We first see Missy Armitage’s (played by Catherine Keener) eerie silver spoon spinning in a glass of iced tea, when the central characters of Get Out meet to discuss upcoming weekend plans and the smoking habits of the protagonist, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya). Missy, the mother of Chris’s girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), offers her services as a hypnotherapist to help cure Chris of his habit of smoking. He refuses.
Chris, however, unwittingly becomes hypnotized in a later conversation with Missy. This moment is the catalyst towards the horrific ordeal Chris later undergoes in the film.
So: Does hypnosis work Get Out-style, or is this just the trappings of a scary movie? The answer is both yes and no. Here’s what Get Out got wrong and got right about hypnosis.
You Can’t Be Tricked Into Hypnosis
In Get Out, Chris explicitly says, multiple times, that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized — yet proceeds to be hypnotized against his will. In real life that simply can’t happen, says John Kihlstrom, a University of California, Berkeley professor who researches and writes on hypnosis.
“You have to be willing to be hypnotized,” Kihlstrom tells Inverse. “Nothing happens in hypnosis without the subject’s active involvement. There’s no surreptitious hypnosis, except in movies.”
It Was a Lucky Guess That Chris Was Even Capable of Being Hypnotized
It’s also statistically unlikely that Chris would fall under the sway of hypnosis. Only about five to ten percent of people are considered “hypnotic virtuosos,” meaning that they are easily hypnotized. The bell curve, Kihlstrom says, applies to hypnosis with most people falling into the middle as at least moderately responsive to hypnosis. To get to that state, however, could take time and multiple sessions with a hypnotist.
Why some people are more likely to be hypnotized than others was a long-standing mystery. What hypnotizability comes down to, researchers believe, is activity within a person’s brain. In 2016, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers found that people who consistently scored high on tests of hypnotizability had distinct changes in the brain while they were hypnotized. There seemed to be a decrease in brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, an increase in the connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula, along with a decrease in connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network. These changes in functional activity in the brain suggest to researchers that when someone is hypnotized, there’s a disconnect between a person’s actions and how aware they are of those actions.
A Spinning Spoon Could Hypnotize Someone
The spoon that Missy uses in Get Out is known as a fixation device. This plays a role in the first stage of hypnosis, known as “hypnotic induction”: Once someone’s eyes are fixated on something, they are more likely to relax, making them more responsive to external instruction. While Kihlstrom hasn’t heard of someone using a spinning spoon before, he says that it makes sense in the context of stereotypical devices, like receding spirals and swinging pocket watches.
“The induction of hypnosis always begins with focused attention,” says Kihlstrom. “Usually, the subject is just asked to focus on the voice of the hypnotist. Watches, spirals, and — I suppose — stirring spoons are better visuals.”
Chris Didn’t Need to Re-live Painful Memories to Be Hypnotized
In Get Out, Chris is asked to think back to the day that his mother died — what he was doing, what his sensory memories were. In real life, it’s not the exact memory that is important for successful hypnosis so much as considering specific details.
“You don’t need memories to be ‘triggered,’ you just need the capacity to focus your attention,” Kihlstrom says. “I’ve never heard of subjects being asked to describe a memory before entering hypnosis. I don’t see how that can help, except to get the subject involved in an imaginative experience.”
While memories aren’t essential, it is common for hypnotists to offer “suggestions” that help guide the subject into altered states of consciousness, perception, and memory. What ultimately works is different for individuals, but the overall goal is to induce a sense of “reduced sensory acuity” whether that is a subdued sense of sight, sound, or tactile sensation.
The “Sunken Place” Is Real — At Least in Chris’s Mind
The “sunken place” in Get Out is terrifying: An endless, seemingly cosmic void where Chris is silently trapped. This presumably all happens within his consciousness as he loses control over his body. While the science says that Chris couldn’t have ended up in this state without willing hypnotization, it’s true that classic hypnosis is accompanied by convictions of the imagination. Kihlstrom writes in the journal Cortex that these border “on delusion, and feelings of involuntariness bordering on compulsion.” While scientists don’t have a robust sense of the exact mechanism that ignites these feelings, they do know that “it is this experience of involuntariness, not the vividness of mental images, that gives hypnotic experiences their hallucinatory quality.”
Hypnosis Isn’t Actually Scary
While the hypnosis in Get Out is straight up evil, hypnosis in real life can actually do a lot of good. Hypnosis is considered by institutions like the American Psychological Association as a “powerful and effective” therapeutic technique that helps people effectively quit bad habits like smoking (which happens in the movie), treat conditions like anxiety and mood disorders, and act as an adjunct to anesthesia in outpatient surgery.
“Hypnosis has always had a place in medicine and psychotherapy, and there is growing appreciation of its utility,” says Kihlstrom. “I think that hypnosis has pretty found implications for consciousness [as well], and may also help us to understand better the neural substrates of consciousness.”