Princess the Hypnodog made her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent a few weeks ago. You can view the act here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYHYgU6S2lg. If you’re too dog-tired to bother then basically the act went as follows. Volunteers from the audience were brought up onto the stage and after looking at the dog for 5 seconds they collapsed into a trance on the floor. Her owner then made the audience volunteers forget the number 7, so when they were awake and were asked to count their fingers they counted to 11 instead of 10. Intrigued, the Dark Lord of Britain’s Got Talent – Simon Cowell – took to the stage and stared at Princess, but nothing happened. Or did it? Seemingly for a period of time afterwards Simon was uncannily pleasant to even some of the oddest acts. Hypnodog had made Mr Nasty rather pleasant, at least for a time.
Or so we were meant to believe.
The camera captured numerous shots of an audience amazed that a dog could possess such powers. They seemed totally taken in by it. The reaction on Twitter was somewhat more sceptical. The majority considered the act a blatant fix and were enraged at Britain’s Got Talent for taking the viewers for fools. However, there remained a sizeable number of people who were seriously asking whether or not the act was real – that is, seriously asking whether or not a cute dog with a long tongue had the powers to put human beings to sleep after they looked at her for a few seconds.
But, of course, the whole thing was a trick. Dogs do not possess hypnotic powers. To be as generous as possible to Princess we can speculate that if the audience volunteers weren’t stooges they had perhaps been hypnotised prior to the show by Princess’s owner and “programmed” to fall into a trance when brought in front of the dog, thus making it look like the dog had hypnotic powers. As for Mr. Nasty, a little bit of clever editing on the part of the TV show made it look like for a time after the act Simon Cowell was being unusually pleasant, when in fact the few occasions on which he had been judging acts out of character were simply edited together and made to look like they all followed his being hypnotised by Princess.
The first thing I noticed about this episode was the difference in reaction between the live audience and those watching on TV. The latter were, on the whole, much more sceptical. Those at the live event were far more credulous. Thus what we have here is a case of the power of a live show. It’s dramatic, you get caught up in it rather easily; expectations are high, sceptical walls are lowered. Add to this a bit of human imagination and the desire to be part of something wonderfully bizarre – even other-worldly – and we have all the ingredients for, frankly, making people stupidly gullible.
Exactly the same thing happens at big charismatic rallies. Take for example Benny Hinn. I’ve had the, umm, pleasure of witnessing a Benny Hinn show first hand, and I’ve studied his techniques for some time. Hinn uses a powerful mixture of showmanship, psycho-hypnotic techniques, and plain old deceit to produce the effect that he wants. Someone who claims such a massively positive healing record could easily minister in hospitals and heal the sick there. However, notice that Hinn needs people to come to him – to where he has control: control of lighting, mood, security (certain sick people get nowhere near him), music, and the order of service. Hinn’s events are highly choreographed and scripted. Fundamentally he’s a showman who manipulates sick and vulnerable people into opening their wallets nice and wide.
All of this plays on sheer dumb human credulity. We are a gullible species. We take things as they seem to us, rarely pausing to ask if things really are as they seem. Of course, in evolutionary terms this is understandable. If you paused to wonder “Is that really a huge tiger bearing down on me” you probably wouldn’t be around long enough to think the matter through. Our natural reaction is to believe what we see: it’s a tiger, run.
