by Paul Ramsay

My phone rang this morning, and the caller ID said it was a colleague from the world of stage hypnosis.  I smiled as I answered, knowing that he always makes me laugh and something good was coming.  Boy, was I surprised.

"I had to call you because I'm so frustrated and angry, and I didn't know who else to talk to" he said.  I could tell by his tone that he was serious. 

"Lay it on me" I replied.

My colleague proceeded to tell me about how he had just gotten a booking at a comedy club, and that he went in person to go over the details with the manager.  They negotiated the fee and all the usual details, and then the manager said, "Will you be bringing your own people?" to which my colleague responded "What do you mean?"

"Well, the guy we used to use, he would bring his own people to be on stage at the show" said the manager.

This is known as using shills.  It's a practice that I really didn't think existed anymore, and I was shocked when my friend told me this story.  When I was first getting into the business, I read stories of this practice from the old, old days.  The shill, or stooge, sits in the audience as if they are a complete stranger, then volunteers to be in the show, and acts as if hypnotized the whole time.  I guess it's a sort of safety net for the hypnotist.  What it really is, is fraud.

One of the things that makes stage hypnotism unique, and challenging, is that you have to actually hypnotize people.  If you're a comedian, you stand on stage and tell your jokes.  Maybe folks laugh, maybe they don't.  If you're a magician, you do your tricks.  If you're a musician, you play your songs.  Hypnotists don't deliver the entertainment themselves; they facilitate it.  Volunteers are actually the stars of the show.  So a successful show is predicated on actually getting people into hypnosis.

I have had three times in my nine year career where I was unable to get anyone hypnotized to a deep enough level to use them in my show.  It's an awful feeling, but I would not let the fear of having to go through that experience put me in a position where I use stooges.  Never.  It's cheating, to me, and my integrity is everything.

When you work as a stage hypnotist, your primary job is to entertain people, but I believe you also have a responsibility to work ethically, to represent hypnotism in a positive way to the people in your audience.  I see every performance as a chance to open people's minds to the possibility that hypnosis could help them, that it's not just for entertainment.  To do this, I must show people the reality of how hypnosis works, which includes the reality that it doesn't always work for everyone on every occasion.

It saddens me to know that this other hypnotist is out there using shills, and some people know he is using shills, so he is contributing to the long-held belief of some that hypnosis isn't real.  It also disappoints me to know that people have paid their hard-earned money to watch a show that was really all a charade.  The whole situation tarnishes my profession, and I understand why my colleague was so upset.