“Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain.” –Charlie Brooker, Guardian
The British illusionist, mentalist, painter, writer and sceptic, Derren Brown, has often been the master of mindboggling, astonishing feats. Since the first broadcast of his show Derren Brown: Mind Control in 2000, Brown has become progressively more and more famous for his ‘mind reading’ act. Though his acts of mentalism seem psychic or paranormal, Derren Brown claims he has no such abilities and is in fact highly sceptical of those who allege that they do.
Brown describes his latest four-part series The Experiments as a series of “ambitious sociological experiment[s], in which the unwitting subject is a single person, a crowd, or even an entire town”. The first episode of the series, entitled The Assassin consists of Brown successfully hypnotising a random member of the public (one highly susceptible to hypnotism) to assassinate a notably famous celebrity. It was impossible to know whether or not something so powerful and dark could actually be carried out. However, like always, Derren Brown doesn’t fail to baffle his audience.
The idea of The Assassin stems from the assassination of Robert Kennedy. A twenty four year old (when imprisoned) Palestinian refugee is serving a life sentence for the crime committed on the 5th of June, 1968. Sirhan Sirhan, presently confined at the Pleasant Valley State Prison, claims to this day that he has no memory of assassinating Robert Kennedy. In 2011 he was denied parole for the fourteenth time because he hadn’t shown enough remorse despite remaining consistent with his story for 43 years and already having been denied parole 13 times. Not only did Sirhan have no memory of committing the crime, he asserts that there are blanks in his memory from the weeks leading up to the day of the assassination. “It was obvious that he had been programmed to kill Robert Kennedy and programmed to forget that he had been programmed” –the words of defence investigator Robert Blair Kaiser.
Many believe that Sirhan may have been a real “Manchurian Candidate” programmed to shoot Kennedy and then fail to recall who put him up to doing so; moreover have no recollection of the incident itself. It is these ideas of hypnotism and amnesia that Brown tests in The Assassin. In the show he demonstrates how a person can be influenced when an idea given to them is stronger than their own thinking or rational sense. He exhibits the process of “snap induction”; when an automatic process is interrupted, it confuses a person and makes them highly suggestible. In this state, a command given to the person, (such as “sleep”) is embraced as a way to release the confusion.
Once Brown had assessed the audience (all of whom had applied to be on the show) he whittled them down to a handful of people with whom he would further explore the gravity of hypnosis (none aware that they could potentially be carrying out an assassination). The first test he carried out was the “acid test” under the supervision of Professor Zoltan Dienes of Sussex University –a professor in experimental psychology. Brown tested whether he could hypnotise four people and command them to throw what they believed was acid on another person’s face. Shockingly enough, on the declared cue, all four subjects, immediately flung the ‘acid’ from their beakers onto the face of the person standing opposite them.
Additionally, Brown conducted the “Ice Plunge Test” under the supervision of Stuart Derbyshire a member of the School of Psychology at Birmingham University. Here he asked his final subject (who he would use for the assassination) to immerse himself into an ice bath –its temperature slowly creeping towards freezing point. This seemed unethical to me – even though Chris (the subject) felt no uneasiness (since he was in a hypnotic ‘trance’) his heart rate had dropped significantly whilst he was sat in the icy water. Moreover, Brown cleared the suggestion (that the water is not icy cold, in fact just lukewarm) before Chris got out of the ice bath, hence causing him great discomfort.
When Derren asked the psychologists from Sussex University and Birmingham University whether they thought it was possible to hypnotically program someone to carry out an assassination, both academics confidently said that they didn’t believe so. The acid test possibly only worked because part of the person would infer that the experiment is safe as it is being conducted in a TV studio. Stuart Derbyshire said that unless the person is predisposed to killing, it would be impossible to get an ordinary man to commit such a crime. Brown looked into Chris’s family to clear out these possibilities –“he wouldn’t hurt a fly” says Chris’s girlfriend. Ironically, these were a reflection of the words of Munir Sirhan when asked about his brother, Sirhan Sirhan.
Chris went through a series of training schemes; believed that he was taking part in a TV show that explored the depths of hypnosis –he had no idea of Brown’s actual aim. Learning how to fire a gun was a part of this training. Under hypnosis Chris showed immediate improvement in his gun firing abilities. Brown also worked on creating gaps in Chris’s memory and tested whether he could cause Chris to have temporary amnesia. Brown was successful in both feats and decided to have a trial run of the act that he would want Chris to eventually commit. In a crowded restaurant he presented Chris with the required stimuli to hypnotise him and then asked him to fire a water gun at a random person. Chris did this task almost robotically.
To know that Chris was actually under the influence of some stronger power and wasn’t just playing along, Brown made him undergo a lie detector test with the UK’s first polygraph investigator, Bruce Burges. According to Burges, the only way Chris could have denied having shot the water gun in the restaurant was if he truly did not remember committing the act –the polygraph was flawless.
The final day of the experiment was the day of the “assassination”. The celebrity target (who was in on the experiment) was delivering a speech to a group of fans. Before the show, Chris was given a case by a man of Brown’s staff. Chris was told that the case contained a gun loaded with three bullets. Hence, of course, under no circumstance should Chris open the case or touch the gun. He believed that the reason he was at this talk was because Brown had to do some filming with the celebrity after. When given his cue, Chris stood up in a room of live audience (none of whom had been warned of the events that might happen that night) and shot what he believed was real bullets at his celebrity target.
The first episode of Brown’s series is absolutely jaw dropping. The level of mind control and hypnotism involved is bamboozling –it raises all kinds of questions. Was this incident only possible because it was Derren Brown who controlled it? –after all he does make a living out of perplexing, surprising and impressing people. Or is this a mere reflection of something that can and has been happening for years; perhaps an echo of the Sirhan Sirhan case. As a fan of conspiracy theories, and of course, as a fan of Derren Brown, I would highly recommend The Assassin and the rest of the series which continues on Friday on Channel 4.