Stage hypnosis lives in a strange middle ground between pseudoscience and the surreal.
Skeptics abound, detailing alleged trade secrets that performers use to trick the audience — including planting actors as participants and or whispering instructions into their ears.
Yet first-hand participants often recall a strange altered state in which they follow every instruction, and some have even criticized hypnotists for putting them in embarrassing situations.
Whether it’s placebo, trickery, meditation, manipulation or some other method, it’s a stage act that’s been around for more than a century.
Hypnotist Erick Kand took Ohio State students through that strange trip Monday night in a comedy hypnotism show sponsored by the Ohio Union Activities Board.
“This is the real deal,” OUAB president Matt Kolena said before Kand took the stage.
Kand attempted, both on and off the stage, to legitimize his work. He told the audience and participants beforehand that the act is nothing more than a “natural trance” akin to daydreaming or zoning out on the highway.
Much of the audience in the U.S. Bank Conference Theater in the Ohio Union was excited to volunteer to get on stage.
After getting the crowd warmed up with an elaborate mimicry of Simon Says, Kand picked out 20 volunteers from the audience and put them through gradually more demanding “tests” to obey his “suggestions.”
Simple tasks for participants, like closing their eyes or laughing, eventually turned into complex orchestrated improvisations. By the end of the show, his participants had pretended to walk on Mars, danced in a disco contest and taken phone calls from their favorite celebrities (substituting their own shoes for their phones).
The audience was in hysterics watching their friends they had come with get up and obey ridiculous commands, and most participants’ highly convincing behavior implied that they were fully engaged in the fantasy.
After the show, Kand reiterated that there was no trickery going on.
“It’s like a combination of emotional engagement and five beers,” he told The Lantern. “On one hand, if you have five beers, you lose your inhibition. Everyone’s the same way. If you see a cliffhanger or a car chase, and your palms are sweaty — it’s a trance state. You know it’s fake, but your emotions are engaged. That’s why the reactions are so strong, because they’re on a high of emotional engagement with less inhibitions than normal.”
Hypnosis is no sinister mind-control, Kand said. Participants are fully aware and in-control of their actions. All he does is loosen them up.
Kand said the people who do well at hypnosis are the ones most willing to be part of the act. People go through life passively letting their emotions control them. Hypnosis, he said, allows playing pretend to feel real.
“People let stuff happen to them but it’s like they’re not in charge of their emotional states,” he said. “There’s an art to it, there’s a lot of science to it still. All I am is a coach to ramp up emotional states very quickly.”
Before bringing his act to the stage, Kand said he ran a full-time hypnotherapy practice in San Diego. He specializes in weight-loss and stress management, according to his Linkedin page.
He said even then, he did some shows, but made it his full-time job when he moved to Florida.
David Lepera, a second-year in criminal justice, was one participant who also became the focal point of Kand’s final act — after getting all female participants to shout angrily in fake Japanese and the males to imitate Tarzan noises, Kand’s simple uttering of the word “lottery” was enough to get Lepera to jump out of his seat, grab the microphone and celebrate on stage, claiming he had won $5 million.
“It felt like I won the lottery,” Lepera said after the show and back in a more tranquil mindset. “One second, I was looking at him listening to people do Tarzan noises. I heard ‘lottery,’ and it just kicked up. I don’t know what it was, but it kicked up.”
Despite Kand’s insistence that participants were in full control of their actions, though their memories might be jaded, Lepera said he had a much different experience.
“I didn’t believe in hypnotism before, but I was open to the idea of it, and the minute I wasn’t able to open up my eyes, I was kind of just able to fall out,” he said. “I could tell you everything that happened, but it was like I couldn’t say no. It’s so confusing.”