Terror in the Haunted House


Director: Harold Daniels

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Sublminal Advertising & the
Transient Advent of "Psycho Rama"

Terror in the Haunted HouseA popular hoax or mass hysteria of the 1950s promoted the notion that subliminal messages were being used by propogandists, religious cults, secret societies, government agencies, & advertisers to effect a sort of mind-control.

In truth the CIA as well as many advertisers did attempt to find uses for subliminals, though there was never any authentic evidence that it would work. When the popular delusion inspired actual tests & studies, it was shown to be all hooey, but bad news travels furthest & is remembered longer than good news. Very likely even today more people believe in the hoax science of sublminal messaging than know the facts.

The idea of subliminal communication had been around since about 1900 as a theory of propoganda & brainwashing methodology. In the 1950s James McDonald Vicary perpetrated what he would in the following decade admit was a hoax from the start, claiming to have "proven" that sublminal advertising blinking past cinema patrons induced them in greater numbers to buy lots & lots more popcorn & Coke. In the early 1960s he admitted it was a hoax, one that pretty much put an end to his advertising career.

I do remember in a film revival house back in the '70s, where they were showing a very old print, I really did see a Coca Cola ad flash by & when I asked my companions, "Did you see that?" none of them had. Nobody leapt up to run into the lobby for a Coke either. Yet for a fact theaters were at some point attempting to sell more snacks by inserting one-frame sublminals into films, without regard for the fact that it never influfenced anyone.

Terror in the Haunted HouseEven the government fell for it, though, & the CIA believed it could use subliminal messaging to effect whole populations.

And though the hoax was revealed as early as 1962 & further research since has shown the whole premise to be scientifically invalid, CIA programs once funded are hard to unfund, & resources were wasted into the 1990s, embracing the popular delusion as a valid technique.

In 1974 Wilson Bryan Keyes published his hysteric's warning Subliminal Seduction, a bestseller that warned the public of the horrors of behavior control through the sinister efforts of sublminal advertising.

Although real examples of sublminal advertising attempts might've been uncovered (because advertisers were indeed giving the ineffective system a try), Packard as a loony conspiracy theorist managed instead to find completely phony examples. He'd give as an example a photograph of an ice cube & allege there was a hidden sexual reference in the ice, but there definitely was nothing there.

Packard's own demented imagination superimposed all kinds of hidden images of sex & violence being used sublminally to sell especially such harmful products as booze & cigarettes. His hysterics, like Vicar's phonied-up claim of selling more popcorn, have been debunked time & again, but belief in this hoax persists, until even the United Nations declared "subliminal indoctrination" to be a major threat against human rights worldwide.

In 1958 Congress made its first attempt to ban subliminal advertising as a public health menace. Though the legislation failed, television networks even so voluntarily banned subliminal advertising. It was not until 1974 that actual US legislation made it past the laff-o-meters of smarter senators. Australia, Canada, & Great Britain banned sublminal advertising too, about as rationally as when the state of Oregon legislated endangered species protection for sasquatch.

In testimony before Congress in 1984, it was declared that heavy metal records included harmful subliminal messages to youth, a claim founded upon the long-time practice of some creative people as far back as the Mothers of Invention including backward sounds (a technique called "backmasking") on their recordings, inducing many a youth to physically spin lacquer records backwards on turntables questing for just such hidden messages, & occasionally finding them.

All of a sudden adults who should've known better were promulgating the notion that backmasked records might be gibberish to the conscious ear, but to the subconscious could be instructions to get drunk, do drugs, & play more rock 'n' roll. Loonier sorts of christians & miscellaneous fearmongers adverse to youth culture used this as a basis for demanding legislation against rock 'n' roll.

Perhaps the craziest supposition to come out of this nonsense was a related belief that babies are born with backmasked language. A popular radio program promoting the occult gave international exposure to a way fun nutbag who recorded babies gibbering, played it backwards, finding here & there what sounded like individual words or two-word phrases -- baby language being backward English.

The same nutjob recorded political speeches & played them backward in search of sublminal messages that stated the opposite of the speech, so if he could find even one bit of jabber which backward sounded like "I'm a liar!" that was deeply meaningful, such backmask-speak being regarded as Freudian slips & admissions.

Terror in the Haunted HouseThe failed government attempt to ban sublminals in 1958 was the basis for the advertising gimmick for Terror in the Haunted House; aka, My World Dies Screaming (1958), which claimed to be filmed in "Psycho Rama" using sublminal messaging to increase the level of terror, & "hidden" instructions for when to "Scream Bloody Murder!"

While circulating the film freely & without government interference of any kind, it was nevertheless advertised as "Banned!" And of course there are always plenty of people eager to go see anything they've been told they're not permitted to see, especially if it doesn't require any special effort to see it.

With a decent soundtrack & more than adequate black & white cinematography, Terror in the Haunted House isn't all that bad a film, though a mite tedious, & nothing to do with haunting.

The heroine (Cathy O'Donnell) must reclaim a lost memory of horrible axe murders that occurred years before in the house to which her husband has forced her to return, making him look like the likely culprit behind her past & ensuing madness.

It's a tepid thriller, competently done, nothing special but with effective moments. The action axe-fight near the end, between the unexpected villain & the heroine's husband (Gerald Mohr), is about the only time anything strong occurs on screen.

As for the "subliminals," they are mainly images suitable for Mad Magazine. With dvd & widescreen television, the one-frame images are so obvious & overt they hardly seem to qualify as sublminal at all, & it's easy to stop the frame for a close gander at what is supposed to inspire subconscious terror all out of proportion to what's happening in the story.

Within a minute we see the first so-called subliminal, a cartoon drawing of a bald man in glasses, with a rat in his mouth. Totally childish. Thirty seconds later the second cartoon drawing flashes onto the screen for a single frame, a purple devil. These interruptiosn are numerous & distracting, recycling the same few images over & over again. A viewer has to try to ignore them to get something out of the film per se.

A Date with DeathMoronic "Psychorama" purporting to be a revolutionary new filming method was used for only one more film. The trailer for A Date with Death (1959) was a short subject unto itself, consisting of a warning or lecture about how this sublminal messaging works, with reassurances that "It's perfectly safe -- if you survive."

Such gimmicks tended to be used in the '50s & the 1960s to promote films of small merit, & William Castle used pretty much the same belief in sublminal messaging to promote films as shot in "hypno-vision." But only two films were ever made by this phony revolutionary method of Psycho Rama which was no method at all, & they remained in perpetual obscurity, except as a footnote to the recurring allegations of sublminal messaging in advertising.

A Date with DeathHad A Date with Death not taken advantage of this popular delusion in its promotions, it might well have been remembered more seriously for what it really is, a reasonably good crime noir starring Gerald Mohr, an actor perhaps second string, but not without merits. Mohr appeared in both the "psychorama" films, as the husband in the earlier film.

The jazz score for A Date With Death lends it a beatnik feel though it's set in a New Mexico town, where Mohr plays a tough-guy police officer out to solve a murder. He's actually a hobo pretending to be a cop, but the murder is real enough, & Mohr's identity-switcheroo makes for a richer character than one expects from a ten-cent thriller.

If not for the trashy advertising campaign & the insertion of corny images fobbed off as sublminal terror-inducers, this film might've ended up on lists of lesser-known but worthwhile film noirs, rather than on lists of forgotten drive-in movie mondo trasho.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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