The Real Thing
(Savant Article from "MGM DVD Savant", in 1997)
I've heard about subliminal suggestion, the idea that if you flicker a message briefly on TV
or in a movie, you can hypnotize an audience into doing what you want. Is it real? Did it
ever really happen?
Subliminal influence is real, according to scientists, and was tried out on the public a
few times in 1958 before it was, I believe, made illegal. That doesn't mean it worked or
ever had the slightest actual influence on anyone, however.
The myth, or, depending how you look at it, the science of subliminal suggestion circulated in the late fifties in the same way that flying saucers did -- no one had any concrete information to offer, but a lot of people believed in it. There was supposed to be some shadowy 'they' in the media who were dictating what we bought and who we voted for, what soft drink we drank and what aftershave we used. This was all being done, the theory went, with a sinister form of mind control employing messages blinked at us too quickly for our conscious minds to notice. Even if we were unaware on the surface that we had received the message, our subconcious minds would absorb it anyway. Without our higher brain functions to evaluateand perhaps nullify the message, the theory was that it would simply be accepted as truth. If it were a call to action, like, for example, "THIRSTY NOW" flickered at us during a movie, we would involuntarily decide that we indeed were thirsty, and head for the refreshment counter like obedient zombie slaves.
If the idea seems familiar, you may be aware of a John Carpenter film called They Live that toys cleverly with the idea of a secret clique of aliens living invisibly amongst us. The hero of that movie chances to try on a pair of the aliens' dark glasses, and sees not only the aliens for the monsters they are, but sinister subliminal messages in place of newspaper headlines, billboard announcements, street signs etc. Even if the idea isn't developed much, the effect is uncanny -- this 1980s movie strikes a creepily familiar note because of the cultural residual of the 'subliminal' scare from the 1950s.
Savant brings this up because you can actually see a real attempt at subliminal advertising in the trailer for the 1958 science fiction film It! The Terror from Beyond Space. This is the movie already notorious as the source for much of the content of the far more famous Alien movie made 21 years later. In the trailer for It! can be seen about five repetitions of messages in large black lettering saying "SEE IT!". Oddly, the messages are not flickered on the screen
for just a frame or so, they stay up for at least half a second each time they are shown. It's as if the producers didn't really understand the subliminal sell, and insisted they get their money's worth. Nowadays we are used to much faster cutting in our entertainments, but Savant still has a hard time believing that audiences seeing the It! trailer in 1958 weren't aware of the obvious messages.
On the other hand, a movie like The Exorcist that uses very fast cutaways to flash-frames (the frightening face of Father Karras' mother, in one instance) can be said to be employing flickered images that technically verge on the definition of subliminal. Perhaps the insecurity
about what was or wasn't actually seen added to the audience fear the film generated. There is a flickered frame, the blurry skull-like face of a woman, used in a very academic subliminal way in the 'assassin test' film-within-a-film in
the paranoid conspiracy thriller The Parallax View. Personally, if I pay attention, I am very aware of individual frames going by as I watch a movie. That flickering image of the scary woman in Parallax terrifies me, like a remembered nightmare.
Savant is told that another 1958 production called Terror in the Haunted House used techniques similar to It! The Terror from Beyond Space, but I don't know if the messages were in the trailer to sell the movie, or in the film itself to sell popcorn and soda pop. Maybe someone knows and will write in (give me permission to use your name so I can properly credit you!).
Whatever notoriety subliminal messages enjoyed in the culture, they apparently stopped before they ever got started. I prefer to believe that Madison Avenue and Hollywood simply decided that a far more effective kind of mind control could be achieved by endlessly repeating antacid slogans and movie titles in television and radio commercials. That's the kind of mind control Americans understand. As for SAVANT the SEND MONEY subliminal sell, SAVANT I'd have to SEND MONEY see it to SAVANT believe SEND MONEY it. 1
Footnote May 9, 2015:
1. This scratch-the-surface article was written in 1997. In 2010 writer Bret Wood put together an excellent article on the subject, with a great deal of interesting background information, called Secret Messages. It answers all the questions I raise, and many more.
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Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson