The Color Wheel of Horror - Creating Mood with Color Lighting
Using color is a great way to set the tone of a video or still. When it comes to horror movies, color is used extensively in order to captivate the audience while giving them a flurry of emotions. Think about your favorite horror flick or the one you watched most recently. What colors do you remember? What color was overwhelmingly at different points in the plot? Keep in mind that you have to look beyond the color grading used in post production and look at the artificial use of color used to create the intended impact in the scene. When it comes to photography, color is critical in creating the sense of mood considering there is no movement or sound to immerse the viewer. The hue, intensity, and saturation are key.
Keep in mind that colors possess the power of duality. They can be used to invoke a wide range of positive emotions while also holding the power to be a bit more sinister… we’ll begin in ROYGBIV order!
Red is one of the most prominent colors used in the horror genre. The color of our own blood is used to emphasize fear. It can also represent bottled-up rage and violence. Red lighting is used in conjunction with the antagonist to depict them as the threat whereas the protagonist is seen as the victim of what is to come. This can be seen in the film, Insidious, where red fill lighting sets the tone for the chain of events that unfolds in the demon’s lair.
In the film, Ex Machina, red lighting is strictly used to manifest the movie’s brutal final act. Red becomes the main light, telling us that there is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. This monochromatic approach is as immersive as it gets drawing the viewer into the scene to relate to the protagonist.
In terms of lighting, orange is used sparingly in horror but a general theme can be drawn from this color. We feel as if orange is a great way to add a sense of false hope by providing a warm, comforting atmosphere that can quickly shift to red when the sense of hope is broken. The color itself serves as a motif.
In the film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, the characters are promised a better version of themselves but considering that it’s a horror film, it doesn’t go as planned. Orange highlights this delusion, letting us know that something ominous is in the works. The color along with red are used extensively throughout the film.
The same can be seen in the film Green Room where, in a not-so-green room, the orange tungsten glow from light bulbs is used in scenes where the chance of escape is in the minds of the characters but in reality… we know it never was.
Yellow sits between red and green on a color wheel. We do not mean to spoil what green represents but how rotten of us to do so. Green is the color of all things grotesque and symbolizes a demise. Because of this, yellow depicts a premonition and much like orange, it is a motif. Yellow lighting can be used to emphasize that a character or event will be met with an unexpected tragedy. Yellow can also symbolize a character losing control of oneself or to highlight the trauma a character is being put through. It can also depict a shift in emotions or state of mind. This is apparent in the film, The Perfection, where the color by itself is used in scenes where the characters have lost it.
Green is a prominent color in the horror genre as it represents death and decay, a sickening feeling, and the grotesque. We see this represented in the film, Beetlejuice, when a character is depicted with a distorted face while being backlit by intense shades of green.
Blue is a very versatile color in the horror genre that represents a wide range of emotions. It pairs well with elements that involve isolation, being trapped, or lost. Blue lighting was widely used in horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The Thirteenth to depict nighttime. It also serves to keep the viewers focused on the premise that you are in a world in which you cannot escape what is hunting you.
We are sure there are better examples of blue being used in modern horror movies that do not involve color grading but we will use the recent film, Censor. The blue lighting cast on the subject plays with the film’s narrative of being lost and trapped in one’s own obsession.
Variations of indigo and violet have been used extensively in countless psychological horror films. It can be seen in films such as The Neon Demon or CAM. These colors have found their place in the subgenre and honestly, we are all for it. For that reason, purple works well in creating a dream gone bad atmosphere. It complements the surreal story building seen in psychological horror.
This is solely our opinion and our take on the colors of horror. Color is open to personal and cultural interpretation. How we use and perceive color in media can change its meaning over time. These are just the general themes one can see in films. If you haven’t experimented with color we highly recommend giving it a try. An easy way to get started is by checking out our Prizmo LED lighting lineup. We offer professional grade RGB lighting in different shapes and sizes.
Click here for more information on our Prizmo Lineup!
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- Angel A