Derren Brown “The Assassin” Explained – How did he do it?

Using hypnosis, can a member of the public be hypnotised into killing a celebrity? Is it possible to programme somebody to kill, and without them realising it?

1) The show begins with details of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the claim by Sirhan Sirhan that he has no memory of it. The conspiracy theory that Sirhan was “hypnotised” to carry out the assassination is mentioned.

2) Derren then explains that he is going to give a demonstration of hypnosis to an audience of people who have applied to be on his show and that they have not been prepared in any way. He goes on to say that none of them are aware that he is looking for a perfect candidate that he can programme to carry out an assassination of a celebrity at a public event. Ok, seems reasonable so far, but the most important cornerstone of this episode is the statement “an audience of people who have applied to be on the show“. Every stage hypnotist will tell you, or maybe some won’t, that the success of any stage hypnosis show is that the hypnotist must have volunteers. Without volunteers there is no show, or at best a very poor one. All I will say about the selection process for any of Derren’s TV shows is that it is world class, is kept highly secret, and means that not only does the audience consist entirely of willing volunteers but virtually all of them have been selected based on certain personality traits. Every other stage hypnotist on this planet could only dream of performing in front of such a skillfully crafted audience of willing volunteers.

3) We then have several minutes of simple stage hypnosis routines, hands stuck together, forgetting your name & handshake “shock” induction, with very good explanations of some of the phenomena of hypnosis. This is for the benefit of the live audience and the viewers to amplify the belief that Mr Brown does indeed have the hypnotic power to make anyone do anything. A casual voice over from Derren states that all that is going on is as a result of suggestion (Mr Brown does not believe that the state of hypnosis actually exists, in his book he claims that hypnosis is simply compliance after suggestion), and that the whole routine of an induction cannot be shown on TV just in case some members of the watching TV public might go under and cannot be brought out. Hmmmm, this casual little remark has a massive impact in expectation and belief of the viewers that Derren himself would have to personally remove you from your “trance” if you got stuck there. Believe me, no-one could ever get stuck in a trance but the thought that it could happen sets up the rest of the show.

4) During the continuing demonstrations of stage hypnosis another casual voice over mentions the “expectation” of his audience to follow his instructions “because that it was they are supposed to do”. This somewhat casual remark is in fact a massive part of the success of his shows. People simply do things because Derren tells them to do it. For the gamblers out there, it is virtually a 1/100 shot, maybe even “no offers”, that every single selected member of his audience is familiar with his previous shows where people are selected to do things and not remember doing them and that every volunteer is more than familiar with the powers of Derren Brown. What Derren is doing is looking for total compliance from his selected candidate.

5) Four members of his audience are selected, stage hypnosis 101, and shown some hydrochloric acid being poured over a dummies head. They are then “put” in hypnosis, handed a glass full of acid, and given a suggestion that they will throw the acid in someones face when they see a blue and white polka dot handkerchief. They are then “emerged”. The acid has been switched for water, without the candidates (notice how he uses the word “candidate” – Manchurian Candidate anyone?) knowledge. Moments later the four candidates are casually shown a blue and white polka dot handkerchief and all four of them throw the “acid” in someone else’s face. Wow. This is the first “Wow” moment. But is it really that much of a wow as we think? Imagine you are stood in the middle of a stage on a TV set, in front of an audience watching your every move and Derren Brown gives the order, via an anchor or trigger (the blue & white polka dot hanky) to throw the contents of a glass in someone else face. My first thought would be, even if it was acid, “Derren told me to do it, I’ve got 200 witnesses”! Deep down, each of the four subjects must have either known that it was not acid or been aware of the “Derren told me to do it” escape clause. Ask yourself this, would a TV company and the UK’s most famous stage hypnotist/mentalist ask you to throw acid in someones face, really? Derren states that this was to see whether people are playing along or in hypnosis. For the purpose of “The Assassin” there is no difference. This act also gives permission for the subjects to do things that are dangerous, it sets the first precedent for a permissive dangerous act (notice no-one stopped them) and really tests their compliance.

6) Now we have two candidates and they are given an “ice-plunge”test. With hypnotic suggestion, both are able to stay in the icy water for longer, how hypnosis could be used as a very powerful analgesic is discussed, and one candidate is chosen, Chris. Chris is them immersed fully in the icy water after being hypnotised with suggestions to benefit him and a very good and welcome example of the mind/body connection, and how hypnosis could work incredibly well with pain management, is shown. No skulduggery there at all Mr Brown, I like it! (Mr Brown, you naused up on taking your hand of the rail the second time – Chris didn’t warm up despite the previous suggestion that when you took your hand of the rail he and Alex would).

