The History of Stage Hypnosis: From The Ancient Days to Today
Updated: Feb 3
The history of stage hypnosis can be tracked back over 4000 years and beyond! What we now refer to as "hypnosis" has been found rooted in a variety of different cultures throughout time. From it's earliest incarnation as a tool for spiritual enlightenment and healing, to its modern-day uses as a form of entertainment and therapy, the history of stage hypnosis is not just complex, it is fascinating!
The Ancient Days
The earliest recorded use of hypnosis can be dated back to the ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations. Here it was used in a variety of spiritual and medical contexts such as the sleep or dream temples of ancient Egypt. Imhotep the Egyptian priest is the best example we have of a practicing hypnotist in this age. From the Egyptian sleep temples we move into the ancient Greece A Klines where Asclepios through the use of chanting "magical spells" would place people known as Seekers into a deep trance. Trance then was called "incubation" from the Latin words In cubare (to lie down). In this trance state, which could last days, is where the healing would take place. In these states the priests (hypnotists) would feed the person suggestions. Not just that though, ancient Greek priests were much more than hypnotists, they were keepers of ancient secrets and wisdoms. Using hypnosis, magics and medicinal herbs they were part shaman, part, priest, part psychologist, part pharmacist. These ancient Greeks could arguably be the very first physicians that resemble what we recognize as modern day Doctors! Fun fact, Asclepios's daughters Hygea and Panacea as well as the word A Kline are the origins of the medical terms Clinic, Hygiene, and Panacea!
This thread of ancient hypnosis continues to be found used by the ancient Hebrews, who through meditation, breathing and focus would achieve the state of Kavanah. As well, even the Romans adopted the use of sleep temples. One of which can still be viewed today in Gloucestershire!
The Early Days
Between 1780 and 1850, hypnosis began to gain wider recognition as a scientific phenomenon. The most remarkable of these works coming from Franz Mesmer and James Braid. Mesmer coining the term "mesmerism" and Braid coining the term "hypnosis". Until now hypnosis had been primarily used for healing, so it isn't until the mid to late 19th century where we find our first notable "stage" hypnotists! Our first being a British man named James Esdaile. Esdaile used hypnosis for anesthesia to perform over 300 surgeries in India during the 1840s and 1850s. The term "Esdaile State" is now also unfortunately known as the 'coma state' for this reason. Back then it could take days and even weeks to get someone into this state!
It was also around this time that hypnosis for entertainment rose in popularity. 1840 to 1850 saw a huge rise in interest for hypnosis as a form of entertainment. Unfortunately it wasn't long after that fraudulent hypnotists using "stooges" or "plants" (people paid to play along with the hypnotist) as well as questionable skits nearly killed the scene.
In the 1890s to early 1900s, "stage" hypnotists such as Braid and Clark Leonard Hull became popular "performers", touring the United States and Europe with their research of hypnotic phenomenon such as amnesia, pain reduction and anesthesia. Unfortunately as this type of "stage" hypnosis gained in popularity, it too faced criticism and controversy. The medical community in general questioned the authenticity of the hypnosis being performed. Others raised concerns about the safety and ethics on using hypnosis for entertainment.
The Modern Days
Despite the controversies however, stage hypnosis would not die. The 1940's saw a huge resurgence with the famous stage hypnotist Ormond McGill who first took stage hypnosis to television! From that moment, hypnosis became a mainstay and only gained in popularity from there. Today, hypnotists can be seen fairly regularly on television through variety shows, talent shows and even Ted Talks! With the rise of the internet and YouTube in particular, the interest in stage hypnosis and stage hypnotists are at an all time high!
Today, stage hypnosis has become a popular and safe form of family friendly entertainment around the world. Hypnotists can now be found performing in a vast array of venues for a wide range of different events. While the use of hypnosis for entertainment may always face some levels of criticism and skepticism, it remains a fascinating and intriguing spectacle for audiences of all ages. One thing is for sure; if you want an unrivaled and unforgettable show, get a professional stage hypnotist!
For more information on stage hypnosis check out the article on The 5 Most Common Myths About Stage Hypnosis: BUSTED!