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Shades of Horror: Green

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

This is Part 3 of our ongoing series of articles devoted to colour psychology in horror films entitled Shades of Horror. If you haven’t already done so then please check out Part 1: Yellow and Part 2: Pink. In this particular piece we will be examining the colour green and how it is used to great effect primarily in the horror genre but also within the wider world of cinema.

When you think of horror and green what’s the first thing that comes to mind? The infamous vomit spewing scene from 'The Exorcist' which was created with pea soup? Green can mean disease or sickness after all. Where do you think the phrase “green around the gills” originated. Or maybe you think of the vibrancy of Herbert West’s luminescent green serum from 'Re-Animator'?

Traditionally the colour green is often used explicitly during outdoor scenes that attempt to emphasize the natural hue of scenery and environment to add atmosphere to genre films. Something is lurking. Foreboding. Outside of black and red, green is probably the most used colour in horror. It’s a primary colour that when not highlighted for scenery purposes in horror nearly always relates to a wide array of monsters or creatures, and one of the most famous green faced monsters in all of cinema is Frankenstein’s Monster. Ironically though the original 1931 Universal Classic directed by James Whale was shot in black and white so it wasn’t until many years later that we actually saw the green face, which has now become iconic not just in horror cinema but in pop culture as well.

However the original colour of the make-up wasn’t green to begin with. In Mary Shelley’s novel she wrote, “his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” Even on some of the promotional artwork of the James Whale film the creature appears yellow and in previous stage adaptations the creature was always pale and gaunt and corpse-like.

So why did Frankenstein's Monster turn green?

Well it was out of filmmaking necessity. The make-up applied to the great Boris Karloff was created by the legendary Jack Pierce (who would work on many Universal projects) and was tried and tested in a pale blue and greyish green colour first as these colours appear lighter on screen. It helped to make the makeup pop and look ghostly in an otherwise bland black and white format. Over the years, as colour became the norm in cinema, the original make-up was saturated, turning from a greyish hue to a more overtly green and the Monster’s green features were cemented in cinematic history. The creature was never meant to have a green face but Universal had copyrighted the Jack Pierce creation as their own and almost every incarnation of the Monster followed suit in sequels and spin-offs. Other film studios had to veer away from this conceptual design and colour if they wanted to adapt the Shelley novel as seen in Hammer’s 1957 'Curse of Frankenstein' which starred Christopher Lee as the Monster and in Kenneth Branagh’s attempt in 1994 which saw Robert DeNiro cast as a drastically different version.

This helped start a trend that (almost) all monsters, creatures and alien invaders from other planets would also be a shade of green by default. Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman both wore a dark green body suit in another Universal classic monster movie 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' from 1954. This made a lot of sense as the creature, known affectionately as Gill-Man, was a prehistoric reptilian animal that rose from the depths of the Amazon river and was clearly heavily inspired by swamp like modern dinosaurs like alligators and the newly rediscovered ancient fish called a Coelacanth, which had an earthy exterior.

There’s endless examples of green monsters or aliens being used in genre films from the black and white 20s and 30s classics, through the B-movie “alien invasion” explosion in the 50s and right up to the 1980s where genre films, especially horror, really embraced the creature feature. Ridley Scott’s insanely influential 'Alien' from 1979 gave us the xenomorph and for decades horror cinema has been trying to replicate it. The xenomorph is actually a shiny black but it’s acidic blood is a bright green and the colour is used heavily on artwork and promotional material. 80s classics like 'Gremlins' and 'Ghoulies' (yes it’s a classic too) loved the little green monsters idea and 'Ghostbusters' helped to create a bonafide gluttonous and very loveable ghost in Slimer (originally referred to as Onion Head Ghost). Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, a self confessed Universal monster obsessive, was heavily inspired by Gill-Man in his 2017 Academy Award winner 'The Shape of Water'.

