Several years ago in a bookstore, I came across a tome which listed supposed “subliminal” images in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Although I’ve long since forgotten the book’s title, the list stuck in my memory such that on later viewings of the movie I’ve always tried to see if I could spot them.
So are these sources correct? Well, yes on some, no on others. Several items they call “subliminal” are really just part of the director’s style. The book and the websites often imply effects which would have required digital manipulation of the image (such as “morphing”). In reality, I only found one such effect in the entire film.
Below is a list of each claim of a subliminal image, in roughly the order it occurs in the movie, and my findings as to its veracity.
1. Claim: When Kevin Costner’s character is first notified of Kennedy’s shooting, there is a closeup of a clock. The reflection of a white skull quickly passes over the glass on the clock.
Reality: A thin, roughly vertical, white reflection does pass over the clock face. The “ghostly” characteristics are caused by ripples in the glass randomly distorting the reflection. Stone may have been implying an ominous occurrence, or he may have been merely trying to add visual interest to an otherwise static shot. I was unable to distinguish any features in the reflection which suggest a skull or any other type of face.
2. Claim: While Costner and his men wait in his office for David Ferrie, they watch Kennedy’s funeral on TV, intercut with shots of Lyndon Johnson meeting with his military advisors. There is a subliminal shot of Costner’s head, beginning behind his left ear. His head then rotates left 90 degrees toward the camera.
Reality: A shot very similar to the one described is present (in black and white). However, the head is definitely not Costner’s. Most probably, given the context, it’s of the actor portraying LBJ.
3. Claim: At the beginning of a flashback to a scene in David Ferrie’s apartment, there is a quick flash of a human skeleton.
Reality: Although this does occur, it’s not quite as subliminal as it sounds. The image of the skeleton is accompanied by a flash and the sound of a camera shutter, which call attention to the shot as if it were a quick flash photo. At any rate, the image is readily perceptible to the casual viewer, and the skeleton is shown later in detail as an actual fixture in Ferrie’s apartment.
4. Claim: When Costner is standing on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, the nondiegetic sound of a gunshot is heard as he watches a car drive by. In the next cut back to him, he shudders at the imaginary sound.
Reality: This really happens. It’s not truly subliminal, but more of a directorial touch. And an effective one at that.
5. Claim: When one of Costner’s investigators (Michael Rooker) is on a New Orleans street questioning another man, the man reveals that “Clay Bertrand” is an alias of the man known as Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). At the mention of the name “Clay Shaw,” a person dressed in a skeleton costume from a small parade passing by begins dancing around them.
Reality: This is true. However, the camera clearly focuses on the dancing skeleton, so his presence is not subliminal.
6. Claim: During a flashback to Oswald’s interrogation after his scuffle with anti-Castro Cubans, he is shown sitting in a chair. Then, in a jump cut, he is shown standing and facing in the other direction. A website claims the implication is that Oswald can be in two places at once.
Reality: I think this is just an example of the website author misinterpreting film language. To me, Stone is just portraying the lengthiness of the interrogation in a compact way, while making the shot more interesting than if Oswald remained in the chair the whole time. There’s a similar jump cut technique used later where we see the empty sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, and then Oswald “magically” pops into frame pushing a hand truck. The idea being that powerful forces have “dropped” Oswald into the TSBD setting.
7. Claim: During a New Orleans Easter parade, a large American flag swings away to reveal a float of a skull.
Reality: The shot is present, although the flag remains stationary in the foreground instead of “uncovering” the float. Again, the image is onscreen long enough to be easily perceptible, although the connection of the American flag with the skull might be an unconscious perception.
8. Claim: One of the masked revelers in the parade is really Costner.
Reality: This is false. There is a similarity in the style of glasses worn, but the facial features are definitely not Costner’s.
9. Claim: During one intercut in the parade sequence, there is a single frame showing a “pastiche of faces.”
Reality: This is false. The frame apparently referred to comes just before a shot of a man dressed in white robes and blackface holding a staff. The frame is largely white, with seemingly random shapes of yellow and brown. It looks like it might possibly be a very high-contast color negative of a closeup of the man’s gloved hand on the staff, but this is just a wild guess. Why it’s in there, only Oliver Stone and his editor know for sure.
10. Claim: Following the parade, there is a shot of a ship passing beneath a bridge, then a shot of clouds in a blue sky. During the cloud shot, there is a subliminal frame of a “UFO-like object.”
