I'm not exactly a Christmas Scrooge, but the season does bring about a fair bit of discomfort. As an only child, now all grown up, I have the peculiar pleasure of bearing the weight of most of my family's Christmas traditions. I've always suspected that if it wasn't for my presence my non-Christian household wouldn't bother with a tree, festive decorations, mince pies or even presents. And yet the genuine, incredibly real gratitude I have towards my family often fails to rear its head on Christmas morning, as I awkwardly open gifts and struggle to express my emotions, plastering a false smile onto my face.
Enter hypnosis. Most people seek out hypnotherapist-magician Ben Dali over the Christmas season to be cured of short-temperedness ("and dietary habits and arachnophobia" he adds), but I thought I'd see if he could help to solve my niche problem: the fact I don't like Christmas. Ben, who's been popping up in his booth at different shopping centres up and down the country this month, was happy to take on the challenge. And so, to Brent, known for being the third-most unhappy borough in London and home to legendary old-school mall, the Brent Cross Shopping Centre.
Ben's stationed on the ground floor of the shopping centre, opposite M&S and next to a set of escalators. There's an episode of The IT Crowd where one of the characters, Jen, goes on a date with a man who looks like a magician, and there very much is "a look" – all long fingers and arched eyebrows. In short, this was my first thought when I met Ben: this dude has all the physical attributes you could ask for in a magic-making man.
This isn't a glamorous or peaceful location, and a small crowd of shoppers have paused to watch. "As a young person, 23-year-old, there's no way you're going to leave your mind unless you really really need help," says 60-year-old Lou from South Kent, who's just been put under Ben's trance. "I don't think it's going to work for you in this environment. Fifteen minutes is deep relaxation, a meditative state, but not necessarily hypnosis."
The actual hypnosis is one of the strangest experiences of my life. Considering the whole reason I'm doing it is to be less awkward on Christmas Day, it's a bad start when my awkwardness levels soar as I have to stare into Ben's eyes as he tries to start hypnotising me. He moves his head from side-to-side, eyes fixated on mine, and gets me to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. I start to laugh, uncontrollably.
Does this happen often, I ask. "No, not really – sometimes," he says calmly, getting me to place my hands out in front of me and then doing some trick where he manipulates the right hand to rise and the left hand to fall by touching certain areas of my body and talking in a monotone voice about what's happening. It's all quite impressive, and with my eyes closed and his voice droning on I actually start to feel relaxed.
At some stage he starts talking about Christmas. "You're going to have two reactions to opening presents: one will be peak excitement, you're so genuinely happy to receive this gift you will express that in all the ways you can, you're practically jumping for joy. And then there's the second reaction: when you like a present and you're happy but you don't have to be overly excited. You'll thank them and smile and still feel good inside. You're going to have a great Christmas and write lovely things about me in your VICE article."
I start to laugh again and Ben tells me to wake up. "You weren't fully hypnotised," he says, "I've hypnotised a fair few hundred people and you know what signs to look for. You hadn't fully submitted to relaxing. You'd be hypnotisable in a different environment, Charlie, but a busy shopping centre – I don't think that's the best place for you."
The next day I'm given a present as part of a secret Santa gift exchange, and I'm actually much happier than normal. But did the hypnosis really work? Guess I'll have to wait until Christmas Day to find out.
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