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A matter of suggestion 

Ever wish you could be a rock star, but are too shy to sing along with the radio--even when you're home alone? On stage with master hypnotist Gary Conrad, you'll be belting out tunes.

Secretly identify with Blackbeard? With a little help from Conrad, you'll think you're marauding from the deck of the Queen Anne's Revenge.

It's all a matter of suggestion, says Conrad, who's been entertaining audiences with his hypnotic powers since 1986. Currently in the process of honing his new Halloween hypnotism show, Conrad is the headline act at Charlie Goodnight's through Nov. 5.

During the performance, volunteers from the audience go on stage and, as a group, surrender to hypnosis. Then the fun begins, and alter egos take center stage, as Conrad weaves his particular magic.

But how does he do it?

"When you're hypnotized, your brain is in a state where you are highly open to suggestion," Conrad explains. "In the simplest terms, everything in the universe pulsates at a certain speed. For example, when you and I are talking, our brain waves pulse in a pattern, and at a certain speed, that we call beta. That's the analytical frame of mind, where you are thinking and analyzing."

Under hypnosis, he says, our brains are in an alpha brainwave state similar to what we're in when we're awake. But it's distinct enough to warrant its own label. "In this state," he says, "a person is very relaxed and highly open to suggestion."

So open to suggestion, a chain-smoker might finally decide that she hates the taste of cigarettes.

Or in a club, where the aim is entertainment, a slightly overweight guy who works 9 to 5 delivering packages for UPS might be open to the suggestion that he's a buff Chippendale dancer, and then stand on top of table to shimmy for a group of girls.

This happened last week during Conrad's show at Goodnight's. "The girls were into it, stuffing dollar bills into his pockets," Conrad says.

"Although people in an alpha state are a lot more accepting of the suggestions you make, this doesn't mean they'll do things against their own will," he adds. "They aren't going to do something they find morally repugnant," like undress on stage. They may, however, be open to the idea that they are losing their clothes. One night last week this happened to a young woman on stage.

"I told her that every time I snapped my fingers, she'd lose an item of clothing," Conrad says. "After seven or eight snaps of my fingers, she thought she wasn't wearing anything and hid herself."

Meanwhile, a man from the audience who also agreed to be hypnotized kept looking at her and "said things like 'she looks good' because he also thought she was losing her clothes."

Conrad's passion for hypnosis began when he was an elementary school kid in Linden, N.J. He says he can't pinpoint one pivotal event, or one clear moment of epiphany when he decided to become a hypnotist. "Everybody asks me that question," he says. Hypnosis is simply something he took to, the way others are drawn to chess or scuba diving or learning about Eastern religion. "I found it fascinating," he says, especially the liberating aspect of hypnosis that lets people who are under the spell, "do things outside of their normal concept of themselves."

Over the years, Conrad has read over 500 books on the subject. Meanwhile, he attended college at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., then worked for several years as a stockbroker in New York City. He also spent 10 years as a sales manager for a shipping business before devoting his career to hypnosis full time.

When he initially began practicing the skill, he was his first subject. This was during a period after college when Conrad was working out with weights and wanted to improve his performance through mind control.

"I used it to lift more weights, increase my repetitions," he says.

Hypnotizing others grew out of his stints in the gym. "The other guys saw that it worked and began asking me to hypnotize them," so they could get more mileage out of their workouts. It worked, and this became the early genesis of Conrad's seven-year private practice as a clinical hypnotist.

The club act began about the same way.

"People would ask 'What do you do for a hobby?' I'd say hypnosis and they'd say 'Let's see.' I'd be at a party or in a bar hanging out with friends. We'd hypnotize someone." It was great fun, he says, sitting in a Manhattan bar with a bunch of buddies, shaking off the tensions of the workday while drinking brews and staging an impromptu hypnotism show.

Later, when Conrad was an officer in the Army reserves detailed to Germany, his knack for hypnosis came in handy as a way to while away time between maneuvers.

"You know how it is in the Army--there's a lot of hurry up and wait," he says. While they were waiting, he'd entertain the GIs with a little hypnosis. He says he did, occasionally, goof on people along the way, "in an innocent, Harry Potter sort of way."

One time, he and some other officers were waiting in a Munich airport for a flight. Under hypnosis, he convinced a senior officer that he was stuck to his chair. "Then the flight arrived and he couldn't get out of his chair," Conrad says with a chuckle. Conrad broke the spell in time for his C.O. to catch the flight.

During this time, Conrad began developing his club act, working it in nightclubs when he could get a chance. He also started a clinical practice, using hypnosis to help clients quit smoking, overcome phobias and even break free from early childhood traumas.

He remembers one especially gratifying experience, while he was doing a show at Princeton University. A young woman approached him after the show. "She had been raped by a relative when she was a child," he says. "She had recently met a guy she liked and wanted to be with, but flinched every time he touched her. She asked me if I could help."

Conrad hypnotized the girl, and using the power of suggestion helped her let go of the early trauma that stood in the way of her having a healthy relationship. "I came back a year later to Princeton to do a show, and afterward she came up to me to show me her engagement ring," he says.

Conrad still works occasionally with clinical clients. But over time, he has gravitated away from therapeutic hypnosis. In general, entertaining people with his club act was simply much more fun.

What the crowds who flock to Conrad's club shows want is a great time, he says, and to do something slightly out of the ordinary while under the power of hypnosis. Conrad claims that's why people from the audience eagerly volunteer to come up to the stage and be hypnotized: "It's interesting. It breaks up the routine of daily living. There's an element of the unknown."

He also claims that hypnosis can give people a chance to act out their secret desires and do things they might never do in real life--but only up to a point. Once the show is over, Conrad says men from the audience occasionally take him aside to ask him to hypnotize their date, into being--shall we say--a bit more open to their suggestions. "I tell them to hypnotize her themselves," says Conrad, who does 400 club acts a year. "That sort of hypnotic suggestion would be bad for business."

Besides, he says, it's not about control. It's about having a good time.

"People come to my shows to get away, to relax, to be entertained. They've paid their dues during the day, working 9 to 5. They've earned it." EndBlock

  • How do you get a shy guy to dance on stage? Ask hypnotist Gary Conrad.

More by Glenna B. Musante

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