In the previous blog post, we discussed the first part on the art to subliminal messaging i.e. what subliminal messages are and how to write them into your story. To recap, a subliminal message is when the writer writes two conversations at the same time: one between the POV Character and another character, and the other between the POV Character and the audience.
Last week, we discussed some ways this can be achieved. This week, we shall assess the form that subliminal messages can take in the following ways:
- Having a non-POV Character say something, and later the POV Character and/or the audience realise the hidden message;
- Having physical occurrences where there is more than what meets the eye;
- Having the POV Character suffer hallucinations;
- Having scenery look wrong.
When A Non-POV Character Puts In A Hidden Message
When writers think ahead, they can insert a line into a non-POV Character that may sound vague, smart or smarmy at first. This is because, as the audience is not privy to the non-POV Character’s thoughts, we do not know what he/she means in real time.
In such a scenario, the art of subliminal messaging can be seen best when the audience reads (or watches) a passage of dialogue for the second time. Then, he/she will realise the non-POV Character’s hidden message.
Example – Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow And Subliminal Messages
In Season 1 Episode 2 of Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister smirks as he sardonically congratulates Jon Snow for joining the Night’s Watch. Jaime ends his speech by saying “I’m sure it will be an honour to serve in such an elite force. And if not… it’s only for life.”
(Watch it here, it’s a great scene.)
Upon watching this scene for the first time, the viewer would be forgiven for thinking that Jaime Lannister is a douchebag. The smirk is enough to make the audience hate him. Bear in mind that at this point in the narrative, all we know about Ser Jaime Lannister is that he is handsome; called the Kingslayer; sleeps with sister, Queen Cersei; and has pushed young Bran Stark out of a window, crippling him for life. What he says to Jon merely compounds our dislike of him.
But actually, in Jaime’s own arrogant way, he was giving Jon a cryptic warning. After-all, who is Jaime Lannister in Season 1? He is a member of the Kingsguard, an order that swears an oath for life to serve the king in a similar way that men of the Knight’s Watch take a vow to guard the realm when donning the Black. Jaime learned that there is no honour in taking a vow for life and that honour is a lie (as so much of his life is, sadly).
Yet, the viewer could not have known this upon first viewing. It is only when we learn more about him in Season 3 that we can reassess this scene with Jon Snow, and realise Jaime’s subliminal message.
When Physical Happenings Have A Deeper Meaning
Sometimes, there is more to physical actions than what meets the eye. The physical action itself can seem kind, horrible or something else at first glance.
Nevertheless, the art of writing subliminal messaging here is that the writer ingeniously tricks the eye to give his/her content greater meaning.
Example 1 – Honest John Encourages Pinocchio To Go To Pleasure Island
In the 1940 Disney film, Pinnochio, the titular character is on his way to school one day when he meets Honest John (who can be seen in the header, above). Honest John tells Pinocchio all about a fun place called Pleasure Island. It seems like a nice thing on Honest John’s behalf, and he encourages Pinnochio, via a catchy song, to go to this place for a holiday.
After-all, Pleasure Island is full of kids who do nothing all day but drink and play. How bad could it be?
Pinnochio is a film littered with (dark) subliminal messages. It is not by chance that Honest John is a fox, an animal synonymous with cunning; and nor is it a coincidence that the ‘fun place’ in the film is called Pleasure Island. A kid watching Pinnochio would do well to take note of the hidden message here – don’t be taken in by strangers!
Furthermore, there is nothing nice about what Honest John does. Pleasure Island is populated by delinquent (and possibly orphaned) pre-pubescent boys and a 40-year-old fat, coachman. In short, this is child trafficking and paedophilia. The Coachman even says (grinning like the devil), after the boys have been turned into donkeys and stripped naked, that “they never come back as boys.”
This is known as hiding in plain sight. As the boys are now donkeys, ostensibly the viewers think to themselves: ‘of course, they never come back as boys. They’re donkeys.’ But this logic misses the point. What the Coachman really means is that he intends to take away their innocence and abuse the boys sexually. (Now read “they never come back as boys” again and try not to feel revolted.)
Worse than that, though, once Pinocchio escapes Pleasure Island, we never see or hear of these criminals or their victims again. They are forgotten about. Sadly, this is the case for so many victims of trafficking and sexual offences, both historically and in the present.
Example 2 – Alien (1979)
In Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Alien, Kane (John Hurt) discovers a chamber with eggs on the spaceship. But when he touches one of them, a creature jumps out at him and attaches itself to his face.
After encountering some difficulties, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her team manage to get the creature off Kane’s face. Kane seems all right at first. But during dinner, he chokes and convulses. Then, an alien bursts from his chest, killing him.
The sight of the creature latching onto Kane’s face, and then the alien ripping Kane’s thorax open is disgusting and repulsive to watch. Nevertheless, the reason for the viewer’s discomfort runs deeper than the physical harm caused to Kane.
Like with Pinnochio, Alien is a film where no stone is left unturned; particularly, when it comes to themes of sexual violation and rape. The creature orally impregnates Kane to create the alien that kills him. Kane did not consent to any of it; yet, he suffers the consequences all the same. In some ways, this is a metaphor for victims of rape and sexual abuse.
Furthermore, the alien’s head is shaped like a giant phallus, thereby constantly reminding the audience that it was born by rape. Similarly, its mouth has been deliberately designed to look like a Vagina Dentata (a vagina with teeth), with all the frightening implications when taking intercourse into consideration.
Thus, not only is the alien born in a disturbing way. Its appearance has been made with the intention of unsettling the viewers to their core.
(To read more about the troubling themes of Alien, and how they are arguably more relevant today than in 1979, click here.)
Hallucinations, whether the POV Character realises that he/she is suffering from them or not, can be part of the art of subliminal messaging. Hallucinations suggest that the POV Character’s mental state is not stable.
Example – Nina in Black Swan
In Black Swan, Nina (Natalie Portman) constantly sees herself throughout the film. Sometimes, she is aware of it, like when she walks past herself on at a New York subway station.
Yet, sometimes she’s not, like the scene in the night club, where everyone dancing is her. (As can be seen clearly in this slow-motion clip.)
The hallucinations are a way of writer, Darren Aranofsky, showing us that Nina is suffering from several mental health issues. These include schizophrenia, paranoia, and (a severe case of) narcissistic personality disorder.
All of these issues need to be treated. But Nina does the opposite. She ignores them and allows them to take ever greater control of her. This results in her psychotic breakdown and eventual suicide in the film. Perhaps, this is Aranofsky ways of subliminally telling the viewer to take his/her mental health seriously.
When The Scenery Looks Off
When the scenery looks off, viewers instinctively know that something is wrong. Invariably, the scenery looking off is the writer’s subtle way of telling the audience that they cannot trust the POV Character.
Example – Odd Angles In Anastasia
In Acts I and II of the ballet Anastasia, an element of the scenery is off in Acts I & II: in Act I, Grand Duchess Anastasia is on a ship with her family, but the ship’s funnel is at a brow-raising angle; and, in Act II, Anastasia and her family are in the majestic hall, yet the chandelier on the ceiling is at an impossibly acute angle.
The ballet Anastasia is based on the testimony of someone who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia; who claimed to have survived the Bolshevik Revolution and the murder of her family.
However, when Kenneth MacMillan wrote the ballet in the latter 1960s, there were suspicions that the person who claimed to be Anastasia was not really the Grand Duchess. But a fraud. To show his doubts about her claims, McMillan made the scenery look flawed as a metaphor i.e. that our main character may be an unreliable narrator (i.e. a liar).
Thank you for reading this blog post on the art to subliminal messaging. I hope you have enjoyed it, and that it has given you an idea of how to use subliminal messages to enhance your story.
Please let me know in the comments what you think of my tips on the art to subliminal messaging. Also, if you think I have missed out a way of conveying a subliminal message, write it in the comments as well.
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