Was the Hypnosis in the Movie 'Now You See Me’ Real?

Now you see me castJuly 6, 2013, by Ben Schoeffler
I just got back from the new magician movie ‘Now You See Me’ starring Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo and Isla Fisher. The movie surrounds four slight of hand entertainers who come together to form a group called the Four Horsemen. In the movie, Woody Harrelson doesn’t play your standard magician, instead he plays a mentalist. A mentalist is someone who through the use of psychological tricks, observation of body language, and misdirection creates the illusion that he has supernatural powers. These can take the form of mind reading, prediction, or even mind control.

The really cool thing about this movie is although some of the magic was helped with a bit of CGI, all of the mentalism tricks that Woody Harrelson and the rest of the cast performed are completely legitimate. I’m going to break down one of the scenes that you will find in the movie that shows Woody actively performing mentalism. Most of the other scenes use variations on techniques that were performed in this first setup shot.

The Airport Scene Overview

In this scene Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson's character) is performing a scam on a couple at the airport (I think its an airport at least). He hypnotizes the woman, and then he uses mentalism to extract information from the man. The information he gathers is that the man is cheating on his wife with her sister, and he then blackmails the man to giving him $250 so his wife forgets what she heard.

Skills Utilized:

  • Hypnosis 
  • Speed/rapid inductions 
  • Mentalism 
  • Microgestures 
  • Body language

Scene Breakdown

The audience enters the scene with the woman becoming hypnotized. We see the tail end of a rapid induction being performed, specifically an arm-pull induction. In the movie this is done with a bit more roughness than what is typical, but hey, its a movie right? If you want to see a clip of someone going through an induction of this type, feel free to view this clip:

After the person is hypnotized Merritt then performs a few exercises to elicit hypnotic phenomenon and 'prove' the woman is really hypnotized. The woman finds that she can’t move from that spot, and that she can’t speak. Here is a clip of real life mentalist Derren Brown performing the same ‘stuck to the ground’ trick to a woman crossing the street:

After Merritt has the woman sufficiently hypnotized and stuck in place, he then turns to the man, his real target. This is where the mentalism bit comes in. Using a series of educated guesses, cold reading techniques, and barnum statements, he is able to deduce that the man went on a business trip recently that wasn’t really for "business". Merritt keeps interrogating the man and keeping an eye out for body language cues that suggest he is hiding something. He then quickly goes through the alphabet with the man and the camera zooms in on the mans face picking up his microgestures when the letter ‘J’ is mentioned. This process is continued until Merritt figures out that it is the wifes sister that the husband went on a business trip with, and the two of them obviously had an affair.

At this point the wife is livid, but being comically/hypnotically stuck to the floor and unable to speak, she can’t do anything about it. The man quickly realizes he’s in a pickle and this is when Merritt blackmails him. He says he can make his wife forget about everything that happened if he gives him a small sum (namely everything in his wallet!). The man agrees, and with a quick suggestion from Merritt, the wife forgets everything, is awoken from trance, and is told that she just isn’t hypnotizable. She then walks off in a slightly confused state with her now stressed out (and broke) husband.

Reality Check

Ok, a lot of stuff happened in that scene and all of it has a solid basis in reality. The arm pull induction is one used often, not only in hypnosis stage shows, but sometimes in clinical or medical work. Generally the arm-pull is much gentler like I mentioned before, but the technique that was shown in the movie was real.

So can a person be hypnotized that quickly and elicit that type of hypnotic phenomenon so convincingly in real life? Absolutely! Although that person would be called a somnambulist. A somnambulist is a person who is highly suggestible. These are people who are typically very creative, great learners, and comprises an estimated 10-15% of the population (this percentage varies on who you ask). They are often times the stars of hypnotic stage shows. If you go under hypnosis enough, you can actually train yourself to have some of the traits of a natural somnambulist.

The next question is, would this woman really forget something as devastating as her husband cheating? Yes, at least initially. The trouble with memory and trance is there is a feature of the human psyche called the “Hidden Observer”. This is a part of your mind that is always looking out for you, even if you are in a hypnotic trance. If you are curious about this, look up the experiments done by Ernest Hilgard.

The woman might forget the whole thing for the rest of her life, or because of this hidden observer, perhaps the knowledge of her husband cheating might manifest itself in other areas. Maybe she would become distrustful for no apparent reason, maybe she would start to dislike her sister, who knows. There is no real way to be sure, and the character Merritt isn’t really concerned with the longevity of his hypnotically induced amnesia, he really just wants the quick buck.

Could it Really Happen?

Could that scene in the airport happen in real life? Could there be hypnotic con-men out there looking to scam people out of money? The answer is a surprising, yes. The caveat to that affirmation is that it would be INCREDIBLY RARE. The stars aligned to give Merritt a somnambulistic subject with a husband that cheated on her. Merritt also asked exactly the right questions to withdraw the hidden secrets from the husband in a quick and efficient manner. All of this for a paltry sum: $250 bucks.

The amount of skill required to do this makes it a rare ability. The movie also doesn’t show the dozens of people his scam did NOT work on. With mentalism there is always a degree of error, errors that are usually overlooked because of the amazing successes. It would simply be much easier for a crook to hold up a couple with a weapon of some sort rather than train for years in hypnosis and mentalism. It does make for a great movie though!

Movies VS the Real World

In reality hypnosis is used all the time in the medical field as a complementary therapy. Although not as flashy as making someone become stuck to the floor, helping a patient in chronic pain can seem just as magical (especially if you are the one in pain!). Hypnosis can help with teeth grinding, quitting smoking, anxiety issues, insomnia, sports performance, or really anything that has a mental component to it.

If you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend you check out Now You See Me in theaters. It is a great movie, definitely one of my favorites. There aren’t many movies that feature hypnosis in them, and even fewer that are this entertaining!

Sleep hypnosis?

Although movies sometimes show people falling into coma-like states using hypnosis, if you have actual trouble sleeping then real life hypnosis is a good option. If you have insomnia, or if it takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night then you should take my sleep test at www.BrilliantSide.com which will help determine your sleep type. Utilizing that information you can use sleep hypnosis to help you fall asleep faster, and sleep deeper.