In modern psychology, the subconscious is held to be an independently functional and crucial part of the human psyche. Not only does it influence even minuscule decisions, it can also be responsible for a great deal of human behaviour, good and bad.
In his book, Subliminal Seduction, Dr. Wilson Bryan Key presented his studies on the subconscious mind. He revealed the extraordinary power of the subconscious to process information at an incredible rate – so fast the conscious mind can’t keep up. The subconscious knows thousands of pieces of information before the conscious has a chance to process or perceive anything at all. An example of this is “zoning out” during long drives. While you are technically conscious, you’re not completely aware of every manoeuvre that’s required to drive. At times, people can drive for hours without consciously perceiving their actions. Another example is breathing. People don’t think about inhaling and exhaling. The subconscious does this automatically without much conscious attention.
In addition to studying how the subconscious works, Dr. Key studied how it can be exploited through archetypal symbols, meanings, and messages, in both ancient art and contemporary advertising. He postulated that artists and advertisers could influence people’s thoughts by inserting subliminal messages recognized only by the subconscious. He also theorized that the majority of messages exploited people’s most primal emotions and desires — usually sexual attraction. Through sexual, subliminal images (or even the word ‘sex’ itself), advertisements could stand out above their competitors by drawing the most attention to their ad, so Dr. Key argued.
Dr. Key’s theories have stimulated further interesting theories about the subconscious and how it can be influenced to change people’s behaviour. It also brings up some critical questions about the media which we are all, impressionable children and adults alike, regularly exposed to. Does subliminal messaging exist today, or is it just a crack-pot theory? Before you decide, take a look at these weird symbols, hidden meanings, and barely noticeable messages that you’ve probably been personally exposed to – they are, either reportedly or verifiably, found in some of the most popular movies of all time.
10. The Dementors are Depression in Harry Potter
The Harry Potter films, based on the beloved books by J.K. Rowling, are some of the most watched movies on the planet. They have created a world of magic, mythical beasts, and the power of sorcery. In that world are the dreaded Dementors, dark and disturbed soul-sucking creatures. They relentlessly torment Harry and are almost impossible to defeat. But what do they really mean? When Rowling was writing the books, she envisioned the monsters to symbolize depression and loss of hope. She described the sensation as that “very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.” When Harry was fighting the Dementors, Rowling was actually battling her depression and fears, not knowing if the books would ever be published.
9. Elsa is Coming Out in Frozen
Disney movies are often the subject of crazy conspiracy theories, many of which centre around hidden meanings. The Disney movie, Frozen, is no exception but this particular theory is a pretty universally convincing one. The movie tells the story of Elsa, a princess who has special powers to create ice and snow. But is there more to her character than just a misunderstood girl? Devin Faraci of Badass Digest suggests that Elsa is trying to come to terms with her sexuality. Faraci argues that the fact that Elsa is not without a boyfriend or love interest at all – unusual for a Disney princess – and due to the idea the she was born “different”, her “queerness” is inherently implied. R. Kurt Osenlund of Slate Magazine agrees with Faraci, saying the movie “teems with gay themes.” By this interpretation, the movie’s central musical number, ‘Let It Go’, can be understood as a ‘coming out’ song of sorts.
8. The Impossible Window in The Shining
Stanley Kubrick is known as one of the greatest director who ever lived. Regarded as a genius and movie mastermind, he’s been heralded by fans and critiques for his skill in manipulating audiences in his stories and visual styles. In particular, The Shining (based on Stephen King’s book of the same name), is supposedly filled with hidden meanings and subliminal messages. So much so, in fact, that a whole documentary called Room 237 was made to elucidate the hidden messages.
One of the most bizarre aspects of the movie is the set design, and the eerie presence of an impossible window. When the manager of the hotel first meets Jack, his office is located in a spatially-impossible area of the hotel where no window could really exist. Film theorists claim that Kubrick did this intentionally to create a sense of discomfort and tension in the audience.
7. Rainbows in Eyes Wide Shut
If you watch Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut carefully enough, you begin to notice the many rainbows and multicoloured lights. They appear everywhere in the film, from houses, bars, parties, and the Rainbow Costume Rental where Bill (Tom Cruise) rents a tux. The symbol is first introduced in the beginning of the film when Bill meets two models at a friend’s party. They seductively ask him if he wants to go “where the rainbow ends”. From there, rainbows pop up everywhere. If not rainbows, multi colored Christmas lights decorate almost everything in sight. Kubrick was so dedicated to detail and perfection, the rainbow visuals could not have been a coincidence. What do they mean? The interpretations vary, but rainbows typically represent a ‘trippy’ or psychedelic ambience, suggesting the movie’s possible unreality and drug-induced imagery. Moreover, since the 70s the rainbow has also taken on significance in the gay rights movement; it’s possible Kubrick’s rainbow choices were a nod to this.