Reality: WTF? I single-framed the video through the entire cloud shot backwards and forwards and saw nothing except clouds. I single-framed the DVD through the entire cloud shot backwards and forwards and saw nothing except clouds. I wish people high on crack wouldn’t make websites. Either that, or maybe it was one of those invisible UFO’s.
11. Claim: When Costner meets Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) on the mall in Washington, DC, it isn’t raining. Yet Costner and many passersby hold umbrellas. It’s implied there’s a connection to the “Umbrella Man” in Dealey Plaza during the assassination.
Reality: This one is wrong. Stone apparently wanted a damp, drizzly atmosphere to coincide with what Mr. X was about to reveal to Costner, without the distraction and theatrics of an all-out rainstorm. Indications that it truly is supposed to be raining include Costner and others wearing raincoats, the pavement being wet, water on the umbrellas of some of the passersby, raindrops falling in the puddles in the background as they walk, and the sound of distant thunder (introduced when X begins his ominous story of being sent to the South Pole).
12. Claim: During Mr. X’s meeting with Costner, he states there were military intelligence personnel in Dealey Plaza the day of the assassination, and he’s still trying to find out who and why. Immediately following this statement there’s a flashback to Dealey Plaza showing a quick pan across a line of people waving as if the motorcade had just passed. One website claims that within this crowd the faces of George Bush and Ronald Reagan have been superimposed on two of the people.
Reality: This one’s really bizarre. And it also appears to be correct. There is a man near the end of the line who looks vaguely like George Bush, and another who looks vaguely like Ronald Reagan. The people’s faces are blurred from the camera pan, and out of focus to boot. Particularly weird is the fact that “George Bush” starts out as another man, then transforms. In the figure below, the images are of the same person two frames apart in the film.
However, this shot also bothers me for another reason. It flies by so fast, and is so blurred and out of focus, that it seems completely pointless. Furthermore, it’s a recreation and not from archival footage, meaning Stone and crew actually went out of their way to film it. (Unfortunately, the cameraman didn’t go out of his way to focus it.) At the very end of the line is an elderly man wearing a shirt with a rather bizarre image on it. Bizarre because it doesn’t look like a shirt someone that age would be wearing, and the image itself looks vaguely like a demonic silhouette. Judge for yourself (you can also see “Ronald Reagan” in the picture). The shot flies by so fast in the movie that you’ll only see it if you resort to single-framing, so if it’s truly intentional it certainly qualifies as subliminal.
Reality: This is true, although the claim of one website that “yellow flames” can be seen shooting out the bottom is false. The clouds of rocket exhaust are formed by the pattern of trees at the base of the monument. Since the shot comes just when Mr. X has begun talking about the profitability of war and making weapons, it seems like more than a coincidence. Probably, Stone and company were on location, noticed the illusion the trees made when viewed from a certain angle, and decided to include it in the film. It’s somewhat ironic that this effect is a lot more noticeable in the video than it was in theatrical screenings (as represented by the letterboxed DVD). In the letterboxed format, the monument is shoved all the way over to the lefthand side of the frame, and is much less obvious in the shot composition.
14. Claim: When Costner’s daughter answers the phone shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination, a white figure of a woman in a picture over her head can be seen “talking.”
Reality: I vote “false.” The problem is, discerning the mouth of the woman in the picture is just outside of the resolution capabilities of the video. And although the DVD provides an image with better resolution, a third of that resolution is lost back because the picture is letterboxed. The end result is I can’t see what is happening with the woman’s mouth, and I seriously doubt other people can either. I suspect what they think is “talking” is just random image noise in the video.
15. Claim: Right before Robert Kennedy is killed, he’s shown on TV making a speech while Costner makes a sandwich. Kennedy’s speech has been altered by Stone to say,”This is a selfish country.”
Reality: This one’s false. The first few times I saw this movie (before I ever heard about the subliminal images within), I, too, thought RFK was saying “selfish.” This confused me to no end. But what I realize now is happening is he’s saying, “We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country.” Because of his accent, and the sound guy’s decision to overlay the sound of Costner setting down his glass offscreen just at the critical moment, it sounds like RFK is saying “and a selfish country” instead of “an unselfish country.”
16.Claim: During the trial, Kevin Bacon’s character testifies about meeting Clay Shaw at David Ferrie’s apartment. As Shaw waves his left hand, an image of a skull can be seen in the background. The skull then opens its mouth in an evil grin.
Reality: As the following picture shows, the first half of this claim is true. The skull is clearly there on purpose, and so surreptitiously tucked away in the background that it qualifies as subliminal. (Gee whiz, what is with Oliver Stone’s fascination with pictures of skulls?)
