Subliminal stimuli (/sʌbˈlɪmɨnəl/; literally “below threshold”), contrary to supraliminal stimuli or “above threshold”, are any sensory stimuli below an individual’s threshold for conscious perception. A recent review of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies shows that subliminal stimuli activate specific regions of the brain despite participants being unaware. Visual stimuli may be quickly flashed before an individual can process them, or flashed and then masked, thereby interrupting the processing. Audio stimuli may be played below audible volumes or masked by other stimuli.
These are instances of subliminal messages that have led to controversy and occasionally legal allegations.
- In 1978, Wichita, Kansas television station KAKE-TV received special permission from the police to place a subliminal message in a report on the BTK Killer (Bind, Torture, Kill) in an effort to get him to turn himself in. The subliminal message included the text “Now call the chief”, as well as a pair of glasses. The glasses were included because when BTK murdered Nancy Fox, there was a pair of glasses lying upside down on her dresser; police felt that seeing the glasses might stir up remorse in the killer. The attempt was unsuccessful, and police reported no increased volume of calls afterward.
- During the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, a television ad campaigning for Republican candidate George W. Bush showed words (and parts thereof) scaling from the foreground to the background on a television screen. When the word BUREAUCRATS flashed on the screen, one frame showed only the last part, RATS. The FCC looked into the matter, but no penalties were ever assessed in the case.
- In the British alternative comedy show The Young Ones, a number of subliminal images were present in the original and most repeated broadcasts of the second series. Images included a gull coming into land, a tree frog jumping through the air, a man gurning, and the end credits of the film Carry On Cowboy. These were included to mock the then-occurring matter of subliminal messages in television. These images do appear in the U.S. boxset DVD Every Stoopid Episode.
- Shaun Micallef’s Australian Micallef Programme shows contained strange subliminal messages that can be seen on the DVDs. As they are of random, humorous statements, questions, etc., they are not regarded as advertising. They were usually images of politicians, as is the case with his more recent Newstopia.
- In Warner Brothers’ 1943 animated film “Wise Quacking Duck”, Daffy Duck spins a statue which is holding a shield. For one frame the words “BUY BONDS” are visible on the shield.
- The December 16, 1973 episode of Columbo, titled “Double Exposure”, is based on subliminal messaging: it is used by the murderer, Dr. Bart Keppler, a motivational research specialist, played by Robert Culp, to lure his victim out of his seat during the viewing of a promotional film and by Lt. Columbo to bring Keppler back to the crime scene and incriminate him. Lt. Columbo is shown how subliminal cuts work in a scene mirroring James Vicary’s experiment.
- The horror film The Exorcist is well known for its frightening yet effective use of subliminal images throughout the film, depicting a white-faced demon named Captain Howdy. This image is shown in the character Father Karras’s nightmare, where it flashes across the screen for a few seconds before fading away.
- A McDonald’s logo appeared for one frame during the Food Network’s Iron Chef America series on 2007-01-27, leading to claims that this was an instance of subliminal advertising. The Food Network replied that it was simply a glitch.
- In Formula One racing, the paint scheme of many cars would carry messages intended to look as if they were of banned tobacco products in many Grands Prix where tobacco advertising was banned, though many of these were jokes on the part of the teams (for example, Jordan Grand Prix ran Benson and Hedges sponsorship as “Bitten and Hisses” with a snake-skin design on their cars). A similar procedure was used by NASCAR driver Jeff Burton after the AT&T Mobility advertising was banned by a court order in 2007, and by Penske Championship Racing in NASCAR (where Cellco Partnership is prohibited) and the IRL (Marlboro). In both instances, a distinctive design where the banned company’s identity (the Verizon “V” and the Marlboro chevron) were integrated into the car’s design.
