They say movies should show and not tell, but sometimes they go one better by showing you something crucial to the story without you even realising it. Subliminal messages inserted into movies can work wonders for training the brain, whether it’s in order to be enlightened, terrified or just plain confused. Did you spot these micro-messages?
‘The Exorcist’’s ghostly flashes
We don’t ever see Pazuzu, the demonic presence that possesses Regan in 'The Exorcist’, right? He’s content to use the youngster like a puppet, spinning her head, spewing up her guts and doing mean things with crucifixes. Wrong. Director William Friedkin did actually insert frames of Pazuzu – or, as Regan calls him, 'Captain Howdy’ – into the film: first during Regan’s medical exam for just three frames, then later during Karras’s dream sequence and again when Chris is in the kitchen. Back before the advent of freeze-frame videos, DVDs and the internet, Captain Howdy became an urban legend, but now the chalk-faced ghoul is all over t-shirts, posters and is a popular cosplay character at Halloween.
'The Shining’ and the impossible hotel
There are no mistakes in Stanley Kubrick’s movies, or at least that’s what his obsessives would have you believe. Take the case of 'The Shining’ and the Overlook Hotel, a damn creepy place to stay even before you consider the building’s impossible floor-plan. Track Danny on his trike and you eventually realise his route round the corridors makes no sense. Follow Jack into Ullman’s office and you see a window where the should absolutely not be a window because it faces the inside of the building. If you trust that Kubrick knew every inch of his set – and history gives us no reason to believe otherwise – then he created the layout of the Overlook Hotel to purposely confuse and unsettle us. It worked. Check out this superb map of the hotel created by http://www.collativelearning.com and you’ll see what we mean.
'Fight Club’’s FBI warning
Maybe you already know about the subliminal flashes of Tyler Durden in the movie’s early scenes, before the Narrator even 'meets’ Tyler on the plane. Maybe you paused the movie at just the right time to capture Tyler dressed as hotel staff in the 'Welcome’ video. But while you were scouring those early scenes on the DVD, did you also notice that the subliminal messaging had begun before the movie had even started? The film’s disc comes with its very own 'FBI’ piracy warning as written by Mr. Durden, reading: “If you are reading this, then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second of your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Is your life so empty you can’t honestly think of a better way to spend these moments?” And it goes on like this. So consider yourself well and truly Durdened.
'Cloverfield’ features creepy creature features
Here’s a unique way that producer JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves stood on the shoulders of giants when creating their own creature feature 'Cloverfield’ – rather than work in obvious references to past classic monster movie characters via clever character names or references, they just included subliminal shots from the films in the footage. During the maelstrom of puke-inducing shakycam shots, Abrams and pals inserted barely detectable frames from 1933’s 'King Kong’, 'Them!’ And 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’, perhaps in order to subconsciously make us compare 'Cloverfield’ to classic creature features from the past. Cheeky.
'The Matrix Reloaded’ licence plate Bible quotes
The Matrix movies are (re)loaded with easter eggs for fans and references to other works, not to mention the numerous Christ metaphors, with lines as oblique as “You’re my saviour, man… My own personal Jesus Christ!” Blink and you really will miss these references, however, because they only appear on screen for fractions of a second. During the freeway chase, you may briefly catch sight of the cars’ licence plates, which all correspond to Bible quotes. Agent Smith’s plate reads 'IS5416’, which equates 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.” Trinity’s Cadillac plate is 'DA203’, referencing Daniel 2:03: “He said to them, ‘I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.'” And you thought this scene was all about car crashes.
'Sunshine’ crew flashes
Perhaps subconsciously, 'Sunshine’ director Danny Boyle knew he didn’t have much of a third act at the end of this movie, so he tried to sneak in some extra spooky stuff halfway through to ease the disappointment to come. At around 49 minutes into the movie, the crew of the Icarus II enter the Icarus I, and whenever they shine their flashlights into the camera – right into our eyes – Boyle inserts a frame of one of the dead crew members, not for long enough so that we know what we’re looking at, but just long enough for it to register. Later on in the movie, we see a photograph comprised of all of the Icarus I crew member shots that were flashed earlier, finally making sense of Boyle’s mind games.
'King Kong’s morse code
Sometimes you have to search hard for the gags, but sometimes they’re right under your nose. In Peter Jackson’s 'King Kong’, a movie that’s not big on humour, there is a great gag that’s hidden in plain sight – or plain audio, if you prefer. When the Venture captain Englehorn intercepts a morse code message calling for the arrest of Jack Black’s character Carl Denham, the message is played out in full – except if you can actually read morse code, you’ll know it says nothing of the sort. Translate the dit-dit-daahs and the dot-dit-doos and the message actually reads: “Show me the monkey”. Cute.
'Irreversible’’s bass note of dread
Not all subliminal messages are ones you spot with your eyes. Gaspar Noe’s brutal deconstruction of a relationship is a hard watch for many reasons – not least the fire extinguisher attack – but some audiences found themselves inexplicably nauseated by scenes like the sequence with Vincent Cassel in the nightclub. The reason is the presence of a sub-sonic bass note, one that rumbles so low – apparently below the 28Hz audible threshold – that it’s almost imperceptible to the human ear, but the brain knows that something is up. It’s an extremely effective way of building tension and a sense of dread – and no one has to get their head smashed in or anything.
The good ship 'Skyfall’
'Skyfall’ worked on several levels – not only did it honour all of the Bonds that came before it for the franchise’s 50th anniversary, it was a cracking action movie in its own right. The film is expertly layered: even the artwork on the walls was chosen for specific reasons. Our first art reference comes when Q and 007 sit down in the National Gallery and comment on Turner’s 'The Fighting Temeraire’, a war ship being dragged off to the scrapyard – a fair approximation of how Bond’s critics see him. Later, after Bond has defeated Silva and is back to his bouncing best, the painting hung in M’s office is Thomas Butterworth’s 'HMS Victory’, portraying Nelson triumphing at the Battle of Trafalgar – and right behind the HMS Victory is none other than The Fighting Temeraire, restored to its former glory. These things don’t just happen by accident, you know.
Disney’s Hidden Mickeys
Disney have been hiding secret messages in their movies for years now – and we’re not talking about the urban legend subliminal messages that apparently want to corrupt your children with the wicked ways of the flesh (spoiler: they’re far more interested in your kids’ pocket money). No, the hidden messages are far more wholesome than that: the iconic Mickey symbol – one round head, two round ears – is hidden in almost every Disney movie in some form or another, including '101 Dalmatians’ (above), 'Lilo and Stitch’, 'The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ (both below), all the Pixar movies and beyond. You can even find the hidden Mickeys throughout all of Disney’s theme parks, but be warned: once you start looking for them, you can’t stop.
Image credits: Rex Features, http://www.collativelearning.com, Disney