Pomegranates: The Perfect Fruit for Horror


Oil painting of a pomegranate split in half, very spooky

“Beneath the thick, leathery skin of a pomegranate reveals hundreds of edible seeds encased in a gelatinous sack of sweet, juicy pulp. The seeds and surrounding pulp, ranging in color from white to deep crimson, are called arils. The small edible sacks contain juice and a crunchy seed, delicious either alone, or tossed into salads.”

Description of a pomegranate according to a farmer’s market website (not intentionally creepy)

If I asked you to picture a fruit or vegetable you associate with horror, what would you imagine? The cracking of baby carrots – not unlike the breaking of bone. Cucumber slime. The explosion of a battered watermelon. A sin-red apple, teeth snapping skin. 

You may think of a pomegranate. If you’ve eaten a pomegranate in recent memory, you probably did. How could you not? A pomegranate is a simple snack that turns your entire kitchen into a murder scene. 

What I propose, though, is for the pomegranate to become the fruit of horror. I believe the pulpy deciduous shrub has plenty to offer, both visually and symbolically, that has, as of yet, gone tragically unexplored. Hear me out.

Pomegranates Look Creepy As Hell

The sensory experience of a pomegranate is overwhelming. Stab a knife through its thick, leathery skin. Peel away at the suture with your fingertips to reveal shining red sacs plump with juice equal parts sweet and tart, a flavor that you might, in a given mood, associate with poison. You press a jewel-like aril against your lips. It crunches beneath your teeth like a snapping bone. Hunched over your countertop, you eat another. And another. Red drips down your chin. The word “primal” drifts through your mind. You feel yourself split in two. One half rips aril after aril from the emptying husk of fruit; the other flees to a darkened cave, a bulbous humanoid thing huddled atop a pile of white bone. Crunch. Blood drips down its chin. Your mouth fills with a taste as sweet and tart as witch’s brew. 

Horror is an extremely visual medium, even when written. Often, something “looking creepy” is enough to earn it a place in a horror movie or show. Unsettling imagery enables horror creators to develop that iconic atmosphere of ominousness, where even the everyday objects around us carry malicious intent. Did that painting just blink? You’d have sworn your keys weren’t there a moment ago. 

The pomegranate offers fertile ground for this style of imagery (pun 110% intended), from its bright coloring to its tendency to drip juice everywhere, to its pockets of xenobiological seeds. Ask anyone with trypophobia: pomegranates are creepy. Food can provide an excellent euphemism for violence, something showcased rather effectively in the 2013 show Hannibal. The benefit of relying on a pomegranate is that it already looks the part. 

Picture this: a cannibal stalks the streets, tracking their next meal. The victim turns down a darkened alley. Now’s their chance. They swarm; they pounce. The screen cuts to black. Then, crunch. Pause. Crunch. Pause. The dripping of red on a pristine counter. The camera pans. Our protagonist sits placidly eating a pomegranate, ignorant of the danger headed their way. 

The Symbolism of Pomegranates

Throughout history, the pomegranate has symbolized a number of things. Its seeds connect it to fertility, prosperity, reproduction. Its association with the Garden of Eden connects it to forbidden desire (don’t worry, I’ll get into that later). Its evergreen status alludes to immortality. This multiplicity of meaning offers horror creators plenty opportunity to experiment with the possibility of the pomegranate. 

The Pomegranate and Fertility

Pomegranates carry the promise of tomorrow. From the Jewish Rosh Hashana, where pomegranates are eaten to bring in the new year, to Persian and Chinese cultures, where pomegranates carry earthy associations of fertility, the pomegranate symbolizes birth.

It often features in religious art, in the hands of the Virgin Mary or baby Jesus, or adorning the exteriors of  Baroque churches, as a symbol of eternal life and the resurrection of Jesus. Rebirth, which implies death, offers an obvious route for horror creators to explore. 

Sandro Botticelli. Madonna of the Pomegranate. C. 1487. Tempera on panel

Four watercolor pomegranates, artfully arranged

The pomegranate’s connection to fertility also offers the opportunity to delve into one of the most violent, extreme moments in everyone’s life: puberty. From Steven King’s Carrie to 2020’s Gretel & Hansel, horror often depicts the duality of menstruation as both a rite of passage that marks adulthood and an unsettling moment of pure body horror (clarification: I’m not saying periods are inherently gross; I’m saying that the experience of having your first period can be rather a shock).

The pomegranate is pretty yonic, from its coloring to its secret cache of seeds. In speaking about her pomegranate art, artist Nora Kovats states, “the pomegranate becomes a clear symbol of sexual awakening and speaks of the dual energies of sex, both losing something and gaining something in return, unifying violence and tenderness in acute love.”

Nora Kovats. Pomegranate Study. 2015. Watercolour and pen on Fabriano

The Pomegranate and Death

A surrealist painting of a naked woman dreaming next to a pomegranate and a bee.

For something to be connected to rebirth, it must first be associated with death. And death is horror’s playground. The pomegranate offers a creeping omen, a nondescript exterior beneath with hides flashing red. Danger. Dismay. 

The pomegranate is a common motif in the visual arts, from traditional paintings of fruit bowls to the more surreal art pieces. Salvador Dali’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee centers a pomegranate in its nightmarish dreamscape. According to artist Hannah Spry, “the pomegranate here seems to be used as another symbol of impending death, that of the sleeping figure who is unknowing of what is about to happen, which would make the painting’s theme more like that of a nightmare and not a dream.” 

