(Illustration by Dom McKenzie/For The Washington Post)

Two hours into a Virginia Senate Rules Committee meeting on Feb. 9 — after the sash-wearing women singing "We Shall Overcome" in support of the Equal Rights Amendment have left, and the bill proclaiming Fall Prevention Awareness Week has been agreed upon — the members take up the question of whether to ally the committee formally with hypnotism.

Chairman Ryan T. McDougle, a Republican representing the eastern portion of central Virginia, recognizes Sen. Jeremy S. McPike — a Democrat from Prince William County and the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 80. “SJ 80,” McDougle says. “We didn’t put this in the original block [of similar bills] because World Hypnotism Day seemed ...” He pauses to let people titter.

McPike, a baby-faced 42-year-old who was elected in 2015, is already at the podium. Although he has notes with him, he looks not quite ready for this moment. “This would have the commonwealth join 22 countries, many other states, recognizing January 4th as World Hypnotism Day,” he says.

“Hypnotists actually fall under the Board of Counseling, they help folks with PTSD, our veterans, smoking cessation — they do some good work. In fact, [there are] 11 — I did a quick Google search, Mr. Chairman — that are in your district, helping your constituents.”

His words hang in the air inside the second-floor hearing room at the Capitol in Richmond. Now that he has invoked veterans and constituents, people have stopped laughing. And the idea of recognizing World Hypnotism Day seems a little more plausible than it did a moment before.


Virginia State Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) at the Capitol in Richmond in February. (Steve Helber/AP)

How did hypnotism wind up on the agenda of the Virginia General Assembly in the first place? The answer can be found near the end of the text of SJ 80, which name-checks a hypnotist named Tim Horn. (The bill instructs the clerk of the Senate to send him a copy of it.) Horn was not at the committee meeting in February. A few days later, I find him at his office in a medical building by the train tracks in Manassas. He invites me into a very white room, where he takes a seat by a science-fair-style poster that cites studies about the benefits of hypnotherapy for various psychological and physical maladies, such as eating disorders and grinding your teeth.

Horn has a mustache and a beard. But he doesn’t look like those guys on YouTube with weird vests and Mephistophelian facial hair who make people cluck like chickens on stage. He wears a dark, conservative suit. He has a big desk and a nice computer and a doctorate in theater.

He immediately tries to dispel the stubborn myth that hypnosis is mind control. He likens it instead to watching a movie: “People realize that all that is are lights being flashed through a film onto a screen. And yet the emotions, the feelings pop up because we are suspending our disbelief. That’s hypnosis. You’re going to give yourself the power to believe what’s happening on the screen, and you can allow the emotions to have an impact.”

Horn has been hypnotizing people for 33 years. His first patient was himself. At 23, living in Alexandria, Va., he was selling used cars and getting panic attacks. He thinks these activities were related — that his conscience was trying to keep him from doing a job where, as he saw it, a big success meant a bad deal for someone else. Six weeks after a course in self-hypnosis, his panic attacks ceased.

Since then, he says, he has helped hundreds of patients with things like stress, chronic pain and addiction by getting them to relax their psychological barriers, using different forms of hypnosis. For those struggling with their weight, for example, he has used words and sound effects, to mimic the experience of bariatric surgery.

But to persuade more people to try hypnotism, he must make these abilities seem much less powerful in the public imagination. And that’s what he is seeking from the Virginia General Assembly: a vast downgrade in excitement. Horn wants to leach the mysticism and woo-woo from hypnotism. He wants to convince you his work is ... boring. “We’re trying to eliminate people’s fear” that hypnosis is a psychological hijacking in which the hypnotist can exert his or her will on the hypnotized, Horn says. The reality is, “you can’t be hypnotized into doing anything you don’t want to do.”

Horn has already tried other ways of achieving respectability. His business is called Hypnoconsult LLC. The LLC, he explains, is there to remind people how official all this hypnosis is. He tells would-be patients that he is certified by the National Guild of Hypnotists, that he’s insured, that the Mayo Clinic has explored hypnosis for helping chemotherapy patients cope with stress, and that he follows an established protocol.

He would not need to point out any of this if the science on the subject were crystal clear. But our understanding of what happens in the brain when it is under hypnosis is still evolving. There’s even disagreement over what constitutes a hypnotic state. David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine, defines hypnosis as a “state of aroused, attentive, focused concentration with diminished peripheral awareness” that can make people more open to suggestion. He has argued that hypnosis can be used to enhance the effectiveness of treatments for pain and anxiety. But there is not enough solid evidence to say with absolute certainty that it can help you quit smoking or lose weight. And some people can’t be hypnotized at all.

Horn emailed a possible bill to recognize World Hypnotism Day to McPike's office in October. He used a draft supplied by the National Guild of Hypnotists, which is one of 31 organizations worldwide that promote the occasion. (The first World Hypnotism Day was in 2006.) He also sent along some studies vouching for hypnotism's efficacy. McPike is Horn's state senator; the two had met once briefly when Horn volunteered on the lawmaker's 2015 campaign, but Horn says that did not come up during his conversations with McPike's aide about the bill.

And presto, four months later, McPike is in the Capitol making his pitch for World Hypnotism Day. “In all seriousness, if anybody has doubts,” he deadpans, and takes from his jacket a pocket watch. “You are now relaxing,” he says. The audience snickers.

“Senator McPike,” says McDougle, “my wife tried to do this to me to help my golf game, and it did not work.” He’s laughing, too. There is a motion to “pass by the bill indefinitely,” meaning table it. The committee members take a voice vote; everyone says aye. (McPike can’t vote because he isn’t on the committee.)

Later, I ask McPike how he feels about the bill’s demise and he tells me he was still happy to have offered it because hypnotists “are doing good work.” For his part, Horn is gracious in defeat. “I’m not upset with them; I just understand that they don’t understand,” he tells me. “I’ll probably send to each one of the members information from different universities saying how effective hypnosis is.” For Sen. McDougle in particular, Horn says, he knows of a book by a hypnotist in Florida who coaches elite and professional golfers from all over the world.

Does he regret his work on McPike’s campaign? I ask. No, he replies. “I’m not a one-issue voter.”

Before I go, though, he has a couple of questions for me about McPike's pitch at the committee meeting: "He had a watch? He was swinging it back and forth?" His voice is quieter now. Then he asks, "Was he laughing?"

Rachel Manteuffel is an editorial aide at The Washington Post.