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Shades of Horror: Pink

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

This is Part 2 of my ongoing series of articles devoted to colour psychology in horror films entitled Shades of Horror. If you haven’t read it then please check out Part 1 “Yellow”. In this particular article I will be examining the colour pink and how it is used to great effect primarily in the horror genre but also within the wider world of cinema.

As silly as it sounds, pink can be quite the controversial colour. Traditionally pink is representative of beauty, sweetness, compassion, playfulness. It almost always has connections with the female sex and supposedly is indicative of femininity. But why? Colours lack the ability to judge so why, for what seems like eternity, has pink always been referred to as “girly”. Does pink represent femininity and that’s why it’s often regarded as a favourite by women? Or is pink enjoyed mostly by women and that’s why it’s regarded as being linked to femininity? It’s basically a chicken and egg situation and it’s difficult to give a definitive answer. The colour steals its name from the flowering plant Dianthus Plumarius which has jagged frills, nicknamed Common Pink or Wild Pink but the word itself originates from the verb “to pink” which means “to decorate with a perforated or punched pattern.” or "to pierce" in layman's terms. It may even relate to the German word “picken” meaning “to peck”. The colour derivative didn’t allegedly appear until the 17th century but the word existed in some form as far back as the 14th century and is also synonymous with pinking shears, which are used to cut fabric in a zig-zag patterned line instead of a straight line. Flowers and pattern trimming? Two things historically linked to the female species. Wait. Is pink basically hypothetical symbol for “women who stab”? Joking aside pink is generally always depicted as being womanly in cinema. Think of 'Bridesmaids', 'Mean Girls', 'Legally Blonde'. The list goes on and on and on.

Horror is no exception. Pink is rarely worn by men or used in any semblance of masculinity at all. In fact at first glance horror primarily uses the colour pink in the most obvious way possible... 

Human flesh.

As I discussed in previous articles the horror genre exists to overstimulate our minds so in most cases when it wants to show us something for shock value it tends to use exaggeration or in this particular case the over-saturation of the use of colour. Certain shades of pink have a fleshy, skin-like tone to them so in horror films the colour is often ramped up to its highest measure to obtain the most satisfactory reaction from the viewers. Usually present within scenes that depict body-horror in films like 'Society', 'Hellraiser', 'Videodrome' and 'Ichi the Killer' to name but a few. The pink (of flesh) is often the precursor to the red (of blood). It’s difficult to look past Stuart Gordon’s amazing 1986 Lovecraftian adaptation 'From Beyond' as a prime example of this. The follow up to the highly influential Re-Animator and starring favourites Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, 'From Beyond' follows two scientists, who have just developed a machine called the Resonator, that stimulates a human being’s sixth sense via the pineal gland at the back of the brain. When Combs’ Crawford Tillinghast tests the machine he begins to see ominous, slimy looking creatures who have been released from a parallel dimension via the Resonator and kill his mentor, the alarmingly obsessive Dr. Pretorius. In the aftermath Tillinghast and his newly acquainted accomplices Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton) and Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) attempt to recreate the initial experiment and in the process end up resurrecting a disgusting and extremely dangerous hybrid of Pretorius and the interdimensional creatures, who wants to inhabit the other's minds and bodies too.

Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna’s film repeatedly shower the viewers in grotesquely disturbing images all bathed in the eloquent and seductive hue of pink. It’s difficult to determine if there’s any psychological relevance to why pink is used so prominently in 'From Beyond' other than it felt brand new and that it’s clearly reminiscent of the human body. Pink has a certain provocative and exhilarating appeal. The creatures have a nautical look about them, like they were birthed from the very bottom of the deepest ocean, but the over-saturated pink gives some of them a phallic appearance, which is hinted at again when the pineal gland breaks free from Tillinghast’s forehead later in the film. 

Pink was used on the silver screen to stunning effect two years later in Chuck Russell’s remake of 'The Blob' in which an oozy, alien entity engorges everything in its path growing in size with every kill. In 1989 'Ghostbusters II' brought another oozy, pink, amoeba-like substance to the screen in the river of slime hiding in the city’s sewer system. In 'Night of the Comet' the sky turns a strange, ethereal reddish-orange-pink in the wake of a catastrophic event that wipes out most of mankind. And in the 1986 bloodsuckingly brilliant 'Vamp', Elliot Davis and Douglas F. O’Neons (yes that is his real name) illuminates Richard Wenk’s set pieces in stunning vibrant greens and an exquisite neon pink that just jumps off the screen in a truly unforgettable experience.  

