copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
“Subliminal” refers to text, images, auditory statements, or other objects or props that escape one’s conscious notice but (according to theory, at least) are recognized on a subconscious level. Supposedly, subliminal techniques are used to sell everything from movie theater popcorn to alcoholic beverages. Some even go so far as to say that governments, including that of the United States, use such messages to propagandize and brainwash their citizens.
Subliminal messages are also used in printed and filmed horror stories, albeit rarely, it would seem.
In fact, I’ve seen the use of a subliminal image in a horror movie. It occurred at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho--not in the original film, but in a release of the movie on videotape or DVD (I don’t recall which now, as this experience occurred several years ago, but I believe it was a videotape.) As Norman Bates, at the end of his killing spree, sits in a jail cell, dressed as his mother, Norma, a human skull flashes over his face several times in rapid succession, timed to the swings of an overhead light bulb. I remember feeling especially uneasy during this scene, although it hadn’t seemed as frightening or eerie when I’d first witnessed the scene, as a child. On an impulse, I played the sequence again, in slow motion, and the skull, which I hadn’t noticed before (consciously, at least) was visible as it appeared briefly, over Norman’s face, and then vanished again, just as abruptly, the superimposition of the skull image over Norman’s face occupying only the space of a few frames. I’d heard of subliminal images, but this was the first time I’d ever seen one myself.
Apparently, subliminal images are used much more widely than one might suppose, not only in advertising, but also in popular entertainment media, including Walt Disney’s art and big-name comic books’ illustrations.
In Who Killed Roger Rabbit, Roger’s wife, Jessica, is shown, sans panties, exiting a taxicab.
The cover for the DVD release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid shows an erect phallus among the spires of a castle; a constellation of stars in The Lion King spells out S-E-X; and a nude painting is shown in a background setting in The Rescuers. It seems that, posthumously, Uncle Walt’s not nearly as family friendly as he was when he’d been among the living.
The “S” word also makes its appearance in New X-Men #118--at least 18 times, by one count
In horror fiction, it’s more likely to be the gruesome and the ghastly or the bloody and the gory that sells, rather than sex, and it’s just such subliminal texts and images that are occasionally found, as in Psycho. Another example of the use of such images occurs in the original Hitchcock version of the film itself. In three frames (equating to approximately 1/8 of a second) of the shower scene, in which Norman-as-Norma, attacks Marion Crane as she is showering, the knife thrust is reversed, so that it appears to penetrate her lower abdomen.
Although it’s questionable as to whether Hitchcock had any transcendent reason for including the subliminal images of penetration, he apparently did have a thematic purpose in mind for the shower scene itself besides mere titillation. According to Janet Leigh herself, who played Crane in the original film:
Marion had decided to go back to Phoenix, come clean, and take the consequence, so when she stepped into the bathtub it was as if she were stepping into the baptismal waters. The spray beating down on her was purifying the corruption from her mind, purging the evil from her soul. She was like a virgin again, tranquil, at peace.
(Well, as long as Leigh bought the line. . . .)
In The Exorcist, a demon’s face is flashed on the screen, but not so few times per foot of film that it can’t be seen, so this use of imagery doesn’t, strictly speaking, constitute the employment of a subliminal technique.
In a previous post, I showed how Bram Stoker’s deft use of description and innuendo creates what amounts to a sort of literary subliminal coding of the narrative’s text, heightening the story’s fear factor by suggesting that there is some astonishingly powerful force operating behind the scenes, so to speak. Subliminal text and images are today’s equivalents, in extremis, of yesterday’s rhetorical, literary, and cinematographic techniques and, yes, they can be effective. In fact, they can frighten the hell out of you!
Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995.