We asked a hynotherapist if the Sunken Place is real
Over the weekend, Jordan Peele (co-mastermind of Key & Peele) smashed box office records when the writer-director’s horror film Get Out raked in more than $150 million domestically to become the highest-grossing original feature film debut. Part thriller, part social satire, and all genius, Get Out is a genre-bending feat of filmmaking that skewers well-meaning liberal whiteness. When our main protagonist, Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya), reluctantly agrees to visit his chipper, white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family in the country for the weekend, he’s met not with the loud bigots he seems to expect, but with affluent progressives whose blatant attempts to prove they harbor no ill will toward black people are certainly cringeworthy, but nothing to fear (at first).
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If you haven’t seen the film yet, be warned: There are plenty of spoilers ahead. (Also, what are you waiting for?) Before long, the family’s weirdly overt brand of professed racial innocence veers from unsettling to totally terrifying. A big reason for that is Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener), a hypnotherapist whose chosen profession is one of the most cleverly incorporated devices in the film. Early on, she offers to hypnotize Chris into giving up cigarettes, which at first he ardently refuses. But the request nags at him, and she soon lulls him into a hypnotic state, trapping him within his own body in a dark, eerie state of mind known as “the sunken place.” Peele’s use of hypnosis in the film arrives donning its usual Hollywood guise as mockable New Age voodoo, while transcending stereotype to become a metaphor for power imbalance and racial subjugation.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Our subconscious minds are nonstop video recorders, storing information in graphic detail to be replayed at our choosing.[/quote]
Jordan Peele may not have set out to accurately depict hypnotherapy in a film that so profoundly depicts racial conflict in America today. But according to professional hypnotherapist Richard Barker, who’s been treating clients with hypnosis for more than 20 years, Peele’s sinister portrayal of the therapeutic technique is surprisingly dead on, while also commenting critically about persuasion and mechanics of the mind.
For instance, says Barker, Keener’s character explains hypnosis fairly well by calling it a “heightened level of awareness.” Her use of the teacup was an accurate display of how hypnotists use anchors to focus their patients—the same goes for the clinking noise she makes with her spoon. “We use tapping, or a certain word, or a trigger, or a phrase,” says Barker, “which is basically a signal to the brain to go right back where you need to be”—aka relaxed and receptive. Of course, the process of sinking into a hypnotic state usually isn’t traumatic. Instead, Barker describes it as resembling the moment before you succumb to sleep. “You know where you are, so you’re fully aware of your surroundings,” says Barker, “You know that you’re listening to the sound of my voice, for example … The difference is that your critical thinking is off.”
With your critical thinking disengaged, you’re more open to suggestion, which is why movies tend to focus on hypnosis parlor tricks, like getting someone to quack or bust a regrettable dance move. That kind of portrayal isn’t quite accurate, says Barker, since hypnosis only works if you want to perform what’s suggested to you. “Can you imagine if I could hypnotize people against their will?” asks Barker, “To start with, you and I wouldn’t even be speaking on the phone because I would be hanging around the banks all day and ATM machines if it was that easy.”
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Chris did not want to be imprisoned within his own body, and hypnotherapy’s limited powers dictate he couldn’t be. But in trying to put his all-white company at ease, he’s ignored the threat they pose to him. They place the burden of civility on Chris, all while chipping away at his dignity with dehumanizing commentary. Peele seems to suggest the psychological manipulation began long before Chris ever locked eyes on that twirling spoon and teacup. Or, as he expressed more directly in a tweet, “The Sunken Place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.”
The Sunken Place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.— Jordan Peele (@Jordan Peele) 1489723943
Barker compares our subconscious minds to nonstop video recorders, storing information in graphic detail to be replayed and relived at our choosing. In that sense, it’s entirely possible for Chris to mentally relive the traumatic experience of losing his mother; it’s then up to an experienced hypnotherapist to help him reframe those memories and relinquish his guilt. In an alternate universe, Barker says Chris might be a perfect candidate for healing from hypnosis (when not administered by a psychopath, of course) because he is intelligent. According to Barker, the more intelligent you are, the more capable you are of receiving suggestions, following instructions, and reshaping your mind’s programming. As everyday people, “we’re not looking at the world, we’re thinking the world,” Barker says, giving our minds the malleability to retrospectively modify our life’s narrative.
But what are you to do when the authority figure in question refuses to acknowledge your reality, as is so often the case in our systematically racist society? With hypnosis, reframing a negative experience into a more positive memory can be life-changing. In the outside world, there are disastrous consequences to rewriting history.