2020 Film Essays

Unpacking the Red Rooms of Horror

The Haunting of Hill House

The color red signifies a range of intense emotions; it is a warm color, one most associated with blood or elements of the body. Red is also a signal for danger, anger and power. So, it makes sense why this color is so prominently used in cinema. In the horror genre, Red Rooms are either painted red on the inside, washed over in red lighting or are entered through a red door. The Red Rooms present in The Shining, Twin Peaks, The Haunting of Hill House  and Insidious are all constructed in different ways, with the color featured through different aspects of the room. This creates a different feeling for each location, but all of the rooms still serve to train the audience to fear the setting. The spaces are supernatural and liminal, they exist somewhere in between reality and the fear that the film is exploring. The characters all confront their own fears in one way or another, as the medium in question asks the viewer to do the same. 

Danny Torrance repeats the term “redrum” throughout the entirety of The Shining, which is just the word “murder” backwards. If the word is sounded out and connected to the pivotal bathroom scene in the film, the term becomes, simply, Red Room. In the film, Jack enters a liminal red room where he meets the ghost of Delbert Grady, the previous hotel caretaker who murdered his family prior to the Torrance occupation. The bathroom surrounds the pair with its bright red walls, while Grady, dressed in a formal uniform, spends the scene tidying Jack up, never alluding to himself as a murderer. As the scene goes on, Jack digs deeper, forcing Grady to confess, redefining the scene as a confrontation with Jack’s original fear. From the interview scene onward, Jack and his family are afraid of repeating the pattern of Grady and losing control from the isolation. Danny trains the audience to fear the red room, and thus teaches viewers to fear Jack, foreshadowing what is to come. In this exchange, it’s almost as if Grady ends up transferring his capacity for extreme violence to Jack, who is driven to the attempted murder of his family.

The Shining Movie Film

The Red Room of Twin Peaks serves a similar purpose as the one in The Shining: It’s a liminal space located between the real world and the supernatural. Dale Cooper originally accesses the Red Room in his dreams, but later comes to find a portal in the woods that is able to transport him on his own accord. Once Cooper actively seeks out the room, it displaces the area from his dreams and turns it into a waiting area accessible by choice. The Red Room, also known as The Black Lodge, is composed of red velor curtains that resemble those from a theater, a black and white zig zagged floor, three plush chairs, a side table with what looks like a round golden statue, two standing lamps and a Grecian statue of a nude woman covering herself with her hands. The Black Lodge is, in itself, a stage — that is very clear from the picture created — it’s a fully composed set, and within this set, the true representations of evil are housed. This is the home for BOB, Laura Palmer and the various other demonic creatures who serve both of them.

The Black Lodge is described by Deputy Hawk as part of the Indigenous belief as a place where dark forces pull on the natural world and is a place of nightmares. This all checks out considering this is where Laura ends up after being killed by BOB, and it is also where Cooper is trapped for 25 years while under BOB’s possession. Both characters who represent the ideals of the suburban white middle class are inevitably corrupted while uncovering the realities of their beloved town. They must face these fears and their own capacity for violence within the Red Room, though their inability to do so traps them in the Lodge. The most horrific sequences take place in the Lodge, making it possible for the audience to recognize this place as Bad, a place where fears become reality. 

Twin Peaks - The Black Lodge

Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania may not be infamous to most people, but it is my alma mater, and red doors are kinda their thing. There are red doors on the majority of campus buildings, with a student center called The Red Door Cafe. There is a reason for this, and it stems from the traditions of the Lutheran Church, as well as from the English Middle Ages. The red church door came to symbolize the blood of Christ and was the color of the door where Martin Luther began the reformation of the Church. From then on, a red door was a symbol used by the church to signal that it was reformed from the Catholic tradition. In addition, during the Middle Ages in England, red doors were a welcoming symbol for a place of sanctuary. If someone was in danger, they could take shelter at a church with a red door, as no one would commit an act of violence in a place of worship. (“Why is the Door Red?”). These historic symbols of safety are turned on their head when they are reappropriated for the use of horror. Insidious and The Haunting of Hill House both make use of red doors that protect rooms controlled by demons or are otherwise home to scenes of violence. 

Insidious is a unique example of the red door, as the door leads to The Further, the supernatural portal to the demon world, which also happens to be lit a bright red hue. The Further is a purgatory where the family’s young son Dalton is trapped and must be saved before his body is fully possessed by a demon who looks a lot like Darth Maul with a bright red and black face. Like characters in The Shining and Twin Peaks, Dalton has the unique power of being able to travel between the real world and the supernatural world. The difference with this red room is that it is not shown until the climax of the film when Dalton is rescued by his father. Insidious teaches its audience to become anxious upon spotting it. It’s the unknown aspect of this room that is so scary. In this world, the real horror is the possibility of the family losing their son, whereas the other films pose a threat to the  lead protagonist and their conscience. The Lamberts must gain the courage to enter the room themselves, making the sacrifice to confront their fears in order to save their child, which is Biblical in a way, returning Dalton to a life free from the corruption of evil. The red door is a portal to a land of evil, but it is also the entrance to their only chance of redemption. This is perhaps why the realm is hidden from the audience until it is of tactical use.


The Haunting of Hill House also provides a dual use of the red door trope. The series is a very loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, and contains a locked red door that each family member fails at their attempt to open. The door never budges, but it is later revealed that each family member has been inside the room before, only it has existed in the form that they needed most. For the boys of the family, the room was a treehouse; it was an exercise room for Theo; a reading room for their mother and a playroom for Nell. The room functions as a haven, a place for each family member to feel comfort in their isolation, away from the ghosts of their family and their new home. It appears that this room has a traditional red door: a signal of safety. The room is reappropriate in the climax of the show, serving as the location where the mother, Olivia, attempts to kill their children, but she IS convinced to do so as a means of saving them from the horrors of the real world. It can be said that the fear Olivia confronts is specific to her role as the mother of the house, and in order for her family to remain safe, she believes this is what she must do. The Crane father, Hugh, must confront his own fear of his wife’s supernatural possession in order to save their children, and in present day, he must come to terms with his wife’s death in order to move on himself. The Red Room is the ultimate labyrinth, a shapeshifter for what the characters need in the moment, good or bad. It’s just this time, the room functions under a disguise.

These rooms are important, though they often maintain different purposes. Despite the audience being taught to fear scenes located in these rooms, there is also an element of catharsis where the protagonist is able to confront their demons. Red Rooms exist between the real and the supernatural, but they also tend to serve the intention of pushing the lead character forward in the narrative. The Red Room is something to conquer or contend with, just like the monsters of the real world.

Taylor Hunsberger (@tayparade) is an essayist, poet and educator residing in Brooklyn. She is a contributor at Screen Mayhem and Film Updates, and has also written for Manor Vellum, Screen Queens  and The Broadway Beat. In addition, Taylor is an Outreach Artist for Urban Stages where she tours her and her collaborator’s original children’s musical “Juno’s Alien Adventure” to libraries around the city. In the words of her favorite poet Olivia Gatwood, she is a “good girl, bad girl, dream girl, sad girl.” More of her work can be found at www.taylorhunsberger.com