- On November 7, 2007, Network Ten Australia’s broadcast of the ARIA Awards was called out for using subliminal advertising in an exposé by the Media Watch program on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
- In June–July 2007, Sprite used a type of obvious subliminal message, involving yellow (lemon) and green (lime) objects such as cars. The objects would then be shown inconspicuously in the same setting, while showing the word “lymon” (combining the words lime and lemon) on screen for a second at a time. They called this “Sublymonal Advertising.” The previous year, Sprite used a similar advertising campaign, but this time it was tied in to Lost Experience, an alternate reality game.
- In Sunshine (2007), five pictures of the crew are shown subliminally during part of the film.
- In Brainiac: Science Abuse, there is an experiment carried out to see if viewers would react to subliminal messages. One was shown during an experiment to discover which substance provides the best skid; the message appeared when a brainiac hit a bale of hay. The second message appeared across a t-shirt of a brainiac saying ‘Call your mum’, and the third said ‘scratch your nose’ when a sound wave hit the Brainiac logo. At the end of the show, people were shown in a theatre watching that episode. The test showed that the messages barely impacted the audience. The subliminal content in this episode was legal, as its presence was announced at the beginning and end of the episode.
- In Week 11 of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart in which candidates have to create an ad for the Delta’s former low-cost commercial airlines Song, the team Matchstick used a 1/48th-frame image at the bottom-right corner with the Song Airlines logo.
- In the film Cloverfield, three subliminal pictures can be seen during various parts of the film, when the camera footage distorts. The photos are actually frames from classic monster films. The images are shown one at a time: the first, from Them!, appears when the group play the footage back, the second, from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, appears when they close the door on the ‘parasites’ and the third, from King Kong appears when the helicopter crashes. A monstrous creature can also be seen at the top right corner (with its mouth slightly open) as one of the clouds over the Statue of Liberty on the release cover.
- In an episode of British TV show QI based on hypnosis, host Stephen Fry suggested that he could use subliminal messages to get himself elected as the Pope. The words “Stephen Fry for Pope” then briefly flashed up on the screen. This was repeated later on in the episode.
- In the episode “Men Without Women” of The IT Crowd, there is a scene where the character Douglas is trying to seduce Jen by showing her a film about his company on his laptop which featured a subliminal message of Douglas lying in bed. Jen saw the image but suspected the image meant something was wrong with his laptop. During the credits of the episode, the same image flashes briely as a subliminal message.
Moviemaking is an extremely collaborative process – where hundreds of people contribute to a film as it journeys from script to screen. Even though a project’s success or failure is often attributed to the strengths and shortcomings of the writer, director, and principle cast, countless professionals leave their mark on every feature film. However, from time to time, those marks are a bit more literal – as certain directors, special effects gurus, and editors have inserted hidden messages into fan-favorite films. In honor of these sly moviemakers, we’ve compiled a list of our favorites.
To be clear, movies on our list are more than simple easter eggs (such as the Egyptian etching of R2-D2 and C-3PO in Raiders of the Lost Ark), set/costume designs that might not have been an actual “message” to the audience (like the The Bride’s “F*** You” sneaker soles in Kill Bill, Vol. 1), or Illuminati/thematic abstractions about the “true meaning” behind a particular film (i.e. Harry Potter is a platform for anti-family subliminal messaging). For our purposes, we’re focusing on frames, text, and audio that is literally hidden in each movie.
That said, the list is not all-inclusive, so once you’ve had a chance to read our picks, share your favorite hidden movie messages in the comments.
1. Dusty SFX
Movie: Lion King (1994)
Hidden Message: The letters S-F-X (or possibly S-E-X).
Backstory: When Simba flops down on a cliffside, a cloud of dust is pushed out into the air – where, for a brief second, a series of three controversial letters appear. For years, the frame was scrutinized as a subliminal message (SEX) intended to promote sexuality to children. However, the film’s animators have since claimed that the letters were intended to spell SFX – a nod to the Lion King‘s special effects department.
