Most films use patterns or specific objects as metaphors for a concept that the filmmaker is trying to convey. In horror movies, many such objects are used to intensify mood, identify character traits, emphasize themes and concepts (e.g. good vs. evil), and foreshadow events. Objects can be powerful symbols that add depth and meaning to a story.
Horror films try to capture our worst nightmares. As Carl G. Jung observed in his book Man and His Symbols (1979): “Commonplace objects or ideas can assume such powerful psychic significance in a dream that we may awake seriously disturbed, in spite of having dreamed of nothing worse than a locked room or a missed train” and “As a general rule, the unconscious aspect of any event is revealed to us in dreams, where it appears not as a rational thought but as a symbolic image.”
Some of the most common symbolic objects found in horror include:
1. Religious Symbols – Religion is very prevalent in horror, with themes of life and death, spirituality, man playing god, man fighting inner and outer demons, good versus evil, and so forth. Religious artifacts may be Christian, occult, satanic, voodoo, or about any other type of belief in something greater than humanity. In The Skeleton Key (2005), hospice worker Caroline Ellis is a skeptic and does not believe in the supernatural, even though hoodoo items and legends surround her in the swampy, primitive homestead where she cares for an elderly man, Ben. As Ben believes in the hoodoo magic, Caroline pieces together more and more about the lynching of a slave couple who performed hoodoo in the attic, and her belief system begins to shift. She learns about the jujus – spell-books and recorded conjurations she discovers in the attic – and begins to perform rituals herself. In the end, her fear makes her a believer and this is her downfall, as it is what the slaves, who have lived on in the bodies of others, needed to take over her body. She let the symbolic objects overpower her reasoning.
2. Symbols of Death – Death is naturally pervasive in horror and there are countless representative objects, such as coffins, gravestones, skeletons, angels of death, and so forth. In Psycho (1960), the taxidermy birds are representative of the dead mother in the home and Bates’ schizophrenic attempts to keep her alive after death. In horror, there can be confusion between life and death, such as ghosts, zombies, and the supernatural, so objects can help symbolize who is on which side. Toward the beginning of Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Jacob gets trapped in an underground tunnel, which is symbolic of being trapped between life and death. The rushing train which barely misses him on the track is filled with disfigured faces, lost souls like him. As he suffers increasing hallucinations and his life spins out of control, the only comfort he finds is with his chiropractor Louis, who he describes as an overgrown cherub. We later discover he is in fact an angel. Louis tells Jacob the truth about his situation, though Jacob cannot comprehend its real meaning at the time. The fire that Jacob ignites at an Army headquarters (Jacob believes the hallucination were from army experiments) represents his need to burn away his attachments and memories of life. Fire symbolically recurs many times in the film and Jacob is literally consumed by it before being able to finally leave his hellish purgatory.
3. Colors – Many films use color to symbolize themes and the powers of good and evil. Red is often associated with evil, blood, lust, and violence, for example the Red Queen in Resident Evil (2002). Black is also naturally associated with evil while light, neutral colors or earth tones are associated with good or the general populace.
4. Light – Light can symbolize many things, such as hope, transition, escape, and even death (e.g. Poltergeist’s “Don’t go into the light!”) Sunlight normally provides a sense of comfort so the incongruity of sunlight and horror can be especially unnerving, such as in the famous graveyard scene in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Candles, lanterns, and flashlights are common sources of light in horror, as this light can only be cast so far while the surrounding darkness is rife with shadows. In this early scene from Hellraiser (1987) the dangling light bulbs in the torture room instantly sets the tone.
INT. TORTURE ROOM NIGHT
The bare bulbs in the room we’ve entered swing violently, disorienting us. There are chains – dozens of them – disappearing with the darkness of the ceiling: all are swinging back and forth. Some end in hooks, with pieces of skin and sinew adhering; some are serrated, others simply drip blood.
In the claustrophobic British horror film The Descent (2005), a group of female friends on a caving expedition become hunted by inhuman creatures. The women are trapped in virtual darkness underground and light is their only friend as the creatures are blind. Light and dark are often used thematically to represent good and evil, hence the horror of the night and the hope of a new dawn if you have managed to survive.
5. Weapons – A majority of horror films involve the use of weapons, from machine guns to saws. Weapons have phallic symbolism that suggests masculine power and the woman that outsmarts the villain essentially castrates him. Leatherface’s weapon in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is the ultimate phallic symbol of raging power. Weapons are most symbolically powerful when they reflects character; Leatherface lives on and on for this very reason.
6. Fabric – Fabric appears in many forms in horror, such as drapes, tapestries, and furniture dust coverings. Because fabric can disguise, it intensifies suspense as it suggests the presence of something behind it. The protagonist can also hide behind fabric, but of course is not protected by it. In The Others (2001), the mother hears voices in the home and enters a room where all the stored items are covered with dust cloths. As the voices intensify, she begins pulling down the cloths to try to reveal the source. In this film, fabric is used as a metaphor for covering the dark truth the mother refuses to accept, that she murdered her own children. The curtains that are always closed in the home also emphasize this. Once the mother accepts the truth, there is no need for curtains and they can live in the light.