7) Ring-tone!

8) The academics that are consulted state that no-one could be made to kill someone else unless they were predisposed to doing it.

9) Cameras follow Chris around, which is highly unnatural and again adds to the acceptability of the show, and Chris’s family are interviewed. Chris is subconsciously placed on an even bigger stage.

10) The soundtrack to “The Bourne Identity” is played in the background to promote danger and anticipation amongst the viewers.

11) The anticipation and credibility of the show is re-inforced with further mention that Sirhan Sirhan was as gentle as a lamb and further reference is made to alleged CIA mind-control, brainwashing techniques.

12) The “Marksman Mode” is introduced where Chris is taken to a shooting range and taught to shoot a gun. He is then given hypnotic suggestions to improve his performance with a trigger or anchor, which he does. Again, no skulduggery from Mr Brown there, just a good demonstration of sports hypnosis (I do this week in week out with my clients). The anchor or trigger to going into “Marksman Mode” is a ring-tone which reminds Chris to simply bring his finger to his forehead, another anchor or trigger, where he enters the shooting state “Marksman Mode”. Notice the suggestion given “almost like a personality within you”. This implies dissociation, it won’t really be Chris firing the gun, clever stuff DB. “It wasn’t me, my marksman mode personality made me do it”.

13) Chris is brought to a warehouse (expensively lit up with a vast array of TV crew present no doubt) and given a red water-pistol to fire at a target when DB creates the “Marksman Mode” state with the ring-tone. So, it’s OK to fire a red water-pistol with dye in it when Derren is there and the trigger/anchor is re-inforced.

14) The concept of spontaneous amnesia is introduced to help with programming the assassin. Amnesia is a very real phenomenon of hypnosis and sometimes occurs without suggestion, sometimes with. Derren asks “Do you remember the last time you had amnesia?” Classic stuff, with a sub-titled explanation on the TV. The blue and white polka dot anchor is re-introduced, remember that it is already there to give Chris permission to do dangerous stuff, with the additional suggestion that it will also create total amnesia, Chris will simply forget everything that happens while in a state induced by the blue and white polka dot pattern. A little bit of stage hypnosis is shown for entertainment when Chris removes his shoe and doesn’t know that he’s done it. More importantly, this is also to reinforce compliance and the amnesia or dissociation effect with Chris.

15) Dun, Dun, Duuuuuh! Things are hotting up now as Chris is taken to a restaurant and is “unaware” that he is being filmed. I have no reason to disbelieve this. We are told that people in the restaurant (stooges) have been told that something will happen but not to react. Chris is with Derren and some of the production team or Derren’s friends seated at a table. An innocuous question, almost inaudible, “What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?” is asked of Chris by Derren (classic stuff again) as Chris describes excitedly an adrenalin pumping moment which he describes as petrifying. Notice how as Derren asks the question he makes a point of shuffling his glass and moving it towards Chris to remind him subconsciously that he threw a glass of acid in someone’s face at Derren’s request when the “polka dot” trigger was introduced. I’ve got to say that what is going on is perfect and Derren Brown is displaying the absolute skill and professionalism that makes him a master of his craft. Chris states that the thought of doing a bungee jump was much worse than actually doing it and I tip my hat to Mr Brown for not jumping out of his chair with glee at Chris’s perfect unscripted response. Next Derren asks for the wine list which, when opened and turned to face Chris, is simply a blue and white polka dot pattern. The ring-tone trigger is played immediately, Chris takes a moment and then brings his finger to his forehead, he’s in “Marksman Mode”. Derren then passes Chris a silver box and says “I need you to open that so you can take the gun out”. Throughout this process so far, the other dinner companions have remained virtually motionless and silent, which is highly unnatural and because they don’t react to anything going on it gives implicit permission for Chris to continue. Chris takes the gun (the red water-pistol) out and is told by Derren “and your target is the guy sat almost behind me…..” Chris then stands up, aims, and fires the water-pistol at the targets back. None of the other diners react in any way which again reinforces the implicit permission for Chris to behave this way. Chris sits down, puts the water-pistol on the table and then Derren puts the water-pistol away. Chris is then told he can wake up whenever he is ready. The silent and motionless diners then start to act normally again. So, the polka dot trigger, ring-tone trigger, “Marksman Mode” state, implicit permission to continue by an audience which ignores Chris’s behaviour and the act of actually shooting someone in the back is achieved! “Dry run” is not only a success but has reinforced every previous suggestion and trigger.

