The mint green of hospital bed sheets. The bubblegum pink of exposed organs. The sherbert orange of a witch’s fire. Color is all around us, ascribed a primal meaning that preexists rational thought. Here, colors share a trait with horror in that they unlock unconscious, innate emotions. Horror, like color, relies heavily on our “gut” reactions.
As Chelsea Davis explains in “Color in Horror: The Grim Rainbow of American Gothic Fiction, “The first and most formidable weapon in each story’s arsenal is one that draws its power from inborn human reactions to certain colors, using our biology against us.” Horror is an evocative genre, using all tools at its disposal for, ultimately, a single purpose: to scare us. With color, horror can use a visual shorthand to evoke a wide array of inbuilt associations.
The Meaning of Color and Symbolic Storytelling
“No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth…
“It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well—seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognizable chromaticism.”H.P. Lovecraft, “The Colour Out of Space”
You’re in eighth grade (year 9 for those of you in the land of biscuits, tea, and repressed emotion). On your English teacher’s desk is a stack of this month’s book: Of Mice and Men. You breathe a sigh of relief. It’s short. You read it over the weekend. The next Monday in class, you walk into class to find a single statement on the whiteboard: The meaning of red in Of Mice and Men, discuss. You spend the next week discussing how Curly’s wife’s red nails and dress symbolize her promiscuity and [SPOILERS] foreshadow her tragic fate. Mind. Blown.
Often, analyzing the use of color in storytelling is our first brush with critically confronting the symbolic undertones of stories. It’s a good start because most text will, at some point or another, use color. One of the most annoying online trends from a while ago was the “what if the curtains are blue because the author likes blue” meme. Honestly that meme killed more critical thinking brain cells than the entire final season of How I Met Your Mother. The problem is it assumes that authors don’t edit their work. Even if the initial draft used color thoughtlessly, in the editing process, creators make hard decisions about what is worth keeping, and what doesn’t add value to the story.
Stories operate on multiple levels. The literal or surface reading focuses on the facts. This is the realm of plot and dialogue. The symbolic reading focuses on the implications. This is the realm of subtext, analogy, and metaphor. Ultimately, a story needs both to be something that’s actually pleasant to read. When you go too literal, you end up with a dry, meaningless story that doesn’t actually need its reader to engage with it. When you go too metaphorical, you end up with The Tree of Life.
Color engages with both the literal and metaphorical realms of media criticism. Yes, the curtains are literally blue, which helps construct a visual representation of the room. But also, what does it mean that they’re blue? Are they the eggshell blue of a summer sky or the cerulean of a Northern sea? Did the character choose them, or did they come with the house? Are there any other blue things in the scene? Do the curtains match the decor or stand out? Why is the writer even mentioning their color in the first place?
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens.William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”
Where Does The Meaning of Color Come From?
A lot of the innate associations we have about color come from nature. Light blue is calming because we associate it with a cloudless sky. Red is the color of danger because it is the color of poisonous berries. However, as books and movies and art and brands have gotten their wretched little claws into social consciousness, new meanings have emerged. For example, the medium robin’s egg blue of Tiffany blue may be associated with privilege and success because of its deliberate association with the jewelry brand, not because that’s inherently a “wealthy” shade.
As a result, there is no all-encompassing meaning for each color. Applying the generic meaning of color to a specific situation won’t always yield the best result. If you Google “the meaning of red,” you might be told that red symbolizes love and romance, which isn’t exactly helpful when trying to analyze the meaning of the red carpets in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The symbolism of color is contextual. It’s not just about the color itself, but the shade, the use, and the medium. Red in horror isn’t the same as red in a rom-com. As After Dark Analysis puts it, “A cartoonish little heart on Valentine’s Day being red is cute. Somebody’s face or outfit being colored in red, not so cute.”
The Meaning of Color in Horror
As one of the oldest genres in literature, horror has had thousands and thousands of years to develop a unique visual language. Over the years, patterns have emerged.
Initially, I wanted this article to be a comprehensive look at how horror uses all colors of the rainbow, and what collective meanings we can extract from that. However, as I began getting more and more into it, I realized that I had somehow ended up writing an article more than twice the length of my dissertation. Turns out taking on all of color theory across the horror genre is a big undertaking?
Instead, I’ve decided to break things up a little more cleanly. Below, you can see a short overview of my findings for all the different colors. Think of it as “the meaning of color in horror” in a nutshell. Over the next few weeks, I’ll publish individual articles for each of the colors listed below, cracking open the nut to discover what lay inside (I think I may have stretched the metaphor too far).
Final note: In this series, I mainly focus on using a single color, rather than on how to combine colors. However, if you’re interested in analyzing things like how horror uses complementary colors to develop tension, I recommend checking out After Dark Analysis’ “Color Theory in Horror Movies | Film Analysis.” Also, my focus is on using color within the actual stories and movies, not so much on the book covers and movie posters. However, I did come across this cool imgur collage of the different colors of horror movie posters, which you should look at because it’s very pleasing.
Anyway, let’s get into it:
The Symbolism of Color in Horror
Red: In horror, red symbolizes blood, danger, imminent death, an insatiable hunger, and strong negative (usually negative) emotions such as aggression, wrath, and lust.
Orange: In horror, orange symbolizes fire, hopelessness, madness, ritual, and witchcraft.
Yellow: In horror, yellow symbolizes hope (albeit rarely), decay, physical rot, moral rot, suffering, illness (both physical and mental), anxiety, and caution.
Green: In horror, green symbolizes suffocation, witchcraft, the natural turned unnatural, disease, immortality, projection, grime, danger (especially when using mint green), and vulnerability (especially when it comes to ‘night vision camera’ green).
Blue: In horror, blue symbolizes tension, nighttime, anxiety, cold fear, unearthed monsters and demons, melancholy, danger, and tragedy.
Purple: In horror, purple symbolizes royalty, exclusivity, otherworldliness, dreams, aliens, femininity, youth, and innocence.
Pink: In horror, pink symbolizes femininity, youth, innocence, sweetness, immaturity, inexperience (especially sexual), empowerment, and female sexuality
Black and white (combined): In horror, black and white symbolizes lurking evil, tension, psychological storytelling, eerieness, amorality, moral and ethical extremes, and order and discordance.
Grey: In horror, grey symbolizes death, destruction, decay, amorality, the other, and neutrality.
Black: In horror, black symbolizes death, mourning, misfortune, evil, suffering, bad luck, ill omens, depression, grief, horrors lurking in the shadows, anxiety, wickedness, forbidden pleasures, and witchcraft.
White: In horror, white can symbolize deadlines, a cult-like mentality, hidden danger, vulnerability, medical experimentation, alien abduction, artificiality, isolation, death, and profound fright
Up Next: The Meaning of Red In Horror
Wow, Shannon ~ very thorough analysis of color in literature and in horror!!!! Enjoyed it and appreciated the interesting details! White and black ~ my faves.
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Thanks! More in-depth looks pending. Also, if you like black and white, you should check out our article about the use of black-and-white cinema techniques in horror: https://slowburnhorror.com/2020/12/16/the-use-of-black-and-white-cinema-in-horror/