Netflix’s scariest sci-fi thriller of 2021 reveals a controversial abuse of science
Hypnotic turns hypnotherapy into sci-fi chills, but the truth is more complicated.
Reeling from a recent breakup and in between jobs, Jenn Thompson is struggling.
Her best friend, Gina, recommends Jenn try out her therapist, Dr. Collin Meade, who practices hypnotherapy to help clients deal with personal issues in their lives. As Dr. Meade implies, it’s a practice that could change your life, for the better...or for much worse.
At least, that’s what Hypnotic — the science-inspired new thriller on Netflix — tells us about hypnotherapy. But is the movie’s dramatic portrayal an accurate reflection of hypnosis in the slightest, or does the film do a disservice to the real benefits of hypnotherapy?
According to certified clinical hypnotherapist Liza Boubari, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
“Hypnosis is nothing but a profound state of being,” Liza Boubari tells Inverse. “What we do is awaken them to everything.”
To explain the science behind hypnosis, we spoke to Boubari to debunk the myths about this often misunderstood practice. Mild spoilers ahead for Hypnotic.
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What is hypnotherapy?
“Hypnotherapy is doing therapy through utilizing aspects of hypnosis,” Boubari says. “What we do is take a client to a deeper state of relaxation.”
The deeper state of relaxation helps clients “tap into their subconscious mind” and “recognize patterns, habits and behaviors” that may be affecting their life.
She adds, “In between the conscious and the subconscious mind we have the “critical factor,” which analyzes and judges, criticizes, and reasons.”
According to Boubari, here’s what typically happens during hypnotherapy:
- A patient sits or lies down in a recliner or seat
- The therapist guides the client into a state of deep relaxation.
- In this state, the client is able to bypass the “critical factor,” allowing them to “rewind to another time in a place where they can remember certain patterns, behaviors and habits” that may be at the root of issues they are experiencing today.
- The client is able to recall these behaviors without emotions, providing an opportunity to modify these behaviors.
- The client incorporates the new pattern or behavior into their subconscious mind, which then becomes accepted by their conscious mind.
“Clients, after having a session, they feel a sense of light and a profound, deep state of relaxation,” Boubari says.
While most hypnotherapists have good intentions, you also need to be wary of charlatans who are unlicensed or have bad intentions. You can find certified therapists in your areas through the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners, the American Psychological Association, or Psychology Today.
“It behooves every single client who wants to go to a hypnotherapist to have referrals, to check everything, or have testimonials,” Boubari says, though as Hypnotic suggests, that may not be enough to protect yourself from a bad actor.
Is what happens in Hypnotic realistic?
The basic premise of Hypnotic matches up with the science of hypnotherapy, but it starts to fall apart later on as the movie becomes increasingly absurd.
A hypnotherapist, Dr. Meade, conducts multiple sessions, building a rapport with his client, Jenn and guiding her into a deeper state of relaxation. In doing so, Jenn taps into her subconscious and learns ways to modify her behavior to improve her mood and her life.
Jenn has generalized anxiety, and numerous scientific studies have shown how hypnotherapy can alleviate anxiety, depression, and other mental concerns.
As the American Psychological Association writes: “Hypnosis is a therapeutic technique in which clinicians make suggestions to individuals who have undergone a procedure designed to relax them and focus their minds.”
Some people are more susceptible to the suggestive powers of hypnosis than others. To test a person’s hypnotizability, hypnotherapists use well-known guidelines, such as the Harvard, Stanford, Elkins Hypnotizability Scale or the Hypnotic Induction Profile.
But when the movie’s second act begins, it stretches plausibility, becoming less hypnotherapy and more Hollywood.
Hypnosis is “like a sleep state, and yet you're not asleep,” Boubari says. “You hear everything and you can respond to the therapist at all times.” (Fun fact: hypnosis has its roots in the word “hypnos,” which refers to the Greek god of sleep).
That’s not the case in Hypnotic, where there are long periods of time when Jenn appears to forget everything that happened during her hypnotherapy sessions. Instead, she recalls these memories in disturbing dreams later on.
In hypnosis, the client is “more in control than not” and can leave at any time, according to Boubari.
“They just open their eyes and say, ‘Okay, I'm done. They can bring themselves out of hypnosis at any time,” she explains.
“The intention of the therapist is what matters the most.”
But in Hypnotic, Jenn is totally lacking in control for most of the movie. Dr. Meade compels Jenn to do things against her will, even nearly harming her loved ones.
“The intention of the therapist is what matters the most,” Boubari says. If there has been a rapport established between the client and therapist over multiple sessions, it’s possible that the trust could be manipulated, allowing the therapist to suggest something that’s not in the client’s best interest.
“She has started taking those suggestions” from the therapist in previous sessions, so when Dr. Meade switches things up and offers “a different suggestion,” Jenn is still susceptible to his suggestion — however harmful.
But eventually, Jenn leaves the state of hypnosis in time to prevent herself from causing severe harm to herself and others.
“She comes to full awakeness because it goes against her ethics and morals, core beliefs,” Boubari explains.
Elsewhere in the movie, we learn that Dr. Meade’s suggestions cause his patients to enter a state of deep fear, leading to their demise.
This conceit is likely borrowed from the real case of a 24-year-old woman who passed away after stage hypnosis. The hypnotist used a keyword suggestion related to electrical shock, but the hypnotist wasn’t aware that the woman had an intense phobia linked to electricity.
Even though the coroner stated her demise was due to natural causes, scholars still speculate about the role hypnosis may or may not have played in her demise.
While there have been more recent, high-profile incidents that have occurred after hypnotherapy, it’s hard to conclusively link these outcomes to hypnosis.
What are the scientific benefits of hypnotherapy?
While Hypnotic may create a gripping narrative, its demonization of hypnosis obscures the many real and tangible scientific benefits of utilizing hypnosis for therapeutic treatments.
Hypnosis has been around in some form since the 1700s, though it didn’t really take off until Scottish physician James Braid created the term neurypnosis, which became hypnosis. In 1891, the British Medical Association recognized hypnosis as a treatment for pain relief and better sleep.
The evidence for the medical benefits of hypnosis has only grown in the twenty-first century.
“Although hypnosis has been controversial, most clinicians now agree it can be a powerful, effective therapeutic technique for a wide range of conditions, including pain, anxiety and mood disorders,” writes the American Psychological Association.
Many studies have associated hypnosis — in combination with other medical treatments — with helping individuals lose weight and stop smoking due to the way it can help individuals modify their behavior.
“The movie risks scaring people away from the potential benefits.”
A 2021 report on hypnosis and weight loss finds that, “Both hypnosis and mindfulness provide a promising therapeutic option by improving weight loss, food awareness, self-acceptance of body image, and limiting food cravings and emotional eating.”
But hypnosis isn’t just beneficial for the mind. The mind-body connection that hypnotherapy reveals has been used to also treat gut disorders, helping relax abdominal muscles and even alleviate irritable bowel syndrome. Other reports suggest it may be able to assist with other medical conditions such as skin disorders and insomnia.
Hypnotic is a thrilling ride, but the movie also risks scaring people away from the potential benefits of a therapeutic practice that is becoming increasingly incorporated into mainstream medicine.
The movie raises an intriguing question: Does Hollywood have an obligation to the scientific facts or should filmmakers simply create an entertaining narrative — no matter the implications?
Hypnotic is streaming now on Netflix.