There’s no way of knowing whether or not the original intention was to spell SEX or SFX – as the differences would be minute. Disney could have devised the SFX explanation after the fact in order to quell outrage from concerned parents but it’s equally possible that the SEX controversy took-off simply because it’s the more scandalous headline – especially in a fan-favorite kids movie.
Watch the SFX/SEX cloud in context – HERE.
2. Romanian in Reverse
Movie: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Hidden Message: Jocelyn Pook’s song “Masked Ball.”
Backstory: After arriving at a rural mansion, Bill (Tom Cruise) witnesses a satanic ritual. For the scene, Stanley Kubrick enlisted the work of composer Jocelyn Pook, after her song “Backwards Priests” had been used in pre-production to design the infamous orgy scene.
As a result, a Pook track, “Masked Ball,” plays during the satanic ritual, and includes a backwards Orthodox Romanian liturgy – which, in its original form, read: “And God told to his apprentices, I gave you a command to pray to the Lord for the mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, the search, the leave, and the forgiveness of the sins of God’s children. The ones that pray, they have mercy and they take good care of this holy place.”
Watch the “Masked Ball” song in context (WARNING it’s NSFW) – HERE.
3. Don’t Talk About Fight Club
Movie: Fight Club (1999)
Hidden Message: Tyler Durden frames (and a penis).
Backstory: Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) reveals that while working as a film projectionist, he would intentionally splice images of male genitalia into films – which were nearlyimperceptible to moviegoers. For the Fight Club movie, director David Fincher utilized a similar approach but, in addition to one standalone penis picture, he also included four brief flashes of Durden in scenes prior to the character’s official introduction.
According to Fincher, the purpose of the subliminal frames was to show that “our hero is creating Tyler Durden in his own mind, so at this point he exists only on the periphery of the narrator’s consciousness.” In addition to the Durden flashes, Fincher also foreshadowed the story’s twist with a subtle label on a pay phone the Narrator uses after his apartment is destroyed – which reads “No Incoming Calls Allowed.” Moments later, Tyler Durden calls the pay phone.
Watch the hidden frames in context – HERE.
4. Spit in Translation
Movie: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Hidden Message: The “Escupimos en su Alimento” restaurant.
Backstory: After tensions rise at the station, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) visits a Mexican restaurant with other women from the KVWN Channel 4 – plotting a practical joke to get even for the continued arrogance and sexism displayed by Ron Burgandy and the rest of San Diego’s number one news team. The restaurant the ladies visit is the “Escupimos en su Alimento” – which, when translated in Spanish, actually means “we spit in your food.”
Given the talent behind the scenes of Anchorman, including producer Judd Apatow, writer/director Adam McKay, and writer/star Will Farell, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that one of the funniest gags (in an already highly quotable film) is also one that most American moviegoers will miss entirely.
5. Personalized Plating
Movie: The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Hidden Message: License Plates
Backstory: Typically in movies, license plates are designed to blend into the scenery without a second thought. However, in the Matrix trilogy, many of the vehicle plates are shorthand references to religious scriptures. At the beginning of Reloaded, Agent Smith’s license plate reads “IS5416,” which corresponds to Isaiah 54:16: “Behold, I have created the smith, who blows the fire of coals, and produces a weapon for its purpose. I have also created the ravager to destroy.” Similarly, during the highway chase sequence, Trinity’s Cadillac plate reads “DA203,” which corresponds to Daniel 2:03: “He said to them, ‘I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.’”
Of course, license plates aren’t the only references to religious texts in the Matrixseries, given that, among others, Nebuchadnezzar (the name of Morpheus’ ship) was also a Babylonian King – and the speaker chronicled in the aforementioned Daniel 2:03 text.
Watch the DA203 license plate in context (you’ll have to look fast) – HERE.
