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 had 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 articles 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 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 1970's rock songs that can only be heard when the albums are played backward. "Thousands were seduced into following the suggestions of these 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."
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, decided to clear up the matter once and for all, and 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 in its July issue. Adds Mr. Baehr: "We messed up by not listening before."
Movie Guide, in any case, hadn't ferreted out the alleged subliminal message on its own, either. Mr. Baehr says 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, Mrs. Ekins says. 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.
Mr. 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 and a movie theater, 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 says.
"We were all sitting around the dorm back in January watching 'Aladdin' and I couldn't figure out something he was saying," Mr. Ford recalls. "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, Mr. Ford never imagined he helped start it all. "When I saw the news," he says, "I just thought I wasn't the only one who noticed it."
In fact, almost a year earlier, in the spring of 1994, another teenager 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, Colo., says he was watching his younger sister's new copy of the video when he "heard a whisper." He adds, "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 says 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, Colo., who had just bought the video for her own five children.
Mrs. 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, a Pentecostal church in Owensboro, Ky. Mr. Lee in turn told a neighbor, Becky Tomes.
Mrs. Tomes, the mother of two toddlers, listened to the tape in June of 1994 with her husband, but "we didn't really hear it," she says. 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 explains. "And when I listened to it, it was very clear."
Mrs. Arnold told a friend of hers from church, Eva Sturgeon, a Pentecostal singer at Calvary Temple. After church one day, Mrs. 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 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 says 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 nevertheless repeated the tale to a friend of hers, Johnny Henderson, who at the time was a senior at Owensboro High School. He told a schoolmate, Courtney Lindow, who in turn told another 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 Mr. 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 to monitor [Disney movies] like you would anything else. The Disney name is not as squeaky 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, Neb., that uses song and dance to bring home biblical stories and tell morality tales. After the show, Mrs. Bivens mentioned the "Aladdin" episode to the troupe's leader, 30-year-old Doug Barry.
In May, Mr. Barry and Radix traveled to tiny Carthage, N.Y., 45 minutes from the Canadian border, for another performance. Among the audience members was Mrs. 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 teenager who wrote to him, about the supposed "S-E-X" in "The Lion King."
Mrs. 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 Schafly. 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 that one from Movie Guide's 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 Mrs. Runge wasn't even sure initially that all the allegations were true. "I really couldn't see 'The Lion King' one myself," she admits, "until my teenagers traced it for me on the screen." No matter that her source, Mr. Barry of Radix, now says he isn't convinced himself about all the allegations. "I'm not sure about 'The Little Mermaid,'" he says. Nor does it concern Mrs. Runge that Movie Guide, after spreading the "Aladdin" rumor, has since retracted its story.
"It may be Disney," Mrs. Runge explains. "But it still smells 'pervert' to me."