnosis truly entails. I’ve not really written about hypnosis here a great deal in recent times, so I’m pleased to be doing so.

The Allure of Hypnosis in Cinema

Hypnosis in films, with the aura of mystery that surrounds it, suggesting it’s potential for deep psychological influence, has naturally been a popular subject to feature. Its depiction ranges from sinister mind control to it being a miraculous therapeutic tool. However, the cinematic portrayal often strays far from the scientific reality, leading to widespread misunderstandings and as I already said, frustrated professionals such as myself.

Early Depictions: “Svengali” and the Hypnotic Villain

One of the earliest and most influential portrayals of hypnosis in films is found in “Svengali” (1931), a film I discuss in my classes, where the title character uses hypnosis to control and manipulate the innocent Trilby. This film set a precedent for depicting hypnotists as malevolent figures wielding hypnosis for nefarious purposes. As noted in Barrett’s extensive review of hypnosis in film, “when a hypnotist appears on screen, expect evil“​​.

The hypnotic inductions in “Svengali” and similar films often involve dramatic eye-staring and hand movements, techniques that have some small foundations in reality, but perhaps wouldn’t end up being used in the same way in a real-life clinical environment. Modern hypnosis relies on more subtle and scientifically validated methods such as eye-fixation and focused attention​ and too much drama can distract accordingly​.

Hypnosis as a Tool for Crime: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) presents another early example where hypnosis in films is used to compel individuals to commit crimes. Dr. Caligari controls his somnambulist to carry out murders, reinforcing the trope of the hypnotist as a sinister puppet master. This portrayal is not only inaccurate but also perpetuates the myth that hypnosis can make people act against their moral values.

Research indicates that while hypnosis can enhance suggestibility, it cannot compel individuals to perform actions that are fundamentally against their ethical beliefs or values​, regardless of what you may have seen in a Derren Brown TV special​.

Therapeutic Hypnosis: “The Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil”

I absolutely loved the film “Donnie Darko”, some of it’s time twisting sci-fi notions were just my cup of tea, but the classic Hollywood styled clinical hypnosis sessions weren’t very accurate “3.. 2… 1…” click of the fingers, and you are there in a different time and place!

On a more positive note, films like “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957) and “Sybil” (1976) explore the use of hypnosis in clinical settings, particularly in treating dissociative identity disorder. Which is probably contraindicated to be honest, but that’s a discussion for another day…. These films are still more aligned with clinical practice, showing hypnosis as a tool to access repressed memories and integrate different aspects of the self. Some of which stands up to scientific scrutiny, some of it doesn’t, and some of it remains open to ethical discussion as I’ve charted in a wide number of articles about using hypnosis for regression in the past.

However, even these films tend to dramatise the process and outcomes of hypnosis. In reality, therapeutic hypnosis is a collaborative process between the therapist and the patient, often requiring multiple sessions and integrating various therapeutic techniques​​.

Hypnosis and Memory: “Dead Again” and “K-PAX”

“Dead Again” (1991) and “K-PAX” (2001) both feature hypnosis in films as a means to recover lost or repressed memories. In “Dead Again,” hypnosis uncovers past life memories that drive the plot, while “K-PAX” uses hypnosis to reveal traumatic experiences that shape the protagonist’s belief in being an alien. You can watch this video where I give my thoughts and discuss the science behind past-life regression.

While hypnosis might aid in memory recall due to relaxing the individual and helping them free their mind of distractions while allowing the brain to reconstruct the memory, it is not infallible and can sometimes lead to the creation of false memories. Research has shown that hypnosis can increase the vividness and confidence in recalled memories, but these memories are not necessarily accurate​​. This phenomenon, known as memory suggestibility, highlights the need for careful and ethical use of hypnosis in therapeutic settings​​. Read more of my critique about hypnosis and regression in this article here.

Misconceptions in Popular Films: “Shallow Hal” and “Curse of the Jade Scorpion”

“Shallow Hal” (2001) uses hypnosis to make the protagonist perceive inner beauty rather than physical appearance. Tony Robbins, playing himself, hypnotises Hal with an exaggerated induction, suggesting that hypnosis can drastically alter perception in an almost magical way.

Similarly, “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001) portrays hypnosis as an infallible tool for mind control, where Woody Allen’s character is hypnotised to commit thefts. Both films contribute to the myth that hypnosis can easily and completely override a person’s will and perception. In the very funny film “Office Space” the hypnotist actually passes away during the hypnosis session, leaving life-changing effects in the recipient who creates a work-related revolution for himself and his colleagues.