6. Morse and Monkey
Movie: King Kong (2005)
Hidden Message: Morse Code Translation
Backstory: Countless movies rely on character dialogue or subtitles to explain non-verbal and non-visual information to viewers. As a result, audiences rarely think twice when watching an actor receive (or send) a message through morse code – accepting that any sound bites will match what characters are reporting onscreen.
However, in the case of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, the director included a tongue-in-cheek message for savvy moviegoers who actually took the time to do translation work. Just before reaching Skull Island, SS Venture captain Englehorn intercepts a coded message calling for the arrest of Carl Denham (Jack Black). Yet the audible code does not actually say anything about an arrest and instead reads: “Show me the monkey!” – a campy hidden message in honor of the film’s titular ape that will probably make readers think twice the next time they see morse code depicted on screen.
7. Ghosts in the Flashlight
Movie: Sunshine (2007)
Hidden Message: Deceased Icarus 1 Crew Members
Backstory: While on their mission to the Sun, the Icarus II crew receives a distress signal from the long-missing Icarus I and decides to rendezvous with the ship. When Capa (Cillian Murphy), Searle (Cliff Curtis), Harvey (Troy Garity), and Mace (Chris Evans) board the Icarus I, their flashlights periodically shine directly into the camera (and out at the audience). At each instance, roughly 49 minutes into the film, director Danny Boyle spliced in hidden frames of (now deceased) Icarus I crew members.
The juxtaposition is especially creepy – since the pictures are from a happy Hawaiian-themed party that took place before the unfortunate events leading to the floundering of Icarus I. Searle encounters the full group photo (from which each flash is taken) later on in the film. Boyle has not discussed the hidden frames officially but the flashes definitely work as a subliminal way of setting audience members on edge – without outright revealing the fate of the Icarus I crew.
Watch the Icarus I hidden faces in context – HERE.
8. Evila Llits S’ti
Movie: Cloverfield (2008)
Hidden Message: “It’s Still Alive”
Backstory: In the final moments of Cloverfield, Rob and Beth seek refuge from the creature under Central Park’s Greyshot Arch. Moments later, an air raid strike buries the couple (and the camera) in rubble from the bridge – presumably killing theCloverfield monster. However, following the film credits, director Matt Reeves included a brief, 5-second, piece of garbled audio that hints at a different outcome. When reversed, the audio recording (which sounds like a military mission report) clearly states: “It’s Still Alive” – indicating that the creature was not killed in the airstrike (while also setting the stage for a possible, though yet to be released, Cloverfield 2).
Furthermore, the post-credits audio message isn’t the only secret in Cloverfield – as the film also contains three hidden frames from classic monster movies: Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and King Kong.
Listen to the after credits “It’s Still Alive” message forward and backward – HERE.
Honorable Mention & Conclusion
Even though our list focuses on actual messages, not cameos or easter eggs, there’s one borderline semi-hidden message that we’d be remiss to mention.
Honorable Mention: I Am Legend (2007)
Backstory: During the Times Square hunting sequence in I Am Legend, Robert Neville (Will Smith) passes a billboard advertising a Superman and Batman team-up film set to open on May 15, 2010. Given the 2007 I Am Legend release, had the tongue-in-cheek easter egg come true, the film would have likely featured Brandon Routh (whose Superman Returns released in 2006) and Christian Bale (who debuted as Batman in 2005). Of course, Warner Bros. has since announced an actual Superman vs. Batman crossover in their Man of Steel sequel, which will star Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck in the iconic roles. So, maybe I Am Legend really did include a hidden message from Warner Bros. after all – i.e. they’ve wanted to cash-in with a World’s Finest team-up for more than half a decade. Watch the billboard in context – HERE.
Disney subliminal messages:
10 Scandalous Hidden Moments in Your Favorite Disney Movies
Rumors of inappropriate or scandalous moments in Disney films have been circulating for quite some time. It’s not surprising that animators do have some behind-the-scenes fun. After all, it can be rather tedious trying to animate a film frame by frame. Adding these hidden moments is a great way for them to joke around or perhaps get even with their bosses.
