“Whether or not you fall into a trance while reading this book, the intellectual delight that comes from allowing yourself to surrender to it is reward enough. As in all of his work, Siegel challenges us to examine the infinite aspects of subjective reality more deeply than we could alone. He does so with wit, scholarship, passionate engagement, and, most of all, humor.” –Sheri Holman, author of Witches on the Road Tonight
Buy this book: Trance-Migrations
The Child’s Story
And now, if you dare, LOOK into the hypnotic eye! You cannot look away! You cannot look away! You cannot look away!
the great desmond in the hypnotic eye (1960)
I was eight years old when my mother was hypnotized by a sinister Hindu yogi. Yes, she was entranced by him, entirely under his control, and made do things she would never have done in her normal waking state. My father wasn’t there to protect her and there was nothing I, a mere child, could do about it. I vividly remember his turban and flowing robes, his strange voice, gliding gait, and those eerie eyes that widened to capture her mind. I heard his suggestive whispers—“Sleep Memsaab, sleep”—and saw his hand moving over her face in circular hypnotic passes. “Sleep, Memsaab.”
It’s true. I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes as I watched “The Unknown Terror,” an episode of the series Ramar of the Jungle, on television one evening in 1953. Playing the part of a teak plantation owner in India, my mother, the actress Noreen Nash, was vulnerable to the suggestions of the Hindu hypnotist they called Catrack. “ When the dawn comes,” he instructed her, “ You will take the rifle and go to the camp of the white Ramar. You will aim at his heart and fire.”
I watched as my mother, wearing a pith helmet, bush jacket, and jodhpur pants, rose from her cot, loaded her rifle, and then trudged in a somnambulistic trance, wooden and emotionless, through the jungle to Ramar’s tent. Since my mother, as far as I knew her at home, had no experience with firearms, I was not surprised that she missed her target. She dropped the rifle and disappeared back into the jungle.
Later on in the show, once again hypnotically entranced, she was led by Catrack to the edge of a cliff where the yogi declared, “ We are in great danger, Memsaab. The only way to escape is to jump off this cliff.” Just as my mother was about to leap to her death, Ramar arrived on the scene and fired his rifle into the air. The loud bang of the gunshot awakened her in the nick of time and caused Catrack to flee. Thanks to Ramar, my mother survived her adventures in India.
The seeds of my curiosity about hypnotism and an indelible association of it with an exotic, at once alluring and foreboding, India were sown in front of a television. At about the same time I saw my mother hypnotized and made to do terrible things by a yogi, I watched another nefarious Hindu hypnotist, Swami Talpar, played by Boris Karloff in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, try to take control of the feeble mind of Lou Costello. Both India and hypnosis were dangerous.
But then another old movie, Chandu the Magician, assured me that just as Indian hypnotism could be used for evil, so too it was a power that could be employed to overcome wickedness and serve the good of mankind. The film opened somewhere in India at night with a full moon casting eerie shadows on an ancient heathen temple as the American adventurer Frank Chandler bowed down before a dark-skinned, long-bearded Hindu priest in a white dhoti and matching turban. The Hindu swami addressed his acolyte in a deep echoic voice:
“In the years that thou hast dwelt among us, thou hast conquered the Atma of the spirit and, as one of the sacred company of the Yogi, thou hast been given the name Chandu. Thou hast attained thy reward by being endowed with the ancient Oriental magical power that the doctors of thy race call hypnotism. Thou shalt look into the eyes of men and they shall be as straw in thy hand. Thou shalt cause them to see what is not there even unto a gathering of twelve by twelve. To few, indeed, of thy race have the secrets of the Yogi been revealed. The world needs thee now. Go forth in strength and conquer the evil that threatens mankind.”
That India was the home of hypnotism was further confirmed by listening to my mother read Kipling to me at bedtime. We had moved on from The Jungle Book, read to me when I was about the same age as Mowgli, to Kim. And I imagined the hero of that story and I were the same age, as well. “Kim flung himself wholeheartedly upon the next turn of the wheel,” my mother began. “He would be a Sahib again for a while. . . .” and soon I’d yawn, blink, blink, and yawn again, feel the heaviness of my eyelids, heavier and heavier, more and more relaxed. I’d roll over, eyes closing, and soon be able to imagine that her voice might be Kim’s: “I think that Lurgan Sahib wishes to make me afraid,” she’d say he said. “And I am sure that that devil’s brat below the table wishes to see me afraid. This place is like a Wonder House.”
