The Trance in “Trance”: Hypnotherapy On-screen and Off

The movie “Trance” is one of the better depictions of hypnosis and hypnotherapy in cinema. Though sensationalized (it’s a psycho-thriller, after all), the representation is refreshingly accurate.

Hypnotherapists usually begin with a pre-talk, which sets a framework (and is the beginning of the hypnosis) and follow with an induction, guiding the client into a hypnotic state. (This is less necessary in subsequent sessions, when the client is used to going into trance.) The movie shows little or none of this (perhaps they were afraid of people in the audience going into trance themselves – not at all unlikely). We do see what follows: the suggestions, the guided imagery, and especially, the results of hypnosis as experienced by the characters.

Dr. Lamb’s Methods

We see Dr. Lamb employing direct suggestion and guided imagery as she works with her clients (and her friends and her enemies).
Direct suggestion means telling the client directly what you want them to experience or do:


  • You are feeling happy.
  • You will obtain the painting and bring it to me.
  • It is often combined with suggested scenarios – guided imagery.:
  • You are driving through the countryside with a beautiful French woman.
  • You are in a ditch, unable to move, as shovelfuls of dirt are thrown onto you.
  • The delivery man hands you a package.  You open it eagerly.  You see what is inside.


In addition to these, most hypnotherapists today use techniques such as age or time regression, timeline, reframing, metaphor, hypnotic language patterns, future pacing, and working with parts or aspects of the self. We don’t see Dr. Lamb doing any of these, though as a professional we are certain that she is very well trained. The screen writers apparently wanted to keep the hypnosis part simple (the movie, though, is far from simple!).

Dr. Lamb’s Issues

In “Trance” Dr. Lamb works with a number of issues. Most are things real-life hypnotherapists also encounter. But since she is, as one reviewer describes her, “opportunistic” (actually, she’s a criminal), she sometimes applies hypnosis in ways we might characterize as “unethical,” to say the least.

Recovering lost objects and memory

This of course is the crux of the movie: getting Simon to remember what he did with the painting.


Hypnotherapists and forensic hypnotists often work with clients who want their memory jogged, to remember things blocked from conscious recall. And as in the movie, it can get very complicated. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There may be other issues intruding: Simon has lots of strong motivations for not remembering where he put the painting.


And sometimes, even when you do recall what you did with the object, it cannot be recovered (down the drain or in the trash, for instance). Or the significance of what is remembered may not be understood or appreciated: the keys that Elizabeth helps Simon to find early in the movie turn out to be the key to the whole mystery, but no one, not even the omniscient Dr. Lamb, realizes this at the time.


Credit the screenwriters for keeping it complicated – all too often hypnosis is depicted as a simple “You now remember where you put it” suggestion followed by immediate recall. Almost always, it takes more than that. But without these complications there would be no movie, no story.

Wiping Memories

This can be problematic. Every stage hypnotist can get his subjects to temporarily forget their own names – the more suggestible among them, anyway. But can you make someone forget a whole relationship, that presumedly went on for months, with all the connections, all the threads?  Forget it to the point that you don’t even recognize the person you were recently so crazy-mad in-love with?


Elizabeth accomplishes this with Simon, making him forget completely his affair with her, but it takes her multiple sessions over a period of time. Of course his memories aren’t gone, they are only blocked, inaccessible, and that turns out to be imperfect. (If she’s going to do that, I wondered, why not guide him instead to deal with his anger and his tendency to violence?  It seems that would be easier, and much safer.)


I have had clients ask for this (see my blog “I Want to Forget Him”). I try to point them in a different direction: “What if you do completely forget this person and then you run into him again, without any memory of knowing him, and the whole thing starts up all over again?”  This is exactly what happens in the movie, of course.

Creating Alternate Realities

This can actually be done, not with everyone, but with certain very suggestible individuals known as somnambulists. Simon is clearly such a person. With the right preparation (which can take multiple sessions, training the person to go and remain in a very deep state of hypnosis), a guided imagining can seem totally real, like a vivid dream experienced not a dream but as reality; the subject can even walk around and talk in that state, acting as though fully “awake.” Hence Simon fully experiences shooting the gun and killing the gang members, even though in fact the gun is not loaded.


There are therapeutic uses for this, but clearly a lot of room for unintended consequences and abuse as well, in movies and in real life as well.

Removing a Gambling Addiction

Hypnotherapists work successfully with addictions all the time, including addictions to tobacco, food, sex, alcohol, drugs, and yes – gambling. Simon initially comes to Elizabeth hoping to end his gambling addiction.


She does much more, as we know. While blocking his memories of her, she induces him to increase his gambling, putting him in danger and leading to his contacting the gang, to the heist, and everything that follows.

Overeating and Smoking Cessation

For most hypnotherapists, smoking cessation and weight loss are our mainstays. In the movie we see flashes of Dr. Lamb working with these issues – just to show, I suppose, that she is for real.

Creating Desire

Hypnotherapists often work with desire – we call it “towards motivation.”


See yourself, be yourself a year from now, slim, fit, healthy, looking good, feeling good about yourself, in control and loving it!


Creating and enhancing a vision like this is a powerful incentive to change your habits and your lifestyle, pulling you forward to the you and the life you want.


The dark side: we say all the time that “A person in hypnosis cannot be made to do something that is against her beliefs or values,” and that is more or less true. What Elizabeth says though is, “I can make someone want almost anything.” She says this face-to-face with Franck, almost kissing, the immediate thrust being she can make him want her (which doesn’t seem to require hypnosis). But the larger implication is disturbing: Even if you cannot make someone do something that would violate his values, what if you can induce him to change and pervert those values? A back door?

Creating Terror

An anchor is a word or association that triggers feelings or behaviors. Setting anchors and using them is a standard part of any hypnotist’s tool kit. Hypnotherapists use them to take clients in or out of trance and to invoke (and self-invoke) the client’s inner resources, leading to positive changes in feelings and behavior.


Ostensibly to help Simon feel safe, Elizabeth attempts to install a terror anchor in the gang members, that will be triggered by saying the word “strawberry.” She has Simon say it aloud, triggering one of the gang members to experience extreme terror; then has him say it again, ending the terror. The other gang members are not affected. This is realistic: although anyone can be hypnotized, everything does not work for everyone all of the time.

Setting up a Crime

Using hypnosis to set up a crime is a common device in movies: Woody Allen’s “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and of course, “The Manchurian Candidate” are two examples.


As a sexy, smart, and skillful hypnotherapist with no scruples, Dr. Elizabeth Lamb makes a wonderfully evil hypnotist. Would you like her to hypnotize you? Be careful what you wish for! And call me when it’s over.

Comments: 2
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