Subliminal messages have been a fascination of the public for many years. The concept is pretty neat, but they've proven to be based more in paranoia and myth than anything resembling reality. In regards to subliminal messages in film, the idea is that a message is placed within the movie that the viewer sees or hears but doesn't realize they've seen or heard it. The message comes in just below our perception threshold, meaning we aren't consciously aware of what's happened. The thought is that these messages then influence us slightly, making our reactions to the subliminal message feel natural and authentic.
Subliminal messages are, apparently, at their most effective when they are goal oriented. By splicing in a quick shot of Coca-Cola, for example, audiences might feel an increased urge to get a Coke. But there are very few examples of these actually in film. In fact, the 15 examples on this list are some of the only known attempts at putting subliminal messages in film. It's completely unclear if any of these messages actually worked to achieve their goals, plus some of the goals of these hidden messages aren’t even clear. But it's fun to point them out nonetheless. It's just another example of a tiny, seemingly insignificant detail, making a film seem that much better for the viewer. Since none of these messages hurt the film, there's no harm in trying to influence the audiences in whatever ways you can. If nothing else, knowing they exist is great trivial knowledge to have. Here are 15 insanely sneaky subliminal messages in film.
15 The Ring – Seeing the Ring
The subliminal messages in The Ring are not meant to make you go out and buy popcorn. They're simply a neat piece of metatextuality that bring some of the fictional elements of the film inside the film into real life. In certain scenes in the movie, there are quick and bright flashes of some of the images from the fictional film that the characters watch within. This is a cool way of connecting the audience with the film in the movie, The Ring. Sure, we all watched The Ring and none of us died. Well, some of us have—awkward—but not because of the images we saw in the movie. While the images we saw didn't manage to kill us, the quick flashes can make us question whether or not we saw something, and that brief moment of doubt is worth the minimal effort it took from the filmmakers to splice it in.
14 Robocop – American Jesus
The fact that Paul Verhoeven has come out and openly stated that his film, Robocop, is actually an allegory for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus makes this one much more obvious than most on the list, but the subtle images are not necessarily obvious in the film. Even though they're not subliminal in the traditional sense, the allegorical shots are meant to be perceived but not necessarily registered openly. The goal is to make the audience associate Robocop with Jesus Christ without necessarily recognizing that's what's happening. Take the crucifixion scene, for example, when Alex Murphy is shot up. The baddies shoot his hands when he's in the crucifixion pose, like a mockery of the stigmata marks. Then Murphy is resurrected and rises up to clear the city of sin. The topper comes at the end with Robocop walking across water, really ramming home the Jesus imagery. So, if you've ever wondered why you felt the urge to pray to Robocop, now you know why.
13 The Wise Quacking Duck – Buy Bonds
In the oldest example we have of a subliminal message in a movie, the animated film, The Wise Quacking Duck, does its best to convince viewers to support the war effort. Released in 1943, the scene in question has Daffy Duck spinning a gold statue of a Roman soldier. In one brief instant, the words "Buy Bonds" are visible on the shield. The combination of a soldier and the instructional words is meant to influence viewers to get out there and get some bonds. Now, we don't know if people actually ran out to follow these instructions after seeing this, but it is a piece of history now. We will give them an "A" for effort.
12 Fight Club – Tyler Durden
So you know how in Fight Club Tyler Durden tells us about how he puts little subliminal flashes of his own junk in the films he works with? Well, as a subtle in-movie joke and as possible foreshadowing, director David Fincher also put in some flashes of Tyler Durden into various scenes throughout the movie. The flashes are quick, miss-if-you-blink shots of Durden appearing in scene, and they're meant to make you think you saw him, but you aren’t positive. They point to the idea that Edward Norton's character is seeing Durden in places where Durden is not supposed to be—hinting toward the final twist of the movie. There's also the metatextual reference here, possibly suggesting that maybe someone like Tyler Durden (or Durden himself) is manipulating the very film you're watching.
11 Psycho – Skeleton Face
At the end of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock superimposes Norma Bates' skull over Norman Bates' face. The shot is very quick and very subtle, almost subliminally connecting the two together for the audience. The idea behind the frame is to show that Norman has completely taken over as Norma, something the audience already knew by that point, but still didn't quite understand. The subtle shot also shows Norman as the villain he is. The skull is meant to be associated with negatively and by placing it over his face, Hitchcock leaves the audience with one final vision of the psycho.
10 Memento – Spoiler Alert
Throughout Christopher Nolan's film Memento, there are scenes in black and white in which Leonard (Guy Pearce) tells the story of Sammy Jankins, a man with the same short-term memory loss as he has. The story goes that Jankins' wife wanted to find out if he was faking his illness, so she made a plan that would have him deliver her the insulin shot she needs for her diabetes. After he gave it, she would wait a few minutes and ask him to give it to her again. If he was faking, he would refuse to give it to her. If he wasn’t faking, he would continue to give her the shot, eventually killing her. In one of these flashbacks, there is a brief moment in which the character Jankins, is supplanted by Leonard. It's very quick and easy to miss, but it hints at the big reveal which tells the viewers that Jankins' story is actually Leonard's story. Spoiler alert!
9 The Lion King – SFX Or?
It's impossible to know what the point of this message was, but, then again, Disney puts in a ton of weird little messages that aren't really explainable. In The Lion King, when Simba grows up, he slumps down on the ground and a cloud of dust swirls up. If, in that moment, you look closely at the dust, you can make out the word SEX. Now, Disney has said that the word is actually SFX for their special effects crew, which is the lamest excuse we've ever heard. Even if that is true, they might as well have just written SEX because the two words look exactly the same in dust letters. There's no way that this potential confusion wasn't considered at the time—and being aware makes them guilty. Maybe the hint here is that Simba is now thinking about sex and starting up a family of his own. Or maybe Disney is telling you to have sex and start a family so that your kids can fall in love with the Disney money-making machine.
