The following is an article from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.
This article by Lisa Bannon, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 24, 1995, tells the story of how a significant rumor was born. It's one of the best investigative pieces we've ever seen on the spread of an urban legend.
Anna Runge, a mother of eight, was so enamored of 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 said.
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 teen-agers take off your clothes.''
''I felt as if I had entrusted my kids to pedophiles,'' says the Carthage, New York, homemaker, who promptly threw the videos into the garbage. ''It's like a toddler introduction to porn.''
A PERSISTANT RUMOR
By now, just about everyone has heard the rumors that so shocked 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 videocassette recorder, viewers may debate whether they exist. Yet those sequences 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, Runge; a high-school biology class in Owensboro, Kentucky; 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.
AN AVUNCULAR BISHOP
Most people probably first heard about the allegations in early September 1995, 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,'' said Rick Rhoades, a Disney spokesman. Aladdin's line is ''Scat, good tiger, take off and go,'' Disney said. 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, said, ''If I wanted to put Satanic messages in a movie, you would see it. This is silly.''
The officiant in The Little Mermaid.
From another angle, it was obviously his knees.
AN INADVERTENT FIND
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, Virginia. The reporter on that story, Jim Stratton, himself stumbled on the allegations inadvertently. On a slow day at the end of August, Stratton, who now works for The Orlando Sentinel, was casually flipping through a copy of Communique, a biweekly newsletter published by the American Life League, an anti-abortion group based in Stafford, Virginia. 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, 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 said. Still, he decided to write a breezy tongue-in-cheek article about all three incidents for his paper. ''We handled it lightly,'' he said.
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 be heard only when the albums are played backward. The magazine urged ''moral Americans'' to write to Disney's chairman, Michael Eisner, asking him to remove the ''manipulative subliminal messages.''
Overlooked by the Movie Guide reader who repeated the allegations to the American Life League, though, was one important fact: Movie Guide later ran a retraction. After its piece ran, Movie Guide received a letter from Disney saying that the line was actually ''Scat, good tiger, take off and go.'' Movie Guide's publisher, Ted Baehr, took the video to a digital recording studio to decipher the questionable passage syllable by syllable. While the line is hard to understand, Movie Guide concluded, it ''falls short of the charge of subliminal viewer manipulation,'' as the newsletter put it in its July issue. Added Baehr: ''We messed up by not listening before.''
THE PLOT THICKENS
Movie Guide, in any case, hadn't ferreted out the alleged subliminal message on its own, either. Baehr said the publication received ''a flood of letters and calls complaining about Aladdin'' last December, January and February.
One of the letter writers was Gloria Ekins, Christian education director of First Christian Church in Newton, Iowa. ''I heard it from my daughter'' last winter, Ekins said. Her daughter Jenny, 17, heard it from her friend Jane Ford, a classmate at Newton Senior High School. Jane, in turn, first learned of the Aladdin message from her older brother, Matthew Ford, a college senior at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Ford would prove to be one of the central figures in the Aladdin saga: He heard the line on his own. The college student, who works part time at a local video store, is an electronic-media major who hopes to go into the movie business. A self-confessed movie buff, he happened to be watching Aladdin one day last January when he stumbled across the alleged line. He had no moral or religious purpose in spreading the word about it. He simply thought it was funny...
''We watch movies to try to find mistakes all the time. Like, there's a car in the background of Maverick when Mel Gibson is talking to the Indians. And if you look in the foreground of First Knight when the horses are charging into battle, you see tracks from a car,'' he said.
''We were all sitting around the dorm back in January watching Aladdin, and I couldn't figure out something he was saying,'' Ford recalled. ''I said, 'Rewind that,' and then we heard it.'' He adds, "My friends think it's funny because it's a Disney movie." Months later, when the Aladdin line showed up on the national news, Ford never imagined he helped start it all. ''When I saw the news,'' he said, ''I just thought I wasn't the only one who noticed it.''
A SECOND WAVE
In fact, almost a year earlier, in the spring of 1994, another teen-ager did notice the supposedly salacious line -and he started a separate wave of the rumor that also ended up tearing through Christian circles. Jon Wood, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Green Mountain Senior High School in Lakewood, Colorado, said he was watching his younger sister's new copy of the video when he ''heard a whisper.'' He added, ''It was weird, I just felt like something was wrong. I heard something in the background and rewound it, and I just heard it.''
