If you’ve seen Get Out, you may be feeling a little jumpy around teacups and spoons. In writer-director Jordan Peele’s diabolically clever thriller, those ordinary objects are used to hypnotize protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) into a state where terrible things can happen. Besides being extremely scary, the hypnosis scenes are part of Get Out’s many layers of commentary on racism: The film’s African-American characters are forced to deny their own thoughts and experiences to become more like white people, in a very literal way. And according to psychiatrist Paul Puri, the film’s depiction of hypnosis is surprisingly accurate. Yahoo Movies talked to Puri, who sometimes uses hypnosis in his practice, about the technique used in Get Out, including why the teacup works and whether a camera flash can jolt someone back to reality.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
Yahoo Movies: In Get Out, Chris’s girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), takes him home to meet her parents. Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), is introduced as a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to help people stop smoking. What are legitimate, non-sinister reasons for a psychiatrist to use hypnosis?
Paul Puri: Habit changes are a pretty big one — like you want to quit smoking. Phobias of things: fear of flying, fear of heights, claustrophobia. Dealing with anxiety disorders. And in truth, if you’re doing it right, hypnosis can really enhance any psychotherapy.
Missy’s hypnosis technique, which we first see when they’re drinking iced tea on the porch, involves slowly stirring her cup with a spoon. What’s she doing there?
She’s creating a fixation device, something that fixes his attention. So she stirs it in a very methodical way, which creates something for him to look at, and the monotonous sound of it — similar to the cliché of the stopwatch in front of your eyes — it’s just something to get him focused on it. A hypnotic trance is really a state where you focus in on one thing and stop paying attention to other things. You have “dissociated” from parts of yourself you usually pay attention to. In that state, you can then access things that you might not otherwise be able to access.
When she persuades Chris to come to her office, why does she start the session by focusing on a traumatic memory from his childhood?
She’s bringing him in on that and then she’s taking him deeper into the memory by tuning him into the different senses. Not just: Can you see it? But: Can you hear the rain? And in exploring that, he’s essentially having a hypnotic regression right there, where he’s re-experiencing that memory piece by piece and accessing the emotions of it, which is a very powerful way to drop down into a trance.
In that scene, it’s obvious he doesn’t really want to go along with the hypnosis. But don’t you have to be a willing participant to be hypnotized?
Mostly. I would say that you’re going to get a lot further with somebody if they are voluntarily cooperating. But the trick is that she was building what is called “yes set.” She built several steps beforehand where he was responding and willing to go there: He was willing to come in, he was willing to sit down, he was willing to nod, he was willing to go into the memory and give recognition of it. In that, you’ve already got someone cooperating to a degree.
Another little thing is the chair that she puts him into: There’s no way for him to turn away. It has these really high sides, his arms go up on it, he’s forced to look straight ahead at her. So she has the whole thing set up.
Now getting him to do all of the other things that he does, including the memory loss, would be a lot more difficult if someone doesn’t want to be there. And then you get into Manchurian Candidate kind of stuff where, if you have the right level of coercion and the right kind of approach, it is theoretically possible.
Watch part of the hypnosis scene in the trailer for ‘Get Out:’
What about the sensation that he couldn’t move?
She was bringing out the body memory of the experience where he was paralyzed in the past during his mother’s death, and so he was re-experiencing that. He was also experiencing a level of what’s called catalepsy, which happens in catatonia but can also happen in a certain hypnotic state, where someone can sort of be stuck. They wouldn’t usually be stuck in exactly the way that he is, where he’s fighting his own muscles. But it can happen.
The nature of a trance is that you have three things happening at the same time: you have concentration, you have dissociation, and you have relaxation. You can get into that state through any of the three, and once you’re in the state, you don’t necessarily have to have all three simultaneously anymore — so someone in a dissociative state might be responsive and focused, but they might not be relaxed if they’re re-experiencing a traumatic memory. And when you’re in a trance, you can actually dissociate to the point where your body is doing things involuntarily. So a very common thing is hypnotic arm levitation, which is the experience that your arm is acting of its own will — it’s rising up or moving on its own.
The goal of the film’s hypnosis is to create a permanent trance state so that subjects’ brains can be taken over. At one point, we see a victim of the procedure (Lakeith Stanfield) temporarily brought out of his trance by a camera flash. Would that work?
No. It’s a fun device, but it doesn’t really work with the way that we understand post-hypnotic suggestion, which means the things you might respond to after you’re out of the actual trance. Things like that wouldn’t really have any effect unless there’s a [medical condition] — like you’re inducing an epileptic activity [by] using strobe light. But two or three bursts of a flash isn’t going to do it.
Oddly enough, I had a hypnotist for entertainment at my senior prom. But most people haven’t seen or experienced hypnosis firsthand at all.
A lot of people have no reference experience for what it is — that’s very true. A lot of people are skeptical about what it is, and they fall prone to the myths. The movie plays into that a little bit, which is like, this is a superpower that can take away your self-control. It’s not really like that. But it is a little bit of a foreign idea that someone could ever control you. So half the time people come into my office and they say, “I don’t really think I can be hypnotized.” And those are often people with anxiety problems, whose anxiety comes up because they’re trying to control so many things that they don’t have control over. Paradoxically, those people are often the best hypnotic subjects. They respond very quickly, because the moment that they actually let go, even for a half-second, they are very deep into a state.
Would you assume that someone involved with the film had real-world experience with hypnosis?
Unless Jordan Peele has training in this, he very clearly had a technical advisor that gave him some tips on how to structure it. Because if you were trying to mind-control somebody, you would do some of the stuff that they’re doing! [Laughs.] It’s pretty clever.
Watch Jordan Peele show how he directed scenes as Tracy Morgan, Forest Whitaker, and Barack Obama: