Subliminal Imagery in Mainstream Hollywood Movies

Terror in the Haunted House” was always openly acknowledged to be an experiment in the use of subliminal imagery. While that term generally connotes the subconscious presence of an insidious means of advertising, “Terror in the Haunted House” wanted to test the limits of inserting subliminal images to heighten the horror of the cinematic experience. You’ll find a link to an article I wrote that more extensively addresses the use of subliminal imagery specifically in that film at the bottom of this article.

“Terror in the Haunted House” may be the most open case of extended use of subliminal imagery not designed to sell more popcorn and soda, but it hardly stands alone. Needless to say, the experiment of that film was deemed to be a triumph on some level since future filmmakers attempted to build upon whatever success it may have enjoyed. What is particularly surprising is that the history of openly acknowledged subliminal insertions into feature films is actually dominated by major box office hits and films that were critically acclaimed. Dumping subliminal imagery into the world of 3D or marketing gimmicks for B-movies is not exactly appropriate.

“Psycho” ends with what has become arguably the most famous subliminal image in Hollywood history. Of course, it should go without saying that the greatest threat to the effectiveness of subliminal imagery is conscious awareness of its presence before the fact. On the other hand, knowing that you are supposed to look for the image of the face of the corpse of Norman Bates’ mother briefly superimposed over Norman’s own face goes a long way toward ensuring you don’t miss it.

Another classic horror film contains several subliminal inserts of a much more fearsomely horrifying visage. “The Exorcist” features flashes of a very pale and utterly creepy demonic face that has come to be known, rather paradoxically, as Captain Howdy. Rumors of subliminal insertion of images into “The Exorcist” appeared almost from the day of its theatrical release with suggestions that these imperceptible shots were the real driving force behind the unprecedented level of extreme audience reaction rather than the more explicit and easily perceived images of terror. For obvious reasons this contention could not be as easily proved as they would be today. The creepy face makes several appearances and even when you are aware of their existence in a general way one or two specific instances may be easily unrealized thanks to the heightened emotional state of mind most people work themselves into while watching “The Exorcist.”

The subliminal images in these horror films were clearly intended as what might be called mood enhancers. Barely perceived images of Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in “Fight Club” speak to the twist ending of that film as well as to the general indictment of consumerism in society today. Subliminal images of Durden are a direct reference to the legacy of rumors surrounding various exploitation of subliminal techniques in the arena of advertising.

Advancements in digital manipulation of images in film in the 21st century have likely produced a wealth of subliminal images in popular films that are still waiting to be discovered. This blog devoted to subliminal manipulation reveals, for instance, the existence of a subliminal image of Angelina Jolie’s face hidden on the face of a mountain in the film “Alexander.” The floodgates are open and you can pretty much count on the fact that filmmakers today are not nearly as open about their experiments in subliminal imagery as the makers of “Terror in the Haunted House.”