8 Cloverfield – Classic Monsters
Perhaps in an effort to associate the monster in Cloverfield with the classic movie monsters of the past or maybe just to include a subliminal homage to those horror monsters, director Matt Reeves inserted three shots of famous movie monsters into his film. One single frame from each of the classics Them! (1954), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and King Kong (1933), flashes on the screen at different points in the film. If you look closely at the 24:06, 45.27 and 1:06:55 marks in the film, you'll be able see a quick glimpse of these ancient monsters.
7 The Godfather – Oranges
Though it's been said that the filmmakers simply used oranges in The Godfather because the color orange looked so nice in the shots, many people have speculated that it's an attempt to subliminally associate ill omens with the fruit. This effect would build anticipation in the audience whenever an orange or the color orange shows up in a scene. Several characters show up on screen with oranges near them before they die or something major happens to them, characters such as Woltz, Vito, Fredo, Sonny, Sollozzo and the heads of the Five Families. There may be some historical connection here too, with the tradition of the Sicilian mafia protecting land, but that's a talk for a different day.
6 Aladdin – Bad Advice
In the older versions of the film, Aladdin had a disturbing subliminal message for teenagers. When Rajah tries to kill Aladdin on Jasmine's balcony, Aladdin says, under his breath, "good teenagers take off their clothes." Now this might seem a bit forward, even for Disney, but their track record for sexual innuendo is well documented. Sites like Snopes have declared this one false with absolutely no proof whatsoever, but it's really still up for debate. The claim is that Aladdin actually says: "good kitty" first, which is weird because there are very clearly four syllables, "good teen-ag-ers." The final portion is said to be a different voice that is the result of bad editing, but that doesn't quite explain why that "different voice" clearly says, "take off their clothes." While it's easy to state that this is false with no reasoning as to why, we will leave the case open because it's hilarious.
5 The Shining – The Impossible Window
The Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is meant to be confusing and disorienting. Yet, rather than just state that the place is mazelike, Kubrick decided to just show it. He wanted to devise a building that didn't quite make sense in order to trouble the audience. The effect is subtle, and it might not even work, but the goal was to make people feel lost and uneasy, like the characters within the film. While there are a vast number of doors that appear to lead nowhere and hallways that don’t quite make sense, the most blatant example is the "impossible window" in Mr. Ullman's office. This window can't really exist when you think about the layout of the area.
It appears to be a continuity error, but Kubrick doesn't seem like the kind of guy that makes spatial mistakes. He is known for going to great lengths to make sets absolutely perfect, so why would he so blatantly botch the blueprints of a building we traverse constantly in the movie? So much of the film revolves around traveling through the hotel; Kubrick must have known the audiences would get familiar with it. There is maze outside and a maze inside. The strange building layout was subtle but effective. After all, we're still talking about it.
4 Irreversible – Discomforting Sound
When Gaspar Noe made his film Irreversible, he clearly wanted to make his audience uneasy with more than just the on-screen visuals. To accomplish this, Noe inserted a barely audible noise throughout the first 30 minutes of the film. The sound is detectable by our ears, but not really perceptible, making us feel very uneasy and even a little nauseas. This only serves to add to the disgusting things we're seeing, making the entire film doubly disturbing.
3 Sunshine – Crew Members
Just after the 49-minute mark in Danny Boyle's film, Sunshine, a flashlight passes over the camera a few times, blinding it. In those brief flashes, Boyle inserts one-frame pictures of the crew of the Icarus. The pictures are of them enjoying a Hawaiian vacation (they're all smiley and wearing Hawaiian shirts). These flashes are a little creepy on their own, but they also serve to foreshadow what will happen, as well as increase the impact of what will happen late on. Similar to many of the examples on this list, these quick flashes almost seem like accidents, which makes them even more eerie.
2 The Shining – Faked Moon Landing
Coming in with its second entry on the list, The Shining is said to have several subliminal messages that point to the fact that director Stanley Kubrick faked the 1969 Moon landing. Throughout the Overlook hotel are placed images that Kubrick apparently used to tell the world the truth. Now this is silly, of course it is. But it's incredibly interesting, and the work put into arguing it is pretty compelling, albeit crazy. From the astronaut drink, Tang, in the pantry, Danny's Apollo 11 sweater, room 237 representing 237,000 miles from Earth to the Moon and the contractual responsibility tirade from Jack, all of these have been pointed out as signs that Kubrick used to spill his secret to the world without breaking his contract with NASA or the President or whoever. Check out the film Room 237 if you're interested in this theory.
1 The Exorcist – Captain Howdy
In terms of subliminal messages, The Exorcist is probably the film with the most famous instances. Throughout the film, there are several quick flashes of the demon who is possessing Reagan, named Pazuzu—also named Captain Howdy. The flashes are all different and each of them pass by so quickly that you can watch the movie several times and never see them. These subliminal messages have been well documented and have resulted in a few cases of serious paranoia from people who have watched the film. There was a long-standing rumor that the film itself was haunted by a demon, no doubt largely influenced from these subliminal shots. The intent of these flashes is to make the viewer question what they just saw, maybe even burning a subtle, lasting image of Pazuzu in their minds even after the film is over.