Subliminal messages in movies and media

Filed under: — paco on October 13th, 2004 01:10:31 am

Subliminal messages have always been a uncanny phenomenon and often subject to scientific and public debate. A subliminal message is a signal in the form of a picture or sound that is designed to pass the normal limits of perception. That means that people perceive it with their subconscious while not perceiving it consciously. This technique is sometimes used in movies and advertising to influence the subconscious of the viewer. The latest stir around this controversial technique has come up around the campaign of the Bush administration. Allegedly, a promotional video that was aired recently, would contain subliminal messages meant to convey a hidden message.

It would not be the first time that a political party would be accused of using subliminal imagery. A similar accusation was made against a promotional film of the Liberal party of Canada, where after dissecting their ad, one could clearly see a gun being fired at the viewer. The Bush promo is rumoured to be filled to the brim with subliminal images of a disturbing nature: fire, explosions, terrified children, mutilation, ghost-like figures and several acts of violence. The problem with this technique is that it is not an exact science; there is no solid scientific proof of it causing the effects it should evoke. Then again, the human mind is still a mystery to science.

The most famous story about subliminal manipulation is that of the infamous experiment held in 1957 at a movie theatre in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Here it was believed that ultra-fast editing of images of popcorn and Coke throughout the movie would lead to a significant increase in refreshment sales during the intermission. This experiment caused such a stir, that subliminal messages were outlawed and deemed unethical. However, it soon appeared to be a hoax and the experimenter James Vicary admitted that he had been tampering with the results. Still, subliminal techniques were applied on a broad scale thereafter, especially in advertising. It apparently still proved to be an effective way to send mixed messages and hidden meanings.

In cinema it has been used a lot. One of the most famous examples were the gruesome images used in The Exorcist; subliminal images were edited in to increase the fear of the audience. This could explain why this movie induced such strong reactions of terror with so many people. The subliminal images were cut out of the movie only to be reinstated in the 2000 Director’s Cut. Also Oliver Stone’s award winning movie JFK is ridden with subliminal messages, sending out a message that the Kennedy slaying was tied to Masonic or secret societies. Subliminal messages again were openly used in David Fincher’s Fight Club, turning the spotting of Tyler Durden almost into a game.

It’s difficult to prove whether images are meant to be subliminal and whether they trigger the sought-after effect. Simultaneously, they also give good way for nice conspiracy theories and spooky stories. However, the deliberate use of suggestive images meant to evoke a secondary hidden effect could be at least considered dubious and unethical. The mere idea that politicians would resort to such tactics does not ask for a big leap of mind 🙂

* Site where the alleged subliminal Bush movie is described and dissected.

* More on the promotional ad of the Canadian Liberal party and subliminal messages.

* Example of subliminal message in a movie poster.

* Subliminal images in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK.

* A list of movies containing subliminal messages.

author picture paco (89 posts)
Certified movie phreak and conspiracy theorist.


  • Fight Club inserts were not subliminal as Pitt’s character reveals the fact within the film. I would call them Bliminal Messages.
    I’m a graphic designer, and while studying the subject in school, I put subliminals in many design assignments. I would hide repeated phrases in large, bold letters throughout my work by setting the text to print at 1 to 2 % transparency. The phrases were all in first person so that the viewer associated themselves with what was said, i.e. “HE IS MY BEST STUDENT”; “THIS IS PERFECT WORK”;
    “I’M GIVING HIM AN A”; etc. I got high grades on everything, even the mediocre work. I started using it in non-design classes like Art History and English. I put the transparent text in essays and reports, and it worked every time I did it. I was a good student, but not THAT good. I almost got caught when a professor asked the class to turn in all their original files at the end of the quarter. I turned them in a day late because I had to go through everything and delete all the messages.
    Since then I have considered putting them in resumes. It really works.

    Comment by CoAzPoTnAeIN — Wed December 31, 2008 @ 17:28
  • That’s an interesting theory. I’m going to test this.

    Comment by paco — Wed December 31, 2008 @ 18:19
  • The Harry Potter thing is a joke, there’s NO way there’s a hidden message there, beside, ain’t called ‘pot’ in England, Some people are looking way too deeply into this.

    Comment by Jake — Tue June 2, 2009 @ 19:53
  • Subliminal messages REALLY scare me. Is that normal?

    Comment by Luke — Tue July 14, 2009 @ 8:59
  • For subliminal messages in Harry Potter’s films (NOT books), see this:
    Deconstructing Harry Potter

    Another, even better example of subliminal messages in music videos, an analysis of Rhyanna’s ‘umbrella’:

    scary stuff

    Comment by supercalifra... — Mon July 20, 2009 @ 11:33
  • Apologies, use this link instead for rhyanna’s stuff. A quick note, ignore the beginning of the piece and stick with it till you reach the factual analysis of rhyanna’s video.

    The Workings of Evil

    Comment by supercalifra... — Mon July 20, 2009 @ 11:37
  • They’re everywhere that’s for sure! Check out the flick “They Live” for instance–a cult classic now! There’s also some *&^% bizarre 9/11 “subliminals” or synchronicities (or whatever you want to call em) in films and other stuff too (see for one site). If it’s not deliberately embedded and thus comes under “coincidence” it then begs a lot of questions like how powerful is the subconscious? what is the relationship between the subconscious and conscious? how do we tap into the subconscious and use it to really “see” what is for the most part hiding in plain sight to better our future? are all of us connected on a different level? is this evidence of Jung’s collective unconscious at work? etc etc

    Comment by open your eyes — Wed October 14, 2009 @ 2:09
  • you guys really need to get lives

    Comment by justin watkins — Wed March 24, 2010 @ 19:26
  • As for the people that are attempting (poorly, I might add) to attack the Harry Potter series, may I point out that potter is a very common English name, descended from the time at which surnames were taken from the trade practiced by the family. The name comes from having ancestors that made pottery. ACTUAL pots. NOT marijuana. By the way, the slang is also different in England. Marijuana is not called pot.
    To you in particular, conspiracy theorist: Why precisely is it a problem for children to be reading books? Isn’t that actually BETTER than watching television or playing video games?

    Comment by athena — Thu April 1, 2010 @ 9:48
  • I am puzzled as to why people are not sure if subliminal messaging works or not. The US army have a psycological warfare division that routinely use it.
    I have been a Hypnotherapist for over 25 years and all hypnosis does is to bypass the concious mind and work with the subconcious so why the confusion.
    Subliminal messaging in audio or visual simply bypass the concious mind.
    The powers that be feed missinformation so the masses dont catch on to its awsome power to impress the mind

    Comment by phil — Thu May 20, 2010 @ 17:59
  • i saw that 911 stuff before. Its really creepy but i dont believe in conspieracy

    Comment by wow — Tue August 24, 2010 @ 16:54

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