Aladdin and the Balcony
On the balcony, Aladdin attempts to calm Rajah, the tiger. Jasmin comes out onto the balcony, and a voice says “Take off your clothes.” You’ll have to turn the volume up to hear it–it’s subtle. Some people say the words could possibly be “good teenagers take off their clothes,” while Disney claims that it actually says “Take off and go.”
Aladdin and the Balcony
Because of the controversy, Disney cut the line from the DVD release.
The Little Mermaid’s Original VHS Cover
One of the biggest and most famous scandals occurred with the beloved film, “The Little Mermaid.” In the middle of the castle, in the background, there is a large golden penis. The artist himself actually revealed this detail to the public. He had just found out that he was being fired, and to get even he drew in a penis and then notified the press after the VHS was distributed. It created such a scandal that Disney re-did all of the covers and re-released it. You’ll have to find the original cover to see this scandalous moment.
In “Hercules,” Zeus makes the baby god a cradle out of clouds. As he does, a penis appears at the top of the cradle, grows, and then drops down. Disney claims that people see the strangest shapes in clouds. Unfortunately for them, this is an animated cloud, and it’s obvious that it’s not just an innocent little pillar.
Hercules and the Muse’s Dress
“Hercules” has yet another scandalous moment when the Muses begin to sing “Zero to Hero” after Hercules defeats the Hydra. After the line “is he bold,” one of the muses steps up and her dress flies open. The scandalous part is that she isn’t wearing underwear. The moment is brief and easy to miss, but unmistakably there.
Hercules and the Muse’s Dress
Scandalous, Disney. Very scandalous.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Jessica Rabbit
There are a lot of scandalous moments in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” especially when it comes to Jessica Rabbit. But one of the more hard-to-catch moments happens when Jessica Rabbit and Bob Hoskins hit the light post. Jessica Rabbit flips out of the car and spirals out.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Jessica Rabbit
As she does, her dress flies up, and she is clearly not wearing underwear.
The Rescuers and a Topless Woman
When Bernard and Bianca are flying through the city, they pass by a number of windows. At approximately the 38 minute mark, they pass a topless woman. It isn’t just a vague topless woman–there is detail. Once this was discovered, Disney recalled the movie.
The Rescuers and a Topless Woman
However, you can still see this moment in older versions of the film.
Lion King and Sex in the Sky
When Simba lays down on the cliff, a puff of dust swirls up into the sky. The dust forms the word “sex” for a brief moment. It caused a fuss, and Disney could not really explain this moment away.
Lion King and Sex in the Sky
Some also say that hidden in the face of Mufasa is the outline of a woman in a thong.
Lion King and Can You Feel the Love Tonight
Just in case you weren’t clear on what kind of love they were singing about in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the word “sex” appears twice. The first time, it appears in the flowers in the foreground. They come together to form the word “sex.” Later, when Simba and Nala jump into the water, the splash on the left again forms the word “sex.” It’s over quickly, so you’ll have to watch carefully and have be ready to hit ‘pause’!
“Santa Clause” would seem to be the ideal children’s movie. After all, it’s about Santa. Well, aside from the fact that Santa dies and Tim Allen has to take over, there’s another rather scandalous scene. The number that the wife calls when she needs help is actually a phone sex service. This is an instance where Disney never issued an official statement addressing the issue.
Little Mermaid and the Happy Minister
The enchanted wedding between Ursula and Eric holds another scandalous hidden scene in “The Little Mermaid.” The minister appears to be sporting an obvious erection as he reads the vows. Disney responded at once and claimed that this was just supposed to be the minister’s knee. The placement doesn’t work though. Since then, several of the animators involved in the film have come forward and admitted that it was indeed intended to be an erection.
Scandalous moments in Disney films are not as few and far between as one would imagine. There are probably even more out there that remain hidden in our favorite iconic “family” films.
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