Subliminal messaging in film (read Timothy Sexton) is almost as old as film itself. The most famous use of subliminal images in recent films is probably that of quick flashes of Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, among other images, in “Fight Club.” An example of subliminal instant messaging is available to anyone who catches a copy of a 1958 B-movie haunted house entry titled, appropriately enough, “Terror in a Haunted House.” You may possibly discover this movie in some outlets under its original moniker: “My World Dies Screaming.” While there is a certain undeniable lyrical quality to that title, the former is about as accurate as you can get.
“Terror in a Haunted House” caught me unawares as I am not a fan of the band Evanescence, which has apparently sampled audio from the movie several times. (For the record, it’s not that I don’t like the band, but rather I just haven’t listened to them enough to draw much of a conclusion regarding their talent). I had never heard of the movie when I came across it on Hulu and added it to my queue. I started up the movie completely ignorant of anything other than that it was an old black and white B-movie horror flick. That’s about all I needed to know to place it in my queue. Within the first few minutes, I knew something was up. Something strange. Something more than just B-movie drive-in splendor.
The first quick flash of an image I put off to the quirks of damaged prints of old movies like “Terror in a Haunted House.” The second one pricked my attention. By the third image that lasted no more than a second, I knew I had to do some research before I continued.
“Terror in a Haunted House” was released at the height of the B-horror gimmick craze exploited to greatest effect by director William Castle. Along with gimmicks like wiring random cinema seats for a joy buzzer effect and allowing audience members to take out an insurance policy against being scared to death was Psycho-rama. That’s just a marketing term for the insertion of subliminal images. Unlike with subliminal advertising, Psycho-rama utilized quick flashes of imagery to intensify on a subconscious level certain expected responses to what was happening on screen.
If you have a quick hand with the pause button or know how to use your remote to advance one frame at a time, you can see all the subliminal images inserted into “Terror in Haunted House” but that would ruin the entire point of Psycho-rama wouldn’t it? In fact, the best way to enjoy the movie is to have avoided reading this article and come upon it in ignorance like I did. Ah well, maybe next time.
“Terror in a Haunted House” is a good enough little haunted house movie that it really doesn’t need nor is much enhanced by the subliminal gimmick. In fact, the storyline is good enough to more than warrant a remake. The execution is not nearly as successful.