Women in White: Colour Symbolism in Horror and Thriller Movies

colour symbolism in moviesColour symbolism is one of the most important ways that a film can communicate (non-verbally) with its audience, and yet it is often done with such subtlety that few moviegoers consciously notice it.  This effect changes from film to film — even the least invested filmgoers notice the striking visuals of a film like Hero– but, for the most part, the use of colour for location, mise-en-scene and costume is as important to telling a cinematic story as the actors and dialogue.

All colours carry with them socially constructed connotations: green is envy, environmental or budgetary; red is bloody, passionate or speedy; yellow is sickness, insanity and sunny. In terms of the cinema, white is one of the most interesting of all colours. It is unlike any other, except perhaps black, because it is so strikingly obvious in a filmic world traditionally depicted in all colours of the rainbow. When a character enters a scene wearing a stark white jacket, or a conversation takes place in an all white setting, the image pops.

How a film uses its colour palette is especially interesting, and entire volumes could be written simply on how films use white. A white costume, for example, often helps to define a character. Strangely, as I was compiling my list of innovative and memorable white costumes, the films and sequences that came to mind all involved women. Traditionally, white is a signifier of purity, innocence, and even infancy, especially in regards to women. The most obvious example in our culture is the significance of white for a wedding dress. Yet, as you are about to see, some of the most memorable uses of white costuming are from films that alter or manipulate the traditional connotations of white. Films like Hellraiser, Alien and Basic Instinct thwart audience expectations by developing their white-costumed female character (and narratives) in unique and unexpected ways.

Hellraiser (1987) – The Dual Role of the Nightgown
Anyone who knows slasher films understands the importance of the Final Girl and how she looks. Typically, Final Girls are mousy and tomboyish, in both attitude and attire; have unisex or masculine names; and refrain from sexual relationships. Hellraiser’s Kirsty Cotton (played by Ashley Laurence) doesn’t adhere to any of these genre tropes: she flirts, gets drunk, initiates a relationship, has a female name and dresses in typical feminine clothing.

colour symbolism white hellraiser

Throughout the film, Kirsty wears a variety of outfits, but very rarely the colour white, save for two contrasting scenes in which she wears white nightgowns. One of the nightgown scenes is a nightmare and the other is, arguably, a ‘living nightmare’ where she is chased by the Cenobite (an extra-dimensional monster) in a hospital. In my opinion, it is the genuine nightmare, not that living dream, that is the more interesting.

The dream begins with the sound of a baby crying, as Kirsty – dressed in a plain white nightgown — moves in slow motion through what appears to be an attic. She soon discovers a figure laid out on a table, covered in a white sheet. As Kirsty stares at the figure, white feathers swirl through the air, coating her face and hair. Inexplicably, blood suddenly soaks through the sheet, the figure sits up, and the sheet spills off to reveal her father’s disfigured face. She awakens screaming.

The nightmare balances the two types of film contained within Hellraiser: the family melodrama (cheating wives, incest, and murderous brothers) and the slasher film (monsters, mystical objects, and murderous brothers). Although the scene’s primary purpose is to foreshadow Kirsty’s father’s murder, it also serves to establish Kirsty’s dual roles in both the family melodrama and the slasher film.

That unifies the two is Kirsty’s white nightgown. In the slasher film it is the outfit that casts Kirsty as the dowdy young girl – a desexualized, loose-fitting nightgown that makes her appear far younger than she is and bear a striking resemblance to Tina, Freddy Krueger’s first victim from Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Despite her appearance and demeanour throughout most of the film, in the nightmare Kirsty embodies her role as Final Girl. Alternately, in the family melodrama, the infantilizing nightgown reinforces the presence of her father, and the baby cries remind viewers of the father/daughter connection that drives the climax of the film.

colour symbolism in movies ripleyAlien (1979) – The Bikini vs. The Spacesuit
The whole of Alien is dichotomous, especially in that it is easy to characterize the majority of the film’s characters as either white (the heroes) or black (the alien). This simply dichotomy is upended, however, in the movie’s climax, when the sole remaining crew member, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), battles the Alien – first in her underwear and then in a spacesuit. The scene is particularly notable largely because it is the first time the film acknowledges the presence of sexuality aboard the space craft.