6. Antz is a Parable on Communism vs. Capitalism
In 1998, DreamWorks released the computer-animated movie Antz. It had an all-star cast, including Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, and Christopher Walken. The story tells of an ant named Z (Woody Allen) who is unsatisfied with the colony and sets off to find a utopia. In the ant world, everything is done “for the good of the colony,” and no individual ant is above the rest. Although made for children, Antz is believed to represent political and social theories on individuality and the collective, as postulated by philosophers Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. Z’s unrest with the colony serves to criticize communism and utilitarianism, supports the progress of the individual over that of the collective. Some teachers even use the film as a study guide to illustrate these social ideas to their students.
5. Inaudible Bass in Irreversible
French director Gasper Noe’s Irreversible is tragic tale of revenge. When a young woman is brutally sexually assaulted after leaving a party, her boyfriend vows to find the culprit and make him pay. As cleverly indicated in the title, the film is shot in reverse chronological order, using long master shots (extended takes without any cut scenes) to follow Marcus (Vincent Cassel) through the streets of Paris. But director Noe never openly revealed the use of subsonic, infrasound bass throughout the entire film upon its release. The bass is so low that it’s almost impossible for a human to hear – but not so low a human can’t feel it. Subtonic sounds can affect a person’s physiology, without their knowledge. Noe put the bass so low to manipulate the audience into feeling uneasy, disturbed, and uncomfortable, just as much as the characters – and it worked. Irreversible is regularly cited as one of the most disturbing mainstream movies ever created.
4. Eating Disorders in Drag Me To Hell
Sam Raimi is the mastermind behind the films Evil Dead 2 and Spider-Man. A horror fanatic at heart, he wrote and directed Drag Me To Hell, the story of an unassuming bank clerk who used to be obese and is sensitive about her weight. She is suddenly cursed by an old Gypsy and experiences horrifying hauntings and ghostly apparitions. But they aren’t just “regular” hauntings. Every evil spirit she encounters torments her with maggots in her food, pulling things from her mouth, trying to eat her face, and shoving their hands down her throat. Each attack has to do with either food, eating, and her mouth – all of which is said to be symbolizing her struggle with a hidden eating disorder.
3. Subliminal Nudity in Disney’s The Rescuers
Symbols and metaphors are common in movies, but can meaning be attributed to images people were never meant to see? Disney’s The Rescuers is an animated film about mice travelling America. The last thing people expect to find in a Disney film directed primarily at children is any kind of adult material – like nudity. During one scene in the film, where two mice are travelling around New York City, there is a background image of a topless woman in a window. It’s only there for about two frames, but when the film was first released on video, the image was in plain view. Keeping in mind Dr. Key’s theories about the use of sex as subliminal message, we’re left to wonder if the naked woman’s appearance was intentional. Disney never denied the image was there, but recalled about half a million copies.
2. Hidden “Sex” in Disney’s The Lion King
The Lion King is one of the most popular Disney movies ever made. It’s the story of a young lion who takes his place as rightful king after his father is suddenly murdered. There are many claims that there are multiple subliminal messages dispersed throughout the film. In one scene, where the older Simba plops down near a cliff, the word “sex” is briefly visible in the billowing dust. But messages aren’t always in the movies – they’re also on the movie covers. In the picture above, you can clearly see the outline of a woman’s back and buttocks, influencing the viewer to subconsciously think about sex.
1. Fake Moon Landing in The Shining
Our examination of hidden messages in movies wouldn’t be complete without including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining one more time, so imbued with the subliminal as it is. One of the most interesting theories around this movie is that a particular set of symbols tell a specific story about Kubrick. Film experts theorize that Kubrick left tiny clues all over The Shining that reveal not only was the moon landing faked, but Kubrick himself was the one who filmed it. In many scenes, Danny is wearing a sweater with a launching rocket. In other scenes, he’s playing on a carpet with a distinct pattern resembling the craters of the moon’s surface. Even the number 237 that prominently featured in the movie is riddled with associations to the Apollo missions.