Subliminal Messaging In Stories (Part VI)

Following on from Part V in our on-running mini-series, today we take a further look at some subliminal messaging in stories.

Law And Morality Are Not A Happily Married Couple

The first instance of subliminal messaging in stories is that law and morality do not go together.

It is a common misconception that law and morality are a happily married couple, striving to make society more just. Simply, this is not true. Depressingly, law has nothing to do with morality. Law is merely what rules a particular society will tolerate and abide by. (Plus, it is what jurors can prove, such as actions and intent).

If the law seems moral to an individual, that’s great. But it doesn’t have to be, and nor does it have to strive to be moral either. (Besides, what one person deems moral, fair and/or just, another person may think otherwise.)

Example – The Reader

In this historical drama, where the key events take place between 1958 and 1966 in West Germany, Michael (when young played by David Kross) attends a trial of a Nazi war criminal. The person on trial is a woman who he had a paedophilic relationship with, called Hanna (Kate Winslet). Hanna is accused of knowingly letting 300 Jewish men, women and children burn in a building during the Holocaust.

As the trial goes on, Michael’s law lecturer, Professor Ruhl (Bruno Ganz), questions the class about Nazi law vs our law. Were the SS soldiers guilty of murder? Not under their laws, he says. But under ours, they are.

One of his students counters his reasoning, asserting that “everyone knew about Auschwitz” and turned a blind eye; that the German people were “all” guilty for what happened during WWII. Professor Ruhl calmly responds that merely knowing about something is not enough to prove guilt; that in law, you have to prove culpability by intent. Additionally, he says that a lack of intent on behalf of the German people was a key reason why so few Nazis were ever convicted for war crimes.

Thus, morally, many within Nazi Germany were in the wrong. But that does not make them guilty of a crime.

Michael (David Kross, front row) learning some uncomfortable (and disillusioning) truths about how law works, with his professor, Ruhl (Bruno Ganz behind him).

The Warning of Children Becoming Their Parents

Life is not a Greek tragedy, whereby a man’s destiny is predetermined; a man’s flaw does not equal his undoing. Likewise, just because you are born to a particular set of parents does not mean that you are destined to live a similar life to them.

Nevertheless, our parent’s actions shape, both in a positive way and in a negative one. We watch and see what they do. Their example is buried deep within our psyche to such an extent that either we subconsciously accept what they and do, or reject one or the one, or both absolutely. (And by accept or reject, I don’t mean either in words, but in our decisions.)

Indeed, if we are not careful, we may take on a variation of our parents’ worst traits and become just like them.

Example – Nocturnal Animals

In Tom Ford’s noir thriller, Susan (Amy Adams) has everything in a materialistic sense. Yet, she is utterly miserable with her lot in life. Poisoning her heart is the decision she made years ago to ditch Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a poor man and a sensitive soul, and marry Hutton (Armie Hammer), a rich man with a top job.

Susan made her decision because her mother did not approve of Edward. Despite Susan’s protestations against her mother at the time, she ultimately succumbed to her mother’s advice. (Her mother comes across as a miserable woman, who abandoned her love to live a comfortable life, as well.)

Sadly, by the time we meet Susan, she has become her mother. She has paid the price for not marrying Edward (and for doing something unspeakable to him behind his back).

How Symbols Inspire Societies

The third instance of subliminal messaging in stories is that symbols inspire societies. Every nation and society have their symbols. These symbols tell the story of how a particular society/nation came to be, and what that society represents (at least nominally).

One can scoff at the importance of symbols and their relevance to everyday life. (Or find out the truth about them.) Nevertheless, symbols help to bring society together for a common purpose, whether that be in celebration or commemoration.

Through your writings, you can show the importance of symbols. Additionally, you can show how they can inspire your characters to do something for the greater good of their society.

Example – The Myth of Jebediah Springfield

subliminal messaging in stories - lisa simpson finds out the truth about jebediah springfield
Lisa learning the truth about Jebediah Springfield. But does the truth matter when he inspired a whole society to do good?

In “Lisa The Iconoclast,” in Season 7 Episode 16 of The Simpson’s, Lisa Simpson finds out that Jebadiah Springfield, the founder of Springfield, was a fraud.

Lisa intends to reveal the truth at the town’s bicentenary celebrations. But just as Lisa is about to uncover her findings, she stops herself from doing so. She sees that the myth of Jebediah Springfield has brought people together and has inspired them to act in ways that better society.

That people have come together means more than anything Jebediah Springfield did in his life. That is the same for all symbols in our world and in stories, as well.

When Symbols Are Connected To Law & Order

Just as symbols inspire citizens/characters to do things for the greater good, so too do they play their part in upholding law and order.

Indeed, when the symbols we look up to are smashed, whether literally or metaphorically, society fragments. When society fragments, it is only a matter of time before law and order breaks down.

Example – Bane Reveals The Truth About Harvey Dent

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane gives a speech in front of Blackgate Prison. This is where Gotham’s worst criminals are held under the Dent Act. The Dent Act had been enacted into law eight years earlier, following the death of Harvey Dent, Gotham’s mythologised DA. Indeed, in The Dark Knight, Dent was known as the ‘White Knight,’ and a symbol of hope against organised crime.

In the speech, Bane reveals the truth about Harvey Dent: that before his death, he had transformed into a murdering psychopath. This entails that the Dent Act (and those locked up under it without parole) was based on a lie. Subsequently, all the criminals in Blackgate Prison are set loose and run riot over Gotham, revolution-style.

It is only with the return (and sacrifice) of Batman, another symbol whom Gothamites look up to, that law and order returns.

subliminal messaging in stories - bane outside blackgate prison
Bane revealing the truth about ‘false idol’ Harvey Dent, outside Blackgate Prison, which leads to anarchy.

Can A Man Ever Be Forgiven For His Crimes?

This we shall look at in Part VII. I hope you enjoyed Part VI on subliminal messaging in stories, and that it helps to make the writing process a little easier for you.

Let you know what you think of the blog piece in the comments below,


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