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Various forms of mind control exist. Some, such as subliminal messaging, are more innocent than others. Subliminal messaging proves the power of influence, where a single hidden image can manipulate the audience’s behaviors and actions. Typically, this is used for marketing purposes. One theater inserted the text “HUNGRY? EAT POPCORN” into a film reel to drive concession sales. The text only appeared for a single frame, just long enough for the words to sink into the subconscious. Outside of consumerism, how much power does media have over the human mind?
Movies may be one of America’s most effective, and least violent, weapons. Hollywood and the US government began to understand the mind control potential of filmmaking in the 1940s. Wanting to control both enemy and ally perceptions of America, the Office of War Information (OWI) was established to create propaganda. Films made for mind control played a large part in WWII efforts, with propaganda films being distributed among liberated territories. Even if their cinemas were destroyed in wartime, US troops set up temporary screening spaces to showcase films such as Projections of America. The series of films shows life in the USA through a more positive and wholesome lens than most American media of the ’40s, effectively altering foreign perception of America.
The films on this list showcase impressive technology, haunted antiques, extensive psychiatric techniques, and more. All are used for the same purpose—to take control of the most vulnerable part of a person: their consciousness. However, these things may not be needed at all. Perhaps you need only a screen. Ever influential, a film reel can easily become a weapon. Do the films on this list possess the same power over their audience as the characters within them? Keep reading, and find out for yourself.
Best Mind Control Movies
In the dystopian world of A Clockwork Orange, a type of mind control using an extreme form of aversion therapy is proposed as a way to combat crime and rehabilitate criminals. The test subject for the experimental process, Alex, is a disturbed young man rightfully locked away for his hideous crimes. But is fundamentally altering someone’s mind the answer, or is this a case of trying to force two wrongs into making a right?
They Live touches on Americans’ greedy obsession with consumerism, for which mind-control is to blame. To create a submissive human race, aliens disguise themselves as the American ruling class. To the human eye, these aliens look like every other person. Adding another hidden layer to the landscape, subliminal advertisements hide in billboards and signs. All with the same message—submit and obey. Upon finding special glasses, a homeless man, Nada (Roddy Piper), discovers the deceit around him.
Parents want the best for their children. They want them to be happy and successful. At least, that’s the way it should be. But what happens when parents want their kids to be perfect? In Disturbing Behavior, the elite clique of students known as the Blue Ribbons appear to be a parent’s dream. But nobody is perfect, and the lengths some people will go to in order to influence their kid’s life (and mind) are supremely disturbing.
The Truman Show is different than most other movies about mind control. Instead of an invasive method of getting inside a person’s head and controlling them from the inside, Truman Burbank is controlled from the outside by a meticulous controlling of everything in his environment. From birth, Truman has lived inside a world created specifically for him. For everyone else, Truman’s reality is a television show. Events in his life are orchestrated, his personal relationships are controlled, and he is influenced in ways to make him believe that his decisions are his own. But when the crafted reality of his world begins to seem too unreal, Truman may finally discover the truth.
Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich has one of the most direct and strange methods of mind control. Hidden away in an office between on a floor between floors is a small door. Anyone who passes through the doorway enters the mind, seemingly literally, of actor John Malkovich. At first it seems as though people entering the mind of John Malkovich are just passive passengers, but it’s soon discovered that they can exert control over the poor man’s mind.
Generations pass in front of an enchanted mirror. This enchantment isn’t from a fairytale, however. It’s from a nightmare. Siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) realize the dark power of the mirror too late. It has already killed their parents, leaving Tim to blame. Wanting to clear her brother’s name, Kaylie studies the mirror. Is it a portal to another realm? A doorway for the devil? One thing is clear, the glass truly penetrates the mind of its viewer, sinking disturbing visions deep into their consciousness.
While visiting his girlfriend’s family for the first time Chris finds that this family, made of hunters and psychiatrists, is stranger than anyone could predict. “I have not tried hypnosis, but it is something that . . . is kind of universally scary to people,” says director and writer Jordan Peele. “When somebody can probe into my psyche, there’s no telling . . . how vulnerable I’ll be and what kind of influence they could have.”
An assassin who can transfer her consciousness to other people has a creative way of eliminating her targets. Taking control of their desire and functions, she forces them to carry out brutal acts for her and eventually commit suicide. On how he got the idea for the script, director Brandon Cronenberg references a real experiment. “There was a Spanish doctor who, in the 1950s and ’60s, was implanting animal brains into humans, and he could control a fairly alarming range of human functions, not just motor functions, but emotions,” Cronenberg says. “I became really interested in the science behind that and it crept into the script.”
The innocence of youth is corrupted by power in The Innocents. In an apartment complex, a group of children discover that each other has supernatural powers including telepathy and telekinesis. The boy of the small friend group, Ben, also develops the ability to control the minds of others which he uses out of fear and anger, splintering the group and putting them at odds with each other.
Alice lives a predictable, safe, and suffocating life. As a suburban housewife, she feels comfortable and content. That is until she begins to lose large chunks of time. This makes her question the life around her and the people in it. Eventually, reality itself comes into question. The film uses surreal imagery and subliminal messaging to convey Alice’s inner landscape. In discussing the metaphoric visuals in the film, cinematographer Matthew Libatique says, “it symbolized women as an object and then layering the idea into the shape of an eye tied it to the captivity and the mind of Alice.”
More Mind Control Movies
- Village of the Damned (1960) – Women awake from a deep sleep pregnant. They quickly birth mysteriously powerful children with the power to control everyone around them.
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Upon returning to civilian life, a Korean War veteran realizes he is being used as an assassin in a plot to overthrow the American government.
- Videodrome (1983) – A pirate TV station showing disturbing content is part of a deep conspiracy involving mind control.
- The Brain (1988) – A TV show ironically called Independent Thinkers brainwashes its audience using a huge living brain with alien origins.
- The Matrix (1999) – A computer hacker is offered a chance to break free from the illusion he lives in. The world he awakens to is horrific and ruled by machines that want to keep all citizens asleep in submission.
- Whisper (2007) – Kidnappers quickly regret abducting a young boy who seemingly possesses a terrifying ability to control their mind and body.
- The Happening (2008) – Something is getting into people’s minds and causing them to kill themselves in this thriller from M. Night Shyamalan.
- Upstream Color (2013) – A larva that causes people to become highly suggestible is at the center of this thriller.
- American Ultra (2015) – An unassuming man is unaware that he is a sleeper agent for the CIA until his conditioning is activated in this action comedy.
- Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Super-soldier Steve Rogers fights to save his friend Bucky who was brainwashed and mind-controlled by nefarious forces for decades.
- MK Ultra (2022) – Set in the 1960s, this conspiracy-thriller is inspired by the real-life Project MKUltra which was a CIA program meant to develop methods of mind control.