The 1980’s helped usher in a more exciting, colourful era of horror representative of the political culture and so more films were straying from the bland, gothic shades that were commonly used in the decades prior. On the back of the punk movement, hip-hop culture was becoming more mainstream and having a grounded influence on music, fashion, art and of course film. People, mainly teenagers and young adults, were exhibiting new ideals about the world. Bright greens, pinks and blues were becoming commonplace and represented a certain freedom of integrity. Still, men rarely ever wore pink, maybe the occasional suit tie. As well as femininity, pink also indicates innocence. In 'Suspiria', released at the end of the 70’s, Dario Argento uses vivid neon lighting to help create an overt, atmospheric masterpiece held initially together by a unique, compelling premise but not bound by the belonging to a preordained philosophy of filmmaking. Argento and other Italian filmmakers commonly used this technique but 'Suspiria' takes it to a new zenith which has often been replicated but rarely bettered, if ever. Argento famously plays with a highly stylized, psychedelic palette of reds that slide comfortably into neon pinks when lit up in camera which is supposed to represent Jessica Harper’s Suzy as an innocent heroine lost within a world full of invisible evil. According to legend, Argento was “trying to reproduce the colour of Walt Disney’s Snow White…” not only evident in his use of 1950’s technicolour which gave it a nightmarish, fairytale aesthetic but also thematically. 'Suspiria' is often labelled as being one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Indeed it’s a film that transcends the genre on the same level as Alfred Hitchcock’s 'Psycho' or Stanley Kubick’s 'The Shining'.

There has been a deep resurgence of neon stylized horror films in recent years influenced by the work of 70’s and 80's auteurs. The acutely intense 'Mandy' starring Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough and the Shudder exclusive 'Bliss' from 2019 are both drowned to the heart’s content in effervescent pinks and purples. The colours echo the spiralling downfall of the persons involved and leave a surreal, hallucinogenic imprint on both the characters and the viewer. Richard Stanley made an epic and critically triumphant return to filmmaking with 'Colour Out Of Space', an adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft short story, from the producers of 'Mandy' and once again starring Nicholas Cage. In Stanley’s film, the colour is more of a physiological entity spawned from the crash site of a meteorite that fills the air and begins to mutate all living organisms. It’s cosmic terror at its finest and is a gorgeously lit piece of art.

But perhaps no movie takes its cue more from Argento’s vivid, luminescent classic than Nicolas Winding Refn’s 'The Neon Demon'. Much like 'Suspiria', 'The Neon Demon' uses a garish color palette in almost every shot to help carry our central character Jesse, a 16 year old girl, through the tough trenches of the modelling world. Parallel to Suzy Bannion’s experience at the Tanz Dance Academy, Jesse must traverse the stringent, harrowing and often illusory realm of modelling (or ballet in 'Suspiria') in pursuit of that euphoric plateau whilst avoiding the ominous involvement of a horrifically unspeakable crime revealed towards the end of the film. In 'The Neon Demon' it’s cannibalism but in 'Suspiria' it’s witchcraft. Refn doesn’t even try to hide his tribute to 'Suspiria', it’s littered with appreciational nods, and his use of bright colours with an inclination to neon pink is right there at the forefront. It’s not something new to Refn’s filmography. He has been toying with neon reds, blues, purples and especially pinks from the beginning of his career but highlighted in his films 'Drive' and 'Only God Forgives'

According to chromotherapy (the science of healing and harmonizing with colour) pink helps to activate and eliminate impurities in the bloodstream. The stronger the shade of pink the more intense the cleansing can be, incorporating the active and powerful resolve of your veins and arteries. This can help us to understand the psychology behind why pink is also used effectively on screen. The softer the shade of pink the calmer we feel. It’s a regularity we are at ease with. Wes Anderson is fond of using specific colour schemes in his films, none more evident than 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'. A whimsical comedy that lavishly uses pastel pinks to help us navigate the playful relationships between Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave and the hotel’s patrons. Pastel pink reflects a childlike playfulness in this case. However when the shade of pink becomes increasingly vibrant, as is the case with lots of the aforementioned horror films, our blood begins to flow generously, our heart slowly pounds, our pulse rate quickens. It’s a climax.

The colour pink shouldn’t simply be defined as being “girly”. It’s palpitatingly more meaningful than that. Hey, you don’t have to agree with me, it’s science.

- Gavin Logan

*Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento - Maitland McDonagh (1991)

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