Warning: Contains Spoilers
I finally got to see the incredible Get Out.
I’ve been a big fan of Jordan Peele for years and was excited when I first saw the preview for this movie. But as the release grew nearer and I saw more, I began worrying. It was going to be another Hypnosis-Is-Mind-Control movie.
As a hypnotherapist, I already deal with a lot of confusion and fear around hypnosis, mostly from its misrepresentation in film and TV. (Stir of Echoes, Office Space, Shallow Hal, The Manchurian Candidate and, of course, the TV show Gotham each did its own damage.) Get Out looked to be another in a long line of movies getting things wrong and making my practice more difficult.
But Jordan Peele is the best. and I love scary movies. So I went in ready to enjoy the movie, with a critical eye open to the hypnosis aspects of it.
I’ll start by saying, I loved the movie. Well made and filled with terrific performances, it worked as both a horror movie and a social commentary, and richly deserves the almost 100% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating.
But I have to clear some things up about the hypnosis.
• What Is Hypnosis?
In Get Out, hypnosis is a coercion technique used to take control of someone’s body against their will. It is portrayed, as it often is in movies, as powerful mind control - swift and easy brain-washing.
What Actual Hypnotherapists Do: Hypnotherapy is the process of facilitating a highly focused learning state in which the subject is more open to accepting suggestions. “More suggestible,” as Missy Armitage so eerily says.
But, and this is important, it cannot work against the person’s will. I like to joke that it is “Mind Control,” but only so far as the therapist teaches you how to control your own mind. Neither I nor ANY hypnotist can make you do, say, or think anything you don't want to. If you don't want to stop smoking, no hypnotist can make you. If you know you should want to quit, but need help actually wanting it, a hypnotherapist can help you change your own mind.
Resistant clients are the bane of hypnotherapist’s lives (well, them and movies about hypnosis.) When a client comes in who is even slightly resistant, it makes the process much harder. If someone accidentally wanders into a hypnotherapist’s office and resolutely doesn't want to be hypnotized, there’s nothing the hypnotherapist can do other than ask him to leave. If you want help from a hypnotherapist, they can help you. If you don't want anything to do with them, just Nancy Reagan them and say "no." You'll be fine.
• The Magic Teacup Rises
About a half hour into the film, it is implied that Missy Armitage creates a hypnotic anchor first linking the sound of the teacup, to Chris Washington’s loss and pain around his mother’s death. She prods and pries to find his emotional vulnerability. When his mother’s death comes up, she zeroes in. And then the Magic Teacup appears (seemingly out of nowhere.)
Missy links the tea-stirring sound to that memory and the tapping of the teacup as a release. That anchor is used to help send Chris to the "Sunken Place" later that night.
When a specific state or memory is linked to a secondary experience such as a sound, gesture, scent, or melody, that secondary experience is called an “anchor” (cf, the game of solitaire in The Manchurian Candidate.) The anchor can later be used to trigger the memory or state to resurface.
This anchoring or linking process is a natural occurrence that happens all the time. You may associate a smell with your mother’s cooking and when you smell it, the emotions you have for your mother may be brought up without you being consciously aware that it was the smell that elicited the feelings. I’m sure you’ve had this experience with songs; you're having a lovely day and suddenly "Tainted Love" or "White Lines" starts playing and you feel awful, only realizing later that the song made you think of your prom. (And, yes, I realize I just gave away how old I am.)
What Actual Hypnotherapists Do: Anchors are commonly used in hypnotherapy. The hypnotherapist helps the client create a vivid scene of a time when the client was confident and at ease. The memory, real or imagined, is then associated (anchored) to a word or gesture so that, when desired, that confidence and comfort can be easily summoned. A crucial difference is that this is all done with the client’s cooperation and, often, conscious support. In the absence of agreement, the client would tend to reject the association of the events beyond simple operant conditioning such as is used to train dogs.
• Chris Goes DOWN!
