Bright Pain, Dark Feathers: The Use of Black and White Cinema in Horror


A white feather on an inky black background

A man arrives at a dimly lit doorstep. His gloves are a dark sea suspending grains of snow. He pulls out a frosty keychain that slips through his grasp and rattles onto the slushy pavement. As he reaches down, the man becomes fixated on the corpse of a gutted sparrow that lies on the edge of the sidewalk, right next to his door frame. The sparrow is darker than any crow, its entrails glistening in the icy night sky. The sparrow’s feathers are crow black. But the blood. The blood. 

It is paler than the snow.  

Long gone are the days when filming in black and white was the only practical option for directors (unless they wanted to hand-paint each frame of the movie). In early cinema history, filming in black and white (B&W) came down to budgetary constraints more often than not. But even with access to a chromatically rich era of cinema, modern filmmakers sometimes still choose to shoot their stories in B&W. 

German Expressionism: OG Horror

One of the most influential periods in the history of horror is the 1920s wave of German Expressionism. Heavily influenced by the atrocities of the first World War, this movement portrayed a tainted society, where individuals’ masked horrors slowly surface. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a perfect specimen of the genre, a film about a series of murders that befall a small German town after a hypnotist arrives accompanied by a pale, elongated somnambulist. 

The film’s production design achieves a bizarrely fascinating perspective. Buildings and objects twist at unusual angles. The geometry of everything is askew: irregular quadrilateral architecture, pointy windows, and walls plastered with hand painted shadows add to the silent film’s unnatural look. 

Cesare, Caligari’s somnambulist, is the daunting presence that comes out of the coffin, the monster that fills every inch of the seemingly shrinking spaces of the town. His pale face is a beacon that blinds onlookers from the dark shadows that congregate around his master. This is a story about the process of unmasking darker natures. Although B&W is usually limited to alienating the characters through phantasmagorical makeup, The Cabinet of Dr. Califari fully capitalizes on the stylistic possibilities of B&W in terms of setting the tone for horror. 

“I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!”

Dr. Caligari

Along the infamous Nosferatu, 1932’s Vampyr established the vampire sub-genre as a pillar of horror cinema. With such little dialogue it is almost a silent film, Vampyr follows Allan Gray’s attempt to aid a household in their struggle against a vampire. The movie kicks off with a striking medium-wide shot of a man carrying a scythe as he rings a bell on the bank of a foggy river, a Cerberus at the gates of a tormenting spirit realm. As Allan approaches the family manor himself, he is surrounded by human and animal presences that always seem to just miss his eye. Or do they? Did a man turn the corner too quickly or did a silhouette just turn the corner towards him?

“Did you hear that?

Yes. The child.

The child?

Yes. Yes. The child.

There’s no child here.

But the dogs!

There are no children or dogs here.”

Vampyr

Vampyr is a film that shines in the shadows: dancing shadows, free-willed shadows, galloping shadows, murderous shadows. Nothing is what it seems but it just might be what it looks like. Is that the murderer’s shadow? Or was it a murderous shadow? The B&W elevates the film’s splotchy, worn-out look by accentuating silent jump scares, visual cues that something isn’t right in this chiaroscuro countryside nightmare. Vampyr takes good notice of its characters’ countenance. It offers the audience a smile with eyes and lips that are slightly too wide. 

Although B&W filming was not an artistic choice within German Expressionism, it was solidified as a technique to create a slowly churning atmosphere at a time when even adding audio to a film was a painstaking process. It provided a landmark in the evolution of horror that proved B&W can be as atmospheric as it is quiet, as piercing as a stake straight through the heart.

Horror in Extremes: Eraserhead vs. Pi

The end of the 20th century brought us two more modern specimens of the B&W horror genre: David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. These films don’t depend on feral entities creeping behind you, vampires lurking around. Just the horrific experience of everyday life. These two movies are great dichotomies of B&W horror as they take opposing, but equally effective approaches to the use of brightness and contrast. The former uses darkness to represent mundanity, presenting an industrial setting that is ominously lacking in illumination. The latter uses a combination of brightness and high contrast to alter the world into a raw background-noise-looking reality.  

