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Bazaar Gossip: How a Rumor Spread About Subliminal Sex In Disney’s ‘Aladdin’

October 24, 1995 GMT

Anna Runge, a mother of eight, was so enamored with Walt Disney Co. that she owned stacks of its animated home videos, a ``Beauty and the Beast″ blanket and a Disney diaper bag. ``Disney was almost a member of the family,″ she says.

Until, that is, an acquaintance tipped her off to a startling rumor: The Magic Kingdom was sending obscene subliminal messages through some of its animated family films, including ``Aladdin,″ in which the handsome young title character supposedly murmurs, sotto voce, ``All good teenagers take off your clothes.″

``I felt as if I had entrusted my kids to pedophiles,″ says the Carthage, N.Y., homemaker, who promptly threw the videos into the garbage. ``It’s like a toddler introduction to porn.″

By now, just about everyone has heard the rumors that so shocked Mrs. Runge. Indeed, Disney catapulted into the headlines a few weeks ago on reports that there are subliminal sexual messages in three popular Disney videos: ``The Lion King″ and ``The Little Mermaid,″ as well as ``Aladdin.″ The charges were reported around the world; TV news shows broadcast the offending snippets in slow motion, among them a scene from ``The Lion King″ in which dust supposedly spells out the word ``sex.″

Disney denies inserting any subliminal messages. And the three allegedly obscene sequences are hardly crystal clear; even using the pause button on a VCR, viewers may debate whether they exist. Yet they have quickly become the stuff of suburban myth, like the ``Paul is dead″ rumor from the heyday of the Beatles or the persistent allegations that Procter & Gamble Co.’s moon-and-stars logo symbolizes devil worship.

As the rumors spread, though, so did a common refrain: Where does this stuff come from? In the case of ``Aladdin,″ the allegation crisscrossed the country, traveling mostly through conservative Christian circles and helped by, among others, Mrs. Runge; a high-school biology class in Owensboro, Ky.; an Iowa college student; and a traveling troupe of evangelical actors. It was passed on by some people who didn’t believe it, by others who thought it was a joke, and by a Christian magazine that later _ and apparently to no effect _ retracted its story. At least two waves of the rumor swept the country, from very different starting points.

Most people probably first heard about the allegations in early September, after the Associated Press ran a story saying a Christian group had identified the three subliminally smutty incidents. The article described the ``Aladdin″ and ``The Lion King″ scenes as well as one in ``The Little Mermaid″ in which it said an avuncular bishop becomes noticeably aroused while presiding over a wedding ceremony.

Disney quickly fired back. ``If somebody is seeing something, that’s their perception. There’s nothing there,″ says Rick Rhoades, a Disney spokesman. Aladdin’s line is ``Scat, good tiger, take off and go,″ Disney says. The company maintains that Simba’s dust is just that, dust. And Tom Sito, the animator who drew the Little Mermaid’s purportedly aroused minister, says, ``If I wanted to put Satanic messages in a movie, you would see it. This is silly.″

The Associated Press, as it turns out, didn’t ferret out the story itself. It picked up the item from the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. The reporter on that story, Jim Stratton, himself stumbled on the allegations inadvertently. On a slow day at the end of August, Mr. Stratton, who at the time covered health and medicine for the paper, was casually flipping through a copy of Communique, a biweekly newsletter published by the American Life League, an antiabortion group based in Stafford, Va. He was struck by an article warning parents about a scene from ``The Lion King″ in which Simba, the cuddly lion star, stirs up a cloud of dust. ``Watch closely as the cloud floats off the screen,″ the newsletter instructed, ``and you can see the letters `S-E-X.‴

Bemused, Mr. Stratton called the league, where a spokeswoman told him about the illicit messages in ``Aladdin″ and ``The Little Mermaid.″ He decided to see for himself and gathered a dozen or so reporters around a newsroom TV to view ``The Lion King″ scene. They weren’t convinced. ``We didn’t make a final decision either way on what exactly people were seeing,″ he says. Still, he decided to write a breezy tongue-in-cheek article about all three incidents for his paper. ``We handled it lightly,″ he says.

Mr. Stratton’s source for the story, the American Life League, meanwhile, hadn’t actually found the alleged subliminal scenes itself, either. Its article was prompted by phone calls and letters from Christian groups. One of the callers had first read about the ``Aladdin″ allegation in the March issue of Movie Guide magazine, a Christian entertainment review based in Atlanta.

In a story titled ``Aladdin Exposed,″ Movie Guide alleged that, in a scene on the palace balcony with love interest Princess Jasmine and her pet tiger, Aladdin murmurs the ``take off your clothes″ line. The article likened the line to allegedly demonic messages in some 1970s rock songs that can only be heard when the albums are played backward. ``Thousands were seduced into following the suggestions of those same messages,″ the magazine wrote. It urged ``moral Americans″ to write to Disney’s chairman, Michael Eisner, asking him to remove the ``manipulative subliminal messages.″