The Meaning of Pink in Horror


A collage of screenshots from horror movies that heavily use The Company of Wolves, Horse Girl, Carrie, Candyman, It Follows, The Loved Ones, Promising Young Woman, Jennifer's Body, Rosemary's Baby, Cam, Neon Demon, Suspiria, The Thing

Her lips, like her tongue and her cheeks and the pads of her feet, were a soft pink that conjured images of the fairground. Of frivolity and calm, of wispy cotton candy piled higher than your head. Children playing games, kisses stolen beneath a haystack. Her tongue flicked across her lips, wiping away the maroon splatter. Her gums, which should have been pink, had darkened inexplicably, purple terrain from which sprung unnaturally sharp teeth. She took a step closer. Barefoot, wearing a frilly bubblegum nightgown, she barely made a sound. I, on the other hand, found a strange gurgling noise escaping from me, an aborted scream that I couldn’t quite get out.

Hello. You’ve reached the pink edition of our “the meaning of color in horror” collection. We’re reaching the end of the line, but still have plenty to explore. Basically, we’ve run out of rainbow colors (click here if you want to check out the article that comes before this about the meaning of purple in horror), so we’re gonna start getting into shades. And what better shade to move onto than pink?

Pink is not a common color in horror. Or rather, when pink features in horror, it is extremely deliberate. There usually isn’t “just a little” pink in a scene; either there’s none because it doesn’t match the established color palette or it is overwhelmingly present. Pink is a shade of red, one of horror’s most beloved colors. It is red’s paler, more delicate cousin, stripped of all of red’s brashness with a (rather large) dash of associations with femininity

If you’re a person who likes the color pink and likes horror movies, there is a priceless niche of movies that would be perfect for you. I haven’t come across many books or short stories in the horror genre that use pink (although my recommendation list is always open, so if you know of something feel free to leave a comment), but there are plenty of horror movies that use pink in really interesting ways. In this article, I’ll take a look at Candyman (1992), Carrie (movies and book), It Follows, Jennifer’s Body, Cam, and Promising Young Woman to see how horror turns the delicate shade sinister.

Pink is for Girls: Horror and Femininity

“Her bedroom had seemed so pink and young and delicate, appropriate to her pastel-shaded lingerie tossed here and there on chair and bed.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

You’ll notice that every movie I’m going to discuss in this article has a female lead. In fact, several of them also have female writers and directors. For the last almost-century, pink has been a color that, first and foremost, signals femininity. Usually, when we see pink in horror, it tells you something about the protagonist and her relationship to her surroundings. It lets you know that this movie is going to explore women’s relationship with their own femininity, and the relationship between women’s femininity and the world. (I also want to make the same disclaimer I made in Hell Hath No Fury: Cam, Neon Demon, and Promising Young Woman: here, I am defining “femininity” as “that which society traditionally associates with women”; it doesn’t encapsulate women’s own relationship to their womanhood nor a neutral bystander’s relationship to femininity; it is “the feminine” as defined and codified by the powers that be).

In horror, the kind of femininity associated with pink is a youthful, unripened femininity. It is the color of girlishness. In 1992’s Candyman, Helen discovers that her husband is cheating on her with Stacy, his young college student. She finds out about Stacy when she comes home to find Stacy repainting her kitchen. Specifically, Stacy is repainting the kitchen pink, a color that encapsulates her  naïveté. Stacy’s youthful inexperience is the foil to Helen’s hard-earned worldliness. Helen even goes out of her way to comment that she hates the color palette. In saying this, she is not necessarily condemning Stacey for being a young fool, but her husband for choosing to cheat on her with a young fool.

Since pink is the color of girlhood, it features most prominently in horror films about highschoolers. One of the most famous examples is coming-of-age horror film Carrie. Both the original 1972 film and (less) 2013 remake feature Carrie’s iconic pink satin prom dress. This dress is one of the most famous outfits in horror movie history. If you Google Carrie, she is inevitably wearing the pink dress.

A picture of a pink prom background with both version of Carrie in her pink prom dress with the caption "pretty in pink"

Carrie wears pink to the prom to indicate to the audience that she is an innocent. This is her first date, her first dance. Everything around her is adorned with pink accents: a rosy corsage and big pink bows. The color palette conjures the word “girl.” Not “female”, not “woman.” Girl.

“His mother had multiple sclerosis and was in love with him. She tied pink ribbons around her slender waist whenever he visited, and repeatedly told him that he was the kind of boy she wished she’d met at his age.”

Rebecca Curtis, “The Pink House

One of the main motifs of Carrie, book and movies, is menstruation and its transitional between girlhood and womanhood. Carrie’s first experience with menstruation comes as a complete shock, in the most vulnerable possible setting (a shared shower at the school locker room). Immediately, it becomes the source of her suffering. 

“In her 1980 text, Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva explores the relationship we have with our bodies. Bodily fluids, such as urine, menstrual blood, vomit, and excretion are considered as part of our bodies when they are internal, yet, when they pass through the body’s boundary, they are perceived as alien and repulsive. Kristeva calls this feeling of horror ‘abjection’.” 

