Subliminal messages are not noticeable immediately and can be based on sight or hearing. Advertisers have used a variety of media to introduce subliminal messages into their products in an effort to evoke certain emotions. Concessioners at movie theaters have used subliminal messages in their advertising shorts before feature films so that viewers begin to feel thirsty or hungry, thereby adding more profits from popcorn and soft drinks. The basic idea of generating subliminal messages has been around since before 1897. Advertisers started applying these concepts as early as 1957. Subsequent research into subliminal messages has revealed that their use in advertising is not as effective as it was earlier believed.
Movies have also attempted to use subliminal images to evoke certain emotions. One genre that benefits from subliminal images is the horror genre, as such images may enhance primitive emotions such as fear, anger, and a sense of helplessness. Various artists and designers working on posters for the horror genre have used subliminal images to great effect. For example, the poster for Cabin Fever shows a cabin surrounded by trees. A careful inspection of the image, however, reveals that the cabin and trees have been designed to reveal the image of skull in the background, with the trees representing the eye and nose sockets and the cabin’s window’s representing the skull’s exposed teeth.
The following are five examples of subliminal images used in horror movies. The next time you have an opportunity to watch one or more of these films, see if such images actually enhance the fright you feel while watching them. If they do to any degree, then they have done their job.
My World Dies Screaming
Also known under the titled Terror in the Haunted House, My World Die Screaming was first screened in 1958. The film used what it called psychodrama, defined as communicating subliminal information through film by flashing images on the screen so quickly they cannot be perceived by the conscious mind. Subliminal images include a skull, a snake, two hearts, and large letters that spell out the word “blood.” In the image shown, here there is a face in the wall to the immediate right of the actress’ face. It is possible to discern hair, a forehead, two eyes, a nose, and a partial set of lips.
Originally released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho starred Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, a serial murderer with a mother complex. During the film’s climax, where Norman sits in a police cell waiting to be processed, Hitchcock decided to use a subliminal image. He lightly superimposed an image of Bates’ mother just under the face of Norman, so that her skeletal frame showed just a bit. A screen capture of this image can be seen to the right. Before the release of the movie, Hitchcock was uncertain if this scene would be too much, so he only released half the final prints with it (the other half lacked it). Thus, only certain DVDs have this effect to this day.
1977’s Suspiria is considered by many as Dario Agento’s masterpiece of Italian horror. The movie starred Jessica Harper as American ballet student Suzy Bannion, who finds herself trapped within a coven of witches, the foulest of which is their leader, Mother Suspiriorum. Argento took advantage of an extensive color palette to create surreal images throughout the movie, but he also used subliminal images to evoke a sense of menace and terror. In the image to the right, Suzy arrives at the ballet school in a taxi. Look to the right of Jessica Harper and examine the rain-soaked back window. It is possible to discern various eyes within the water droplets, hinting that Suzy is already being watched. To the left, on the taxi’s side window, is a blur that some claim is the face of director Dario Argento. Others believe that the face is supposed to be that of Mother Suspiriorum, and that the eyes represent the members of her coven.
Making its debut in 1973, The Exorcist remains a masterpiece of demon-driven horrors that others have emulated but very few have ever matched in terms of style and terror. The movie starred Linda Blair as a little girl who becomes possessed by an ancient demon known as Pazuzu. Standing against the demon are two priests played by Jason Miller and Max von Sydow. To evoke uneasiness in his audience, director William Friedkin used subliminal images. The prominent image he used was that of Pazuzu’s alter ego, named Captain Howdy by Regan (Linda Blair). Captain Howdy looks like a stylized skeleton with sharp teeth, and Friedkin flashes this image various times throughout the movie.
The advent of DVD and Blu-ray signaled the beginning of extended and directors’ cuts of many movies. The extended version of The Exorcist featured additional scenes cut from the original film, such as the infamous “spider walk” Regan does down a flight of stairs. There were also various subliminal images of Captain Howdy that were cut, such as the one shown to the right, where Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) comes home to find the lights flashing on and off. As she makes her way through the kitchen, Captain Howdy makes an appearance on the stove’s fume hood, foreshadowing the terrors that await her upstairs.