Conspiracy theories and urban legends in the movies

Are there ghosts and hidden meanings in well-known films? Ryan takes a closer look at a few of cinema's conspiracy theories and legends....

Whether you believe that the whole world is secretly governed by a cabal of shape-shifting lizard people or not, you’ll surely agree that there’s something irresistibly fascinating about a good conspiracy.

As the recent documentary Room 237 so brilliantly demonstrated, the more outlandish the theory, the more entertaining it is. Depending on whose story you’re listening to, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror film The Shining is variously an allegory about the Holocaust, a retelling of the colonisation of America, or the director’s subtle admission that he helped to fake the 1969 lunar landings.

With these notions in mind, we’ve combed the archives to find a few great conspiracy theories and urban legends from movie history. Some are vaguely plausible, some are outlandish, and it’s likely that none of them are true. Bear in mind that, if we’ve somehow missed your personal favourite movie conspiracy theory, it isn’t because we forgot about it – it’s because we were paid off by the Illuminati.

There’s a ghost in Three Men And A Baby

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Way back in the mists of time, when your humble writer was still at school, a chilling legend began to sweep across the playground. The story went that, in the otherwise heart-warming comedy Three Men And A Baby, in which a trio of New York bachelors end up caring for an abandoned infant (with hilarious results), there lurked a secret. It was said that a nine-year-old boy had somehow died in the apartment where the movie was filmed, and that if you look carefully, you’ll see his shadowy form staring out from behind some curtains in one scene.

Needless to say, this legend captured everyone’s imagination, and it wasn’t long before someone got hold of Three Men And A Baby and began hunting for the scene. And sure enough, there it was: behind Ted Danson’s grinning face, there stood what appeared to be the figure of a small boy. Horrifyingly, he was wearing a little black hat. When a fellow pupil came to school the next day and told us, conspiratorially, that the legend was true, we all gave a collective shudder, before getting on with colouring in our pictures of Barnes Wallis.

It took almost two decades before the true nature of that spectral figure was uncovered. The ghost wasn’t a ghost, but actually a cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson. Danson played an actor in the film, and the cardboard cut-out had something to do with a commercial his character was involved in – a scene explaining this was later edited out of the film.

This left the cardboard cut-out languishing behind a curtain without an explanation as to what it was or why it was there, thus leading to the widespread assumption that it was a ghost. As for the whole rumour about the movie being shot in a haunted house, that appears to have been a backstory cunningly assembled around that suppposedly spooky scene – Three Men And A Baby was shot almost entirely on a Toronto soundstage.

Status: roundly debunked. Just like the depressing legend that a Munchkin committed suicide on the set of The Wizard Of Oz, the story of hauntings in Three Men And A Little Baby is little more than whispers and hot air. Some cynics have suggested, however, that Three Men And A Little Baby‘s distributors may have deliberately spread the rumour to boost video sales – which is, of course, a conspiracy theory itself.

My Neighbor Totoro is actually about death

One of Studio Ghibli’s most successful films, My Neighbor Totoro is an uplifting, beautiful animation about childhood and woodland spirits. Except, according to one widespread theory, its sunny surface is merely a cover for a far dark subtext. Totoro, the furry guardian of the woods and Studio Ghibli mascot isn’t, the theorists tell us, a benign protector, but none other than the God of Death.

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My Neighbor Totoro, far from a cute film about growing up in the countryside, is a thinly-veiled account of a true crime known as the Sayama Incident, which involved the deaths of two sisters. Close analysis purportedly reveals other links between the film’s events and the crimes, including its setting, time frame and character names.

Although the notion that Totoro is only visible to those about to die, and therefore a portent of doom, has been doing the rounds for several years. Gradually, though, the theories surrounding the movie have become increasingly elaborate, with every character and scene apparently lending weight to the theory that the movie’s actually about death.

The fact is, My Neighbor Totoro really is about death, albeit obliquely. Hayao Miyazaki’s mother suffered from tuberculosis when the filmmaker was a young boy, and just like Mei and Satsuki’s mother in My Neighbor Totoro, spent a considerable amount of time in hospital. Miyazaki put those childhood fears of loss into the movie, which have subsequently been seized upon and mutated into the rumour that the entire film is about the creeping tendrils of death.

Status: Studio Ghibli tackled this theory several years ago, and responded thus: ” Everyone, do not worry. There’s absolutely no truth or configuration that Totoro is the God of Death or that Mei is dead in My Neighbor Totoro.”

The Omen, The Exorcist and Poltergeist were cursed

Type into Google the title of those movies mentioned above, followed by the word ‘curse’, and you’ll be faced with more spooky stories than you can shake a pale, quivering finger at. A documentary was made about the terrible fates that met some filmmakers involved in the making of the 1976 horror thriller, The Omen – some were hit by lightning, others narrowly avoided being blown up by terrorist bombs, while special effects artist John Richardson was involved in a terrible car accident in which his girlfriend was killed.