Katie Goh, “Bullies, Beasts, and Blood-soaked Bathrooms: Stephen King and Periods

Carrie’s horror is not only physical, but metaphysical. Beginning menstruation is often referred to as the moment a girl becomes a woman. But there is a lot of societal baggage to “being a woman.” For Carrie especially, there is an added level of religious baggage as her mother aligns menstruation with the original sin. In a single period, Carrie suddenly carries the weight of an entire gender’s past wrongs.

But all of this, the period, the locker room taunting, her mother’s insistence that she brought this on herself, comes well before Carrie chooses her prom dress. That is, she is “forced” into womanhood, then makes a deliberate choice in a dress that is pink, sweet, and girlish. The pink prom dress represents Carrie’s attempts to reclaim her own childhood, or at least clutch onto it for as long as she can. 

It’s worth noting that in the original novel, Carrie’s dress is red, not pink. The red is meant to represent her coming into womanhood and her own sexuality; it is what her mother refers to as the color of sin. It is a sign of Carrie’s accepting her womanhood, breaking away willingly from her mother’s oppressiveness. However well this works symbolically in the book, there’s a reason the red didn’t translate to the screen. Personally, I think it comes down to visual effect. The red of the pig’s blood on an already red dress wouldn’t pop. It would blend, lessening its aesthetic impact. The scene where Carrie is doused in a bucket of pig’s blood is meant to be shocking, visceral. By making Carrie’s dress not only pink, but pale pink, the filmmakers ensure there is a marked difference from before and after the blood (which also works symbolically). 

Pretty in Pink: Girls as the Victims in Horror

The connection between the color pink, femininity, and innocence, if not critically analyzed, can have misogynistic undertones. Basically, it comes down to transitive property. Pink is for girls, therefore pink is the color of innocence and immaturity. Using pink like this reinforces the infantilization of adult women. Again, transitive property: pink is feminine, pink is for girls. Women, expected to be feminine, are treated as girls. This is most evident in the sheer saturation of books and movies titled “The Girl Who Whatevered” and “Girl in the Place” that aren’t actually about young girls but adult women. “According to [editor] Jennifer Jackson at Knopf, the distinction of “girl” rather than “woman” potentially “hints at a vulnerability that raises the stakes.” 

Let’s go back to Carrie. Carrie is not entirely a victim, but she is defined by her suffering. Her trauma transforms her. Turning back to Goh, “Invoking the motif of the monstrous female in Gothic fiction, Carrie changes from victim to monster as she uses what she perceives as her liability – the inability to control her body – as a weapon…The novel’s portrayal of the frightening and unstable power of the female body plays into the trope of the feminine mystique.”

That said, plenty of horror films that use pink dig deeper. They aren’t satisfied with using pink as a shorthand for “young girl, inexperienced, vulnerable.” Instead, they explore the relationship between womanhood, girlhood, and vulnerability. 

The 2014 hit film It Follows uses pink to underline protagonist Jay’s innocence at the start of the film. And by innocence, I mean both innocence in the face of the assault she is due to experience and innocence in terms of sexual inexperience.  

“Jay is constantly attached to pink—pink flower lamp on her desk, pink curtains on her window, pink blanket on her bed, pink dress on her date, pink lingerie underneath, pink bikini at the lake—and the color shows up so frequently it starts to feel like a self-aware joke: All the pink purity in the world couldn’t possibly save her… she is getting pinned to tropes of girlish innocence in order to suggest the absurdity of considering the world in these terms: innocent and fallen.”

Leslie Jamison, “It’s Not Done

2009 cult classic Jennifer’s Body goes one step further by not just “suggesting” at the absurd duality of innocent and fallen, but explicitly having the protagonist critique it. “Hell is a teenage girl.” 

Jennifer, high school succubus, dresses primarily in pinks. She is femininity incarnate. One outfit, in particular, goes over the top in using traditional feminine markers: a candy-pink hoodie with a heart pattern, gold heart locket, and pink heart earrings. 

Jennifer’s Body is, consciously, a film about reclaiming the female body from a male gaze. Specifically, it confronts the monstrous female sexuality that Carrie evokes. As Sabrina Ghidossi explains in “Feminism in Jennifer’s Body: The Weaponization of Allure,” “the allure of female sexuality in Jennifer’s Body is twisted to become an instrument of abjection.” That is, here the abjection does not happen to its female victim. It is used by the female hero-villain to victimize others.

The Female Body as Spectacle: Women’s Agency in Horror

The role of women in horror has traditionally been associated with victimhood. Dating all the way back to the Golden age of cinema, female horror characters were damsels in distress, kidnapped by the monster and rescued by the hero. Even in more modern horror movies where female characters get to play active roles in their own survival, they still bear the brunt of reacting to the horrors that surround them. They are the blank canvas onto which directors paint suffering and brutality. Try to picture, for a moment, a male equivalent to the woman shrieking in the face of unspeakable terrors. As Carol J Clover puts it in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, “A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers.”