The primary hypnotic induction (the first time Missy takes Chris into hypnosis and then the "Sunken Place”) happens quickly. Chris says he doesn’t want to be hypnotized; he doesn’t even want to come in and sit down. A few circles with the spoon later he’s sitting down and creating a full sensory memory complete with implied visual and auditory hallucination. He next experiences complete physical paralysis. And, BOOM, he’s in the Sunken Place! He goes down fast.
From a hypnotherapist’s point of view, the events that happen outside right before are important. Walter’s frightening and aggressive run (which has come to be known as the #GetOutChallenge,) and the odd behavior of Georgina in the window, leave Chris unsettled and off-balance. He enters the house, wanting to go to sleep, moving towards the comfort of bed. He finds Missy, whose authority as a successful psychiatrist has been established, waiting for him. All these things prime him to be ready to go into hypnosis.
But Chris repeatedly says, “No,” when asked to come in and sit down. This negation would make him incredibly difficult to hypnotize. So why did he sit down and why was Missy able to hypnotize him so fast?
Earlier in the film, after hitting a deer, Chris and Rose are questioned by a policeman. The cop asks for Chris’ I.D., despite the fact that Chris wasn’t driving and had nothing to do with the event. Chris quickly and amiably goes to hand it over. At many moments of the film, people say blatantly racist things to his face and he bites his tongue. The film makes it clear that, like many black men, Chris has already made a habit of saying yes and going along with white authorities for his own safety.
I believe Jordan Peele's intention was that it was not hypnosis and the power of a magic teacup, but rather this habit of acquiescing to white authority that Missy uses to take control of Chris.
The "Sunken Place" is where black people do nothing about white racism.
(T)hat’s how being black sometimes feels like. You can’t actually say what you want to say because you may lose your job and you’re paralyzed in your life. You know? You’re paralyzed in your life, you want to express an emotion, and then it comes out in rage elsewhere, because you internalized it, because you can’t live your truth... - Daniel Kaluuya about the Sunken Place.
It may seem to happen fast. But the habit was built up for most of Chris's life.
What Actual Hypnotherapists Do: I have a hard time imagining a successful hypnosis session beginning with someone being waylaid on his way to bed. Ideally, the client is the one who seeks out the therapy. Like most hypnotherapists, I require that my clients call me themselves to voluntarily set up their sessions, even if it was their mother or boyfriend who arranged it. I do this, not just to avoid controlling mothers and boyfriends, but because I know that you achieve better results when you choose to enter hypnosis and make changes. In fact, without that agreement, you are unlikely to be able to get ANY results.
Your sub-conscious is much more protective of you then movies give it credit for. It might listen to something crazy for a moment, but it also constantly evaluates what you are told and weighs it against your previous experiences.
Volition, wanting and choosing to do something, is what allows hypnosis to be effective. In stage hypnosis shows, the people who get up on stage have entered the performance space knowing people will get hypnotized. Some of those people volunteer to go up on stage. The volunteers have thus said “yes” twice before the hypnotist ever gets close to shouting “Sleep!” at them. If someone is dragged to a show and shoved up on stage, the hypnosis performer, if he’s smart, will send that guy back to his seat and focus the show on the audience member who was excited to jump up and get hypnotized.
Hypnotherapists do use authority and disorientation to make putting you into hypnosis easier. The diplomas on the wall, the receptionist, the books on the shelves, the noise-canceling device, all create an atmosphere of being in a professional place that is separate from normal every-day life. Most hypnotherapists I know use recliners that tilt back, because the physical experience of tilting back, while comfortable, literally unbalances you.
Even so, most hypnotherapists will intentionally take much more time with the primary induction. The experience sets the tone for future sessions. If the first induction is rushed, or the trance is too shallow, it means that additional time must be devoted in future sessions to deepening. If the primary induction is done well and the subject is taken into a deep state, future sessions can call back to that experience, saving time on all future sessions.
A rapid induction, such as Missy uses, may achieve some light immediate results, most useful for stage shows, but would require a lot of extra time and effort to take Chris deeper and implant the suggestions that are used to incapacitate him later.