In reality, hypnosis can influence perception and behaviour, but it is not a magical tool that can control minds effortlessly. The effects of hypnosis are more nuanced and depend significantly on the individual’s responsiveness and the context in which hypnosis is applied​​. Hypnosis in films doesn’t tend to get portrayed like that!

Positive and Realistic Depictions: “Equus” and “Stir of Echoes”

“Equus” (1977) provides one of the more realistic portrayals of hypnosis, depicting it as a tool used by a psychiatrist to explore the protagonist’s traumatic experiences. The film shows hypnosis as part of a broader therapeutic process, emphasising its role in helping patients confront and understand their inner conflicts.

“Stir of Echoes” (1999) also offers a relatively accurate depiction of the subjective experience of hypnosis. The film uses visual metaphors to represent an ‘altered state of consciousness’ induced by hypnosis, capturing the essence of how hypnosis can alter perception and memory. However, hypnosis is still portrayed very much as an altered state rather than as a cognitive skill which more academic research tends to support these days.

These films, while not entirely free from dramatisation, offered a more balanced view of hypnosis, highlighting its therapeutic potential without resorting to the usual clichés of mind control and manipulation​​.

Scientific Perspectives and Research

Scientific research supports the view that hypnosis can be a valuable tool in therapy, particularly for pain management, anxiety reduction, and habit control. A meta-analysis by Montgomery et al. (2000) found that hypnosis can significantly reduce pain and distress in patients undergoing medical procedures.

Another study by Jensen et al. (2011) demonstrated the efficacy of hypnosis in managing chronic pain, showing that hypnotic interventions can lead to significant improvements in pain perception and quality of life. These two findings highlight the potential of hypnosis as a complementary therapy in various clinical settings and stand out as two really robust studies, but there are a great deal more to be found, as can be seen in this article I wrote about hypnosis as an empirically supported treatment a number of years ago, for example.

Quotes from Experts

Hypnosis, when used ethically and correctly, can be a powerful tool for facilitating positive change. However, it is crucial to distinguish between the scientific practice of hypnosis and its sensationalized portrayals in popular media.” – Dr. Deirdre Barrett, Harvard Medical School​​.

The therapeutic benefits of hypnosis are well-documented in clinical research, yet public perception is often skewed by its dramatic and unrealistic portrayals in films. Education and accurate representation are key to changing these misconceptions.” – Dr. Steven Jay Lynn, Binghamton University.

Conclusion

The depiction of hypnosis in films has long been a mix of fascination, fear, and fantasy. I could have written about so many more films and more of the misconceptions contained therein. While these portrayals sometimes make for compelling cinema (perhaps not the Ben Affleck movie “Hypnotic”), they often perpetuate myths and misconceptions about the nature and capabilities of hypnosis. By critically examining these films and comparing them to scientific research, we can better understand the gap between cinematic fiction and clinical reality.

Hypnosis is a complex and nuanced psychological phenomenon that, when used appropriately, can offer significant therapeutic benefits. WOuldn’t it be great if filmmakers and audiences approached hypnosis with a more informed and balanced perspective, recognising its potential while dispelling the myths that have long surrounded it?

References


Barrett, D. (2006). Hypnosis in Film and Television. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 49(1), 22-27.

Montgomery, G. H., David, D., Winkel, G., Silverstein, J. H., & Bovbjerg, D. H. (2000). The effectiveness of adjunctive hypnosis with surgical patients: A meta-analysis. Anesthesia & Analgesia, 91(6), 1639-1645.

Jensen, M. P., Patterson, D. R., & Montgomery, G. H. (2011). Hypnosis for the relief of chronic pain. In J. J. Bonica (Ed.), Bonica’s Management of Pain (4th ed., pp. 1577-1589). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Lynn, S. J., & Kirsch, I. (2008). Essentials of Clinical Hypnosis: An Evidence-Based Approach. American Psychological Association.

By exploring these themes and films, we can begin to appreciate the true potential of hypnosis beyond the dramatic and often misleading portrayals found in popular media.

Has this article about hypnosis in films piqued your interest in this field? Then have a read of these pages:

  1. Would you like a satisfying and meaningful career as a hypnotherapist helping others? Are you a hypnotherapist looking for stimulating and career enhancing continued professional development and advanced studes? Explore the pages of this website. Adam Eason’s Anglo European training college.
  2. Would you like to learn self-hypnosis skills to apply to your own life? If you’d like to learn more about self-hypnosis, understand the evidence based principles of it from a scientific perspective and learn how to apply it to many areas of your life while having fun and in a safe environment and have the opportunity to test everything you learn, then come and join me for my one day seminar which does all that and more, have a read here: The Science of Self-Hypnosis Seminar. Alternatively, go grab a copy of my Science of self-hypnosis book.