The Meaning of Red in Horror


A collage of screenshots from horror movies that heavily use red, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mandy, Raw, Us, Suspiria, The Invitation, The Descent, The Masque of the Red Death, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Shining, and Carrie

It was the red of his eyes that most alarmed me. Red like an open wound. A red outline that followed you around the room no matter where you walked. You could feel his gaze even from across the house. No, not his gaze. His hunger. His unrepressed, scarlet want. 

Welcome to the first installment of our “meaning of color in horror” series. As the first color of the rainbow, red seems like an apt place to start. If you want an overview of what all the colors mean in horror, check out our first article, “The Meaning of Color in Horror.” Here, I gave an “in a nutshell” analysis of what each color symbolizes in horror. 

Now that you’re here, though, let’s get into it. In this article, I’ll be looking at some of the most famous uses of red in horror movies, books, and short stories, including It, “The Masque of the Red Death”, Mandy, Carrie, The Shining, The Descent, Us, The Invitation, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Raw.

Blood, Danger, and Violence: Red as a Signal

According to color theory, green and red are complementary colors, meaning red stands out the most against a green backdrop. As a result, one of red’s most natural associations is “don’t mess with me.” Poisonous insects and berries are bright red. They don’t want to disappear into their chlorophyll background; they want to stand out. They have a warning label attached to them via color: Danger. Do not interact. 

“Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead.”

Wilfred Owen, The Poems of Wilfred Owen

In horror, there are two obvious uses of the color red: blood and danger. And really, these are one and the same. What is the sight of blood if not the signifier of danger? Blood belongs beneath the skin, unseen. Red is not directly associated with death the way black and yellow might be, but it certainly represents death and violence impending. Red is the balloon that signals that It is nearby.

One of the most famous uses of red in horror is in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” In it, red is used both literally and metaphorically as the symbol for a violent disease ravaging its setting. (Sidebar: If you haven’t read this short story, I highly recommend it because it is very apt in these times of ‘Rona).

“The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the madness and the horror of blood.”

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death

In the story, red is directly aligned with the blood-borne plague that ravages the country. Literally, this is a deadly disease. Metaphorically, the plague I’m talking about is the rich. “The Masque of the Red Death” is about a group of aristocrats that think that their social status places them above death itself. Half the country has succumbed to the devastating disease, and Prince Prospero decides that now is the perfect moment to throw a lavish, highly exclusive event with 1,000 of his closest friends. They lock the front door in hopes of keeping the blood and suffering at bay, in hopes of locking out the red death. But of course, the red death is an omen. Once you know he is there, it is already too late.

In the short story, red is not only an omen for death, but an omen for violent death. The Red Death brutally dispatches the party guests; it infects and dominates. Visually, red quite literally overtakes all other colors, breaking with Prince Prospero’s (admittedly aesthetic) house decoration where there is a room for each color of the rainbow. The Red Death moves through each room, marring the pattern in his quest for destruction. 

Seeing Red: Rage in Horror

Horror explores a wide range of what I would call “forte” emotions: emotions that are at their absolute peak. It’s not sadness, anger, and nervousness. It’s devastation, rage, and terror. And when it comes to exploring rage, there is no color better suited than red.

Turning back to “The Masque of the Red Death,” red is also associated with anger. Upon seeing the Red Death ruining his otherwise very successful plague party, Prospero “redden[s] with rage.”

Red, in general, is associated to strong emotional reactions. This is especially true for “hot” reactions, such as anger, aggression, and lust. These are reactions that turn your pulse into a drumbeat, send blood flushing to your face. They are an emotion that subsumes all other thoughts. You cannot think. You can only see red. 

2018’s Mandy uses red’s dual associations with danger and rage to compare character psychology. We’ll start with the fact that the movie’s protagonist is literally Red. Mandy is ostensibly a revenge flick. Red’s very name signals the impending danger that will disrupt his peaceful way of life, and his wrathful quest to avenge it. 

At the end of the movie, quest complete, he does not achieve the desired catharsis. His quest for revenge has transformed him into a monster made of pure, suffering wrath. We see him driving away into a new plane of existence, the light on the inside of his car blood red as he grins maniacally at the spectre of his dead wife. 

“You know the days when you get the mean reds?

Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?

Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories

Red: From Dangerous to Evil

Horror films use red to signal danger. Their method to do this varies from a naturalistic approach to stylization. The naturalistic approach uses the reds we find in nature to draw a clear parallel between the viewer’s own experiences and the film’s setting. Like the red lighting at the end of Mandy, stylization is more about generating a specific atmosphere

The naturalistic approach often involves blood, large volumes of it. Picture Carrie in her prom dress, the elevator doors in The Shining, Sarah emerging filthy from a pool of blood in The Descent. It’s obvious, but effective. Often, these scenes feature characters you are meant to empathize with. The film or book is asking you to imagine what you would do if this was you.

Stylization uses both costuming and lighting to evoke specific emotions. Picture the red jumpsuits in Us (another horror film with a vengeful, dangerous protagonist named Red… horror isn’t subtle), the faint red lantern at the end of The Invitation, the blinking red lights of HAL. Here, often red is directly associated with evil. It is something being inflicted on the characters, something that raises the tension of the scene. 

“A great, boiling cauldron of tar for the road-menders spurted and smoked an evil red smoke…”

Susan Hill, The Woman in Black

According to Ally Johnson in “Bleeding Red: The Use of Color in Horror,” “In Karyn Kusama’s bleak and sorrowful The Invitation, nothing is what it seems. The coloring and the reliance on red — from the blood that pours from the ill-fated dinner guests to the ominous lanterns that blink in the night as they’re raised — is a perfect, tangible and exposition-free depiction of the horror that lays in the past, present and future. The dread is seen before it’s experienced.”

Although 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t overtly a horror movie, it certainly uses familiar horror elements to add stakes to its high-tension scenes. At the film’s crescendo, Dave needs to go into HAL’s core processor to deactivate the malfunctioning robot. The scene is edge-of-your-seat tense, an effect heightened by its use of an overwhelming crimson light. “This otherwise boring room is portrayed as a hellish end to a nightmare,” explains Logan Baker in “Manipulating the Audience’s Emotions With Color,” “This dreadful, inescapable feeling of impending death would be missing if not for Kubrick’s use of the color red.”

Insatiable: The Use of Red to Symbolize Hunger and Lust

A less common use, but equally effective, use of red in horror is as a stand-in for hunger and lust. We know red is associated with more romantic or sexual feelings – it is essentially the token color of Valentine’s Day (next to pink and white). Horror uses this association, but twists it. Instead of symbolizing healthy “lovey dovey”ness, red in horror represents obsessiveness and uncontrollable desire. It is not just love. It is an insatiable hunger that cannot be satisfied. It’s why I stand by my opinion that pomegranates are the perfect fruit for horror. They perfectly combine bloody imagery with the sense of moreish craving. But that’s a point for another article.

“I love bright red drinks, don’t you? They taste twice as good as any other color.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

There is actually a scientific basis for the association between red and hunger. According to director of Wagner Institute for Color Research, Carlton Wagner, “We tend to eat more and longer in the presence of red.” Red is a common color palette for restaurants because not only does it boost enjoyment in our food, but it tends to make people lose track of time. As a result, red can represent an obsessive yearning, something that completely overtakes your mind until you are nothing but your most primal hunger. Red is that great insatiable maw. No movie quite encapsulates this vibe like Belgian cannibal horror film Raw.

In Raw, we follow once-vegetarian Justine’s attempts to suppress cannibalistic urges she starts to feel after tasting meat for the first time. In the film, red serves as a “barometer for Justine’s insatiable hunger.” The greater the presence of red, the more Justine is giving in to the desire. At a climactic party scene, the entire room is painted in a vivid red light as she leers out at partygoers, completely consumed with her need. Raw clearly aligns Justine’s cannibalistic urges with sexuality, as many cannibal encounters are also sexual acts. Here, we see a story of repressed desire emerging suddenly in a bright, violent flash. It’s why red is the perfect color for a movie called Raw.  

***

A collage drawing that features buttons, a skull, a sunflower, tomatoes, a fig, a snake, and a bow, highlighing the red blood and fig

In a nutshell: In horror, red symbolizes blood, danger, imminent death, an insatiable hunger, and strong negative (usually negative) emotions such as aggression, wrath, and lust.

Up Next: The Meaning of Orange In Horror

Categories: SymbolismTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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