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How Does the Svengali Doll Trick Work? History - Derren Brown


Before we start, take a look at the picture on the right. It is the poster for Derren Brown - Svengali. Stare at the picture for 10 seconds or so, focusing on the stage area. Then continue reading through the page, but once you reach the end come back and take another look at the picture, focusing on the stage area once again. Has your perspective changed, it's truly amazing.

Once again Derren Brown has been touring the country with another new and exciting show. This time the show is named Svengali. Many people have snubbed the show and said that although it was a very good few hours of entertainment, they feel that it was not as good as some of his previous shows. Derren Brown has performed a number of amazing tricks and there's bound to be plenty more in his still relatively young career. If you haven't already seen the show and do not want it to be spoilt for you then I suggest that you leave the page right now as we will be discussing the tricks that happen during the show.

The Svengali Doll trick is different from other tricks that Derren Brown has performed in the past. It's different because rather than Derren Brown performing mind control and mind reading techniques, it is the Svengali doll that does all the work for him. So let's remind ourselves of what the Svengali Doll actually does during the show. Firstly, it completely takes over the mind of someone from the audience, to the extent that they go into a kind of trance whereby they can copy everything the doll is doing, without even looking at it. In the show that I watched live it began by asking a lady from audience to come up on the stage. The lady had recently lost her mother and amazingly the Svengalli Doll knew the initials and then the full name of the deceased mother. It was a really incredible sight to see, and the whole time my scepticism was kicking in, meaning that I didn't let Derren out of my sight. For those that believe Derren had a remote control in his hand and was instructing the doll - you would be wrong.

Derren told us that the Svengali doll was over 200 years old and was created by a man that had lost his son at a very young age. He then developed the doll as a replica of his son. It then became an obsession and it is believed that he actually created a doll that is able to think for itself, and see things that we aren't capable of seeing, doing or knowing. Apparently Derren Brown had been aware of the story of the doll for quite some time but it had been missing for a number of years and nobody knew of it's whereabouts. It then appeared at an auction and Derren Brown snapped it up and fixed up the doll to it's original working condition.

When the doll has guessed the initials of the lady's lost loved one, the boy who is being controlled by the doll is sitting facing another direction and is handed a chalkboard and some chalk. Unconsciously he writes the initials that the doll is pointing towards. Derren Brown doesn't say anything that could influence the boys decision and this is what makes the trick super amazing. Normally Derren Brown uses suggestion to get his audience to do, say or write what it is that he wants from them, but in this case Derren Brown just stands back and watches it all happen. After a couple of minutes the boy is brought back into the real world again and was simply speechless. He didn't know why he wrote the initials he did and he didn't really know what was going on. Derren then asked him if he would mind him poking a needle through the upper side of his hand whilst in a trance and under the spell of svengali once again. The boy agrees and Derren continues by removing the hand from the doll and bringing it over to the boy. He then tells the boy that his hand is just like the dolls hand; wooden and with no sense of feeling. Within seconds the boy has lost feeling in his hand and is happy for Derren to stick a needle right through the top. Derren does exactly that and the boy feels no pain whatsoever, and pushes it right through before removing the needle only for there to be no trace of blood.

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The Svengali doll trick is a complete mystery. If you have any ideas of how he might have done it then please feel free to comment at the bottom of the page. As well as the Svengali doll there was lots of other entertainment on show...

Derren Brown asked the audience to think of an embarressing moment that they would not want anyone to know about. He then randomly selects people from the audience to stand up and rushes a microphone over to them. As they stand there with their faces enlarged on the screen at the front of the stage, they are probably praying that Derren Brown doesn't disclose their most inner secrets - But as you have probably guessed, he does exactly that. There was only lady who had poo'd in her shower and another woman who had stolen money from the church as a child to buy herself some sweets from the sweet shop. To be honest it was actually quite an uncomfortable feeling for the audience, whereby you felt that he could pick on you and there was nothing you could do about it.

The show ends with a big bang whereby a series of balloons are shot out into the audience and then the birthday girl has to select three people to come on stage. At this stage it is similar to other tricks that has performed before, and a series of numbers and events leads to a mind baffling finale.

Do you think you know how Derren used the Svengali doll? Is it really magical and mind controlling or is it all a stunt with made up history and story telling designed to create an enigmatic atmosphere. You decide, and share your view with us at the bottom of the page.


andy on June 11, 2016:

I went to see Svengali in Newcastle. At the start of the Svengali trick itself, he does a full audience participation thing whereby he suggests to everyone, through various repeated images and sensations, that their hand and arm is like the wooden doll. It worked on me, but not my wife. I guess about 50% of the audience were similarly affected. My hand was rigid, and moved as the doll's did. My muscles were so locked that it almost hurt and did so until he said that we were free. He walked around the audience and selected a guy to do the more gruesome stuff on. If it'd been me, or any other member of the affected audience, I reckon they would have been exactly the same. It really was proof for me that hypnosis works and could work to the degree needed to be able to do the pin prodding etc.