Which brings me to…
• Magic Teacup Returns
After being sent to the “Sunken Place,” it only takes a few taps on the teacup and Chris falls right over. He is helpless to resist its gentle clink and, even as he shouts “no,” he collapses to the floor.
This power is entirely invested in the teacup, such that, when he confronts Missy late in the film, he has only to smash the cup from her grasp to prevent her from using any of her white voodoo on him. (Not the strain of cannabis; we're discussing a different "tea" here.)
Remember that earlier the teacup was linked to the memory and emotion of his mother’s death, not with collapsing unconscious. Presumably, this collapsing is one of the suggestions implanted in Chris while he’s away in the "Sunken Place."
Though we never hear ANY of the suggestions Missy implants, it seems as though the only two suggestions she made were “You will find cigarettes disgusting” and “Whenever I do my creepy teacup thang, you will drop into a deep hypnotic sleep. Stiff as a board, blah, blah, blah.” We don’t see any other effects.
What Actual Hypnotherapists Do: It is not uncommon for hypnotherapists to include a suggestion such as “Whenever you hear me say ‘Deep Sleep,’ for the purpose of hypnosis and with your permission, you will enter back into this state of hypnosis.” Such suggestions are called post-hypnotic suggestions to re-hypnosis and are useful both to help the client deepen their trance, and to save time in future sessions.
It is also fairly common to state that, upon entering hypnosis, “your body will relax.” This helps make the client more comfortable, though it rarely drops them to the floor.
Such suggestions are typically only done in the first session, serving to help make the second session easier and more time-efficient. We spend the slightly longer first session on getting the client in as deep as possible and then bringing them out. In subsequent sessions, the time can be spent on working out with the individual what suggestions may help them the most and using the time in hypnosis on those suggestions.
• “It was the way he said it.”
A few times in the film, Chris makes it clear that he listens to the meaning behind words more then the literal words themselves. The most blatant example is his description of why Walter was so creepy. “It wasn’t what he said. It was the way that he said it. Like a threat.”
Being good at hearing what lies behind what people say is a skill often developed by children of abuse. If you can sense when Daddy’s about to go into one of his smacking moods, you can better avoid, defuse and/or steel yourself. Similarly, I imagine that a black person in the United States would necessarily develop a better sense of implied meaning out of pure self-preservation. If I know whether or not a situation is about to get dangerous, I can better avoid, defuse and/or steel yourself.
Yet, when Missy hypnotizes Chris, all of her initial suggestions are direct commands. Chris’ sub-conscious knows when she invites him into her parlor, it’s a threat. I find it hard to believe in that situation, his sub-conscious mind would allow even a strongly anchored suggestion through, especially when it’s worded so directly. Chris sees through direct communication too easily.
What Actual Hypnotherapists Do: A key part of your first session with most hypnotherapists is what is called “personality testing.” We're not trying to find out where you fit on an MBTI chart; We're seeing whether you take information directly, or through inference. This testing is so elemental, it’s actually part of the legal definition of Hypnotherapist in the United States.
By knowing that you take information in directly, we can them give you direct suggestions and expect to see pretty rapid responses. Or, if you are more inferential, then we use different language to infer what we’re trying to achieve.
Interestingly, inferential people tend to not have the same immediate response as the direct learner. Given my reading of Chris as an strong inferred learner, achieving any dramatic reaction would have been very unusual.
• It's a Process
After much hypothesizing by Rod about black people being hypnotized into sexual slavery, it's revealed there's a surgical process that implants older white people's minds into the black person's body, trapping them the black person as a passenger in their own body.
When this plot point came up, I breathed a sigh of relief. Being locked in your own body while someone else controls it is both nightmarish and a terrific metaphor. I was just happy it wasn't all about hypnosis.
Hypnotherapy is about empowering people to make the changes in their life that they want to make. Good hypnotherapists will stay out of your mind and support you in the choices you make. If you find yourself unable to make some positive behavior change in yourself, a hypnotherapist might be able to help you.
NOTE: This blog assumes that trance and hypnosis are specific altered states. There is evidence pointing to the idea that this is only a metaphor, not a measurable fact. But that is a discussion for another time.