Death Spirals: A History of the Hypnotic Horror Film

By Brother Bill / January 9, 2016


Sequential screen shots from the eight-minute hypnosis segment in Anguish, 1986

Anguish (1986) is an obscure and overlooked horror film from Spanish director Bigas Luna, a name perhaps better known for weird and erotic art-house dramas. Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist and Poltergeist II) stars as the overbearing mother of adult son John (Michael Lerner, Barton Fink) who still lives at home and under her thumb. Mother has a psychic connection with her slavish son and can communicate with him over long distances, a power she will use to direct him as her instrument of revenge. It’s a surreal and violent film, involving eye surgery and pet snails and birth trauma and a movie theater shooting spree.

But before I delve deeper into Anguish, I should mention that this movie contains a hidden message. No, I’m not talking about some underlying theme, expressed with subtle metaphor or symbolism, but overt, subliminal mind control being worked on the viewers’ subconscious by the filmmaker. Such is the claim made in a pre-credits title card, which warns: “During the film you are about to see, you will be subject to subliminal messages and mild hypnosis. This will cause you no physical harm or lasting effect, but if for any reason you lose control or feel that your mind is leaving your body – leave the auditorium immediately.”

death-spirals-5As a fan of both in-theater exploitation gimmicks and the prospect of manipulating people subconsciously with hidden messages, I fell in love with the movie before it even began. Anguish was not, of course, the first movie to threaten to hypnotize its audience. The gimmick goes back to 1958’s Terror In the Haunted House (aka My World Dies Screaming), which utilized a process called “Psychorama” to flash images and messages for a fraction of a second at various points throughout the film. The “subliminal messaging” was not used surreptitiously; rather, the novelty of the process was the main focus of the film’s marketing, prominently featured on the poster and trailer.

The timing of the debut of “subliminal messaging” as a promotable gimmick was no accident, for it was only the year before (1957) that this once obscure topic, formerly relegated to psychological studies and marketing research, crossed over to become a concept understood by the general public, editorialized in mainstream publications and referenced in popular culture. This unlikely turn is attributable to two events occurring in the latter half of 1957, the first being release of a study claiming that refreshment sales at a New Jersey movie theater increased substantially when messages urging viewers to “buy Coke” and “eat popcorn” were flashed with a tachistoscopic projector over a showing of the 1955 film Picnic.

The study was conducted in 1956 by James M. Vicary, a market researcher and consultant. Vicary believed consumers made purchasing decisions based on complex, subconscious desires, and was a proponent of applying psychoanalytic techniques to customer research surveys. He was also a bit of a self-promoter who kept his name in the public eye by releasing articles about his findings to mainstream newspapers and magazines. (One of his more popular studies counted the eye-blinks of women shoppers as they perused grocery store displays and concluded they had drifted into a trance-like state.) Vicary is sometimes described as more of a showman than a serious scientist, and the veracity of his Picnic experiment is dubious at best (Snopes rates the study “false”). Regardless, the sinister implications of Vicary’s study did not go unnoticed, and critical response was swift. Fears that subliminal messaging techniques might be exploited by hostile foreign actors to undermine the country were voiced in editorials and investigated by the CIA. Allusions to Orwell’s “Big Brother” abounded.

death-spirals-3Coinciding with release of these findings, Vance Packard, an author and journalist who had done early reporting on the Vicary experiment, published The Hidden Persuaders (1957), a somewhat alarmist take on the psychology of advertising that became an unlikely non-fiction bestseller and introduced concepts like “motivational research” to the masses. (See Charles R. Acland’s excellent book Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence, 2012, for a detailed account of Vicary’s and Packard’s work and influence.) While dismissed by some as “kitsch psychology,” Packard’s book fueled already heightened public wariness of the hidden influence advertisers might wield over consumer decision-making. In the popular mind, subliminal messaging was indistinguishable from brainwashing or mass-hypnosis (though cautionary fears would soon dissipate as it became increasingly clear that the technique was little more than a harmless curiosity.)

The confluence of the Packard book and the Vicary findings kicked off a years-long public interest in the once obscure topic, and, in the wake of this excitement, Precon Process & Equipment Co., a tachistoscope projector manufacturer, announced plans to release the first feature film to contain subliminal messaging, the aforementioned Terror in the Haunted House (1958). Branding their process “Psychorama” and promising to bring the viewer into the “Fourth Dimension using Subliminal Communication,” Terror in the Haunted House projected split-second images of skulls, cartoon faces, and messages like “get ready to scream” on top of a plodding haunted house film involving a young woman’s repressed traumatic memories resurfacing in nightmares—a sort of low-brow riff on Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). The film opens with a hypnotherapy session conducted by a psychologist employing a spiral “hypno-wheel,” which immediately recalls the Psychorama title card opening the film. The implied association of subliminal messaging with hypnosis is unmistakable.

The only available reference for the content of these subliminal projections are the VHS and DVD releases of the film by Rhino Video, and since at least one of the subliminal messages is an ad for Rhino products (“Rent Rhino Videos Everyday”), there is some question as to whether any of the other images are authentic to the original theatrical presentation.