Eraserhead is the story of Henry, an unemployed young man who learns he has fathered a monster. The iconic opening sequence features a man in shadows operating a set of levers that appear to control a crashing planet. The man is covered in blisters and protruding gashes that stand out as the side of the body is the only thing illuminated by what little light comes through a window. The imagery sets up the illumination style of this body horror film. The lack of brightness is achieved directing the set’s light sources at specific items. Henry’s apartment is a room with a bed, a desk where the child rests for the entire movie, a small table with a music player, and a bedside table with a pot-less plant. Deep, unsettling shadows lie between these lit objects. This visual style makes even small objects cast huge shadows that feel out of place, like a salad bowl creating dark spots on the dining table that are nothing like what we might associate with the everyday experience of sitting down to eat dinner.  

The precise direction of light is also used thematically to create distinct physical boundaries. Henry opens a cabinet with an interior divided by a prominent line that separates the illuminated edge of the cabinet from its deeper recess. He hides an object by placing it on the lit edge. Later on, Henry has a nightmarish fantasy of a mutated girl who seems to float in pitch black. This visually marked separation between the character and the nightmare turns stepping onto the stage a huge and fatal leap for Henry. 

A couple of decades later, Pi recounts the tale of a man who becomes obsessed with finding a hidden numerical pattern in the stock market. Where darkness is the norm in Lynch’s world, Pi turns to an ever present whiteness to visually represent the panic-inducing modern world.  Max Cohen is a hyper-methodical mathematician who experiences painful moments that are a mix of academic revelation and schizophrenic paranoia, represented by close ups of high-contrast white objects that engulf the camera. 

“There will be no order, only chaos.”

Sol Robeson

Pi’s overbearing brightness represents the mental cost Cohen must pay to advance his search. The nearer he draws to understanding the 216-digit sequence, the closer he gets to a chaotic state of physical and psychological delirium. When Max eventually shaves his head, given the B&W visuals, he becomes part of the growing brightness that stalks his apartment. Was there ever an apartment though? Or are we inside Cohen’s mind? 

The film suggests that, despite all efforts, human nature doesn’t belong in a dual world of black-or-white truths. Adapting his human mind to the binary logic surrounding him only leads Cohen to despair. Both Eraserhead and Pi exhibit how B&W techniques serve to violently sabotage normal human experiences.  

Historically, B&W has been effective in visually establishing character morality: Nosferatu and The Seventh Seal use clothing color to clearly indicate which characters are “good” and which are not to be trusted. Sometimes, B&W breaks from preconceived notions by inverting expectations. Eraserhead is a good example because characters feel comfortable in lowlight. The bandage-wrapped baby, the deformed singer, and even pencil erasers are all a painful, bright white. Shadows become soothing places we want to crawl back to in escape of the shattering, terrifying whiteness. 

B&W Horror and Psychological Terror: A Field in England

Present-day B&W horror often leans into psychological horror. B&W provides directors an opportunity to strip narratives down to their key elements. Recent films like Robert Eggers’ critically acclaimed 2019 slow burn film, The Lighthouse and Ben Wheatley’s 2013 A Field in England remove color to allow the setting’s atmosphere to take over the rudder and steer character psyche. 

A Field in England particularly explores the progression from ordinary into disorder, following a band of war deserters. One of the deserters misleads the group, which, in a purposely confusing sequence, ends up hauling a man out of the ground. What follows is a clash between good and evil, the deserters and rescued man, white and black. The undisturbed country field turns into a battlefield of blood, mind, and Psilocybin. 

“Open up and let the Devil in!”

O’Neil

The B&W keeps the aesthetic close enough to reality that it is recognizable to the audience, but still leaves room for questions such as what is really happening and what is imagined? A Field in England explores this subtle balance between reality and unreality both thematically and physically. The B&W visually disintegrates the division between field and sky, creating a spatial continuum where the characters wander psychologically through their perception of the world around them. Multiple upside-down shots illustrate how close the characters are to the sky, symbolizing a rupture in the world as we know it. 

The protagonist descends into a psychedelic trip, offering the B&W an opportunity to obscure what is literally happening. Two sequences alternate rapidly to construct a vivid hallucination that blends experience with oniric fantasy. The B&W gives cohesion to this dream-like, spiraling imagery because the lack of color dissolves transitions and unifies the narrative. Reality becomes borderless. 

A Field in England uses straightforward grayscale. Instead of distorting its visuals, it presents stark, recognizable imagery, a semblance of reality that becomes particularly disturbing as the narrative begins asking unanswerable questions. Is what’s happening even real? When did it stop being real? If life became unreal, would we really notice the tipping point? B&W can be striking, but it can also be subtle, weaving an atmospheric narrative that leaves us lingering in horrific uncertainty

“What do you see, friend?”

“Nothing—perhaps—only shadows.”

A Field in England

Categories: Media AnalysisTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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