Moviemaking is an extremely collaborative process – where hundreds of people contribute to a film as it journeys from script to screen. Even though a project’s success or failure is often attributed to the strengths and shortcomings of the writer, director, and principle cast, countless professionals leave their mark on every feature film. However, from time to time, those marks are a bit more literal – as certain directors, special effects gurus, and editors have inserted hidden messages into fan-favorite films. In honor of these sly moviemakers, we’ve compiled a list of our favorites.
To be clear, movies on our list are more than simple easter eggs (such as the Egyptian etching of R2-D2 and C-3PO in Raiders of the Lost Ark), set/costume designs that might not have been an actual “message” to the audience (like the The Bride’s “F*** You” sneaker soles in Kill Bill, Vol. 1), or Illuminati/thematic abstractions about the “true meaning” behind a particular film (i.e. Harry Potter is a platform for anti-family subliminal messaging). For our purposes, we’re focusing on frames, text, and audio that is literally hidden in each movie.
That said, the list is not all-inclusive, so once you’ve had a chance to read our picks, share your favorite hidden movie messages in the comments.
1. Dusty SFX
Movie: Lion King (1994)
Hidden Message: The letters S-F-X (or possibly S-E-X).
Backstory: When Simba flops down on a cliffside, a cloud of dust is pushed out into the air – where, for a brief second, a series of three controversial letters appear. For years, the frame was scrutinized as a subliminal message (SEX) intended to promote sexuality to children. However, the film’s animators have since claimed that the letters were intended to spell SFX – a nod to the Lion King‘s special effects department.
There’s no way of knowing whether or not the original intention was to spell SEX or SFX – as the differences would be minute. Disney could have devised the SFX explanation after the fact in order to quell outrage from concerned parents but it’s equally possible that the SEX controversy took-off simply because it’s the more scandalous headline – especially in a fan-favorite kids movie.
Watch the SFX/SEX cloud in context - HERE.
2. Romanian in Reverse
Movie: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Hidden Message: Jocelyn Pook’s song “Masked Ball.”
Backstory: After arriving at a rural mansion, Bill (Tom Cruise) witnesses a satanic ritual. For the scene, Stanley Kubrick enlisted the work of composer Jocelyn Pook, after her song “Backwards Priests” had been used in pre-production to design the infamous orgy scene.
As a result, a Pook track, “Masked Ball,” plays during the satanic ritual, and includes a backwards Orthodox Romanian liturgy - which, in its original form, read: “And God told to his apprentices, I gave you a command to pray to the Lord for the mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, the search, the leave, and the forgiveness of the sins of God’s children. The ones that pray, they have mercy and they take good care of this holy place.”
Watch the “Masked Ball” song in context (WARNING it’s NSFW) - HERE.
3. Don’t Talk About Fight Club
Movie: Fight Club (1999)
Hidden Message: Tyler Durden frames (and a penis).
Backstory: Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) reveals that while working as a film projectionist, he would intentionally splice images of male genitalia into films – which were nearly imperceptible to moviegoers. For the Fight Club movie, director David Fincher utilized a similar approach but, in addition to one standalone penis picture, he also included four brief flashes of Durden in scenes prior to the character’s official introduction.
According to Fincher, the purpose of the subliminal frames was to show that “our hero is creating Tyler Durden in his own mind, so at this point he exists only on the periphery of the narrator’s consciousness.” In addition to the Durden flashes, Fincher also foreshadowed the story’s twist with a subtle label on a pay phone the Narrator uses after his apartment is destroyed – which reads “No Incoming Calls Allowed.” Moments later, Tyler Durden calls the pay phone.
Watch the hidden frames in context - HERE.
4. Spit in Translation
Movie: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Hidden Message: The “Escupimos en su Alimento” restaurant.
Backstory: After tensions rise at the station, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) visits a Mexican restaurant with other women from the KVWN Channel 4 – plotting a practical joke to get even for the continued arrogance and sexism displayed by Ron Burgandy and the rest of San Diego’s number one news team. The restaurant the ladies visit is the “Escupimos en su Alimento” - which, when translated in Spanish, actually means “we spit in your food.”
Given the talent behind the scenes of Anchorman, including producer Judd Apatow, writer/director Adam McKay, and writer/star Will Farell, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that one of the funniest gags (in an already highly quotable film) is also one that most American moviegoers will miss entirely.
5. Personalized Plating
Movie: The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Hidden Message: License Plates
Backstory: Typically in movies, license plates are designed to blend into the scenery without a second thought. However, in the Matrix trilogy, many of the vehicle plates are shorthand references to religious scriptures. At the beginning of Reloaded, Agent Smith’s license plate reads “IS5416,” which corresponds to Isaiah 54:16: “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.” Similarly, during the highway chase sequence, Trinity’s Cadillac plate reads “DA203,” which corresponds to Daniel 2:03: “He said to them, ‘I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.’”
Of course, license plates aren’t the only references to religious texts in the Matrix series, given that, among others, Nebuchadnezzar (the name of Morpheus’ ship) was also a Babylonian King – and the speaker chronicled in the aforementioned Daniel 2:03 text.
Watch the DA203 license plate in context (you’ll have to look fast) - HERE.
6. Morse and Monkey
Movie: King Kong (2005)
Hidden Message: Morse Code Translation
Backstory: Countless movies rely on character dialogue or subtitles to explain non-verbal and non-visual information to viewers. As a result, audiences rarely think twice when watching an actor receive (or send) a message through morse code – accepting that any sound bites will match what characters are reporting onscreen.
However, in the case of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, the director included a tongue-in-cheek message for savvy moviegoers who actually took the time to do translation work. Just before reaching Skull Island, SS Venture captain Englehorn intercepts a coded message calling for the arrest of Carl Denham (Jack Black). Yet the audible code does not actually say anything about an arrest and instead reads: “Show me the monkey!” – a campy hidden message in honor of the film’s titular ape that will probably make readers think twice the next time they see morse code depicted on screen.
7. Ghosts in the Flashlight
Movie: Sunshine (2007)
Hidden Message: Deceased Icarus 1 Crew Members
Backstory: While on their mission to the Sun, the Icarus II crew receives a distress signal from the long-missing Icarus I and decides to rendezvous with the ship. When Capa (Cillian Murphy), Searle (Cliff Curtis), Harvey (Troy Garity), and Mace (Chris Evans) board the Icarus I, their flashlights periodically shine directly into the camera (and out at the audience). At each instance, roughly 49 minutes into the film, director Danny Boyle spliced in hidden frames of (now deceased) Icarus I crew members.
The juxtaposition is especially creepy – since the pictures are from a happy Hawaiian-themed party that took place before the unfortunate events leading to the floundering of Icarus I. Searle encounters the full group photo (from which each flash is taken) later on in the film. Boyle has not discussed the hidden frames officially but the flashes definitely work as a subliminal way of setting audience members on edge – without outright revealing the fate of the Icarus I crew.
Watch the Icarus I hidden faces in context - HERE.
8. Evila Llits S’ti
Movie: Cloverfield (2008)
Hidden Message: “It’s Still Alive”
Backstory: In the final moments of Cloverfield, Rob and Beth seek refuge from the creature under Central Park’s Greyshot Arch. Moments later, an air raid strike buries the couple (and the camera) in rubble from the bridge – presumably killing the Cloverfield monster. However, following the film credits, director Matt Reeves included a brief, 5-second, piece of garbled audio that hints at a different outcome. When reversed, the audio recording (which sounds like a military mission report) clearly states: “It’s Still Alive” – indicating that the creature was not killed in the airstrike (while also setting the stage for a possible, though yet to be released, Cloverfield 2).
Furthermore, the post-credits audio message isn’t the only secret in Cloverfield – as the film also contains three hidden frames from classic monster movies: Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and King Kong.
Listen to the after credits “It’s Still Alive” message forward and backward - HERE.
Honorable Mention & Conclusion
Even though our list focuses on actual messages, not cameos or easter eggs, there’s one borderline semi-hidden message that we’d be remiss to mention.
Honorable Mention: I Am Legend (2007)
Backstory: During the Times Square hunting sequence in I Am Legend, Robert Neville (Will Smith) passes a billboard advertising a Superman and Batman team-up film set to open on May 15, 2010. Given the 2007 I Am Legend release, had the tongue-in-cheek easter egg come true, the film would have likely featured Brandon Routh (whose Superman Returns released in 2006) and Christian Bale (who debuted as Batman in 2005). Of course, Warner Bros. has since announced an actual Superman vs. Batman crossover in their Man of Steel sequel, which will star Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck in the iconic roles. So, maybe I Am Legend really did include a hidden message from Warner Bros. after all – i.e. they’ve wanted to cash-in with a World’s Finest team-up for more than half a decade. Watch the billboard in context - HERE.
What are your favorite hidden movie messages? As mentioned the list is not all-inclusive, so share your picks and reactions in the comments.
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