The Meaning of Black in Horror


A collage of screenshots from horror movies that heavily use black, including The Woman in Black, Mandy, Get Out, Gretel and Hansel, The Babadook, The Conjuring, The VVitch, American Horror Story, Halloween

Her fingertips were black, as though dipped in ink. Except, the ink was not external; it seeped from within like blood through a bandage. When she beckoned with a single, crooked finger, I noticed the black shift slightly, swaying liquid within her. Her eyes were fathomless, her mouth a void. Standing so close, I knew her face better than my own, but ask me to describe it and it vanishes into some hollow corner of my mind. 

I knew her, had always known her. She had peered into my crib in the dead of night when I was a babe, when there was naught my parents could do. Standing so near her, I felt the breath drawn from my lungs, sucked out in a vacuum. The black candle on the windowsill dripped wax onto the floor. I stared at the strange pattern it formed, a shape that almost looked like a crow. She lay a withered hand on my cheek and smiled. For the first time in my life, I awoke.

Hello and welcome back to our meaning of color in horror series. Over the last few months, I’ve been exploring exactly how the horror genre uses different colors to establish an atmosphere, mood, or theme. If you want an overview of all the colors I’ve covered so far, check out The Meaning of Color in Horror. It’s been a good ride so far; we’ve done everything from red to purple to pink to grey. In this, the penultimate article in the series, I want to take a look at the most “horror” color of them all: black.

Black is the color people associate with the horror genre. It’s the color people associate with people who like the horror genre. As the literal color of darkness, it’s clear why black became associated with horror. Its relationship with horror is as old as horror itself. 

Since black is everywhere in horror, I cast my net wide in terms of what content I focused on. I got a good selection of different formats, including novels, short stories, movies, podcasts, and a TV series. In this article, I’ll take a look at the way Mandy, Edgar Allan Poe’sThe Black Cat,” The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in Black, Get Out, The Babadook, Tanarive Due’s “Free Jim’s Mine,” American Horror Story: Murder House, The VVitch, Gretel and Hansel, and “Dreamer” from The Magnus Archives transform horror’s most iconic color. 

Black as Darkness, Physical and Symbolic

“You exude a cosmic darkness.” 

The Chemist, Mandy

Although movies often use blue to represent night, black is the color of darkness, both physical and intangible. It is the color of nightmares, the color of a dead night with no stars. It is the color of a killer hiding in the shadows. In Tanarive Due’s “Free Jim’s Mine,” escaping enslaved persons Lottie and William spend the night in a dark, cold, water-logged mine. The peak of their anxiety aligns with the moments when they are cast in complete darkness. They don’t know if they’ll survive the night. They literally can’t see. The darkness becomes a symbol for their fears and anxieties, for the terrifying, unknowable future where the hope of light feels more distant than ever.

“Under the ground, Lottie met the purest lack of light she had ever known. Every step, it seemed, was blacker than the last.”

Tanarive Due, “Free Jim’s Mine”

Darkness is not merely a physical lack of light. It is the symbol of wickedness and evil. It is a sign of giving in to temptation. Think of the Dark Side in Star Wars. The Light Side of the Force is connected to restraint and calm; the Dark Side is connected to aggression, fear, and a lust for power. American Horror Story: Murder House uses a black latex gimp suit to overlap pleasure and suffering, lust and murder. Giving in to one becomes inextricable from giving in to the other. Sex with the gimp suit involved is never just sex; it is the creation of a demonic spawn. 

We also see this symbol of black as the alluring, forbidden evil in stories about witchcraft, where the Devil is in the temptation. In The VVitch, the devil takes the shape of a charcoal goat named Black Philip. In Gretel & Hansel, the witch’s house has an unnatural black exterior and her fingertips look like they’ve been dyed with black ink as a result of her lust for power and eternal life. 

Darkness in these stories is contagious; it spreads. In Gretel & Hansel, Gretel defeats her, killing her in the process. Thereafter, she vows to be a new kind of witch, freeing the souls of the children that the witch killed. And yet, in the final moments, her fingers suddenly turn black. She looks on in horror. She believed she would use her powers for good, but to get those powers she needed to cheat and murder. The seed of evil has already been planted.

A Brief Interlude on the Implications of “Black=Bad”

Throughout this series, I’ve been analyzing the meaning of color in horror. As a result, most of the symbolic connections ended up being negative, associated with fear, suffering, and death. In horror, yellow is not sunshine, it is decay. Blue is not a clear sky, it is a demonic possession. However, things aren’t so simple when it comes to black. 

There is a longstanding, insidious metaphor of “black is bad; white is good.” Marketing professor Aradhna Krishna explores how we’ve created this implicit bias in “How did ‘white’ become a metaphor for all things good?”. The problem is that this bias doesn’t stop in theory; it ends up carrying over to the way we view people. Several studies have found that people not only associate artificially darkened photographs with immoral acts, but also darker-skinned people. When asked to select the “color” of the souls of those perceived as “immoral” on a scale from white to black, once again, participants skewed dark. In a nutshell: we have to be careful with what metaphors we give credence to because they can result in colorism and real-world harm.

Associate professor of English at Wellesley Cord Whitaker has spent years studying the “white is good; black is bad” dichotomy. He dates the cognitive metaphor all the way back to The Crusades, where white Christians tried to set themselves apart from the “sinfulness” of darker-skinned Muslims and non-Christians. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out “From the Middle Ages to Modern-Day Philadelphia: How Black Metaphors Shape Our Understanding of Race.” Khadija Mbowea’s “Rac(ism) & Horror” video also offers a great breakdown on the relationship between blackness and horror.

