Hypnosis in Literature

Hypnosis is often used as a tool in stories, to achieve things we can’t usually reach. However, many of the stories are of negative forces, horror and science fiction based.

One of the earliest mentions of hypnotism; back then still referred to as Mesmerism. It was a story by the American writer Edgar Allen Poe – The facts in the case of M. Valdemar. A fictional story but playing on the general anxieties of the Victorian obsession around dying. The story is about Ernest Valdemar, who was interested in finding out what would happen to a person hypnotised at the point of death. Placed in a hypnotic trance on his deathbed, friends, and doctors check in on him for seven months. All this time he appears to have no heartbeat, but his body has not decayed. When finally they try to revive him, his body turns into a decayed soup.


The image problem was confounded further when author and cartoonist George Du Maurier. The grandfather of the author Daphne published the story of Trilby in 1894. Trilby O’Ferrall, a poor artist’s model, was taken control by the evil genius Svengali. He hypnotises Trilby into becoming a great singer – a more sinister version of My Fair Lady! The story was made into a movie on several occasions over the past 100 years, including Derren Brown’s stage show titled Svengali in 2012.

Svengali was a character of his time. Long dark hair with a beard, piercing eyes and a German Jew. He was loosely based upon a Bohemian/French musician Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, who ran off with a married British opera singer in the late 1830s. Portrayals of him in movies makes him appear a cross between Fagin and Rasputin. The name Svengali today has come to refer to a person who, with evil intent, dominates, manipulates, and gets his way. It is also a fallacy, as although Hypnosis can help someone overcome stage fright. I doubt very much that hypnotising someone into singing pitch-perfect when they are tone-deaf is highly improbable.

What the Dickens?

Interestingly one of the most significant literary figures of the nineteenth century Charles Dickens had trained in Mesmerism, though never mentions it in any of his stories. Perhaps this is because he understood it and didn’t see it in the manipulative light as his American literary counterparts.

He was initially taught trance-inducing methods by John Elliotson, a leading professor of medicine at London’s University College. Elliotson was very much the sort of person Dickens was often drawn to; confident, theatrical and highly ambitious. Dickens’ use of Mesmerism wasn’t limited to family and friends. Indeed his wife Catherine was far from happy for Charles to practise on women, as he had a habit of becoming obsessed with them, to the detriment of their marriage.

His best known “client” was Madame Augusta De La Rue, who suffered from tics, headaches, insomnia and occasional convulsions. Very similar to the clients who later turned up in Vienna to see Freud. Dickens began treatment by placing Augusta in a trance and questioning her. Some trances brought back images of her brother, and others included a shady figure which terrified her.

One psychotic experience in a church in Rome haunted her for quite some time. As Dickens worked with Augusta, he developed deep anxiety himself and Catherine probably made it considerably worse, as she was fully aware of his infatuation. Dickens was deeply paranoid about bad reputation – after all, he was the epitome of a Victorian Family Man!

Dicken’s characters

Dickens’ characters are full of insights and sudden flashes of realisation that suddenly put the characters on a new path. Just as hypnotherapists might find their clients suddenly make a snap decision to do something positive and more fulfilling.

In a Christmas Carol, Dickens is allowing Scrooge to see his future unfold. If nothing changes, or if he does make a change, what the consequences will be – Powerful solution-focused ideas here, imagining the perfect future. Scrooge changed his ways, and everything changed for the better.

Mario and the Magician

With the advent of psychology developing in the late Nineteenth century, Hypnosis in literature went from one person having control over another, to one person controlling many. In the 1930 story “Mario and the Magician” German author Thomas Mann tells the story about a holiday to a fictional Italien holiday resort.

A family attend a stage hypnotist show by a magician named Cipolla. He uses his powers to control his audience. However, Mario, a native of the town, recognises the dangers and kills Cipolla. The whole story represents the rise of fascism and the manipulation of entire nations by figures such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.

Indeed, watching the way these leaders hold an audience on every word could be seen as mass hypnotism. They are repeating words and sentences over and over again and saying what the audience wants to hear. When a group of people feel disenfranchised, this kind of manipulation of them becomes easy to develop.

The Manchurian Candidate

The mass manipulation of the state turns into brainwashing troops to become killers is the Cold war story The Manchurian Candidate. It follows the story of an infantry platoon who are captured by an elite Soviet Commando unit during the Korean War. Taken to Manchuria, and brainwashed into believing their Sergeant Raymond Shaw had saved their lives in combat.

Years after the war Major Bennett Marco who headed the platoon starts having recurring nightmares — dreaming that the detachment appears to be surrounded by sweet little old ladies. One of the Ladies tells Shaw to murder two of his comrades. Marco discovers that another of the platoon has had the same reoccurring nightmare, so goes off to investigate why.

He discovers that the Communists have been using Shaw. The brainwashing included a post-hypnotic suggestion. Every time he saw “The queen of diamonds” in a card game, he would become an assassin. Shaw then promptly forgot about it, so he’d never be able to betray himself. The twist to the plot is that Shaw’s mother is a KGB handler. She has convinced the communists to help her get her husband to become the US president, where they can control the American government through him.

The film of the same name

They made a film of the book in 1962, with Frank Sinatra as Marco. This cold war era reflects the paranoia of the time and Hypnosis as brainwashing continues to be a theme over the next few decades.

The CIA developed a controversial program called MKUltra in 1953. They experimented on US and Canadian citizens, to see what was possible with mind control. The experiment included drugging with LSD, sensory deprivation, isolation, sleep deprivation and Hypnosis.[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKUltra]

False Memories

Back then, the belief that memories could be dug up from deep within our subconscious mind carried on from Freud. Research during the 1990s dispelled this belief when a study discovered “False Memories”. They are the result of suggestions made by the hypnotist. Today we use this idea to reframe our fears into a more positive picture.

Using Hypnosis to control another is, of course, a fallacy. A myth, perpetuated by the fear of others manipulating us. The same manipulation you find in advertising and politics, both back then and still now.