There was an orange glow deep in the woods. It beckoned to me like an old friend my mind had somehow forgotten. I soon found myself in the fire’s radiance, cicadas screaming into the night. Their song enveloped me as the flames licked playfully at my ankles.
Welcome back. You’ve found yourself at our second installment of our “meaning of color in horror” series. We’re going to go through the rainbow of the macabre, pulling connotation from color, point from pigment, *insert clever third alliteration here*. If you want an overview of what all the colors mean, check out our first article, “The Meaning of Color in Horror.” You can also feel free to jump back a shade and catch up on the meaning of red in horror (if you haven’t already).
If you’re here because you specifically want to know about the symbolism of orange in horror, continue on. Admittedly, orange is not the most common color in horror. However, there are a few movies I’ll be looking at that use it very effectively, including Mad Max: Fury Road, Mandy, Hereditary, The VVitch, Hellraiser, His House, as well as a few somewhat famous spooky holidays that make use of the color.
The Meaning of Orange: Friendship and Hope or Desolation and Madness?
“Orange is the color of sunrise but also of sunset, so it combines sensations associated with the concept of a new day (youth, friendship, warmth, sociability) and others closer to memory and nostalgia. In general, however, it is a happy and positive tone, that can also reminds us of exotic and idyllic landscapes.”Harry Davies, “What Does Each Color Mean in Cinema?”
The quote I shared above is a perfect example of why I wanted to write this series. We have so much content out there about the more general symbolism of color, but it’s important to analyze the color in context. Sociability, friendship, warmth, and “happy and positive” vibes aren’t exactly in plentiful supply in the horror landscape. In fact, in horror, the color orange often takes on the exact opposite meaning to hope and friendship, symbolizing barrenness, isolation, and a loss of one’s faculties.
I think a good starting point for exploring how orange can be used as a negative symbol is Mad Max: Fury Road (which I KNOW isn’t strictly horror, but cut me some slack – I spent so long making stupid collages for all TEN colors I plan to analyze in this series and that definitely absorbed, like, half of my brain cells).
In Mad Max: Fury Road, orange is the color of desolation. “Barren, hopeless, and endless, the Mars-like texture truly sends the audience to another world as chaos ensues,” explains Logan Baker in “Manipulating the Audience’s Emotions With Color,”. Orange is the color of the desert, of a long stretch of dry, desperate land. Near infertile, no life can survive here. In Mad Max: Fury Road, orange is the color of the end: of a world dried up and dying.
What else can we feel, at the end, but a loss of sanity? Through this, orange takes on a secondary meaning. It represents the loss of our ability to cope with the terrible world around us. It is the color of the downtrodden, the desiccated, the mad. In Mandy, protagonist Red undergoes a transformation from everyday man to vengeful killer. He does this in one of the most orange bathrooms I’ve ever seen. It is to this gaudy orange nightmare that he turns to not only cope with the loss of his wife, but to steel himself for what he has to do. Basically, it’s a scene where Nicholas Cage really Cages out and the color orange feels appropriate.
“Meanwhile the sunsets are mad orange fools raging in the gloom….”Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels
The Orange Fire: Harvest, Cycles, and Ritualism
April might be the cruellest month, but October is the orangest. I didn’t grow up in a place that really had seasons, but having now lived farther from the equator: wow, is autumn colorful. Burnished reds, dried yellows, and the ever present fiery orange. And it’s not just the trees that go orange, of course. Orange is the unofficial-official color of Halloween (next to the obvious black and mystical purple). It’s hard to walk around in mid-October without seeing orange, whether that’s a pile of rotting leaves or a jack-o-lantern scowling at you from your neighbor’s porch.
Orange symbolizes change: it is the color of a transitional season. Winter and summer are the extremes, while autumn and spring represent the steps we take to get there. In this context, orange represents taking steps towards death. But, here we aren’t talking about a final death (as symbolized by the color black) but about cyclical death: the ebb and flow of life. Orange is the harvest, the final resting point before a descent into early nights and bitter cold.
During Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, which takes place on the 1st and 2nd of November, it’s believed spirits cross into the mortal realm. Day of the Dead altars, laid out for deceased loved ones, make use of a bright orange flower called cempasúchil. With its orange glow and iconic aroma, the flower offers guidance to the dead, showing them the way to their altar.
Meanwhile, Halloween takes its origins from pagan celebration Samhain. Samhain, which occurred halfway between the fall and winter solstice, was a time when it was believed the veil to the spirit world grew thin. This was when one could most easily communicate with spirits. During this time, ancient Celts would light community fires to ward off evil spirits. According to Whiskey Stevens, author of Rise of the Witch, “Orange is representative of the fire that burns during the festival of Samhain and during the winter months.”
In horror films, when we see the color orange, it’s usually in the form of fire. Something I came to realize as I researched the use of orange in horror is that, often, orange in horror carries ritualistic associations. In fact, after watching several movies that make use of this trope, I would even suggest that orange is the color of ritual in horror.
Picture a warm orange flicker of fire alighting someone’s face. They stare, horrified or entranced by the strange movement of the flames. This is a scene that appears time and time again, most notably in Hereditary, The VVitch, and Hellraiser. All three films feature explicit ties to ritualism and, specifically, satanic or demonic imagery.
In all three mentioned movies, the “orange glow” scene represents the movie’s final act; it is the moment when the character either puts an end to the ritual, or fully commits to it. Hereditary even features some foreshadowing of ritualism through the costuming of little sister Charlie. She spends her time onscreen wearing a bright orange oversized hoodie, which not only sets her in sharp contrast to the green forest around her, but aligns her with the ritual to come.
Witchcraft and the Color Orange
Whether explicitly (as in the VVitch) or implicitly (as in Hereditary), when orange is used in ritual, there are often heavy connotations of witchcraft. In the VVitch, orange marks the moment when Thomasin takes the leap from innocent to witch; she steps into the firelight with the rest of her coven, giving in to her deepest repressed desires.
One of the greatest haunted house films ever made, His House also associates orange with witchcraft. Unlike in The VVitch, though, the witchcraft in His House doesn’t have Christian undertones. It’s a different cultural reference framework.
His House tells the story of Bol and Rial, South Sudanese refugees trying to make a life in England. Their journey to England is terrible, taking place on a dangerous refugee boat across unkind waters. Though they try to build a new life in a new town in a new house, they quickly find that the past is not so easy to escape; an apeth or “night witch” haunts their new house.
His House features recurring water imagery to reference the main character’s traumatic journey. However, instead of using the standard blues and greens of ocean cinematography, His House flips the script. Scenes where Bol and Rial find themselves suddenly transported back to the treacherous waters of the sea are shot in shades of orange. His House replaces a naturalistic color palette with its logical opposite, using dry, fiery orange to symbolize the watery depths. By going against the grain of viewer expectation, the film enables the audience to empathize with how ill at ease Bol and Rial feel. It also clearly indicates that witchcraft is at work, that something isn’t right. Orange is used to let the audience know that hope is long gone and, in its place, strangeness.
In a nutshell: In horror, orange symbolizes fire, hopelessness, madness, cycles, ritual, and witchcraft.
Up Next: The Meaning of Yellow In Horror