B.G. Hilton – Writer

In Search Of… S02E17 Hypnosis

Damn I love this series. Last episode: swamp monster. Next episode: Troy. This episode: hypnosis. The modern successors of In Search Of… are multiple season shows, looking at a single subject — ‘aliens’, ‘ghosts’, ‘bigfoot’, whatever. In Search Of… flits around between different weird ideas between episodes, and different weird theories within the episodes. Just that way it piles idea upon idea is so impressive, that I’m willing to forgive the fact that so many of these ideas are pure nonsense.


Anyway, hypnosis. Got to be honest, I don’t know much about the subject. I know medical research into hypnosis has been on-again off-again for ages, but it really took a hit in the ’90s with all of that questionable ‘recovered memory’ stuff. My research for this review consisted of asking a doctor about hypnosis and being answered with a confused look and a shrug. I think that says it all.

An operating room with ‘a woman’s life… on the line’. She’s been hypnotised instead of anesthetised due to an allergy. We see the doctor hypnotising her, while Nimoy talks about her going to a ‘place with no pain’. Gentle harp music in the background. Then a sudden, deliberate cut to an actor playing a stocking-masked bandit waving a gun. The music becomes jarring. We’re told that the victim of the bandits was able to remember important details with the help of hypnosis.

All very important. The word ‘hypnosis’, tends to be associated with words like ‘calm’, ‘sleep’, ‘trance’, ‘dream’. These are nice words if you’re selling mattresses, but not good if you’re a TV producer. We need to associate this episode with ‘drama’, ‘fear’, ‘life and death situations’ — and so we’re looking at how hypnosis intersects with medical drama and crime stories.

A clip from the film Svengali (probably the 1934 version). The titular sinister hypnotist is shown hypnotising the heroine, Trilby O’Farrell. It’s very slow, monochrome, sinister. Another self-consciously ironic cut, this time to a tubby stage hypnotist making people act like chickens. Cut from this to Nimoy in the studio, who suggests we ignore sinister and frivolous accounts of hypnotism and look at it scientifically.

Now talking to Dr William Kroger, who Wikipedia tells me was a real doctor involved in real experimentation in medical hypnosis. He states his theory that hypnosis is a misdirection of attention rather than a trance.

Next up is Dr Ira Greenberg who hypnotises a bunch of people at once to make them remember things from their past. The creepy electronic music is carrying this scene, making a basically uninteresting segment seem weird and spooky. The sheer surprise of the hypnotic subjects at being able to remember things that happened to them is a little hard for me to follow. Possibly some key detail was omitted?

Dr Joseph Barbara hypnotises this ginger guy. Barbara is interested in hypnosis for pain control. It’s sort of interesting — but again I asked a doctor and she basically told me that it never caught on. Barbara shows a brainwave scan showing that the hypnotised guy’s brain is basically still working as usual. Nimoy claims that we don’t know what’s happening, but we can be assured that something is happening.

Dr Barbara jabs the guy with needles to show that he can apparently control bleeding from the puncture wound to an extent. Nimoy compares this to the power of ‘Eastern Yogis’.

Okay, so where are we going with… Doesn’t matter, we’re moving on. A quite long sequence about an extremely 1970s-y guy using hypnosis as an adjunct treatment for cancer. There’s a cooly weird sequence in which the guy re-enacts his own hypnotic vision of walking in his own lymphatic system. Did I mention I love this show? Anyway, he says he feels more confident and happy, and his cancer is gone. Nimoy asks ‘could it be’ that the hypnosis cured him? My non-expert opinion is: ‘maybe, I guess — but let’s be honest, almost certainly not.’

Back to the stage hypnotist for a minute, and then we’re talking about Franz Mesmer, the inventor of ‘animal magnetism’, a precursor to hypnotism. Nimoy claims he was driven from scientific circles by a group headed by Benjamin Franklin, which is kind of true but a serious oversimplification. But the point is the next interviewee Dr Ron Katz can talk about how his colleagues distrust hypnosis.

We see him hypnotising a woman going in for a mastectomy. The patient is quite positive about the experience. She was encouraged to imagine herself on the ski-fields and the montage of operation footage intercut with skiing is strangely charming.

Back with Dr Barbara, he talks about the hypnotic subject’s ability to fantasise more convincingly and to remember things that have been forgotten, accidentally putting his finger on just what the problem is with hypnotically recovered memories.

Now a crappy re-enactment of a cop tussling with a burglar, who shoots him. The cop is hypnotised and a police artist describes his assailant. This is illustrated with misty ‘flashback’ footage. The whole thing comes across as silly, and at least a little racist. His description lead to an arrest. A more senior cop points out that evidence obtained under hypnosis is admissible in court, but it is up to the jury as to how much credence it is given.

The music gets tense, as we talk to a rural bus driver whose bus was hijacked by bandits in stocking masks. Got to say: I have no idea why. This was the seventies, when hijacking planes for money was still a serious thing, and these clowns go for a bus? [Edit: I’ve been told this was actually a real, quite serious crime. More info below] Anyway, the driver’s memory of the event was confused by the trauma he suffered.

Dr Kroger claims that the brain stores all the information taken in by all the senses all the time, and it’s simply a question of accessing them. I don’t know much about the science of memory. Just enough to know that’s basically not true at all. Anyway, the bus driver was supposedly able to remember most of the license plates on the hijackers’ vans.

Gonna pause here. I’m honestly not that interested in whether hypnosis can or cannot allow someone to do that. What concerns me more is that the people who hijacked the bus already had vans. Not a van. Vans. Plural.

What was up with these idiots?

Next is an attempt to use hypnosis to help teach French. Give it up. English speakers simply cannot learn French. It’s just science. The filming is very arty, and the gentle music that accompanies it is pretty, which makes up for the fact that it’s otherwise kind of boring.

Nimoy pops up in the French class, and gives a summing up. The end.

Episodes like this really show what In Search Of… can do. It gives drama to what is just about the sleepiest subject imaginable. Clever use of photography, editing, and music give the impression of we’re watching something deeply interesting, rather than just peeking into a cul-de-sac of medical research.  It’s the show at its cleverest – just not necessarily at its most interesting.


A friend of mine suggested that the bus hijacking was the Chowchilla Hijacking of 1976, and the Wikipedia article certainly seems to confirm this. The bandits were kidnappers, attempting to ransom an entire bus full of schoolchildren. The children escaped unharmed due to the bravery and cleverness of the bus driver. Quite a serious crime, and one that I shouldn’t have made light of.

So I apologise for my foolishness, but I won’t remove the jokes. This series consists largely of me mocking things people said a long time ago and that, often, they are in no position to take back. As such, when I write something stupid myself, I think it only fair that I leave my own stupidity on display.


Nimoy: ‘Every day that passes, hypnosis is becoming a more important factor in our lives. What about fifty years from today? Possibly, we’ll find self-hypnosis being taught in schools for everyone to use motion pictures will become unnecessary, obsolete when compared with the vivid pictures in our own minds.’

Summing up

Music: 9/10, Nimoyness: 8/10, Editing: 8/10, Camerawork: 9/10, Memorable episode: 1/10. Overall: 35/50. Credit


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