It was past midnight when I realised I’d lost my key. My blueing fingers felt around an empty pocket, cold touch seeping through the thin fabric of my trousers. It was December 26th – there would be no one home to let me in. This was the week between time, the world suspended between last year and the next. A gale nipped at the gap between my sweater and scarf. I shivered as I retraced my steps, the shadows before me long and jagged.
The street lights had gone out, the air between them blue as a bruise. There was the sound of footsteps in perfect synchronisation with my own. I shoved my hands in my pockets, ignoring the growing shadows. I was being silly. I was being paranoid. The key had to be around here somewhere. A bronze glint near the gutter caught my eye and I stopped. The footsteps continued, slow and methodical. My key was caught in the grate by the grace of the cheap novelty keyring I’d picked up at some hotel. As I leaned to get it, I felt a presence leaning over me. I turned quickly, and caught a sudden, impossibly cruel flash of azure.
Hi. Welcome, or welcome back. We’re about mid-way through our series on the meaning of color in horror, and I’m still not sure whether I should assume you’ve already read other articles in the series or this is your first one. If you’re a returning reader, you know the spiel so bear with. If you’re new: you can find an overview of all colors in horror and their meaning (as well as all the color-coded collages that I spent hours putting together) in “The Meaning of Color in Horror”. We’re going in rainbow order, so the previous article is about green in horror, and the article after will be about purple (currently, unpublished, but I’m sure I’ll remember to edit this paragraph once it’s published…). Anyway, you’re here because you want to know about the color blue.
Blue is one of those colors that is just popular in cinema in general. It is one of the most popular colors in the world, with one study finding that around 35% of people named blue their favorite color (and granted, it was only a study of around 2,000 people, but going by anecdotal evidence I would say it checks out). Blue is both emotionally charged and very physical, as far as colors go. It has deep associations with strong emotional states (sadness, depression, despondency) and with the cold.
Horror is no exception to the “fans of blue” club. Mostly commonly, you see blue being used in horror as a filter, defining the tone of what’s happening onscreen. In this article, I’ll look at how The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Ring, Neon Demon, Us and The Haunting of Hill House use the color blue to create a mood and set the viewer on edge.
Spooky Blues: Shooting Scenes at Night
“Reds and blacks are the most obvious, but cool tones of blues and purples often lend a chilling, tense mood.”Meagan Navarro, From ‘Suspiria’ to ‘Midsommar’: The Psychology of Color in Horror
Dark blue is the color of escaping a murderer in the dead of night. If you’ve watched any horror movie from between 1970 and 2000, you know the blue I’m talking about. A cold suburban street. Midnight. A young woman tears past the manicured lawns, barefoot, screaming. Behind her, the masked killer draws nearer and nearer.
Traditionally, we associate darker shades of blue with night time, especially in movies. Throughout cinematic history, we’ve been primed to equate blue shades with the evening. We see this in the cinematic technique “Day for Night.” Day for Night is a style of photography where scenes shot in broad daylight are altered to look like they take place in the evening. This technique dates back to the silent film era, but was most popular between the 30s and 70s, when camera technology wasn’t quite good enough to shoot directly in the dark. To simulate the nighttime look, cinematographers would alter the camera’s exposure and frame rate and add a blue filter in front of the camera lens.
The reason we think of blue as the color of nighttime is a little sciency but kind of cool. First of all, in the human eye, there are these things called cones that we use to see color. We have three types: red, green, and blue. Each is better at performing under different conditions. “Meister and Joesch hypothesize that when the light is dim, the rods are active, and they dampen the output of the red and green cones,” explains science writer Veronique Greenwood, “But the long-wavelength cone cell, also known as the blue cone cell, keeps going all on its lonesome. That gives you the impression that you’re seeing blue.” This “blueing” effect is also called the Purkinje effect (and the Purkinje effect is the most likely culprit behind the blue/black, white/gold dress debate… to reference a six-year-old meme).
Anyway, all of this to say is that blue equals nighttime, especially in movies. And in the context of horror, nighttime time is, well, bad. Night is darkness. Night is uncertainty. Night is something unknown creeping just around the corner. It is the time when we lose the security and certainty of light. As Paul Wells explains in The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch, “Such fear of the unknown is intrinsically related to the fear of the dark, simply because any potential threats remain unseen.”
So in horror, since night is when the monsters come out, we associate nighttime scenes with tension. By transitive property, blue in horror becomes the color of anxiety. We’ve all been there: you’re at the very start of a horror film. It’s only act one. The family has just moved into their lovely new home. Nothing actually bad has happened yet. Then night falls. The blue filter comes on. And suddenly, every shadow is a threat. Every room is an unknown.
The Blue Supernatural
It’s also worth noting that blue occurs relatively rarely in nature. Yes, the sky is blue, but very little else is. A handful of birds, a few berries, the odd poisonous frog. Other than that, blue is primarily a color we have to manufacture. As a result, horror movies looking to amp up the “unreality” of a scene often turn to blue. This is especially true when the scene is meant to carry supernatural associations.