I’d picture the interior of Lurgan’s shop as vividly as if I were there and could see what Kim saw, focusing my attention on each of the objects, suggested one by one: “Turquoise and raw amber necklaces. Curiously packed incense-sticks in jars crusted over with raw garnets, devil-masks and a wall full of peacock-blue draperies . . . gilt figures of Buddha . . . tarnished silver belts . . . arms of all sorts and kinds . . . and a thousand other oddments.”
When, as commanded, Kim pitched the porous clay water jug that was on the table there to Lurgan, I saw it “falling short and crashing into bits and pieces.”
My mother reached over and lightly placed her hand on the back of my neck as Lurgan, in his attempt to hypnotize Kim, “laid one hand gently on the nape of his neck, stroked it twice or thrice, and whispered: ‘Look! It shall come to life again, piece by piece. First the big piece shall join itself to two others on the right and the left. Look!’ To save his life, Kim could not have turned his head. The light touch held him as in a vice, and his blood tingled pleasantly through him. There was one large piece of the jar where there had been three, and above them the shadowy outline of the entire vessel.”
“Look! It is coming into shape,” my mother whispered and “Look! It is coming into shape,” echoed Lurgan Sahib. Yes, it was coming into shape, all the shards of clay magically reforming the previously unbroken jug. I could see it. The words my mother read aloud to me were as hypnotic as the words uttered by Lurgan.
My childhood fascination with hypnosis was sustained by a school assignment to read Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, several of them—“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”—being about mesmerism, and the final story reaffirming an association of hypnosis with India. The main character goes into a trance in Virginia in which he has a vivid vision of Benares, a city to which he has never been, indicating that he had lived in India in a previous lifetime.
“Not only are Poe’s stories about hypnosis,” I grandly proclaimed in a book report I wrote in the seventh grade, “They are also written in a language that is very hypnotic, especially if they are read out loud.” Little did I suspect that that homework assignment would be prolusory to a book written more than half a century later.
When subsequently in the eighth grade I was required to prepare a project for the school science fair, I was determined to do mine on hypnosis as the only science, other than reproductive biology, in which I had much interest. The science teacher warned that it was a dangerous subject: “Hypnotism is widely used in schools in the Soviet Union to brainwash children so that they believe that Communism is good and that they must do whatever their dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, commands.”
Despite its abuse behind the Iron Curtain, I was determined to learn as much as I could about hypnosis. And so I ordered a book, Home Study Way to Hypnotic Practice, that I had seen advertised in a copy of Twitter magazine, a naughty-for-the-times pulp publication that I had discovered hidden in my uncle’s garage.
The ad promised that a mastery of hypnotism would enable me to control the minds of others, particularly the minds, and indeed the hearts, if not some other parts, of girls: “‘Look here’—Snap! Instantly her eyes close. She seems to be asleep but she isn’t. She’s in a hypnotic trance. A trance you put her into by saying secret words and snapping your fingers. Now she’s ready—ready and waiting to do as you command. She’ll follow your orders without question or hesitation. You’ll have her believing anything you suggest and doing whatever you want her to do. You’ ll be in control of her emotions: love, hate, laughter, tears, happy, sad. She’ ll be as putty in your hands.”
The winsome smiling girl with closed eyes in the advertisement reminded me of a classmate named Vickie Goldman, whose burgeoning breasts were often on my mind. I was naturally intrigued by the idea that by means of hypnotism those breasts might become as putty in my hands.
It was disappointing to discover in reading that book that a mastery of hypnotic techniques was much more complicated and tedious to learn than the ad for it had promised, and even more disheartening to learn that, in order to be hypnotized, Vickie would have to trust me and want to be hypnotized by me.
Another ad, in another copy of Twitter snatched from my uncle’s collection of girlie magazines, however, suggested that, by means of various apparatuses, I would be able to take control of her mind without her consent. All I’d have to do is say, “Look at this,” or “Listen to this.”
