As a writer who focuses on symbolism in horror movies and horror literature, I commonly receive emails from readers asking about the symbolic meanings of various aspects of horror. I received an email the other day from a reader wondering if there was some kind of horror symbolism that went with water in horror movies and horror literature. Little did he realize that water is one of the oldest depicters of symbolism in all of literature.
Water as Holy (Judeo-Christian)
One common level of symbolism of water in horror movies and horror literature is that water has holy and spiritual powers. If you are keen on vampire lore, you might know that vampires are not allowed to cross running water. Many types of spirits from Japan, China, Native American lore, and Romanian lore also cannot cross running water.
There are many that have speculated to the origins of this reasoning, but the biblical references to water might give a clue. Remember that the Bible states that Christ turned water into wine. There was also the occurrence in which He supposedly walked on water. Also, Christians are traditionally baptized in water due to the many religious aspects of water of the years for Christianity (the aforementioned, along with the great flood, Jonah and the whale, and the many other biblical stories that dealt with water).
Water as Holy (Non-Judeo-Christian)
You might have noticed that I mentioned that water was considered as holy by many civilizations that were not Christian. Many of their mythology used water as a holy symbol due to the fact that almost all animals and plants gain sustenance from water. Many civilizations thought of as a common thread that was given to all existence by the gods to hold us together. Horror movies and horror literature have continued along these lines with the stories of creatures and spirits that could do nothing but respect these holy ties with water.
Water as Life-Giver
Going along with many of the aspects that made water holy to many ancient civilizations, water is still considered to be a life-giver. In horror movies and horror literature in which water is inherently evil, we find that this level of symbolism is twisted to fit the role that water can take life away. Drowning is a common way for horror movie directors and horror writers can twist the life-giving symbolism of water.
Water Hides Horrors
For centuries, maps showed areas of the ocean that needed to be avoided due to the sea serpents that were believed to live there. Water, in this kind of instance was able to hide horrors that men and women did not want to come in contact with. This easily carried over into horror movies and horror literature.
Water as something that hides horrors gave us horror movie and horror literature creatures such as Jaws, the Kraken, Godzilla, and even the Great Cthulhu. All of these creatures were hid by the water, and in many cases, had waited a long time for their emergence into the light.
Water as a Separator
Going along closely with the symbolic reasons of water being holy, we can also find times in which water was used as a separator. There is no better example of this then from ancient Greek mythology in which we had to cross the river Styx (ala the raft of Charon) to get to the other side. The land of the dead and the land of the living were separated by water.
Now, were might this come up in horror movies and horror literature? Notice that if a person come across sime kind of vortex in a movie, the reflection holds some kind of resemblance to water. The best example that I can think of would be a science fiction movie, and series, not horror (sorry). Check out any of the Stargate series.
There are many more aspects of symbolism that can be attached to water in horror movies and horror literature, but these are the most common. The next time that you see water in a horror movie, think about what it’s presence might represent. You might be surprised by the levels of horror symbolism that you might discover.