Yellow pus oozed from the gash in her side. She pressed her fingers against the wound, as though only now noticing it. When she looked back at me, I realized the whites of her eyes were a waxy shade of yellow. She smiled, gums blackened, rotting. I thought of the last time I’d seen her, how artfully her hands had been folded on her stomach, as though she was sleeping. She took a step towards me. A smell emanated from her bloated skin, earthy, vaguely fungal.
Hello again (if you’re a returning reader). You’re arriving at our third installment in our series on the meaning of color in horror. If you’re new here, you can check out the summary cheat sheet for all the colors we’ve covered and are going to cover in our first article, The Meaning of Color in Horror. We’re going in rainbow order, so if you want to jump back a shade, check out our article on the meaning of orange in horror.
If you landed here because you meant to land here, welcome. Fair warning: I go off in this one. Yellow is one of my favorite colors to use in horror (probably because it’s one of my least favorite colors, IRL). Maybe it’s just that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of my favorite horror short stories of all time. Maybe it’s because when I first wrote this, I had just finished reading Mexican Gothic (which instantly became one of my favorite horror novels of all time). But there’s just something about yellow that works for a horror setting.
Unlike most of the other articles in this series, which primarily focus on film and television uses of color with a smattering of novels and short stories, this article will primarily focus on authors use yellow. There’s something about the color yellow that just lends itself to being spooky in literary works. In this article, I’ll be looking at the use of yellow in Crimson Peak, Jacob’s Ladder, Frankenstein, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” The Woman in Black, Mexican Gothic, Neon Demon, and The Green Knight.
Yellow as a Beacon of Hope
I’ve said this a couple of times in previous articles from this series, but analyzing the meaning of color cannot be done in a vacuum. You need to consider the context of the piece. There are, of course, general associations we have with certain colors. Yellow, for instance, is often associated with hope and joy. As the color of sunshine, it has positive, warm connotations, a color full of light and life.
Of course, light and life aren’t really horror’s vibe usually. That said, I don’t want to discount the fact that sometimes very rarely but I guess it happens, yellow in horror does symbolize hope.
The two main examples of this use of yellow’s “positive” aspects are Crimson Peak and Jacob’s Ladder. In Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro uses yellow costuming to align protagonist Edith Cushing with hope and progress. “In a world where past sins haven’t birthed ghosts so much as bloody ghouls who threaten to reveal hidden crimes,” explains Andrea Thompson in “Bleeding Red: The Use of Color in Horror,” “the blonde Edith is literally a bright spot trying to cope from dark forces that are out to consume her.” Her luminosity particularly contrasts the somber darkness of Thomas Sharpe, both literally and symbolically, through the story.
In Jacob’s Ladder, yellow is the symbolic color of peace and rest, particularly when associated with the afterlife. It is the warm glow of heaven. In a movie where the lighting is often harsh white strobe lights that beam anxiety, the yellow light in the final scenes is the color of calm. It represents Jacob striking inner peace by uncovering and, most importantly, accepting the truth.
Yellow in Horror: The Color of Corpses
In a very literal sense, yellow is the true color of death. In nature at least. When plants die, they shrivel and turn a desiccated yellow. Corpses have a yellow-y tint (caused by gravity pulling our blood, which is only visible thanks to pallor mortis paling the skin).
In many cultures, black is the color of death: it is the shade of funerals and oblivion. The thing is: black is the color of death as perceived by the person who dies. When black represents death, it symbolizes eternal nothingness. On the flip side, yellow death is the effect of the living having to witness and cope with death. We are not the corpse; we merely have to look at it and contend with its significance.
We see yellow as a motif of one of the most famous corpses in literary history, Frankenstein’s monster. While the green-skinned behemoth from the silver screen is certainly the iconic look many associate with Frankenstein’s monster, the creature’s literary roots paint him in a far more buttery pallor. He is, after all, essentially a patchwork quilt of corpses.
“I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open… How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath”Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
I can spare you the literary hot take that “maybe Frankenstein was the true monster all along” and “the monster was a tragic figure” and “Victor is just a whiney baby who can’t cope with the fact that actions have consequences.” Frankenstein’s monster is a living reminder of death, forcing the reader and his creator to permanently contemplate brutal truth. From the moment he opens his eyes, he becomes the living incarnation of our fear of decay.
Yellow Decay: Inescapable Death and Noxious Claustrophobia
In “Color in Horror: The Grim Rainbow of American Gothic Fiction,” Chelsea Davis discusses the way yellow is aligned with decay in horror. She deems this the “organic grotesque.” Referencing the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and H.P. Lovecraft, Davis argues that yellow “bank[s] on the instinctual disgust most of us feel when confronted with the decay or excessive growth of living things.”