However, the part about the skull opening its mouth is false. The troubling thing is that the book and the websites all claim the mouth opens, and all claim to have detected it by single-framing through the video. I single-framed the video and the DVD, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that the skull remains completely motionless. The only guess I can make for their misconception is that there are two dark areas which might be interpreted as the skull’s mouth (the lower is actually the shadow under its chin). When the scene begins, Shaw’s raised hand obscures the lower area; then, as he lowers his hand it becomes visible. I suppose, if one were hung over, severely myopic, under the influence of hallucinogens, and watching the movie on a 1 inch diagonal TV screen, it might look like the skull was opening its mouth.
17. Claim: During the trial, Costner is using a model of Dealey Plaza to point out witnesses who heard one or more shots from the grassy knoll. The movie cuts to the Zapruder film, right before Kennedy disappears behind the freeway sign. There is a closeup of Costner’s bespectacled face, followed by an extreme closeup of the right lens of his glasses. We see the vague image of a deer moving right to left reflected in the lens, followed by a gunshot and the sound of screams.
Reality: This is true:
For some reason, the book and the websites refuse to identify the face as Costner’s, and instead state the face is just of an unknown man. This is strange, because we’re shown identical closeups of Costner (without the deer) at other points throughout the movie, and each time it’s perfectly obvious that the face is his.
18. Claim: In the courtroom, the bailiff makes a secret hand gesture known to Freemasons immediately prior to the defense attorney objecting. The implication is that the entire courtroom scene is being controlled by outside forces.
Reality: Up until now, I haven’t commented on the allegations of “secret Masonic hand gestures” at various points in the film, because frankly my knowledge of secret Masonic hand gestures is probably not all that it should be. Refer to the first website link at the top of the page if you’re interested in the claims. But in this case, the allegation is clearly false. The bailiff is shown standing at the swinging gate which divides the public seating area from the trial area. But his “hand gesture” is only his scratching the back of his left hand with his right, and there’s no evidence the defense counsel even sees it. Plus, several seconds elapse before the defense attorney voices his objection, and it’s plain that the objection is provoked by something Costner says after the bailiff scratches his hand.
19. Claim: When Costner is reconstructing the events of the assassination during the trial, black and white footage is shown of the “Umbrella Man” in Dealey Plaza. Standing next to him is a man wearing a jacket with “RIPLEY” embroidered on the back. This word has a sinister meaning.
Reality: The word is clearly visible, and it’s obviously intentional since it’s integrated so well into the composition of the shot.
When I first saw the movie, I figured “Ripley” must have been the name of somebody’s high school or something, and was included as an inside joke. Which may still be the case. But now that we’ve adopted the stance of trying to find a devious meaning under every Stone, we must consider the possibility that there’s one for this shot, too. The problem is, no one has been able to figure one out yet. The book originally posited links to “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” or the Ripley character in the Alien films, but I tend to doubt these explanations. The first website suggested the 15th century “Ripley Scroll” as being linked to Freemasonry. However, all I could find about that scroll indicated it had to do with mysticism, but nothing related to Freemasonry. If Oliver Stone is reading this, would he please send me an e-mail and tell me what the hell “Ripley” has to do with the Kennedy assassination? Thanks.
20. Claim: During Costner’s courtroom reconstruction of the assassination, we’re shown several shots of the alleged snipers getting into position ready for the kill. During a closeup of one of their rifle scopes, an animated demonic face can be seen reflected in the glass, then the scope lights up as if it were a movie projector.
Reality: Almost true. What we see actually is the lens of a movie projector.
Notice the projector case and the adjustment knob on the right edge of the frame. The mistake is understandable, because several shots of rifle scopes do precede it. With regard to the demonic face in the reflection: it’s there, but it’s not animated. It appears to grow because the person wearing the demonic mask (possibly the same skull mask as the dancing skeleton in item 5 above) leans closer to the projector lens just before the internal light comes on. Then the Zapruder film starts, and Costner narrates it with frame number references. The ghoulish face is easier to see when it’s moving in slow motion than it is in the still frame above.
21. Claim: During rotating overhead shots of the judge’s bench as he bangs his gavel, some sort of wicker decoration can be seen. The association is with pagan rites of ritual murder where the person being sacrificed was burned alive inside a wicker structure.
Reality: I’ve looked and looked, but I can never see anything like that on the judge’s bench. I see a couple of ash trays, some water glasses and a pitcher, a cigarette carton, a coffee mug, the judge’s gavel, and some other crap, but no wicker ritual murder thing. It may be there, but I don’t see it.