Moreover, something seems to happen to us when we gather together in large groups, particularly in a certain atmosphere like a concert, show, or healing crusade. Extensive research has gone into human behaviour in such scenarios. Take Benny Hinn again. A huge crowd has gathered, full of hope and expectation. The singing begins, and during a chorus of “How Great Thou Art” – (the reader can decide if “Thou” refers to God or Hinn) – Hinn – like a demigod – walks onto the stage and begins to orchestrate the thousands of cognitive and emotional experiences that have already begun. People are encouraged to close their eyes, empty their minds, and open themselves up to God. Before long many in the crowd show all the signs of an opiate release in the brain: they may smile or laugh, they appear to have a certain glow about them, they may shake and begin to sway, and some might even cry. Soon, those who are most susceptible to hypnotic suggestion may experience other physical effects. Some might even notice pains begin to leave their bodies, and stiff joints starting to loosen. Soon – after passing through Hinn’s rigourous screening process where the sick and infirm are effectively auditioned to see if they are good enough to perform on-stage – these people come into Hinn’s presence to be declared healed, and then typically “slain in the Spirit” – using either the power of hypnotic suggestion or a good old fashioned shove. With this apparent display of the power of God, other people watching who are perhaps less susceptible to hypnotic suggestion have any remaining scepticism undone and finally come under the showman’s spell. It’s very clever, and Benny Hinn is an expert at it.
But, as with hypnodog, there are no mysterious or other-worldly powers at play. It’s all a combination of expectation, psychological tricks, careful choreography, and the simple human propensity to accept at face value the things we perceive.
How then do we avoid being fooled? By developing a sceptical frame of mind. By paying attention to what’s going on “behind the scenes.” By coming to realise that all is not what it seems at such events. My own exit from the charismatic movement involved research and reading. I discovered that when it comes to the claims of faith-healers and charismatic preachers there have been more than enough exposes to leave such claims dead in the water. When a preacher calls out someone in the audience – about whom he supposedly can’t know anything by natural means – he’s using a trick like the “pre-service prayer card” trick of Peter Popoff or WV Grant. Sometimes homeless people have been employed by certain pastors to pose as sick and infirm and rise out of wheelchairs. Numerous bodies of evidence demonstrate that the vast majority of faith-healing miracles are nothing other than psychosomatic reactions to the highly choreographed and emotionally charged surroundings of a service. It has been demonstrated time and again how healers perform tricks to make it look like the blind see, the deaf hear, and that legs are being lengthened. One man at a Reinhard Bonnke rally was proclaimed healed of blindness. Upon follow up by a researcher it was discovered he was never blind at all. In another instance a deaf child can be seen clearly lip reading and repeating words spoken by Bonnke: but she was declared healed of deafness. For those interested in how such tricks are performed, have a look at illusionist Derren Brown’s “Miracles for Sale” programme on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuP5uOI7Xwc
So, why, in the face of all this evidence, do charismatics still believe in such things? There’s no simple answer, but I want to suggest a few factors at work. Firstly, many are desperate. They are terminally ill or permanently disabled and the only hope they have left is the charismatic healer making grand promises about their miracle healing. Secondly, perhaps the kinds of people who attend such meetings simply aren’t the type of people to read, say, James Randi’s book exposing faith-healers, or watch a Derren Brown programme about the techniques used by healers and preachers to manipulate the masses. Recently during a Twitter exchange I sent several links to articles from this blog to a charismatic. Although he claimed to have read them, according to my website statistics none of those articles had in fact been accessed. My own experience is, sadly, that often Christians live in a faith bubble – listening exclusively to Christian music and reading Christian books by authors they largely already agree with. Thirdly, many of us live in almost perpetual boredom. Our lives aren’t terribly exciting most of the time. We might desperately want something unusual to break the tedium – whether it’s a dog with hypnotic powers or a healer breaking someone’s crutches on a stage. Many people desperately wish to experience the power of God in their otherwise mundane lives.
But of course we shouldn’t conduct our lives by wishful thinking. Reality simply doesn’t bend to our desires and dreams. I desperately wish that it was the case that deaf kids were regularly healed, or that wounded soldiers could grow back limbs. I’d even love to live in a world of magical dogs! But we don’t live in a fairytale. For better or worse the world is the way it is, and no amount of desire to the contrary is going to change it.
Of course, if you’re a charismatic and you don’t like what I’ve said here, then know this: the hypnodog made me say it.
Stephen J Graham