The lack of sexuality aboard the Nostromos is hardly surprising given the genre. A majority of science fiction films relegate female sexuality, sometimes even sexuality in general, to the backburner, in lieu of critical examinations of our current society (Brazil, Children of Men), commentary on man’s reliance of technology (2001, Gattaca) or both (Bladerunner).

What occurs in the final minutes of Alien is a mixture of all these elements. Throughout the film, the characters – male and female – are treated more or less the same way: completely devoid of sexuality. There is very little indication of sexual relationships between the crewmates, and few situations highlight the gender disparity, save the savage ‘oral-rape’ sequence between Ash (Ian Holm) and Ripley, or when Carter (Veronica Cartwright) begins to break down as the Alien whittles away at the cast.

In the film’s climax, however, it becomes impossible not to acknowledge Ripley’s sexuality. Although the film began with all crew members awakening in their underwear, director Ridley Scott films the scene in a series of retreating dissolves, almost like slow motion flashbulbs retreating so as to distance the viewer. The climax is filmed in close-ups, and tilts up Ripley’s body, fetishizing her figure, which is barely covered by her tiny white underwear. When the Alien reveals itself aboard the tiny shuttle, Ripley re-dresses in a white spacesuit, thereby denying her sexuality behind a bulky, gender neutral costume.

In terms of narrative, the move makes sense: the suit protects her when she opens the ballast doors to release the Alien into space. Several different readings of the scene are available when the underlying message regarding sexuality is examined. Is the slow reveal of Ripley’s body an acknowledgement that only a hard-bodied female could survive the Alien’s attack? Or is the fact that she covers up for the final battle a denial of her sexuality – the suggestion being that sexuality has no place in matters of life and death. The aggravating truth of these final scenes is that both arguments are valid, a fact reiterated by the numerous academic articles written on Alien’s climax. To this day, the white bikini/white spacesuit sequence is one of the most dissected aspects of Scott’s masterpiece.

colour symbolism in movies basic instinctBasic Instinct (1992) – The Little White Dress
By now everyone knows the most notorious scene from this racy thriller, but few consider the implications behind the outfit. For me, it was always the scene before that infamous interrogation sequence that caught my eye. It is a perfect blend of dialogue, camera work and costume.

When Detectives Nick Curan (Michael Douglas) and Gus Moran (George Dzunda) go to question Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), she asks if she can change clothes before accompanying them to the station. She steps into another room, and Nick (along with director Paul Verhoeven’s roving camera) moves through the house, passing by a table with newspapers detailing his disciplinary hearing. As he and Catherine speak, he catches her reflection in a mirror, exposing her as she slips into a little white dress sans underwear. It is this element that drives the proceeding scenes in the car and the interrogation room: the knowledge that Catherine represents a dangerous sexuality.

The film manages a delicate balance as Nick (and correspondingly the audience) goes back and forth as to whether we think Catherine is capable of murder. The little white dress embodies these seesawing emotions. If white has connotations of innocence, purity and virginity, then Catherine should be innocent of the crimes the police are investigating; however, this belief is repeatedly called into question. Catherine is antagonistic, playful, and flirty with Nick in the car, then sexy and seductive in the interrogation.

That notorious moment when she uncrosses her legs and reveals herself to the group of horny police officers is the pinnacle of Catherine’s game-playing nature. This idea is repeated throughout the film (at the bar when she makes out with another woman; and in her raunchy sex scene with Nick, reflected in the mirror above the bed). For Catherine Tramell, her body and the little white dress are one and the same: costumes to be used as weapons in her arsenal to confound people into believing or doing as she pleases.

The use of white clothing in cinema can be rather complex. In Hellraiser, Alien and Basic Instinct, female characters in white are depicted as simultaneously strong and weak, innocent and guilty, sexually vivacious and yet sexually ambiguous. There is one thing, though, more than anything else, that a well used white costume can make a character: memorable.

This article was originally published on (Cult)ure Magazine, with the title ‘Women in White’

Joe Lipsett

Joe ‘Cinephilactic’ Lipsett is a contract Film Studies instructor and an avid television watcher. He is a big fan of eighties horror movies, especially Hellraiser, Candyman and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, as well as the Scream films. As co-editor/founder of www.bitchstolemyremote.com, a television review website. Email him at grabtheremote@gmail.com