7. Keys/Locks – Keys and locks symbolize secrets, confinement, and hidden objects or places. In The Skeleton Key, Caroline is trying to solve her patient Ben’s paralyzed condition. Her skeleton key works in every room in the house except one in the attic. She manages to get inside the room and discovers a host of disturbing secrets that will lead to her own demise. In The Others, the mother must constantly lock and unlock doors to prevent light from reaching her children who have a rare condition and will die if exposed to sunlight. In this film, the keys and locks represent her confined thinking as well as her physical confinement in purgatory. Only when she accepts the truth can all the doors be left unlocked, as the curtains can come down.
8. Doors and Windows – Doors and windows (or any portal) have many symbolic meanings. Often, they help symbolize characterization. With windows, a person has a limited perspective and is like a spectator, not part of the outside world. The person looking through the window may be frightened of the world outside or physically unable to be part of it. In The Others, the mother is often by the window looking out, trapped in her home because of her children and a dense, pervasive fog. At the end, she and her children stand by the window looking out at a world they no longer belong to. On the other hand, doors can be symbolic of opportunity. In horror, however, doors and windows are typically a means of entrapment or escape. They are also highly utilized for building suspense… is something behind the slightly open door or lurking outside the window in the dark? In Night of the Living Dead, doors and windows are dangerous openings that the zombies can infiltrate, despite efforts to block them up. Some of the most frightening scenes are when zombie hands reach in through spaces between the wooden boards. Windows can also personify a haunted house as eyes, such as the always glowing, quarter-round windows in Amityville Horror.
9. Labyrinths/Mazes – Mazes and labyrinths have often appeared in horror to heighten the protagonist’s lack of control. From the hedge maze in The Shining to the complex labyrinth of the underground Hive in Resident Evil, they offer many opportunities for sudden surprises around the corner, trap doors, circular action, and a sense of improbability for escape.
10. Dolls – Dolls have appeared often in horror storytelling. The incongruity of a child’s toy and danger can make it unnerving, as dolls normally represent happiness, innocence, and nurturing. Yet their distorted human qualities, such as oversized heads, unblinking eyes or exaggerated features, can make them especially eerie. Doll appearances can be subtle, such as the marionette in The Others. The doll on a string represents a figure that is not in control of its movements or destiny, much like the mother despite her efforts. It is also a moment when she shockingly connects to ‘the other side’ and her lifelong definitions of reality are completely rattled. Dolls can also take a leading role, such as in the evil Chucky series. The same unnerving effect has been used with clowns, though they have been so overused as to have lost much of their effect. Dolls, on the other hand, come in so many forms, from voodoo to Barbie dolls and battered antique to contemporary ones, that they offer vast opportunities for symbolic use. A doll’s symbolism, which may be expressed through children’s play or other means, might include sexuality, lack of control, death, desire, regret, families, aging, and much more.
11. Masks – from the Phantom of the Opera to slasher classics, masks are most often used to disguise evil. Masks are devoid of movement, except for the eyes that peer through them, which makes them like doll faces. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface wears three different masks (made from human skin) that reflect his mood or victim. And who will ever forget hockey-masked Jason or white-faced Michael Myers? On occasion, the villain behind the mask may be a woman. The Japanese film, Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007), is based on an urban legend that claims a suburban town was terrorized by the spirit of a woman whose beautiful face had been horribly disfigured. She would roam the streets wearing a long coat and surgical mask. She would approach her young victims and, while removing the mask, ask them if she was pretty. Their response would inevitably lead to a violent demise.
12. Mirrors – Mirrors, or a mirror effect such as reflections in glass or water, can have many symbolic meanings though typically represent the multiple dualities of characters. Broken mirrors have obvious connotations of shattered lives and personalities. Mirrors can also represent voyeuristic, vanity, and sexual themes – we display our bodies and beautify ours faces in front of them in private. Mirrors can also reflect dangers. The following scene from Halloween: H20 (1998) is a good example of how effective this can be as a sudden scare tactic:
Linda swipes her palm across the fogged-up mirror, wiping away the steam… ON the MIRROR. In its reflection we see Molly and Linda… then — THE SHAPE appears from the cloud of steam behind them!
The mirror has been the subject of many films, including Alexandre Aja’s 2008 film Mirrors, which is based on the 2003 Korean film Into the Mirror. In these films, the mirror is a gateway between good and evil, its symbolism similar to doors, gates, and windows.
13. Rope – Rope has many symbolic meanings, from bondage, flogging, and death (the noose) to a means of escape or survival. In horror, ropes are most often used as a form of bondage. This symbolism has been used since the dawn of cinema and has symbolic importance today. In the opening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), one of the first shots is a pair of hands pulling on a rope; hands lowering a coffin before grave robbers Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant pull it back up in front of a statue of the Grim Reaper. Later in the opening sequence, they cut a condemned man down from the rope of a gallows but are disappointed that they will need a different brain as his neck was severed.
Symbolism can be very powerful and is an important tool for enhancing theme and character. Everyday objects can be used to effectively alter mood. Even a paper doll can be salaciously scary if in the right hands!