Pychorama was also used in 1959’s Date With Death, a noir-thriller that projected messages like “Blood” and “Kill” over the action. As with Terror in the Haunted House, the subliminal messaging was marketed to the audience, both in the print campaign and in a unique trailer where actor Gerald Mohr explains Psychorama as a process that will “put information directly into your mind.” He even addresses concerns about advertiser exploitation, assuring us that “Psychorama cannot make you do or believe anything you don’t want to… The only purpose of Psychorama is to increase your enjoyment of the picture.” Date With Death would be the last feature film effort to employ Precon’s Psychorama, but audience mind-control as a promotional gimmick continued with Horrors of the Black Museum, released by American International Pictures (AIP) the same year. One poster promised “an amazing new experience,” dubbed “Hypno-Vista,” which “actually puts YOU in the picture. Can you stand it?” Unlike the technology-driven Precon process, the subliminal control of Hypno-Vista is achieved simply by having a hypnotist (billed as “Emile Franchel, Registered Psychologist, State of California, Specialty – Hypnotism”) purport to mesmerize the audience in a filmed thirteen-minute prologue.

After first preemptively countering any skeptics in the audience by declaring, “It is said you cannot hypnotize an idiot, imbecile or a buffoon,” Franchel invokes the power of suggestion and demonstrates the “sympathetic yawn,” a phenomenon in which the sight of a person yawning sometimes causes the viewer to yawn. “You feel as though you are being drawn into the screen,” Franchel insists, as a hypnotic spiral fills the frame. The film, he continues, “has been filled to the brim with suggestions designed to help you experience to the full all the feelings and emotions that the producers intended you to experience.” Apparently the potency of Hypno-Vista really did rely entirely on the power of suggestion, because there aren’t any subliminal messages to be found in the actual film.

death-spirals-8On-screen hypnotism returned the following year with The Hypnotic Eye (1960), about a stage hypnotist who uses a strobing electric eyeball-shaped gadget to plant destructive subconscious suggestions in his audience. The Hypnotic Eye boasted a “new audience participation thrill” dubbed “HypnoMagic,” and enlisted real-life celebrity hypnotherapist Gil Boyne as technical consultant to lend an air of credibility to the hokum. In several scenes we see the murderous hypnotist Desmond (Jacques Bergerac) perform his act in its entirety, wherein he hypnotizes both on-stage volunteers and the entire seated audience, while his focus gradually orients towards the camera and directly at the viewer. When the electric eye gadget is introduced, its flashing concentric rings fill the frame in several shots, suggesting its influence is working directly through the screen and on the viewer, as well as the on-screen audience.

In 1962, K. Gordon Murray, an American producer who built a career on redubbing and repackaging foreign B movies for American matinee audiences, rereleased two 1958 Spanish horror films, The Vampire’s Coffin and The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, as a double-feature entry in his “Young America Horror Club” series. The films were presented with a new innovation added by Murray called “Hypnoscope,” a gimmick in which costumed crew entered the theater at some point during the film to menace the audience, their presence explained as “a trance of hallucinations” caused by mass hypnosis. In a four-minute filmed introduction preceding the show, a disembodied voice speaking over an endlessly looping hypnotic spiral explains that “you may feel yourself changing from the gentle person you are, to a monster, with dark green blood running through its veins… or you may become a vampire, with a deep urge within you for a refreshing drink of blood. Of course, these changes will happen to only a few of you, while others will remain as themselves.” (The Hypnoscope introduction can be viewed in its entirety as an extra on the Something Weird Video DVD release of Monsters Crash the Pajama Party.)

Surprisingly, the king of in-theater gimmicks, William Castle (13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler), never dabbled in subliminal messaging himself (his “Percepto”, “Emergo,” and other sensational presentation techniques were not associated with audience hypnosis or suggestion). The closest he came is the trailer for 1964’s The Night Walker, which depicts real people (“not actors!”) revealing embarrassing details of their dreams (“he was naked,” etc.) while allegedly under hypnosis, followed by an on-screen warning to the audience that seeing the film “may force you to dream of secret desires you’re ashamed to admit! You have been warned!” By this time, however, the excitement over subliminal gimmicks had waned, and the film itself does not contain any subliminal messages.

* * *

death-spirals-12Which brings us back to Anguish, a film that opens with a shot of a metronome (an apparatus frequently employed by on-screen hypnotists), its rhythmic ticking lingering softly in the background for the first several minutes. Mother employs a spiraling hypno-wheel (loaded onto an old phonograph turntable) to lull John into a trance-like state. Other spiral imagery abounds: the spiraled shells of the live snails she inexplicably keeps as pets, and the snail-shaped knick-knacks decorating her home. Even the whorl in John’s hair briefly becomes a point of focus while Mother brings John under her hypnotic control, commanding him to “start thinking of the spiral. The spiral that’s coming into your head. Think of the center. The center of the spiral…” Mother hypnotizes John in several scenes, each of which goes on much longer than necessary (one segment lasts almost eight minutes). Incantations are repeated and echoed, underscored by the steady pounding of a heartbeat, or the magnified sound of John’s breathing, each respiration a breaking wave. The idea is that the viewer is being hypnotized along with John.

There is an off-putting return-to-the-womb subtext to some of Mother’s hypnotic suggestions, a supplication for John to “return to her” and “become one again.” Psychedelic montages accompany some of the hypnotism scenes, and, among the imagery, a floating fetus. The human eye is a recurring theme as well. John works as an orderly for an ophthalmologist who keeps an exhibit of diseased and deformed eye specimens at the office, stacked along a wall in little aquariums—like the world’s strangest fish store. Discomforting scenes of both an eye surgery and a different patient’s painful reaction to a contact lens fitting are mere prelude to the later horrific discovery that John has been maintaining his own personal collection of eyeballs at home, for which he procures new samples from the living in a most gruesome manner, all while under Mother’s hypnotic control. Though never really explained, Mother apparently has a vendetta against the outside world and has decided that harvesting eyes is the appropriate retribution, declaring, “All the eyes of the city will be ours!”

The weirdness of Anguish escalates in a second act twist: phantom dialogue, not connected to anyone in the film, is suddenly heard commenting over the on-screen action, followed by seemingly incongruous shots of a movie theater audience watching a screen. It soon becomes apparent that the movie we have been watching so far is actually a movie-within-a-movie. We are now watching an audience watching the movie along with us, and the subliminal influence of Mother’s hypnotism extends not only to us, the viewers, but to members of the in-movie audience.

death-spirals-11Our focus turns to a pair of young girls: Linda (Clara Pastor), captivated by the film, and Patti (Talia Paul), who is becoming physically ill because of the hypnotic suggestions coming through the screen and is ready to “leave the auditorium,” just as the initial disclaimer warning advised (we’ll later learn that the movie this audience is watching, and that by implication we’ve been watching, is actually titled The Mommy). Additionally, Patti wears contact lenses and finds them suddenly uncomfortable to wear, the eye-horror of The Mommy apparently seeping into the real-world. It’s here that the eight-minute hypnotism sequence occurs, a captivating audiovisual montage that blurs the lines between the fictional movie The Mommy, the diegetic audience shown watching it, and the real-world audience watching both. With its staccato editing, rhythmic animation, and abstract imagery, it’s a sequence both exhilarating and disorienting.

Mother addresses the screen directly, speaking simultaneously to John, the in-film audience, and the real-world viewer, and we witness the power her commands have on certain audience members, who go into a trance-like state, while others are immune. The dual narratives begin to overlap when John enters a movie theater and begins quietly murdering individual audience members one by one with quick knife work. Parallel to this, Patti, watching the scene and continuing to absorb Mother’s hypnotic suggestions, notices a suspicious man several seats over, fidgeting with his pocket as if reaching for his own knife.

The confusion between the movie and reality becomes increasingly pronounced as the fidgeting man (Angel Jove), also now under Mother’s influence, pulls a gun and opens fire inside the theater, causing a panic that is echoed in The Mommy as John’s bloody in-theater massacre is finally discovered, sending patrons rushing for the exit. The shooter takes Patti hostage and practically drags her into the screen under the beckoning gaze of Mother. Naturally, a film that has gone to such effort to confuse reality and fantasy is not going to end by gently releasing its audience back into the real world. After a violent conclusion and yet another twist that makes the viewer further question what is “real,” the end credits roll, projected on a screen in yet another theater, suggesting a possibly endless spiral of movies-within-movies. Sometimes, describing a film’s narrative as “dreamlike” is just a roundabout way of saying the plot didn’t make a lot of sense, but still worked. That’s what I’m landing on for Anguish. It doesn’t amount to much, but the experience is thrilling. It is not merely a film; it’s a theme park ride.

Eat popcorn.

bill-avatarBrother Bill is curator of The Haunted Closet blog. He loves spooky children’s books and old Halloween records, and his taste for pop culture ranges from Rankin Bass to Russ Meyer.

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4 thoughts on “Death Spirals: A History of the Hypnotic Horror Film

  1. I had been racking my brain, trying to remember if Ray Dennis Steckler’s immortal “monster musical” The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies had a hypnotism gimmick in its publicity and advertising, and it turned out it did! It was filmed in “Terrorama” and “Hallucinogenic Hypnovision.” Unfortunately, the latter was simply a sub-Castle level gimmick where poor theater ushers had to rush around the aisles of the theater in zombie masks. 😦

    • I thought I was pretty well versed on the career and filmography of Mr. Steckler, yet somehow I managed to miss the immersive-gimmick aspect of Incredibly Strange Creatures!

  2. Pingback: Once you see it, you’ll never look away. | Miller's Tales

  3. Pingback: Commies, Devils, and Mind Control: How the Christian Right Engineered Satanic Backmasking

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