The 10 weirdest subliminal moments in movie history

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Not to state the obvious, but cinema is a visual medium first and foremost, not that it prevents filmmakers from inserting a hidden message or two that won’t be discovered upon first viewing.

Whether it’s to further a thematic meaning, enhance the narrative’s message, serve as an act of rebellion, or be done for no other reason than shits and giggles, there’s no shortage of subliminal shots added into movies that will almost certainly be imperceptible.

Of course, advances in technology mean these things are easier to discover than ever before, but that wasn’t the case when the majority of the most bizarre subliminal moments were stealthily added in post-production by directors and editors.

Everyone knows about the ghostly face of Norma Bates being superimposed over her son Norman’s face at the end of Psycho, but that’s nowhere near being the oddest subliminal slice of cinematic history.

Weird subliminal movie moments:

10. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

One of the most famous and unsettling examples of subliminal messaging being surreptitiously added into a movie comes in The Exorcist, making a mockery of the belief audiences never actually get to see the demonic Pazuzu in all of his glory.

Linda Blair’s Regan makes repeated references to ‘Captain Howdy’ during the film, and director William Friedkin ensures the entity’s presence is felt. Pazuzu appears for three frames during the possessed child’s medical exam, and then again during dream sequences, and once more in the kitchen scene.

In an age where the ability to painstakingly comb through frames to find hidden meanings didn’t exist, Pazuzu even being part of The Exorcist in a visual capacity was widely debated until Friedkin’s sneakiness was uncovered, with the ghoul now a staple part of the film’s enduring mythology.

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9. The Matrix Reloaded (The Wachowskis, 2003)

The Wachowskis never hid the spiritual, philosophical, and existential undertones to their seminal sci-fi masterpiece, but besides Neo being ‘VR Jesus’, the religious parables were never too on-the-nose.

However, in the sequel, the filmmakers made some subliminal nods towards those biblical parallels through the unassuming means of vehicular licence plates during the standout freeway chase, which reflected many of the underlying themes and motivations of the characters.

Agent Smith reads ‘IS 5416’, with Isaiah 54:16 stating, “Behold, I have created the smith, who blows the fire of coals, and produces a weapon for its purpose. I have also created the ravager to destroy.” Meanwhile, Trinity’s is DA 203 in reference to Daniel 2:03; “He said to them, ‘I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.’”

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8. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

Debate over the ending of Paul Verhoeven‘s sci-fi spectacular has raged ever since its release, with viewers debating whether or not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid really did liberate Mars or if the entire story was part of his implanted memories.

The director has played to both sides of the gallery over the years, but there’s a subliminal cue early on that outlines where the truth really lies. When Quaid first visits the Rekall facility, a background character can be heard saying, “That’s a new one, blue sky on Mars.”

At the end of Total Recall, the sky on the red planet does indeed turn blue, hinting that Quaid never made it out of that chair at any point after breaking out and embarking on his planet-saving mission.

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7. Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

For two-thirds of its running time, Danny Boyle‘s Sunshine is a superior sci-fi thriller that roots itself in the human drama of its characters before going completely off the rails and becoming a slasher flick in space for reasons that remain inexplicable.

At around the midway point, when the crew of the Icarus II enter their seemingly abandoned predecessor ship, though, there’s an ominous – and very easy to miss – sign of things to come. Boyle splices in one frame of each dead crew member, but only when someone shines a flashlight directly into the camera.

After that, there’s a photograph that shows the five deceased Icarus I personnel altogether, but the viewer has already seen them by that point. Of course, Boyle didn’t make that obvious, but it’s a subtle nod to the shenanigans that are about to unfold when they discover naked n’ charred Mark Strong is on the loose.

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6. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

There’s no shortage of subliminal messaging to be found in Fight Club, with Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden popping up for a frame at a time, but the weirdest by far is the FBI warning that flashes up with a bespoke piracy warning.

Instead of outlining the ramifications of illicitly recording films, Tyler has a much more straightforward approach. “If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life,” it reads. “Don’t you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can’t think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it?”

The warning further instructs the viewer to “stop the excessive shopping and masturbation,” quit their job, start a fight, prove they’re alive, and intoning how they’ll become a statistic if they don’t claim their humanity. It’s totally on-brand for the charismatic anarchist, but it went right over the heads of many.

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5. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Every frame of a Stanley Kubrick movie is meticulously crafted, and every inch of a Stanley Kubrick movie is pored over, dissected, and analysed, so the filmmaker would have been well aware the geography of The Shining would be placed under intense scrutiny.

With that in mind, it’s definitely deliberate that the layout of the Overlook Hotel makes absolutely no sense, and anyone watching will be left suitably confused by Jack Nicholson heading into Stuart Ullman’s office to find a window where there shouldn’t be one because it faces the inside of the building.

Similarly, Danny Torrance’s tricycle trip doesn’t follow any logistical path through the winding corridors, a subtle and subliminal reinforcement that there’s something shady going on at the Overlook, and nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems at first glance.

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4. Terror in the Haunted House (Harold Daniels, 1958)

Heralded as the first major motion picture shot in the brand new ‘Psychorama’ format, the gimmick was basically a means to use cinema specifically to subject an audience to subliminal messaging, and the film accounts for approximately 50% of the movies touting the brand before it was ditched.

The story follows a woman living in a mansion who becomes plagued by the same recurring nightmare, which director Harold Daniels utilised to its fullest effect by incorporating subliminal imaging into the post-production process as a means of inducing fear in the audience.

In its defence, Terror in the Haunted House‘s prologue did at least warn cinemagoers they were about to be hypnotised before it even started, but still, it was a strange and sinister form of filmmaking that unsurprisingly didn’t catch on.

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3. Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)

Gaspar Noé‘s controversial thriller was difficult enough to watch as it is, but he still didn’t think there was enough latent dread being manufactured by the events unfolding on-screen, so he decided to create them himself.

For the first hour, Irreversible deploys a sub-audible frequency to intentionally discomfort the viewer in the hopes of creating nausea and anxiety. To be fair, that would have more than likely happened anyway, given what happens during its 97-minute running time, but Noé has always been prone to excess.

It was only applicable to theatrical screenings, at least, but the rumbling bass was so low to barely be perceptible to anything but the most trained of years. Just because it couldn’t be heard, it didn’t mean it didn’t have the desired effect, with Irreversible leaving its big screen crowds suitably queasy.

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2. Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974)

The feature-length directorial debut of John Carpenter began life as a student film before being expanded into a theatrically released feature, which wasn’t the unanimous positive the filmmaker initially believed it to be.

During one stage in the future horror icon’s cosmic comedy, a computer screen very briefly flashes up with the message of “Fuck you Harris.” Who is Harris? That would be Jack H. Harris, the distributor who ended up acquiring the distribution rights to Carpenter’s first movie.

Even though he struck the deal, he branded great swathes of Dark Star as terrible, ordered extensive reshoots on 35mm film that necessitated the rest of the 16mm footage be converted into the same format, and demanded the language be toned down to make it more palatable to a mainstream crowd. Clearly, Carpenter was less than thrilled with the edicts.

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1. The Rescuers (Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and Art Stevens, 1977)

There’s constantly been suggestions of subliminal messaging being hidden in Disney movies, but only once has nude imagery led to the mass recall of a home video, with The Rescuers standing alone in that regard.

After being reissued for a second time in January 1999, the Mouse House announced that 3.4 million copies of the animated favourite were being recalled due to the presence of a topless woman in the background of a shot.

The company’s official statement said they were added by post-production but didn’t specify when or by whom. At no point during the 22-year period between those points did anybody notice, but freeze-framing has a funny way of dredging these things up. Somebody put breasts in The Rescuers for unknown reasons, but to this day, nobody knows who or why.

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