The Meaning of Purple in Horror


A collage of screenshots from horror movies that heavily use purple, including The Haunting of Bly Manor, Color out of Space, Vertigo, American Horror Story, From Beyond, Suspiria, Cam, Neon Demon, Carrie, and Promising Young Woman

A purple shimmer followed behind her like a shadow. An elaborate ribbon curled throughout her hair and she was beautiful, not like a piece of art but like the Milky Way. Beautiful and terrible to behold. Looking into her amethyst gaze, one feels they may become eclipsed. We never found out where she came from. When we tried to remember, we could not recall a time she hadn’t been there in the first place. 

She is our queen. When she declared we were all to wear lavender robes, to burn the possessions that previously weighed us down, we rejoiced. When she announced we would dance beneath the full moon, dance until we wept, dance until our feet bled, we sang with glee. When she demands that we jump into the great maw opening in the sky, we feel the gratitude crawl over our skin like so many insects.

Hello and welcome to our sixth installment in our series about the meaning of color in horror. If you’re new here and want an overview of everything we’ve discussed so far (and plan to discuss in the future), please check out our overview article: The Meaning of Color in Horror. We’re going in rainbow order, so the article before this talks about blue, the one before that about green, and so on, and so on. You’d think: wait, so this means that this is the final article in the series? And you would be wrong. We’ve run out of rainbow, but there are a few more colors I still want to cover after this. (Teaser: up next is pink, which I hadn’t planned to write about but my friend insisted).

I’ll be honest, this is probably going to be one of the shorter articles. Purple is not a common color in nature (except, as my editor pointed out, “the beloved beetroot and eggplant”). It is also not a particularly common color in the horror landscape. Purple is one of those colors that doesn’t get used often, but when it does make an appearance, it’s not subtle. Usually, if you’re seeing purple in horror, you are seeing a lot of purple in horror. Specifically for this article, I’m going to take a look at the 1976 Carrie adaptation, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, the H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Color Out of Space” (and its many film adaptations), Vertigo, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Neon Demon.

Purple: The Color of Royalty

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Purple is one of the rarest naturally occurring colors. As a result, it stands out.  Films can use reds, yellows, blues, and greens relatively naturalistically if they’re so inclined, but purple is usually a deeply stylistic choice, either of lighting or of costuming. Because of its rarity, purple historically became associated with royalty. For a long time, only royalty could afford the dyes required to wear purple. 

We can see this association with royalty in Carrie (1976) and American Horror Story: Apocalypse. Carrie makes use of shimmery purple lighting during the prom king and queen acceptance scene. This unnatural lighting calls attention to the moment that effectively becomes the story’s catalyst. It is the beginning of the downfall of (mock) (prom) queen Carrie (or at least, of her vision of herself as someone who could be a queen). In American Horror Story: Apocalypse, the characters in power are deliberately dressed in purples that contrast with servant and staff greys and blacks to signify them as a “special class.” The show develops tension from the moment we see characters appear on screen.

The Color Out of Space is Purple, Actually

“It was just a color out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Color Out of Space”

Purple’s rarity also lends it an otherworldliness that borders on alien. This makes it the perfect color for dream sequences and extraterrestrial encounters. It is the color of things that do not belong to this earthly realm. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example, uses a flashing violet filter during its psychedelic dream sequence. The shifting lights and colors serve to disorient the audience with non-naturalistic techniques, matching the disconcerting vibes of a nightmare.

You could even argue that purple is the color of alien life and mad science, at least in horror. A good example of this comes in the form of film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space.” The original short story refers to a color so alien that it is entirely unrecognizable to the current human experience. It is unnameable, unknowable. 

In a short story, you can basically leave it at that. But in a visual medium, directors need to make a decision about exactly what color they’re going to use to represent the color out of space. Not one, but two adaptations of the short story have chosen to go with purple. 1987’s The Curse and 2019’s Color Out of Space both use electric purple hues to indicate that the terror onscreen is not of this universe. 

There’s a specific shade of neon purple that filmmakers use to indicate when science has gone too far. It’s usually accompanied by flashes of pink and lightning. It’s the purple used in body horror flick From Beyond (which is kind of like if Hellraiser, Lovecraft, and Weird Science had a baby… itself a horrifying thought).

Lavender and Lilac: Purple as the Color of Femininity

Purple carries associations with femininity and, especially, girlhood. In a 2007 study into color preferences by gender, doctors Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling found that purple was the most divisive color across the genders. While 0% of the men interviewed listed purple as their favorite color, it was the preferred color for almost ¼ of all women interviewed. Adjacent to pink, it is a signifier of femininity, youth (primarily because of the infantilization of adult women, which isn’t great), and vulnerability. 

(Sidebar, there is also a whole history of certain shades of purple specifically signifying lesbian relationships; now is not the time nor the place for me to get into it, but if you did want to read up on it, I recommend “From Lavender to Violet: The Lesbian Obsession with Purple

It has this great quote: 

“Purple is a symbol of the “other,” the different or deviant. No wonder we’re drawn to it.”

Eleanor Medhurst)

In horror, the relationship between purple, femininity, and innocence is used to characterize female characters as vulnerable to the impending threat. In The Haunting of Bly Manor, both Flora and Dani are regularly seen in purple, a symbol of their innocence. For Flora, this is the innocence of childhood; for Dani, this is the innocence of not having yet faced the dark forces lurking in Bly Manor. You also see this use of a soft lavender in the first act of Neon Demon. Early in the film, Jesse dons a gauzy lilac dress and goes on a gentle, romantic date where they discuss their dreams and desires under the purple L.A. sky. This purple marks her purity before the fall; it represents the moment of goodness before everything goes very very wrong.

In a nutshell: in horror, purple symbolizes royalty, exclusivity, otherworldliness, dreams, aliens, femininity, youth, and innocence.

Up Next: The Meaning of Pink in Horror

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

7 comments

  1. I am enjoying this series very much.

    Like

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