Our instinctive aversion to yellow, when associated with decay, is bodily. As a result, in horror, yellow is often transformed into a sensation more than a simple color. It is something that cannot be looked away from. Insidious, tangible. Often, the description of yellow items relies on synesthetic imagery, making particular use of the sense of smell. In Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist is confined to a room with yellow wallpaper after suffering a nervous break “for her own good.” Shockingly, this does not improve her mental health. The yellow walls that surround her begin to permeate her existence. At the height of her paranoia, she describes a smell that has emanating from beneath the walls, adding to her suffering:
“It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.”
There is no such thing as a yellow smell. Yet, the description is evocative. Clear. It uses inference to close the gap between the protagonist’s situation and the reader’s imagination. The claustrophobia of the setting combines with our innate understanding that yellow is the color of decay to create an imagined smell that does not literally exist.
Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black further extrapolates on this concept of a physical “yellowness” through the description of a toxic London fog during the story’s exposition:
“It was a yellow fog, a filthy, evil-smelling fog, a fog that choked and blinded, smeared and stained… sounds were deadend, shapes blurred.”
Hill goes one step further than Gilman, overtly characterizing the smell as evil (and by association, the color). The fog is claustrophobic, inescapable. In the presence of the fog, there is little else one can perceive. It becomes the all. “I can smell the stench of the fog seeping in around the window, I can feel the sensation in my ears, as if they had been stuffed with cotton.” The evil yellow fog foreshadows the impending disaster awaiting the protagonist, a portent of the death and suffering to come.
Often, horror takes inspiration from real-life phenomena. This helps ground the narrative in recognizable fears. The yellow fog referenced in The Woman in Black likely drew inspiration from the Great Smog of London that occurred in 1952, a deadly catastrophe that saw the realized potential of a yellow death.
During the Great Smog of London, a layer of warm air trapped stagnant cold air on the surface, combining fog and pollution into a noxious smog. “Within a few hours, however, the fog began to turn a sickly shade of yellowish brown as it mixed with thousands of tons of soot pumped into the air by London’s factory smokestacks, chimneys and automobiles…” explains historian Christopher Kleine, “The noxious, 30-mile-wide air mass, teeming with acrid sulfur particles, reeked like rotten eggs—and it was getting worse every day.”
I think it’s interesting that this non-fiction description of a real event contains many of the tropes associated with yellow as a color of horror: the oppressiveness, the physicality, the smell. Ultimately, the Great Smog killed between 4,000 and 12,000 people, cementing our cultural conception that the color yellow is noxious.
Yellow and Gold: Color of Greed and Moral Rot
In horror, yellow can also be a signifier of moral rot. Silvia Moreno-García’s Mexican Gothic uses a yellow motif as an emblem for the Doyle family’s ethical shortcomings. The wallpaper in the house is yellow (drawing direct inspiration from Gilman), as is the fungus that infests their cemetery and protagonist Noemí Taobada’s dreams:
“Medallions or circles; when you looked closely you might think they were wreaths. She might have preferred the green wallpaper. This was hideous, and when she closed her eyes, the yellow circles danced behind her eyelids, flickers of color against black.”Silvia Moreno-García, Mexican Gothic
As when it represents physical decay, the yellow is pervasive, inescapable. Mexican Gothic is a story built on a rotting foundation: an abandoned mining town, a decrepit English mansion, the dying Howard Doyle, the fading Catalina. Noemí cannot escape the yellow rot even when she looks away, for it chases her into her dreams. The yellow becomes a warning signal that, if ignored, leads to dire consequences. It says, “if you do not escape me, I will consume you as I consume everything.”
““You’d call it a coincidence, wouldn’t you? Yes, I suppose you would. But the fact is everything they touch rots.”
Rots. The word sounded so ugly, it seemed to stick to the tongue, it made Noemí want to bite her nails even though she’d never done such a thing.”Silvia Moreno-García, Mexican Gothic
Connecting yellow with a fungal network and the story of an incestuous family marred by eugenic-driven breeding develops an image of living rot. Like Frankenstein’s monster is death alive, the Doyle family is the logical extreme of moral corrosion. They are what happens when you introduce poison several generations back, when you do not prune away the rot, but instead encourage it. And there is definitely something interesting in there about colonialism and the promotion of an imperialist mindset over several generations, but that is an article for another time.
There is one particular shade of yellow that has been used for centuries as a symbol of decadence, greed, and moral decay: gold. Gold is the curse of King Midas. Gold is the desire, but it is also the punishment. It represents a hunger for wealth and glory. This is a trope that exists both within and without horror.
We see some really interesting use of gold in Neon Demon, the story of a young woman seeking fame and glory via the modeling industry. The protagonist, Jesse, is initially framed as an ingénue whose allure is inadvertent. Her quest is only for security in the wake of the death of her parents. As the movie progresses, though, we come to understand that Jesse might not be as unaware as she seems. As the movie progresses, we start to see a glint of that hunger in her eye. It all begins with some gold paint.
Neon Demon’s first turning point comes during a photoshoot where Jesse blossoms from an unknown into a star. Over the course of the scene, we watch her transform from the white-clothed symbol of innocence into the gold-smeared supermodel ready to eat the world.
It’s important to note that this transformation is forced upon Jesse. The photographer uses her like a prop, separating her from the others, stripping her down, and smearing her in gold paint without sparing her emotional state a second thought. The golden lust for success and ephemeral beauty is contagious, a virus that takes host in an unsuspecting victim.
Once transformed, however, there is no going back for Jesse. After this photoshoot, she no longer hides her desire for success. She stops pretending she doesn’t know she is a powerful kind of beautiful. In a later scene, she even wears gold herself, reclaiming the symbol and asserting her own desires. Gold marks the beginning of the end for her. Her innocence, once lost, cannot be recuperated or replaced.
“Jesse makes a series of choices that propel her away from the innocent girl Ruby thought she was—less a transformation, and more like a reveal…. As more and more people, particularly men, tell her the power of her beauty—dewy skin, expressive eyes, rosy cheeks—she embraces it. A photoshoot where she strips naked and is painted with gold is an exploration into royalty, gild on the lily, a precious ornament.”Roxana Hadadi, Consumption & Corruption: Evil Appetites in The Neon Demon
Yellow Anxiety: The Psychopathology of Color
The Green Knight is a treasure trove of color symbolism, relying heavily on color to convey mood and build a creeping atmosphere. It uses yellow to depict the last moments of Gawain’s journey, indicating his mental turmoil. The hazy yellow fog that envelopes him symbolises the fear in his heart as he faces his destiny.
Physically, yellow actually activates the brain’s anxiety centers. According to director of Wagner Institute for Color Research Carlton Wagner, “In infants [yellow] results in crying. In adults, it results in shortness of temper. We notice a lot of fighting.” In horror, yellow has strong connections to mental illness, an association only strengthened by the popularity and cultural importance of “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
“The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long…
It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here. It creeps all over the house. I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs. It gets into my hair.”Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Here, Gilman aligns yellow and anxiety. She uses terms such as “revolting,” and “sickly” to transplant the protagonist’s mental illness onto the wallpaper itself. It is personified as some lurking spirit, “creeping” and “skulking.” It is a hostile, yellow energy that is ready to pounce when you least expect it.
Caution: Danger Ahead (Slow Down on Yellow)
For the most part, traffic lights around the world use the same consistent coloring scheme: red means stop, green means go, yellow means slow down (unless you’re my partner, in which case, yellow means gun it). The midpoint between start and stop, yellow symbolizes caution. It is a warning signal. Be careful. Curves ahead. Yield. As abitfrank explains in “Why Yellow Dominates the Horror Genre,”
“Yellow is the color of… things that say “continue on at your own pace, but be alert and be ready. Things are about to change…””
In horror, yellow’s association with caution is most evident in the now established trope of an innocent child in a yellow raincoat. We see it in Stephen King’s It (book and movies), Netflix’s Dark, the film adaptation of Coraline, and even in the trailers for the upcoming child-snatcher movie, The Black Phone. The children wearing the yellow raincoats often find themselves in danger shortly thereafter.
“George’s shoulder socked against the cement of the curb, and Dave Gardener…saw only a small boy in a yellow rain-slicker, a small boy who was screaming and writhing in the gutter with muddy water surfing over his face and making his screams sound bubbly.”Stephen King, It
The connection between yellow, anxiety, and trepidation goes so deep, it’s even leaked into the sports world. When I was researching this article, I accidentally Googled “The Yellow Wall” instead of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and stumbled across this Wikipedia article about a German football station:
“Located on the southern terrace of the stadium is Dortmund’s “Yellow Wall”, which is the largest free-standing grandstand in Europe with a capacity of 25,000. The “Yellow Wall” gives Westfalenstadion one of the most intimidating home atmospheres in all of Europe… midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, when asked whether he feared Dortmund’s players or their manager, more, responded by saying, “It is the Yellow Wall that scares me the most.””
In a nutshell: In horror, yellow symbolizes hope (albeit rarely), decay, physical rot, moral rot, suffering, illness (both physical and mental), anxiety, and caution.
Up Next: The Meaning of Green In Horror