A common example of this is in exorcism scenes. In both The Exorcist and The Conjuring 2, the possessed child’s house is shot in an eerie blue light that highlights the unreality of the scene. You see a similar effect in Neon Demon with the blue triangle/runway scene.
In “A Crisis of Chrysalis: The Runway Scene in The Neon Demon,” H. Perry Horton explains, “The [runway] scene at this point is colored cool and deep blue, soft, giving off a tranquil vibe. As Jesse hones her focus on the triangle image, this tranquility overtakes her.” Blue, in these instances, marks a change. A transformation. A loss of the past self. A descent into night.
Icy Blue Fingers: The Color of Cold
As I mentioned earlier, blue is a color associated with physical coldness. This means blue has an emotionally chilling (pun intended, obviously) effect when used in horror. One of the creepiest scenes in Jordan Peele’s Us, the house of mirrors scene, takes place in a dark blue light. Blue, here, is associated with a cold fear, the kind that runs down your back and pulls goosebumps up your arms.
“I could not see the old man’s face. Only that eye, that hard blue eye, and the blood in my body became like ice.”Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Often, blue is also associated with water. You see this everywhere from the branding for bottled water to cartoon raindrops. However, this is horror, so instead of raindrops and water bottles, you get frozen oceans, restless rivers. Cold, deep water with no bottom. The Ring movie uses blue to create a cold, clammy atmosphere. The light of the television is a ghostly blue from which the movie’s monster emerges, drenched. Blue evokes the sensation that something terrifying is being wrenched up from the deep.
Feeling Blue: Tragedy in Horror
A blue chill pressed on the nape of my neck; I felt like it wanted to suffocate me to death.Jeong Yu-jeong, The Good Son
Culturally, many of us associate blue with melancholy: “I’m feeling blue,” “singing the blues.” Blue is a relatively cohesive color when it comes to all its possible (negative)* interpretations. It is the night because of science reasons. Okay, fair enough. What happens at night? The sun goes away. It is a time that is dark and cold. Blue is the color of cold darkness. But what do we feel when the Sun goes away? That’s right, sad. Or rather SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a depression caused by the lack of energy and moodiness of the night-forward winter months. Depression, you say? What is blue if not THE COLOR OF DEPRESSION. We feel the blues after all, blues that are cold and numb. Dark, even? Dark like… the night?
Thank you. This rant was brought to you by two years of a global pandemic. I’m fine. Everything is fine.
*I say negative, because there is also obviously a flip side to blue that represents hope and positivity. A cloudless, open sky. The mantle of Mother Mary. But, as I say in every article in this series, there’s a difference between the symbolism of colors (general) and the symbolism of color in horror. Horror isn’t generally going to be looking at bright blue skies.
A notable exception, of course, is Midsommar, which uses the constant presence of a blue sky to overwhelm the viewer with color. There is no respite from it, no night. It is there, always, imposing. According to Byrdie Gaither, “Blue is worn by Dani’s aging parents when they die, and this motif is mirrored later in the film with the elderly Harga couple who wear the same shade of blue as they throw themselves off cliffs in ritualistic suicide.” Blue, however, isn’t really the color of death so much as the color of suffering. Dani’s pain follows her everywhere she goes. Mourning is in everything she does. The endless day of midsommar brings endless skies of endless blue.
“Some shades of blue can cause apathy, alienation, and depression. Dark blue has an even more negative connotation. In our subconscious, it is associated with the restless sea waves that can cause danger and threat to life. Also, there are many tales of so-called “blue demons”, insidious creatures from the other world, that bring suffering and bad luck in folklore.”Miblart, “Horror & Thriller Book Cover Design Ideas: 20 Examples”
One of the most iconic uses of blue filters to evoke that sense of dreariness is in the first Twilight movie. But, I do understand that I can’t keep writing about Twilight in my horror blog so, fine, I’ll talk about The Haunting of Hill House.
In The Haunting of Hill House, blue lighting is used to represent Nell succumbing to the horror that’s been following her throughout her life. Nell’s death scene (which I promise, isn’t a spoiler – Nell dying is kind of the show’s catalyst) uses contrasting colors and lighting to differentiate between her perception of what’s happening and her reality. Both versions of the scene are set at night, relying on lamps to keep the house lit. However, the scenes that depict her perception of the events, where she is reunited with her deceased loved ones, finally happy after all these years of misery, are lit in warm yellows. Meanwhile, the scenes of what is literally happening, of her dancing alone in a decrepit, evil house, are tinted dark blue. What Nell sees is the beautiful lie that she must tell herself to stomach the terrible blue reality.
In a nutshell: in horror, blue symbolizes tension, nighttime, anxiety, cold fear, unearthed monsters and demons, melancholy, danger, and tragedy.
Up Next: The Meaning of Purple in Horror