Salvador Dali. Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee. 1944. Oil paint

On a black table lay a scene of death:

When used in still-life compositions, the pomegranate offers an allusion to death. Its leathery exterior like the skin of a corpse hides an almost obscenely vivid fruit within. Artist Neal Auch uses the pomegranate in a series of still lifes that juxtapose the live fruit with dead mice and organs. “All still life compositions contain, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things. These images are, of course, no exception. The fruit, meat, and dead animals remind us of death and decay,” he explains.

Neal Auch. Still Life with Pomegranate. 2018. Photography

Pomegranates: The Forbidden Fruit

It is believed by some that the original forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden was not, in fact, an apple, but a pomegranate (told you I’d get back to that). Honestly, this makes sense; pomegranates are far more seductive than apples. An apple may be crisp. It may be clean. It may be sweet. But pomegranates are messy; they force you to return again and again, dragging you into their wily clutches. 

The pomegranate as a forbidden fruit offers plenty of interesting avenues for horror creators. In fact, repressed desire is such a staple of the horror genre that it spawned at least two archetypes in response: vampires and witches. Witches are associated with giving into darkness and rejecting the laws of “moral” society. When you think witch, you may think cauldron, broom, sage. But the figure’s connection to nature, Satan, and sexuality means pomegranates could just as easily be a witch’s signifier. 

A young brunette woman looks broodlinly into the camera, clutching a bloody pomegranate

Vampires, on the other hand, are often connected to carnal desire. The Take’s “The Sexy Vampire Trope” explores how the creature has shifted throughout time to symbolize different cultural worries around sexuality. Pomegranates are the perfect visual companion for the vampire. This is not just my opinion, but an established visual motif. Both the Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries use pomegranate imagery in their branding. 

You know that thing I said about pomegranates being a much more effective “forbidden fruit” than apples? I’m about to prove my point using Twilight.

For context: Twilight and Midnight Sun tell the same story of a girl and vampire falling in love. Twilight, the original, focuses on Bella, the girl. Midnight Sun, the fifth book in the series, follows the perspective of Edward, the vampire. Both book covers use a fruit to symbolize temptation and bloodlust. The apple on the Twilight cover doesn’t really evoke forbidden desire. It is smooth and clean where the pomegranate on Midnight Sun is messy and visceral. Many have called the Midnight Sun cover “absolutely disgusting-looking” and, while they are not wrong, that is not necessarily a problem when it comes to horror. If pomegranates can provoke unease, and in the case of Midnight Sun, they certainly do, then they’re the perfect companion to a horror narrative. 

On a symbolic level, these variations highlight the difference between Bella and Edward as characters. Bella, as the human, is “unperverted” by vampirism. As such, the apple serves a dual purpose. It is a representation of the sin and temptation she feels towards Edward, and it is associated with the purity and cleanliness of her “virginal” self (note: virginity is a social construct that I don’t necessarily believe in, but that’s a conversation for another time). Edward, on the other hand, as the bloodthirsty symbol of depravity is already “corrupted”. Hence, the pomegranate is the most apt fruit to symbolize his lust.

Okay I’m done talking about Twilight, I promise.

Persephone and the Pomegranate

The pomegranate in the myth of Persephone offers a symbolic crossover between many of the themes I’ve discussed so far: death, desire, even adolescence. In it, Persephone ventures (or, in most iterations, is forcibly removed) to the Underworld. She is rescued by her mother, but right before escaping, she accepts Hades’ offer of food and eats a few pomegranate seeds, unwittingly dooming herself to the Underworld for large swathes of the year. While not the same story, there are certainly parallels between the temptation of Eve and the temptation of Persephone, namely, the connection between a lapse in judgement and eternal suffering. 

Mythology in Horror

“So these stories of mythology are simply trying to express a truth that can’t be grasped any other way.” Bill Moyers in a 1988 interview of Joseph Campbell

Horror can seriously benefit from the pomegranate’s deep mythological roots. As horror often preys on cultural and individual anxieties, integrating myth into the genre enables stories to transcend their cultural moment and become universal tales. 

Think briefly of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Aside from exploring isolation and the male psyche, it also offers a modern-day interpretation of the myth of Prometheus. By placing classic structures in an (almost) contemporary setting, the film insinuates that there are certain stories, certain concepts, that follow humanity throughout time, wherever and whenever we are.

According to Paul Wells, “leading authority on myth Joseph Campbell suggested that ‘the symbols of mythology are not manufactured… they are the spontaneous productions of the psyche.’” The beauty of the pomegranate is that it already comes prepackaged with meaning. The pomegranate’s proliferation in human creation, from art to myth, confirms it as a recurring feature of human symbolism. The leg work is done. The pomegranate is perfect for horror today not just because it looks scary, but because it already carries the weight of centuries of connotation. 

“Once when I was living in the heart of a pomegranate, I heard a seed
saying, “Someday I shall become a tree, and the wind will sing in
my branches, and the sun will dance on my leaves, and I shall be
strong and beautiful through all the seasons.”

Then another seed spoke and said, “When I was as young as you, I
too held such views; but now that I can weigh and measure things,
I see that my hopes were vain.”

And a third seed spoke also, “I see in us nothing that promises so great a future.”

And a fourth said, “But what a mockery our life would be, without
a greater future!”

Said a fifth, “Why dispute what we shall be, when we know not even what we are.”

But a sixth replied, “Whatever we are, that we shall continue to
be.”

And a seventh said, “I have such a clear idea how everything will
be, but I cannot put it into words.”

Then an eight spoke—and a ninth—and a tenth—and then many—until all were speaking, and I could distinguish nothing for the many
voices.

And so I moved that very day into the heart of a quince, where the
seeds are few and almost silent.”

Khalil Gibran, “The Pomegranate”
Categories: SymbolismTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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