So, I’m trying to approach “black as a symbol of evil” with a grain of salt. Unlike many of the other colors, this specific negative connotation comes with baggage. That isn’t to say that horror can’t and shouldn’t ever again use black to represent evil, but that horror creators and analysts should be more conscientious about the metaphors we take for granted. 

Black as the Color of Bad Luck

Black is the color of evil omens and bad luck. For example, black cats are (unfairly) classed as unlucky, and commonly snubbed in shelters (again, very unfair; I used to live with a green-eyed black cat named Dragon and he is a delight… when he’s not biting your ankles). Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” builds on and inverts this preconceived notion that black cats represent evil. The cat’s black fur serves as a symbol of the protagonist’s own descent into violence and mayhem. 

Once again, we see the relationship between sinfulness and darkness. The protagonist is cruel to Pluto, the cat, and, eventually, kills him. In doing so, he frames it as giving to his darkest desires: “I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin — a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it — if such a thing were possible — even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

Not long after, a new cat appears. The new cat is identical to the old except for a large splotch of white on his chest. This tortures the protagonist. When the cat was all black, the protagonist could point to Pluto as the source of his suffering: he is the ill omen that surfaces the protagonist’s worst tendencies. But the reincarnated cat bears the mark of innocence: a patch of pure white. The reincarnated cat removes the pure black image from the scene, forcing the protagonist to face the fact that it was never the cat that was the source of darkness. 

Black as the Color of Death

What is death if not darkness eternal? In many Western cultures, black is the color of death. It’s what mourners wear to funerals; it is the void within us that fears oblivion. Ravens and crows with their dark feathers are associated with death and misfortune. The black cat in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” conjures morbid imagery of “the GALLOWS! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death!”

In “Dreamer” from my most recent podcast obsession, The Magnus Archives, a man describes nightmares he’s had where he is able to predict the death of people around him. The representation of encroaching death is a black substance that curls around its victims like a snake:  “These shelves were coated in a sticky black tar, which I knew at that moment was the thickened, pulpy blood that pumped through each and every one of those veins.”

Since black is the color of death, it’s no surprise that it also makes an appearance in ghost stories. Many ghosts in Western ghost stories wear black, such as in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The ghosts here represent disquieted death. It is not a peaceful long sleep; it is eternal suffering and continued anguish. In the Mexican legend of the Llorona, a woman is destined to forever roam the Earth crying out for her dead children. Physically, she is characterized as having long, black hair. Dead children. Suicide. The ghosts in these stories are fuelled by the suffering of their past and their spite for the living.

“Another person—this time; but a figure of quite as unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful—with such an air also, and such a face!— Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers.”

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

In The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, the titular ghost is a bad omen because of her bitterness. Bedecked in a black veil and dress, she carries the trauma that plagued her life into her afterlife. Beyond her afterlife, even, bringing ill luck and suffering to all who see her. In this, she symbolizes the irrepressible past, the way trauma is a vicious cycle. Her hatred, like her clothes, is a smoldering black.

“Her eyes were dark in her pale face. Those eyes! How can I describe them? Her eyes were evil. They stared at me with a terrible hate. There was something the woman wanted from me – something she had lost.”

Susan Hill, The Woman in Black

Black as a Symbol of Grief

If we associate black with emotions, we get irritability, gloominess, misery. We get melancholia: an affliction of the black bile. As the color of mourning, black represents a spiritual depression. It is not a blue depression of sadness as in “I’m feeling blue”; it is a black mood where all emotion disappears somewhere untouchable. There is no joy, no anger. Only an overwhelming “cosmic darkness.” It’s no wonder the Get Out uses a pitch-black space to symbolize where the mind goes when hypnotized. It is overwhelming, inescapable. It is a black we drown in

“Black is the absence of all color. White is the presence of all colors. I suppose life must be one or the other. On the whole, though, I think I would prefer color to its absence. But then black does add depth and texture to color. Perhaps certain shades of gray are necessary to a complete palette. Even unrelieved black. Ah, a deep philosophical question. Is black necessary to life, even a happy life? Could we ever be happy if we did not at least occasionally experience misery?”

Mary Balogh, Then Comes Seduction

When it comes to analyzing the use of black as a symbol of grief, there is no better film to turn to than The Babadook. The Babadook is a monster clothed in all black, the quintessential boogeyman lurking in the shadows. On the surface, The Babadook is the story of a single mother and her child haunted by a fairytale monster. On a closer look, The Babadook is a story of trauma and grief, of trying to heal from unexpected family deaths, of absence and clinical depression. It is a story about how suffering begets an internal darkness that, if not treated, turns us into the monster we fear. As Tim Teeman puts it so well in “Grief: The Real Monster in The Babadook”: “The Babadook is the shape of grief: all-enveloping, shape-shifting, black, here intensely, terrifying, then gone.” 

***

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

In a nutshell: In horror, black symbolizes death, mourning, misfortune, evil, suffering, bad luck, ill omens, depression, grief, horrors lurking in the shadows, anxiety, wickedness, forbidden pleasures, and witchcraft.

Up Next: The Meaning of White in Horror

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

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: