Thematic Symbolism in Horror
By: C.R. Tyra
(Pst pst… spoilers ahead for Midsommar, The Color Out Of Space, and Gretel and Hansel)
A theme has started to make itself known in modern horror films. If you didn’t already know this about me, properly executed symbolism is one of my favorite things to find in a film, (especially in horror) along with well-crafted foreshadowing. These things can elevate an already solid film to the next level or in the case of one of the films I plan to discuss, keep a teetering story from falling on its sword.
So what is it? What is this magic thing that horror directors obviously talk about during their group therapy sessions? Why, the incorporation of the triangle, of course.
Why the Triangle?
Triangles have a very long history and a laundry list of interpretations, many of which can be tied to the occult. More importantly, as the strongest shape (when referring specifically to the equilateral triangle) it is often used to mean parts that come together to build strength as a unit—think of a family or of a tight-knit community. Each point of the equilateral triangle is as strong as the others but only when the shape is unbroken. Now, on to why you clicked this article for reading in the first place. Three recent films utilize this symbolism brilliantly and all in contrasting fashions.
The Case for Midsommar
Midsommar (2019) is a beautiful film directed by Ari Aster about Dani, a young woman who has just endured a horrifying tragedy in the murder-suicide of her sister and parents. After a brief amount of time, in an effort to get away, she decides to join her emotionally-distant boyfriend and his friends on a trip to central Sweden where a pagan cult run festival will be taking place.
All throughout the movie, criticism is offered as to how the western world approaches grief and counsel. Dani was forced to deal with the loss of her entire immediate family alone. The cult experiences all forms of loss and pain as a unit, illustrated by a particularly disturbing scene in which the other young women in the cult find Dani vocalizing agony and join her offering screams in synchronization with her own.
Triangles can be seen throughout the cult scenery, particularly, the holy monastery shaped like a triangular prism that is burned to the ground in the final act. Dani watches the flames, her boyfriend inside, and accepts her place in the community finding the solidarity she needed all along.
The Case for The Color out of Space
The Color out of Space (2020) was directed by Richard Stanley and notably stars Nicolas Cage. Like Midsommar, the film is beautifully shot. The story is an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that breaks ground cinematically while also paying homage to the cheesy 1980’s gorefest flicks more often associated with the godfather of cosmic horror. The Color Out Of Space is about a family who has just acquired their dream home on an ancient plot of land in the New England area. A man shows up from Miskatonic University surveying the water on their land. While the researcher is present, a meteorite strikes just outside the house and begins to change the things around it.
The symbols of triangles are more prominent in this one. The opening scene shows the daughter’s hair pinned back with a beret the shape of an equilateral triangle. Also, less noticeably, during the first act of the film, we see shots of the house in which the family lives that demonstrate lines—like the edge separating the wall from the ceiling—that form perfect triangles. In the second act, following the arrival of the meteorite, the togetherness of the family begins to break down. As a symbolic result, we only see incomplete or broken triangular shapes.
The daughter turns to the occult and tries to protect herself and her family by reading from the Necronomicon. The father simply tries to physically keep everyone together. All efforts are futile, illustrating how powerless humanity is against the might of the unknown. The strength of human bonds and for the matter, the strength of the triangle pales in comparison to that of the cosmic.
And finally, the case for Gretel and Hansel
Gretel and Hansel (2020) directed by Oz Perkins is a retelling of the old and horrific Grimm fairy tale about two children who find an old woman’s house in the middle of the woods. The (witch) draws them in with treats—in the case of this film, food of any kind—and plumps them up before attempting to eat them. We all know how the story goes, the children catch on, outsmart the witch, and inevitably, she is the one who is cooked alive. None of that is any different here though admittedly this movie loses its way about halfway through and such is to explain the very mixed bag of reviews it has received.
It’s the first half of the film that is the most important anyway. The visuals and music/sound join forces with well-crafted suspense, a juicy scene of foreshadowing where the kids unwittingly feast of psychedelic mushrooms, and terrifying imagery culminating to the most depraved horror lover’s gothic wet dream.
The kids effectively set out on their adventure when their mother can no longer support them and also seems to have lost her mind. Despite needing to find their own way, it is made obvious that the children’s true goal is to replace the matriarchy—or family unit—that was lost. Half-starved by the journey, they come across a very creepy house in the middle of the woods. Most significantly, the shape of the cabin is an incomplete triangle. Other things within and around the house appear as incomplete triangles including the shed, a glass tank in the kitchen, and the base of a lamp that Gretel uses.
It is the shape of the house that symbolically draws the characters to it. The broken triangle shape represents their current situation offering a level subconscious comfort. They are immediately entranced by it and appear to be under a spell for much of the movie (remember the mushrooms?) as proven by the house appearing much larger on the inside than out and their willing ignorance to the horrors around them, be it the inexplicable red lighting, the creepy black fingers of the witch, and most notably, a mural of a man hanging from a tree in the children’s bedroom. The film concludes with Gretel finding solace in everything the house represents and adopting it as her own home.
Tell me what you think. Am I reaching too far to find these symbols? Do you have a different take entirely? Let me know in the comments and thanks a ton for reading!