Benjy Cohen on March 05, 2014:

The idea of revealing another magician's trick makes me feel gross. Especially as Derren has helped me countless times. I suggest you look into John Nevil Maskelyne. J N Maskelyne used to perform this 100 years ago (though not for the tricks Derren does) the automaton works the same way as JN's.

Secondly there wouldn't be blood if you use a thin needle like that, just suggest that there should be to make an audience feel there should be.

I won't give you anymore information. But if you're willing to read up on JN Maskelyne you'll find out how a lot of Derrens tricks are done

Joe on August 29, 2013:

No need for any fancy sound in the “tapping” business - the guy in the wheelchair was sitting against a black stage cloth. When Derren first taps the doll on the shoulder, a stage-hand dressed entirely in black taps the subject on the shoulder (this is common stage-craft, and used by puppeteers, magcians, and anyone needing an “invisible man” type effect. Derren then gets the man in the chair to point out that he was tapped on the same shoulder as the doll (which the subject can’t see) - ooh! ahh!

From then on in, the stage-hand continues to tap the guy on the back, as Derren continues to tap the doll wherever he likes - all that he needs is for the subject to raise his hand at the same time to say only that he’s been touched - never has to identify *where* he’s been touched (that only happens the first time, and as Derren never says what he’s doing, the subject isn’t aware of the discrepency.

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Also be sceptical of *any* significance in the use of words, pairs of words, words with the same initial letters, etc. - he *wants* you to think that he is controlling things that way, drops hints all the time that that is what he’s doing and how he does it - even goes so far as to show after the fact that he’s had a giant hording errected to display a name, made a bus go by with a piece of text on it, or whatever, and it’s all mis-direction to cover the use of standard magic tricks. Subliminal messaging and NLP type stuff is largely unworkable, and you can’t be made to think of letters by being given two words, or having a bus flash past, or whatever.

Nulln Void from Washington, District of Columbia on February 07, 2013:

Lozenge123, during my high school years I used to stick safety pins into various parts of body, including the top of my hand. Generally, the only pain was to the hand pushing the pin through dense layers of skin. There is little to no actual pain and little blood involved in a surface piercing. A small diameter beveled medical needle would slide into the skin with little resistance and virtually no pain.

This trick in Svengalli ruined the show for me because there was nothing mysterious about it. It seemed gimmicky in comparison to the other tricks that I find befuddling. After the trick, I tried pinching and twisting my own skin with equivalent force and experienced no pain either.

Lozenge123 on November 20, 2012:

Iain, just watched this. Totally amazing. How did it feel?!

Richard Nash on October 30, 2012:

The initials came from the stamp on their hand he asked everyone to look at the beginning of the trick. That stamp was obviously put on everyone's hand as they came into the hall. Notice that he asks them to to look at the stamp, but its not revealed at any point, your meant to assume its the same stamp as the doll.

Selecting a member of the audience, out of a group of over 1400 people, is just finding the most suggestible person at that moment.

The touching the doll that is felt by the subject is done through sound. The music being played in the background works on a repetitive cycle, as long as the last tone or key is different enough to register the restart of the cycle, the subject will naturally tune into the cycle and register the change. Notice that he doesn't ask after the first touch ask where he's being touch, just whether he felt it. This is actually easier to do when the song has lyrics. The subject will hear the lyrics that will disguises the the repetition of the tune, but you will still register the change in the key.

The movement of the hand and writing is done in the same way, but instead of the actions being synchronised to the music, its done with bell and the mechanical sound effects that are being played. From the start of the trick, ringing the bell and seeing the hand move, you naturally associate the two later on. Psychologist have been doing the same trick with dogs and dinner time since the 60's I think.

The doll itself was electronic and being controlled by someone off stage. When ever Derren needed the doll to move the stagehand would control it by remote.

There's no real way by ringing a bell for doll to be controlled, especially differentiating the difference between the two hands.

But if this seems too simple, try this. You could make the doll fully mechanical and have it just run through a cycle, and just match the performance in time with the cycle, but there's too much room for error and would make the whole sketch would be a lot less elaborate.

Lastly the story, itself, although likely to contain elements of truth, especially for people who would google it after the show, is going to be embellished. The whole point of the doll and the story is that their theatrics and are there to create misdirection. Although Derren's telling you its a trick, the story, the background of the doll's face are about planting an idea in your mind that adds to your natural desires to see thing that aren't there.

Like PT Barnum said "we have something for everyone" the point of the stories and the theatrics is that if you want to believe in it you will do, but if you want to believe its a trick, you'll probably doubt yourself because you don't know how its done. From this a lot of wild ideas will come about as to how!? But this just fuels the mystery behind it! Simplify what is happening, work backwards and look at what is possible.

A great performance by Derren Brown, yet again another really entertaining show.

As a quick side note, a stooge would make this trick a lot simpler, but if Derren were to use a stooge at any point in any of his shows, that would eventually come out.