Jon, who said he was ''shocked'' by the line, immediately called his 16-year-old brother, Jake, into the room to show him, too. A few weeks later, the boys showed it to their aunt, Chris Leach, of nearby Fort Collins, Colorado, who had just bought the video for her own five children.
Leach, whose husband is a pastor, passed the word on to a friend from religious circles, Glen Lee, who at the time was the youth pastor at Calvary Temple Assembly of God in Owensboro, Kentucky. Lee told a neighbor, Becky Tomes.
Tomes, the mother of two toddlers, listened to the tape in June 1994 with her husband, but ''we didn't really hear it,'' she said. That didn't stop her, though, from spreading the rumor to another friend, Sheryl Arnold, who listened for herself and decided that, no doubt about it, it was indeed an obscene subliminal message. ''We have surround-sound TV,'' she explained. ''And when I listened to it, it was very clear.''
Arnold told a friend of hers from church, Eva Sturgeon, a Pentecostal singer at Calvary Temple. After church one day, Sturgeon passed the word to her brother's girlfriend, Casey Ranson, now a junior at Apollo High School, a public school in Owensboro. Intrigued, Casey brought the Aladdin cassette into school last winter and played it for her English and biology classes. ''Nobody believed me when I told them, so I brought it to school and when I played it, they heard it,'' Casey says.
Casey herself told, among others, a classmate named Whitney Underhill, who said with some skepticism, ''The more I listen to it, it doesn't sound like 'take off your clothes.' It drops off and is hard to understand.'' But Whitney repeated the tale to a friend of hers, Johnny Henderson, who at the time was a senior at Owensboro Catholic High School. He told schoolmate Courtney Lindow, who in turn told classmate Lauren Hayden.
Lauren proved to be a providential choice. Her father, P.J. Hayden, is principal of a Catholic elementary school in Owensboro, St. Angela Merici elementary. Lauren told him the tale, and Hayden promptly spread the word among his school's parents, showing the Aladdin scene at parent-teacher meetings. "I know a lot of our parents are concerned about subliminal messages," Mr. Hayden says. "I tell them, monitor [Disney movies] like you would anything else. The Disney name is not as …clean as we thought it was."
Among the parents he alerted was Lisa Bivens, who has three daughters. On a February afternoon, she took her children to a local church to see a performance by Radix, a traveling evangelical troupe of performers based in Lincoln, Nebraska, that uses song and dance to bring home biblical stories and tell morality tales. After the show, Bivens mentioned the Aladdin episode to the troupe's leader, 30-year-old Doug Barry. In May, Barry and Radix traveled to tiny Carthage, New York, 45 minutes from the Canadian border, for another performance. Among the audience members was Runge, the mother of eight. They spoke together later at a brunch, and as talk turned to the dangers of sex and violence in the media, he repeated the Aladdin tale, throwing in another allegation he had heard from a teen-ager who wrote to him, about the supposed ''S-E-X'' in The Lion King.
IT SMELLS "PERVERT"
Runge was furious -and determined to do something about it. Over the summer, she began calling Christian organizations and conservative groups, from Pat Robertson to Phyllis Schlafly. She hit pay dirt when she reached the American Life League, which politely thanked her for passing on the Aladdin allegation -it had already heard about that one from Movie Guide readers- but which promptly published the article about The Lion King that led to the Associated Press story that started the avalanche of unwanted publicity for Disney.
No matter that Runge wasn't even sure initially that all the allegations were true. ''I really couldn't see The Lion King one myself,'' she said, ''until my teen-agers traced it for me on the screen.'' No matter that her source, Barry of Radix, now said he isn't convinced himself about all the allegations. ''I'm not sure about The Little Mermaid,'' he said. Nor does it concern Runge that Movie Guide, after spreading the Aladdin rumor, has since retracted its story.
''It may be Disney,'' Runge explained. ''But it still smells 'pervert' to me.''
Reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader, which comes packed with 504 pages of great stories.
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