Thriller Signs and Signifiers

Signs and signifiers are a common tool used in media; they are useful for provoking audience reaction and feeling in a subtle and background way. They refer to something other than the thing itself. An example would be a red outfit, the clothes themselves have no meaning until they are put into context – for example a mysterious character wearing red signals the person is dangerous, as this is the connotation the audience has with the colour red.

Symbolic signs could be:

  • Sound
  • Image
  • Marks on paper
  • Clothing
  • Road Signs
  • Tattoos
  • Jewellery

Common signs in Thriller films:

A very common sign used in thriller films is heavy rain outside. Rain alone has no meaning or symbolic meaning, however along with the context of the film and the interpretation of the audience, heavy rain has many connotations and meanings so is often used in films. The symbols that rain carries can be: sadness, desperation, fear, disaster, hopelessness, an irresistible force, mourning, death, sorrow. Thriller films, at some part of the narrative, usually contain one or more of these elements, therefore making rain a popular symbolic sign in thriller films.

Tattoos are often used as signs in films with darker, evil characters. People associate tattoos with thugs, crime, gangs and danger because of the stereotypes that exist in society. Therefore, film-makers will often give characters they want the audience to fear a lot of tattoos.  This links the character to the stereotypes of danger and crime that tattoos are associated to – making the audience  feel fear and anxious about the character, creating suspense and anxiety throughout the film.

Often in thriller films there is some type of object that is used as a weapon by the ‘evil character’. A knife is a perfect example of a common sign used in thriller films, and how this object becomes a sign, by the way the audience interprets it and the context as oppose to the actual thing itself. For example, in a TV show produced for children if there was a mother chopping vegetables for the family meal, the knife would have no alternate meaning, and would not carry connotations of stabbings, crime and violence. However, in a thriller film being held by the villain, the knife has a whole new meaning – it is now a lethal weapon that frightens the audience. Therefore, it is the context the object is in and the interpretation of the audience that gives the signs its significance and gives it a whole different meaning and purpose.

Usually, a full moon is presented in films to make the audience fear supernatural beings and creatures that are often associated with darkness and being out at night. It also brings fear to the audience because they often feel the night brings mystery, crime and suspense because of the uncertainty and lack of clarity that the shadows and darkness brings to the film.


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