Jennifer’s Body screenwriter Diablo Cody had a career as a stripper prior to moving to the film industry. That is, she has personal experience grappling with female sexuality in a world driven by male desire. Cody first got into stripping because of its promise of liberation from the standard 9 to 5 existence pushed by a capitalist society. She eventually left it because she realized that the women behind the bodies weren’t being appreciated enough by the industry that relied on them. 

“There were 10 or 15 girls working, and they were going around asking, “Do you want to dance? Do you want to dance?” It seemed so sad. It was a miserable scene. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be a part of this, where we’re almost robotic.”” Cody explained in a 2006 interview, “I saw the power struggle right there in front of my eyes. It’s really my essential problem with the entire sex industry. Women are not appreciated as much as they should be. Women are really treated like meat.”

Often, horror movies with pink color palettes are interested in reaffirming the agency of their female characters. 2018 psychological horror film Cam revolves around Alice, a cam girl whose livelihood is threatened by a demonic entity that steals people’s online presence. Cam is flooded with the color pink. Alice’s room looks like a unicorn threw up on it: big fluffy pink teddy bear, fuschia duvet, magenta carpet, electric pink silk pillows, millennial pink laptop, keyboard, and mouse (a matching set). Her cam girl shows have a distinct pink glow to them that reinforces her femininity. But Alice is not a helpless girl. 

Like Cody, Cam’s writer, Isa Mazzei, has a background in sex work, as a cam girl herself. This informs the movie’s empathetic, unpatronizing view towards sex work and the women who participate in it. Often, sex work is framed as inherently tragic and immoral. The women who participate in it are victims of a cruel society and, in the best-case scenario, must be rescued. Picture the plot of Pretty Woman. It’s a romantic comedy, not a tragedy, so in the end, its sex worker protagonist must be rescued from her unwanted life of debauchery. In fact, she doesn’t even rescue herself; that’s Richard Gere’s job. Cam never frames the solution as “just stop camming.”

In a 2019 interview, Mazzei explained, “I love horror. I grew up loving horror…for Cam, it was so important for me for an audience to empathize with a sex worker and really be brought into her world… I think when you’re scared along with the character, it’s really easy to build empathy and not be distracted by, maybe, politics or judgement… I think the real power of Cam is, in order for the horror to work, you have to accept that she had agency in the first 30 minutes in order to be scared as she lost that agency.”

Think Pink: Reframing Pink as a Symbol of Power

Briefly taking a step outside of horror, rom-com Legally Blonde is a great example of how films confront the assumption that pink and girliness signify frivolity. Protagonist Elle Woods does not need to compromise her love of pink, fashion, and open emotions in order to succeed as a lawyer. In fact, she weaponizes it; her knowledge of haircare leads to her winning a pivotal case. 

Similarly, Cassie in Promising Young Woman uses her femininity as a weapon against the uncaring patriarchy that has caused her so much suffering. Her clothing style is extremely effeminate and delicate. Her fighting style, though? Psychological warfare.

In an interview about the film’s costuming, costume designer Nancy Steiner explained that, on reading the script, her initial assumption of Cassie’s style was downplayed, more androgynous. This is a common trope in horror (and other action-based genres). In order to establish female leads as powerful, they are degendered or undergendered. We assume a false dichotomy of femininity and strength. It was on writer-director Emerald Fennel’s insistence that Cassie be “frilly and feminine and pastels,” that Steiner reassessed her assumptions. “That’s Emerald’s love, that girly feeling. And I thought it was so interesting that she saw her that way. It’s very different. And so I had to get my head around that and just go for it.”

There is a hard contrast between the outfits Cassie wears when she is in vigilante mode and the outfits Cassie wears when she’s working at a coffee shop and hanging out with her parents. “Her [evening] clothing is a facade hiding what she was really feeling like inside, to shelter herself in a way… In her real life, that’s not where she feels comfortable. So we stuck to comfortable clothing that was very feminine and sweet.” Steiner continues.

In the context of the movie, feminine and sweet translates into cotton candy pinks, soft sweaters, and rainbow nails. However, the change in wardrobe does not mean a change in strength of character. It’s not “nighttime Cassie” is strong and bold while “daytime Cassie” is meek and mild. 

Cassie is wearing one of her pinkest outfits, a pale pink blouse with mauve roses, when she asserts her independence in front of Ryan, an old school friend. Ryan is nervous and shy. Cassie is strong and confident; she commands the conversation. Ryan makes an offhand joke that she can spit in his coffee and, immediately, she does it. No remorse. Ryan is speechless. Cassie’s inability to be intimated, while wearing the girliest possible shirt, rejects the notion that femininity and strength are contrary ideas. 

***

A collage drawing that features buttons, a skull, a sunflower, tomatoes, a fig, a snake, and a bow, highlighting the pink bow

In a nutshell: In horror, pink symbolizes femininity, youth, innocence, sweetness, immaturity, inexperience (especially sexual), empowerment, and female sexuality.

Up Next: The Meaning of Grey in Horror

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

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