Mr obvious has a statement to make here. Horror films by definition are supposed to scare us. They should at the very least induce some sort of fear or unsettling feelings associated with fear. They can do this in many ways of course. What is it that haunts our nightmares? What fuels our everyday fears? The death of a loved one? A monster hiding under our bed? Our own impending and inevitable doom? For over a century horror cinema has tried to come up with creepy, disgusting ways to scare us and they're all pretty terrifying in their own unique way. The easiest and most popular approach is the jump scare but often horror films also rely on blood and gore, ominous atmosphere, eerie music and a plethora of other methods. This is a broad generalisation but a high percentage of horror scares happen in the dark. For obvious reasons the scares are almost always more successful when there is little to no light. Most scares tend to use the same colour palette. Black, dark greys, dark greens, dark reds, dark blues, you get where I’m going here. For the most part horror is always about the darkness.
Except when it isn’t. And when horror isn’t bringing dark colours to the screen it usually brings yellow.
The colour yellow. Whenever you see it what do you think of? Yellow. The sun. A daffodil. A field of daffodils. Running through a meadow hand in hand with the love of your life. A picnic. A bottle of wine. The infancy of spring. A fresh scent in the air. An exuberant bounce to your step. A new beginning. It’s not just what you see but where it takes you. Bananas. Pineapples. Eating fresh fruit on a secluded beach somewhere in the bahamas. Drinking a cold fruit juice beverage before sprinting over white sand and launching yourself into an idyllic clear blue ocean.
Traditionally yellow is supposed to make us feel warm and safe and happy and hopeful. It’s commonly used in movies to convey naivety, optimism and happiness. This is exactly why yellow can be so useful in horror films because whilst it is supposed to have the exact opposite desired effect the juxtaposition between yellow and a good horror scare can be very satisfying. There’s a certain psychology linked with colour usage in films and in the horror genre yellow is often linked with madness, isolation, insecurity. This methodology can be seen as being an analogy for the horror genre itself. Two opposites creating an experience. The enjoyment of being scared.
Naturally colour in films didn’t acquire any effectiveness until approximately the 1930’s. There had been various clever methods used to simulate colour in films right back to the early 1900’s using manipulating filters. Technicolor had been attempting to master colour processing since 1917 and despite the first revolutionary coloured live-action feature film The Cat and the Fiddle being released in 1932 it wasn’t until The Wizard of Oz came along in 1939 that the world took notice. The first horror film on record that was shot in two strip technicolor was Doctor X in 1932 but true colour didn’t explode in horror until the 50’s with Hammer Films Productions. The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee was Hammer’s first colourized horror film. The company went all in on colour when they signed Lee up to reboot the classic Dracula in 1958. Famously, Hammer horror films used oversaturation to perfection during their initial explosion with various sequels and spin-offs of integral Universal monster characters. Colour and horror just seemed the ideal fit. Hammer uniformly used lots of reds and blacks and whites during this time but yellow was still a rare commodity.
We have to look to Italy to really appreciate the introduction of shades of yellow to horror cinema. Giallo became a sub-genre in of itself in the early 1960’s. The word literally means yellow in Italian and was born from a series of Italian pulp crime novels with yellow covers. The cinematic derivative of the word refers to film-noir type thrillers with a unique horror theme. Yellow was used almost exclusively on the artwork or promotion of these films. The majority of these Giallo films largely contained elements of eroticism and gruesome murders. It was anti-Hollywood in it’s approach and would ultimately be a huge influence in the slasher genre that would burst onto the scene in the late 70’s and dominate horror cinema for years to come. As Giallo’s Western audience grew it naturally became a little diluted but to this day the names Bava, Fulci and Argento are highly respected auteurs.
The colour yellow is instantly eye catching and when used in contrast with darker shades can really make something bounce off the screen. Tom Holland’s classic killer doll flick Child’s Play is about a much sought after boy’s doll who becomes possessed by the soul of a serial killer, played by one of the greatest character actors of our time Brad Dourif. Chucky, as the doll infamously becomes known, has bright ginger hair and wears denim dungarees with a brightly striped jumper underneath. However the box in which he is sealed in, the Good Guys packaging, is bright yellow. The yellow box is the doll’s prison in which he is eventually set free and allowed to create chaos. In Stanley Kurbick’s controversial adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, many of the scenes have a yellowish hue to them. The famous carpet is clearly orange, red and brown but the walls of The Overlook are dirty yellow and the colour is consistently resonant throughout the movie by means of how Kubrick lights his scenes. And what are the main themes of The Shining; madness, isolation, insecurity. The movie poster, like the film itself, has become truly iconic.
Another film that leans heavily on these themes is the Japanese modern classic Audition. Directed by the legendary Takashi Miike, Audition is not just one of the best J-horror movies out there, it’s one of the most brutal and unnerving horror movies ever made. It’s just very disturbing and uses a hazey, almost dreamy yellow tone to great effect during lots of the torture scenes.
One horror film that instantly comes to mind in using yellow to make us feel how we are supposed to feel is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed by the late, great Tobe Hooper. Scraped together on a fairly meagre budget at the time The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still genuinely one of the most grim experiences in cinema. I love the film and it completely changed my life when I saw it because it really hit home that horror films weren’t always about clean cut jump scares and supernatural beings. It was terrifying. The film is grainy and amateur looking which makes it even more compelling and believable. Leatherface’s apron and face-mask are a grimy yellow but it’s the last sequence that I want to talk about. When Marilyn Burns’ Sally finally manages to escape the nightmare of the cannibal house, she hitches a ride in the back of a pick-up narrowly escaping the approaching Leatherface complete with raging chainsaw. We’re then treated to some beautiful images of the early morning sunrise as Leatherface angrily dances in the middle of the road with an obsessed frenzy and the pick-up safely drives away into the distance. This last sequence has firmly etched itself in horror iconography and is incredibly satisfying to watch. The yellows here are all natural and emblematic of a new day, a new beginning. Optimism at its highest peak. Hope. Survival.
Horror cinema continues to reach out to us, to shock us, to grab us by the throat. It continues to engulf us in social commentary and as the great Wes Craven once said, “Horror movies don’t create fear, they release it.” Never forget that the place where light and dark touches is where the magic happens. Check out some more great examples below of how yellow is used in horror films.
- Gavin Logan