Steve on October 11, 2012:

On the poster, you can see the audience the second time.

Iain on October 05, 2012:

I can categorically say Derren did not use a stooge, as I was picked up on stage for the doll part and had a needle stuck in my hand too!

ABH on September 24, 2012:

The only thing you need to rmeember is Derren is a brilliant presenter and showman (and an exceedingly good magician - top drawer). All the effects are entirely expalinable to those with the requirsite knowledge of mentalism. Sorry to dissapoint anyone who believes there might be something more to it. Derren did a great job - as usual.

James Rock on September 23, 2012:

You may be interested in this article...!

??????? on September 22, 2012:


charlotte on September 21, 2012:

I went to see this show and the guy sitting next to me got picked to go up with the doll, he said that it was totally mind blowing and no way could be a fix with the music and Derren touching the doll he could feel a weird sensation in his body. Still not 100% about it but the guy did seem genuine about it. Still the best show around!!

Martyn on September 20, 2012:

I watched it on Channel 4, and it's obvious that the majority of his show is his usual confidence tricks. The Svengali doll however was truly remarkable. I was sure the guy was in on it or knew what to do. However the whole way through the poor bloke looked terrified and that was what sold it to me! Truly remarkable!

sean chard on September 20, 2012:

whos this mind washed freak above ^

darren on September 19, 2012:

repent derren brown and give your life back to jesus christ, witchcraft,the occult is all real as you know, obviously you know where the power comes from,Satan, no exuse god is real.

DARREN on September 19, 2012:

derren used to be a born again christian,but he is playing with fire now, and God will bring judgement,mark my words!

Darren on September 19, 2012:

The man was hypnotized before the show to carry out the performance

anon on September 19, 2012:

No stooge required.

Derren first asks the entire audience to think of the initials of someone they know. He says Svengali doll will transmit the initials on the handkerchief this way - i.e. the initials on the handkerchief will be the same as the person you are thinking of. However, most people forget about this part.

When the subject is on stage, Derren somehow finds out (i.e. asks the subject for) the name of the person the subject was thinking of. Perhaps a stage assistant does this while Derren is talking to the audience. This also reminds the subject who they were thinking of so it is fresh in their mind. This would be cut from the TV version (or, at least, we get an "audience shot" while it is happening).

The initials are added to the handkerchief once the crew know the name of the person the subject was thinking of. The rest just happens.

The important part is that Derren first asks the entire audience to think of the initials of someone they know. This is key, as he never comes back to this and never reminds us about it.

Dave on September 19, 2012:

The subject is a stooge in my mind - the illusion is created by saying no stooge is used. If you pay attention, the doll-puppet participant is the only participant in the show who is not chosen at random, he is chosen directly by Derren.

Once the stooge participant theory is accepted, the rest falls into place. Watch this section again while applying the stooge theory; the doll's movements are pre-programmed and the stooge acts them out.

While Derren was asking the subject to raise his hand if/when he felt a touch on his shoulder, knee, arm etc. there is a strange piece of music playing - the stooge has been told to raise his hand at a certain point in the musical score and indicate a pre-arranged part of his body.

emily on September 19, 2012:

to me the stage looks like it's floating a little bit on second stare, but I may just be looking for things which aren't there...

Potato on September 18, 2012:

Yup, I just watched it as well, and my mind is blown. However, I actually want to believe in magic, so the fact that there have been no explanations yet, pleases me :)

Aquille on September 18, 2012:

oh i see, i'm not the only one that just watched Derren on chanel 4 and wants to find out more about this Svengali doll ? hehe

Louise on September 18, 2012:

You can see the devils tail the first time you look at the poster its obvious as soon as you look at the poster it doesn't just appear after. It's a load of bull poop!

RRRRRRRRRR on September 18, 2012:

theres clearly a stooge among them.. ok i really don't know

Anonymous on September 18, 2012:

The picture gained a devil's tail on Derren for me... but i reckon it was actually there in the first place it's the focus on the stage bit that means you don't see it but when looking back again you then see it

n/a on September 18, 2012:

Perhaps the person was an actor and already knew what letters the doll was going to point at, because it was programmed to only point at those numbers by someone off stage.

Jamie on September 18, 2012:

before the person wrote down the initials (D, S on the T.V.). Daren said the words 'Devil' and 'sinister'. I think that was what the suggestive part was. He has done that before after all, remember the episode where he asked Simon Pegg what present he wanted?

james on September 18, 2012:

same the poster was the same

harrisonhoughton on September 18, 2012:

well most of the righting was hypnosis

and i think that the leters was told to him at one ponit in the show and he unconshusely told to right what it said

ME on September 18, 2012:

What are they talking about at the start of this article. The poster didn't all...for me anyway.

Samantha on September 18, 2012:

Magic !!!!!!!!!!

George on August 06, 2012:

This doll really looked like an automated ouija board to me...

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