There are similar stories of unholy fates and accidents surrounding The Exorcist, while the use of real human skeletons on the set of 1982’s Poltergeist is said to have led to a curse of its own, resulting in the premature deaths of various cast members.

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Status: legends of curses are, of course, as old as storytelling. In the 1920s, the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was said to have resulted in the deaths of those involved, including Lord Carnarvon, who financially backed it. Closer inspection of the legend, however, reveals that of the 58 people involved in opening up the Egyptian tomb, only eight died within 12 years of the event – if there was a curse hanging over the resting place, it wasn’t a particularly strong one.

The notion that movies such as The Omen, The Exorcist or Poltergeist have a curse hanging over them implies that, in the process of producing them, their filmmakers had somehow stirred up an ancient evil. But surely, if the Devil were to bring his fury down on a group of filmmakers, he’d choose the people behind, say, Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son instead?

Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings

Rumours that the lunar landings were faked began to circulate in the mid-70s, and have persisted ever since. With the Cold War looming large and the Russians ahead in the space race, the story goes, the US government decided to film a fake touchdown on the moon in a top-secret film studio. And if you were to make a hoax moon landing, who better to have on board as a consultant than the most technically gifted filmmaker of his day, Stanley Kubrick?

By 1969, Kubrick had already captured the imaginations of cinemagoers with the extraordinary special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, released the year before. We’re told that, when 2001 was in post-production, Kubrick was hired to ‘direct’ the globally televised first walk on the Moon; Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts had indeed taken off in Apollo 11, as broadcast, but never really left Earth’s orbit.

Of course, such a ruse would have to be kept a closely guarded secret. But Kubrick, trickster that he was, left subtle clues to his involvement in the conspiracy in The Shining. That charming Apollo 11 knitted jumper Danny wears while strolling around the Overlook? A sly reference from Kubrick. A statue of an eagle sitting on a manager’s desk? A symbol of American power. Even room 237, the venue for some of The Shining’s spookiest moments, is pregnant with meaning – after all, the Moon is 237,000 miles from Earth.

Status: unresolved, and probably unresolvable. In spite of evidence to the contrary – not least the presence of a reflective beacon left on the Moon, which our scientists are still firing lasers at to this day – conspiracy theorists still argue that the landings were faked.

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As for Kubrick’s involvement, holes have been picked in that theory, too; the mockumentary Dark Side Of The Moon, which was deliberately made as a joking piece of misinformation, was later cited as fact by some advocates of Moon landing fakery. But as the film Room 237 points out, Kubrick’s films are so loaded with symbolically charged imagery, it’s possible to find evidence in them to support just about anything.

In this climate, even his film’s release dates take on added significance. Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, was released on the 16th  July 1999 – exactly 30 years to the day after Apollo 11 first hurtled off into space…

There are naughty subliminal images in various animated movies

A year or two after those Three Men And A Baby ghost rumours began to circulate, another legend began to surface, this time of a saucier variety. It was said that, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, there was a brief moment in which shapely toon character Jessica performs a brief flash to camera not unlike the one Sharon Stone pulled off in Basic Instinct.

The story was first broken by Variety magazine in 1994, when an incredibly sharp-eyed journalist noticed that, in laserdisc versions of the film, you could just about see up Jessica Rabbit’s skirt in one scene. Even in those pre-Internet days, the rumour spread like a proverbial rash, and shopkeepers reported that copies of the Roger Rabbit laserdisc rapidly sold out.

Status: true – sort of. Careful examination of the scene in question reveals that one can indeed see Jessica Rabbit’s nether regions for a frame or two, though it’s not entirely clear whether she’s meant to be sans underwear, as rumours have suggested; the area could just as easily be a blob of flesh-coloured paint, applied either by the mistaken or deliberate slip of an artist’s brush.

Animators are often wont to slip strange or naughty things into their work. For other examples, see the 1977 Disney film The Rescuers, in which a naughty wag had snuck a photograph of a topless woman into two frames. When more than 3.4 million videotapes of The Rescuers were recalled by Disney in 1999, the studio insisted that the offending images were added not by the animators themselves, but by some other mischief maker during post-production.

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A bit of Googling will yield an entire alternate world of hidden subliminal messages in Disney films – some undeniably real (a glimpse of Bugs Bunny’s furry member in The Wabbit Who Came To Supper, for example) to the extremely outlandish, including the claim that Toy Story 3 has something to do with secret camps and the Illuminati. But then, if the internet’s taught us anything, it’s that, for every movie, there’s at least one extraordinary conspiracy theory…

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