Uncovering the Hypnosis Scene of Grace


World renowned hypnotherapist and hypnosis teacher Dr John Butler helped us reveal what elements of the Hypnosis scene in the season’s finale are entirely made up and which are absolutely realistic.

Based on Margaret Atwood’s historical fiction novel of the controversial murder trials of housekeeper Grace Marks, Netflix has managed to retell the story with intriguing detail and, perhaps, deceptive clues. The viewer is sent on a detective journey whilst getting a glimpse of different viewpoints of the main character, before being subjected to an open end that could tear the viewer’s opinion between Grace’s innocence and guilt.

Over the 6 parts of the series the courtroom evidence and witness statements that emerge from the murder trials, ultimately point towards Grace’s guilt and although there is always room for ambiguity around witness manipulation, this evidence seems sufficient for the conviction and to leave at least a hint of doubt in everyone’s mind who wishes for her innocence.

From a psychological view, there are undeniable indications of sociopathic traits in Grace Marks. In the moments when we get a solitary glimpse into Grace’s thoughts or view of her facial expressions when she is locked up in her cell, she shows signs of higher intelligence and callousness than is otherwise evidenced by her story-telling and interactions. On the other hand, we might question whether these character traits were always part of Grace or if they were picked up by her throughout the time when she was mistreated in the asylum, after the conviction.

Furthermore, the slightly aloof, dutiful and delicate female depiction that we are presented with from the very beginning of the series paired with Grace’s strenuous journey and unfair treatment ultimately makes us feel empathy towards Grace and understand her doctors’ obsessive wish for her innocence. To a certain extent everyone seems to fall victim to the ‘halo effect’ brought forward by a young, beautiful woman, whilst the same evidence has brought her ‘accomplice’ the death sentence.

This mismatch between the emotional reaction to the stories of the young, mistreated girl and a more rational thought processes can almost trap its viewers in a state of indecisiveness and discomfort – that is until the season’s finale finally seems to offer a solution to the dilemma: a hypnosis session reveals a split personality in Grace.

In a hoarse voice, inconsistent with that of Grace, she crudely tells the bystanders that Mary Whitney (Grace’s deceased friend) has taken over her body and helped kill the victims. Depending on your beliefs about hypnosis this will either convince you of her psychopathy and guilt, because you do not believe in Hypnosis, making it a clever manipulative act from Grace. Or, it could provide an understanding of why the fragile, beautiful Grace would be capable of murder.

Most people have heard the word ‘Hypnosis’ before, but only a small number will have an accurate understanding of what it is. The image that often emerges in the public’s eye is often further distorted by unrealistic Hollywood depictions to make the movies more entertaining.

So can hypnosis be used to call forth a split personality or spirits? World famous expert Dr John Butler has taken his time to answer our questions and to finally reveal how much of a solution the hypnosis scene in ‘Alias Grace’ truly is by uncovering its accurate – but also its embellished elements.

Q: In hypnosis, do you fall asleep like the hypnotiser, tells Grace to?
John: The answer is no. That is a Hollywood dramatization of the hypnotic state. In the hypnotic state the person is very relaxed, very aware and chooses not to open their eyes, but are not in sleep. Hypnosis is a different neurological experience to nocturnal sleep.

Q: when you tell a client to have no recollection of the trance, would this really happen?
J: The client may decide to accept such a suggestion, for a particular reason, but can always have access to what happened in the trance. In most cases, such a suggestion would be unnecessary and unhelpful and could well be rejected by the client, as the hypnotic state is not in and of itself a state where the person becomes an automaton under the hypnotist’s control. Clients often reject suggestions and in the case of being told to have no recollection of the trance, they could always reject that suggestion at the time or subsequently bring the memory to their conscious awareness if they had initially accepted the suggestion. Depending on several factors, especially the level of authority of the hypnotist, they are more or less likely to accept the suggestion, but can always have access to the memory at a later date.

Q: Grace seems to drift into hypnosis very fast by him just telling her to ‘fall asleep’ and ‘go deeper’. Is that really all you have to do to induce a trance and does it happen this quickly?
J: That is somewhat unrealistic. In highly responsive subjects, yes, with a trusted figure they will allow themselves to relax quite readily. In other cases, it can take more work and reassurance for the person to enter the trance. With conditioning a person can be induced into trance very rapidly. In fact, on a given signal. But that requires having been hypnotised previously. The induction of trance can be relatively quick, or even very quick for many clients, provided the main psychological ingredients are present in the client. These are: mental expectancy, stimulation of the imagination and the third component of inducing the trance is the technique which is largely a ritual. As hypnosis is a natural state, human beings have the capacity to enter at least some level of hypnotic trance relatively easily in cooperation with a trusted, skilled hypnotist. Accessing the subconscious is done regularly and naturally each day, for example, in daydreaming, deep absorption in a task (“flow”) and any experience where we move from conscious focused awareness to more of the imaginative, non-logical functioning of the mind.

Q: When he tells her that her “arm is an iron bar which no one can bend” and after trying to bend it confirms that it is impossible by saying “I am using all of my force”, is this at all realistic?
J: This is quite realistic in the case of a highly responsive subject. The phenomenon is usually called arm catalepsy. The subconscious part of the mind is told to strongly activate the muscle fibres and to tense them all up. It is quite remarkable how well it can do this, with a skilled hypnotist.

Q: Why does he place a sheer scarf over her head? Does this serve any purpose?
J: “This is primarily theatrical. It is not a necessary adjunct to the hypnotic procedure.

Q: Can a person open their eyes during hypnosis and still remain in trance?
J: Absolutely. It is nearly always the case in stage hypnosis that the eyes are open. At the beginning of the trance it is customary to have the eyelids closed as it cuts out distractions and a great deal of sensory input (visual), which reduces the activity of our everyday conscious processing, allowing us to instead make more use of our subconscious processing.

Q: Can hypnosis really reveal split personalities? Have you ever had any experience with this yourself?
J: A “split personality” is, in one sense, a much more exaggerated form of the “normal state” of the mind, that is that we are essentially made up of several ‘selves’. But really these are more like sub-personalities, different aspects of ourselves, rather than totally separate people, which is the claim for split personality. My opinion is that many cases of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) are not very convincing but may arise from therapist and client expectations based on the theoretical model of therapy they are using. I do have to say however I have come across a small number of cases, where there appeared to be several almost entirely different personalities, that had no awareness of each other.

Thank your for your time Dr Butler.

             Author: Laura Detter
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