Swamp Thing, Green Goblin, Mike Wazowski and Greedo the Bounty Hunter are just a few more green creatures on a long list that we could talk about for days. But green doesn’t only just represent the foliage of the great outdoors or the colour of outworldly villainous creatures. Green is often used to incredible effect in creating a feeling of corruption, deception, dangerous envy or mysterious evil.

We previously spoke about Stanley Kubrick’s use of the colour yellow in his 1980 Stephen King adaptation 'The Shining', but in one of the film’s most infamous scenes he actually uses a pale shade of green to signify the mysterious deception that is about to unfold. When Jack Torrance finally enters the mystical Room 237 of the Overlook Hotel he is greeted by a beautiful young woman bathing herself. The yellow panelling on the walls represent Jack’s descent into madness but the green represents the ominous danger ahead. The naked woman and Jack embrace but it turns out the woman is actually an old hag with sagging zombie-like skin. It’s just one of the many memorable acts of deceit that the hotel plays on Jack and the entire sequence of scenes haunted every single person who watched it for the first time (and let’s be honest probably still does).

Another example of deception is in Roman Polanski’s 'Rosemary’s Baby' starring Mia Farrow. While green isn’t heavily used throughout the actual film the movie’s poster chooses a dark shade of the colour to highlight the deception and danger that is in store. Film posters may not be quite as important as they once were however back in the 60s and especially the 70s movie posters weren’t just simply designed to fill a gap on the wall at the movie theatre. Many filmmakers and producers used the poster as a way to indicate, attract and even sometimes deceive film goers. It was obviously an advertising tool but in this case it was used as a clever device to appeal to the film goers subconscious mindset and it’s easily one of the most recognisable film posters of the decade that has been duplicated in various fashion over the years. Interestingly enough green can also relate to the idea of growth, rebirth and fertility which only reinforces the importance of the 'Rosemary’s Baby' poster.

The legendary Alfred Hitchcock uses green as a mystery colour in 'Vertigo'. Thought to be one of the greatest films ever made 'Vertigo' initially wasn’t received very well which caused Hitch to fall into somewhat of a depressive state. The film was reanalysed years later and viewers soon caught on to the storytelling sensibilities and Hitchcock’s impressive use of colour, primarily red and green and the polar opposite effects they have to each other. Both red and green reflect danger but the colours are on opposite spectrums with one another so while red represents immediate danger, green usually indicates something looming, something ominous. Kim Novak’s Madeleine drives a green car and James Stewart’s Scottie follows her around town. There’s a dangerous obsession that comes over Scottie that leads him to this mysterious woman. Madeleine also wears a green outfit and famously the film is littered with green filters and lighting effects. It truly is a stunning visual feast for the eyes.

Getting away from horror specifically for a moment green is once again highlighted as the colour of deception in 'The Matrix'. Yes, on the surface there’s the discernible correlation to the green coding that an old computer would use but deep down what is the Matrix? It’s a lie. It’s the false truth that you were led to believe was your reality. It’s the ultimate deception.

As we explore the colour psychology of green we keep coming back to the overriding factor that it mostly symbolizes deception, mystery and a looming danger. Disney loves to use the green puff of smoke just before or after a villain appears or disappears. Think of the green goo in John Carpenter’s overlooked 'Prince of Darkness'. A foreboding evil. Talking about a different prince of darkness, in Bram Stoker’s 1897 'Dracula' novel the author writes as a confession from Mina “There was in the room the same thin white mist...beside the bed, as if he had stepped out of the mist or rather as if the mist had turned into his figure...stood a tall thin man, all in black.” In the novel the mist is described as white but in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece it is green. It’s free flowing. It could be anywhere at any time. It’s lingering. Once again a foreboding evil that is beautifully brought to life in the '92 adaptation starring Gary Oldman as the Count and Wynona Ryder as Mina Harker.

Green may actually be the most versatile colour on the spectrum as the many different shades and correlation to other colours can truly be indicative of almost every emotional state possible. Green is the colour of money but you can also be green with envy. The attributes it brings to the screen are almost limitless. Check out some other examples below of how green in used effectively in films.

- Gavin Logan

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