16) Chris is subjected to a lie-detector test to see if he truly has no recollection of shooting someone with a water-pistol in the restaurant. I can only assume now that the questions asked of Chris in the run-up to being asked the only truly relevant question were meticulously thought out, it appears from the snippet we were shown that many questions were asked to produce “no” answers, some of them like “did you throw a custard pie in someones face yesterday?” The fact that the “water-pistol” question was asked 20 minutes into the test with loads of leading bizarre questions beforehand may have played a part but the expert in charge of the test declared that Chris showed signs of being truthful when he answered that he did not shoot a water pistol at someone in a restaurant, he passed the test. My only logical, Sherlock Holmes like, conclusion from this is that the lie detector test was taken before the restaurant incident. If not, anyone whose husband, wife or partner is demanding to know your whereabouts on the previous weekend when you rolled through the front door several hours later than you should have done, please give me a call.

17) The big one, here we go! The target is revealed as Stephen Fry, who is in on the plot. Chris is given a ruse as to why he is in the theatre to watch Stephen Fry, he has been told that the will be speaking with him after the show, and is unaware that he is being filmed. Chris is told that Derren can’t make it and is given the silver box that previously contained the water-pistol and told to give it to Derren after the show and to keep hold of it, not to lose it. Chris is shown a gun inside and told that the gun contains three bullets. Stephen Fry has fake blood packets inserted in his jacket just in case Chris actually fires the gun. We are told that none of the theatre audience has any clue about what is going on, except some firearms experts and security, who are sitting with Chris who does not actually know about them. Stephen appears on stage and begins talking about language. Seventeen minutes in to his talk, Mr Fry says “In our culture we keep certain words in a special place in our brain” and at exactly the same time a woman dressed in a blue and white polka dot dress takes a seat immediately in front of Chris. Chris begins to go into the already familiar “state” and the ring-tone trigger is played loudly by the lady in the state inducing dress. It seems to take forever but after about 20 seconds of pure suspense, Chris moves his finger to his head and goes into “Marksman Mode”. The “polka” lady then turns to Chris and whispers “the target is Stephen Fry”. Chris sits there for what seems like ages whilst Mr Fry carries on his talk about language, loudly saying”….which words are permissible….” and “….which words are allowed…” Chris then takes out the gun and stands up! No-one sat near him takes a blind bit of notice. He then fires three times at Stephen Fry, who falls to the floor of the stage, and a smiling lady next to Chris whispers something in his ear and Chris flops into a deeper trance. The entire audience show no signs of panic or concern. Derren then enters the stage, Stephen gets up to a round of applause, and Mr Brown gives Stephen time to go and change his jacket and then he counts Chris awake with a 3 count where the performance carries on as if nothing had happened.

18) After the show Chris is interviewed and showed the footage of him shooting Stephen Fry. He has no knowledge or memory of the event but his actions are remembered after Derren gives him suggestions to do so.

19) Chris is given suggestions by Derren to remove any of the previous suggestions given to him, to revert to “normal”.

Wow, whether you refer to the techniques used in this programme as hypnosis, compliance, suggestion, belief, expectation, persuasion, manipulation or influence, this was truly superb, it was astonishingly glorious! Derren is a master of his trade without doubt.

I’ve written about 2800 words in this explanation, I could have written 28,000 so please forgive me if I haven’t specifically referred to every nuance and situation involved. All I can say is that the show was fantastic.

I wrote on some of my anti-social networking profiles about how my head was in my hands about this upcoming programme and how I hoped that Derren explained what was going on. This episode exceeded my expectations massively.

Many hypnotherapists out there think that what Derren does is bad, it creates a “wrong” impression of hypnosis but I will happily state that any good, skilled, professional hypnotherapist will not only know the difference between sleight of hand and suggestion, but will also be able to explain it and actually use some of the same techniques.

I say again that this programme was superb, it was glorious. Now, only one question really remains. If Derren Brown can, using the techniques discussed above, get a member of his audience to fire a gun at a celebrity… “Can an ordinary member of the public be programmed to kill a celebrity?”

Be happy,


Clinical Hypnotherapy

Feel free to share this post with your friends.

The following two tabs change content below.
Dave Sabat
My name's Dave Sabat DCH DHP SQHP and I am a full-time Clinical Hypnotherapist. Be happy, it's easier than you think.

Published by Dave Sabat

My name's Dave Sabat DCH DHP SQHP and I am a full-time Clinical Hypnotherapist. Be happy, it's easier than you think.

4 replies on “Derren Brown “The Assassin” Explained – How did he do it?”

  1. Hi Dave, awesome write-up! I come away from the programme very depressed: what’s the point of having morals if they can be wiped out like that? A few hours later, with subsided enough emotions, I figured Derren’s usual trickery was far easier to accept for explanation, and I was desperate for something to back it up but there wasn’t much among the “wow I never thought someone could be programmed like that” comments. Then I found your review – EXACTLY what I was looking for, you restored my peace of mind!
    How about the Milgram & Stanford experiments, one might ask. I think there is a big difference. The idea that being mean can be justifiable is conditioned into almost everyone during childhood when authority figures mete out punishments with the explanation that it is for the child’s own good (that’s why expected the second episode to have more documentary value but it didn’t exactly turned out to be that way); however, not many of them demonstrate murder to the child explaining that it is acceptable!
    “I tip my hat to Mr Brown for not jumping out of his chair with glee at Chris’s perfect unscripted response.”
    LMAO… brilliant, man, Derren’d tear the rest of his hair out if he knew what you wrote!
    Another favourite is your conclusion that the lie detector test was before the restaurant incident. It made me think that if they cheat like that, Derren could as well have taken the “real” gun off of Chris and given him another one before he sat down, so he didn’t mind using it. Or it could have been that Chris was sitting in a corner where only him and the few surrounding people (of whom Derren did say they were in on it, hence none of them taking notice) could be seen in close ups, out of the line of sight of the rest of the audience because they had a practice run in the theatre before the show, Chris with the same people around him in the otherwise empty auditorium and explained that his newly acquired aiming skills are now tested like it was at the shooting range but in a different environment. Then they film him reacting to the triggers and shooting (at a realistically reacting victim but not Stephen Fry so he too would be shocked watching Chris apparently shooting him). During the show, Chris is just asked to sleep and SF drops down for a signal which is then cut in after the footage of Chris shooting at the practice run – they had time for editing till the end of the speech. This is only a theory but it ties up with Fearglic’s comment on Derren’s blog who suspects the bangs were added later. They didn’t want to “wake up” Chris and indeed, the audience’s reaction is not a reflexive head turn towards the noise but a shock at Stephen Fry collapsing. (Someone who was there commented that they were asked beforehand to stay seated and not to panic, like it was at the restaurant). It also explains Chris’ puzzled look at the footage and why he thought nothing strange happened during the talk: all he could have been aware of was Stephen Fry going down but he already saw something like that in the practice run. For all he knows, he heeded the advice of not using the gun, that’s why Derren had to let him know he assassinated a national treasure (Chris’ reaction was indeed more like “oops, I didn’t think that’s how they’ll make it look like” than “omg I shot someone!!!). That’d explain his “nowhere” reply with the “shooting range” added and the other details when Derren touched his knee, making him realise he was to talk about the practice run, not the show… which he then did to the point of apparently even mentioning something he wasn’t supposed to – Derren cut into his word when he said he remembered picking the gun up “like he was told”… anyone caught the rest of the sentence?
    You mentioned you could write more about the show – I certainly wouldn’t mind! Shame for this WordPress registration, I’m sure you’d get loads of interesting comments otherwise. I only didn’t let it put me off because I thought I should take that much effort if you took the effort to write 2800 words for us!

    Be happy, Dave!

    1. Hi Rita, many thanks for your wonderful input!

      The concept of “formal hypnosis” vs “informal hypnosis” i.e. simple human interaction is one that could be debated endlessly. My two-bobs worth is that there is an abundance of science behind the human brain but how the human mind works is simply speculation and opinion. The Milgram and Stanford experiments that you refer to are great examples of how those that think how the mind works are sometimes astonished at what actually happens. Derren’s show was a mixture of both formal and informal persuasion.

      Derren Brown is a master entertainer and his mix of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” helped make “The Assassin” such a great bit of TV. The points that you mention could fall into the misdirection category? Your comments have got me thinking and I plan to watch the show again to notice your points.

      The only reason I require a simple, quick registration before posting is to stop all the spammers. The genuine people out there, like you, make the small effort.

      Rita, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I can see from my stats how many times it is visited but your comments are worth so much more than mere visits!

      Kind regards,

      Dave Sabat.

Comments are closed.