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We interview real-life hypnotherapist Yvonne Judge and discuss the portrayal of hypnosis in popular horror films; separating fact from fiction.

We have all seen our share of horror films involving hypnosis. We’ve seen the evil mesmerists of days of old. And we’ve seen the modern hypnotists using their skills to gain control of the patient’s mind to do heinous acts or unwillingly bring forth unknown or evil forces. Of course, this makes for an interesting storyline. But how much is factual, and how much is movie magic?

To find out, I sat down with a real hypnotherapist, Yvonne Judge, to explain some of the assumptions made in popular horror films and give her opinion on how hypnosis is portrayed in the genre.

1. Stir of Echoes (1999)

After being hypnotized, the main character in this film has ghostly visions. Have you ever done regressions and brought forth spirits or ghosts?

I loved this movie. Although abbreviated, it’s one of the more realistic versions of how someone does at least one style hypnosis that I’ve seen. It does, however, assume that the hypnotist has much more power than she would. I have done past life regressions. I’ve not brought forth ghosts, per se, but I’ve seen some interesting pasts. The most interesting seemed to be a pirate. It was a startle getting this sociopath brute as a past life from a small, sweet woman.

2. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

In this film, the young girl possessed in the first film (Regan MacNeil) has a therapist use regression to enter the spirit world. Can a hypnotist bring back past lives? What are the theories on that?

Many hypnotists do past life regressions, and there are many theories on how it works. Some people believe that they are actual lives that you have lived and that we encode all memory in the genes. Others believe that they are only stories your mind makes up while in the state. Either way, they can teach us a lot about ourselves, our hopes, fears, and the internal world.

3. Psycho (1960)

We all know this classic Hitchcock horror film. As a therapist, have you witnessed someone fully take on the identity of another person, like their mother — adopting the same dress, voice, and other characteristics?

I haven’t seen anyone adopt the persona of their mother. But I had a friend when I was younger who believed the ghost of her deceased best friend was haunting her. From time to time, she would “become” the friend and do things that she would not normally do. Now that I have a background as a therapist, I think this was a case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder) as opposed to a haunting, as the young woman had other mental health issues.

4. Hannibal (2001)

In the source material for this film, the original novel, Dr. Lecter hypnotizes Clarice to make her fall in love with him, and they run off together. Do the tenets of hypnosis make any of this possible? 

This is, by far, my favorite horror series. Hannibal is such a wonderfully complex character. Hypnosis is a powerful tool for learning. However, it does not make someone act against their nature or act in a way they don’t want to. The subject rejects the post-hypnotic suggestion. Something like this would best be achieved through brainwashing, which Hannibal had plenty of time to do with Clarice.

4. Dracula (various)

Legend says that Dracula (and all vampires in movie lore) can hypnotize his victims. Can a hypnotist entrance a person into compliance or lower someone’s resistance to harm, or reduce his or her ability to feel pain?

There is some truth here and some falsehoods as well. A hypnotist cannot entrance a person into complying with an act they would not normally do. However, hypnosis does provide for a great amount of control over the physical body when you have someone’s permission. I have used hypnosis to remove pain many times. Usually, the first thing you ask the subject to do is to turn the pain up a notch. This shows them that they have control over it. Then, when you ask them to turn it down, they realize it is within their control. However, if someone did not trust me enough to want to turn up the “pain dial”, it absolutely would not work.

6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)