So, for the sake of having both a science project and as much control over Vickie Goldman’s emotions and behavior as Catrack had had over my mother’s, even as much power over her as Khrushchev had over children in the Soviet Union, I ordered the products advertised by the Hypnotic Aids and Supply Company: the Electronic Hypnotism Machine, the Electronic Metronome, the folding, pocket-sized Mechanical Hypnotist, and the 78-rpm Hypnotic Record. Because I was spending more than ten dollars on these devices, I also received the Amazing Hypno-Coin at no extra charge. My mother was willing to pay for these devices since I needed them for my science project.
I also purchased the book Oriental Hypnotism, “written in Calcutta India with the cooperation of Sadhu Satish Kumar,” because the yogi pictured in the ad reminded me of the one who had hypnotized my mother in Ramar of the Jungle. The text revealed that, by means of hypnosis, “the power of Maya,” Hindu yogis are able to “charm serpents, control women, and win the favor of men. Self-hypnosis gives the Hindus their amazing ability to lie down on beds of nails. And it is by means of mass hypnosis that their magicians have for thousands of years performed the legendary Indian Rope Trick.” I was familiar with the rope trick from seeing Chandu use his hypnotic power to cause “a gathering of twelve by twelve” to imagine they were seeing it performed.
My science project exhibit, HYPNOTISM EAST AND WEST IN THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE BY LEE SIEGEL, GRADE 8, featured a poster board mounted over a table upon which waved my Hypnotic Metronome and spun both the Hypnotic Spiral Disc of my Electronic Hypnotism Machine and side one of my Hypnotic Record. Over the eerie drone of Oriental music there was a monotonously rhythmic deep voice: “As you listen to these words your muscles will begin to relax, to become more and more relaxed, yes, very relaxed, and your eyelids will become heavy, yes, heavier and heavier, very, very heavy, very relaxed. Deeper and deeper, relaxed.” The words “relaxed,” “heavy,” and “deeper” were repeated over and over and then there was counting backward, then imagining going down, “deeper and deeper,” in an elevator, more counting backward, and finally, at the end of the record, right after “three, two, one,” came the crucial the hypnotic suggestion: “The next voice you hear will have complete control over your mind.”
That’s when I would to take over. That’s when, if the principal of our school, the judge of the projects in the fair, listened to the record, I’d command: “ You will award Lee Siegel the first-place blue ribbon for his science project.” And if Vickie would look and listen, that’s when my interest in hypnosis would really pay off: “ You will go behind the handball courts with Lee Siegel and there you will ask him to fondle your breasts.”
To intensify the hypnotic mystique of my project, I placed a warning sign by the Electronic Hypnotism Machine: Stare at the Spinning Disc at Your Own Risk. Lee Siegel will not be held responsible for any actions resulting from a loss of mental control.
Along with all of my puchases from the Hypnotic Aids Supply Company, I placed the Westclox pocket watch on a chain that my uncle had given me for my bar mitzvah.
I livened up the poster board with a photo labeled EAST: Sadhu Satish Kumar, Hindu Yogi Hypnotist, cut from Oriental Hypnotism side by side with a picture labeled WEST: Dr. Franz Mesmer, Father of Animal Magnetism, that I had clipped from the World Book Encyclopedia.
There was also a timeline beginning in 3000 bc (as estimated by Sadhu Satish Kumar) with “Indian Fakirs and Yogis” and ending “Sometime in the Future” with “Lee Siegel who has learned so much for this science fair project that he plans to become a professional hypnotist. After graduating from high school and college he will go both to India to study hypnotism with yogis and to Oxford University to study it with science professors.”
