At first, watching a hypnotist show feels like watching some unsuspecting stranger dance alone in front of their bathroom mirror. A single suggestion from the hypnotist, and everyone onstage jumps up, convinced they are being pinched by the person next to them. In another skit, a middle-aged woman proclaims she is Mae West.
Later, the hypnotist makes rounds with a microphone, asking everyone to tell him the secret they just learned. A dark haired teenager looks very distraught. “In 29 days, I’m going to fall into a hole,” he says.
The comedy of it all feels slightly unfair, like you’re laughing at people who can’t help themselves.
A year and a half ago, you couldn’t turn around in Salt Lake City without hitting a hypnotist, said Vincent Lords. He’s performed weekly hypnotist shows at the Avalon Theater for 19 months and running.
“A lot of people got caught up in the fervor … but they didn’t get proper training. They didn’t have any idea of the science behind it. You have to know what you’re doing up there,” Lords said.
Of the six that used to host shows, only two remain: Lords, who performs Saturday nights at the Avalon, and Clifford E., who recently took over Trolley Square Live’s show. You couldn’t keep a single weekly hypnotist show running in most cities Lords has visited—there’s no market for it. But, as in all things, Utah is different. In a place where sometimes there are precious few things available, a hypnotist show is an entertaining way to spend a Saturday night.
“You’re 17, what can you do?” Lords said.
Indeed, hypnotist shows market themselves to the 15-to-22-year-old crowd, and the herd of teenagers crowding into the Avalon’s lobby attests to the accuracy of this demographic.
The act begins before the show even starts. As the starting time grows closer, the techno music pounding from speakers around the stage grows slower, more relaxing. Strobe lights pulse. Bounding onto stage, Lords wears a silver jacket and addresses the audience (small tonight, only about 150 people) as Salt Lake City. He demands to know if they want to have fun tonight.
The goal is to get the audience relaxed, and used to following suggestions. “I tell people to raise their hands a lot … People that raise their hands are willing to do it onstage,” he said. Lords calls up any one who wants to be onstage, and offers to hypnotize the audience as well before the show really gets underway. During the two-hour performance, the stage often looks close to erupting into chaos. “I’m basically babysitting up there, making it look under control,” Lords said.
Nothing too extreme can happen onstage. This is a family show, and people will stop volunteering to be hypnotized if the potential for embarrassment gets too high. In fact, the majority of people onstage are doing nothing they wouldn’t do normally, given the right circumstances. There are different stages of hypnosis, and the stage version is usually very light. Many people up there are merely under heavy suggestion, meaning they are simply more open to suggestion than they normally would be, Lords said. A hypnotist cannot force you to do things you do not want to do.
But you may be much more willing. If a person is deep enough under hypnosis, Lords will give them an onion and tell them to eat it, it’s an apple. When they awake, the person remains convinced what they ate was an apple.
“In the moment of deep hypnosis, you honestly believe everything you are told,” Clifford E. said. Once while onstage, he told his participants a glass wall surrounded the stage. Everyone banged into the wall, as expected, but then he ended the show without fully bringing the people out of hypnosis. “Three guys got together to throw the chairs through the walls” not realizing the wall really didn’t exist. “Every other show something happens you don’t expect,” he said.
Anyone who has ever been hypnotized describes it differently. Clifford E. paints it as a division of the mind. Two people are within us, one that performs actions and says words, and the other that looks on.
“The second person is very passive. You do have a feeling of control, a sense of what the other part of you is doing and it seems OK,” Clifford E. said.
Many people go up onstage intending to prove they cannot be hypnotized. Ironically, these are some of the best subjects. Their powers of concentration allow them to go under easily.
Then there are those who try to fake it. You can tell by the look of a person’s eyes or muscles, the way their hands feel, what suggestions they follow. Sometimes the hypnotist just plays along, Clifford E. said, and sometimes he has the person slip off the stage. And from time to time in the Avalon’s show, participants do slip off the stage. But the majority remains where they are, willingly demonstrating their figure skating skills or stuttering as they try to remember their names.
Lords has about 150 different skits in his hypnotist’s repertoire. He’ll continue with the weekly shows at least until spring, but wants to leave while his audience is still coming. As it is, the old theater sometimes fills up completely. “We don’t really have to advertise. Ninety percent of advertising is word of mouth,” he said.
Trolley Square’s crowd is smaller and older—more young married couples than bored teenagers. However, Clifford E. feels confident the show will find its audience. Hypnotism feeds our collective curiosity, our drive to know what a person would willingly do with inhibitions removed. “People you think are shy become the stars of the show,” he said.