In between the ancient Hindu hypnotists and my future self were luminaries in the history of hypnosis as enumerated in the World Book Encyclopedia: Franz Mesmer (1734–1815), the Marquis de Puységur (1751– 1825), Abbé Faria (1756–1819), John Elliotson (1791–1868), James Braid (1795–1860), James Esdaile (1808–1859), Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1936). In order to make the list more acknowledging of India’s contributions to hypnosis I added Swami Catrack (1919–1953), Frank Chandler, a.k.a. Chandu (1932–), and Sadhu Satish Kumar (1928–). I also included The Amazing Kreskin (1935–) and William Kroger (1906–—), because, other than Catrack, Swami Talpar, Chandu, Lurgan, Satish Kumar, Nikita Khrushchev, and Sigmund Freud, they were the only hypnotists I had ever heard of. I knew that Sigmund Freud was a psychiatrist who thought that little boys were in love with their mother and that little girls wished they had a penis. I included Kroger, a gynecologist, avid proponent of medical hypnotherapeutics, and a friend my parents who occasionally visited our home, in the hope that he might, once I had shown him my science project, write a note on the official stationery of the International Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis of which he was president, something to be framed and included in my display, something like “Lee Siegel’s science project deserves a blue ribbon and should be sent on to the national competition, which it will certainly win.”
All he wrote, however, was: “ Young Siegel has done a good job in presenting a subject that deserves wider recognition and acceptance.”
Not having been awarded the first-place blue ribbon—or a ribbon of any other color, for that matter—for my science project, nor having been able to successfully use my hypnotic aids to turn Vickie—or any other girl—into putty in my hands, ready to follow my orders without question, my interest in hypnotism waned.
I don’t think I thought about hypnosis very much until a couple of years later when, in 1960, I happened see a horror film, The Hypnotic Eye, the movie, according to publicity posters, “that introduces HypnoMagic, the thrill you SEE and FEEL! It’s the amazing new audience sensation that makes YOU part of the show!” There were warnings that HypnoMagic could cause viewers of the film to actually become hypnotized: “Watch at your own risk!”
The movie was about a mysterious series of gruesome acts of self-mutilation by beautiful women, none of whom were able to remember why or how they had disfigured themselves, and all of whom, a detective, the hero of the film, discovered, just happened to have gone to a theater to see the stage hypnosis show of The Great Desmond. That each of them had been hypnotized during one of his performances caused the detective to suspect that the hypnotist might have been involved in the crimes. Consulting a criminal psychologist, he learned that, “ Yes, posthypnotic suggestion could indeed cause a woman to do things she would not otherwise consider doing.”
At one point in the film, during a performance of his stage show, the despotic Desmond held up something meant to resemble an eyeball flashing with light—the titular Hypnotic Eye! After daring his audience to stare into it, he turned to the camera and dared us, the audience in the movie theater, to do the same. The camera moved in closer and closer on the pulsating orb as, “deeper and deeper” was repeated again and again until soon, as commanded by the diabolical hypnotist, the members of his audience were lifting their arms and then lowering them. And then Desmond stared straight at us again and commanded us to do the same, and soon, together with the audience in the movie, we, the audience of the movie, were lifting our arms, then lowering them, again and again, until Desmond finally ordered us to stop and then, after counting from one to three, he snapped, “ Wake up!”
Although I don’t think I was actually hypnotized by the Great Desmond and don’t know how many members of the movie audience were, I felt compelled to go along with the show, to act as if I was in a trance, and do as I was told. That, I would suggest, is in and of itself a kind of hypnosis. Hypnosis, like listening intently to a story, is playing along with words.
At the very end of the movie, after the crimes had been solved and the evil hypnotist apprehended, the criminal psychologist addressed the viewers of the movie: “Hypnotism can be a valuable tool, helping humanity in many ways. But, just as it can be used to do good, so too, in the hands of unscrupulous practitioners, it can be used to perpetrate evil. We must be wary to maintain our safety because they can catch us anywhere, and at anytime.” He paused as the camera moved in for a close-up: “ Yes, even during a motion picture in a movie theater.” He winked, then smiled, and the screen faded to black.
I didn’t think much about the film until recently, when I began writing about hypnosis. I confess, although I should probably be ashamed to admit it, that this text has been stylistically inspired by the B movie gimmick. In the spirit of The Hypnotic Eye, the tales in this book that are meant to be read aloud to a cooperative listener are written with HypnoMagic, the thrill you SEE and FEEL! It’s the amazing literary sensation that makes the listener part of the story! But beware! HypnoMagic could cause listeners to actually become hypnotized and actually imagine that they are participants in the tales they hear.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 9-20 of Trance-Migrations: Stories of India, Tales of Hypnosis by Lee Siegel, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)