Color evokes a symphony of senses—an iridescent language. In horror, hues take on a deeper, more evocative purpose. Symbolic, yes, but also a conduit to emotion: fear, lust, empathy. Think of the sharp red and black patterns of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The shocking white demon face in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Rooms bathed in violet and green hues in Kim Jee-Woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters. The piercing blue sky and bright yellow prism in Ari Aster’s Midsommar.
In Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher, color is a centerpiece—not unlike the works of Edgar Allan Poe that inspired the series. The show tells the story of the eponymous Usher family, led by patriarch Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) and his twin sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell), and their dynasty that is under threat.
Each episode of House of Usher is based on a Poe short story and ends with the death of a member of the family. And each death scene—elaborate and memorable—boasts a distinct color associated with the character in conflict.
Color Is Key to The Masque of the Red Death
Color theory is a rich, potent rabbit hole, an impossible web to truly untangle. But House of Usher makes sure we’re paying attention to color just like Poe notably did in his short story The Masque of the Red Death. In the tale, a prince named Prospero holds a masquerade ball in his abbey in the midst of the Red Death, a deadly plague sweeping through the land. He’s indifferent to the great suffering happening beyond his walls. Instead, he intends to wait it out with his court, throwing a luxurious ball in mockery.
Guests of the ball enjoy entertainment in seven rooms of the abbey, each illuminated in a specific color: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black. The black room, the last, also has a red light, a frightening color combination that scares the guests so that none dare enter. Eventually, a mysterious figure dressed as a Red Death victim arrives at the ball and makes his way through each room. Prospero follows him with a dagger, intending to kill him, only to find that there’s nothing inside of his robes. He is in fact a manifestation of the Red Death itself, which now spreads inside the abbey.
The Masque of the Red Death‘s plot lends itself to the second episode of House of Usher and its use of color. While the colors associated with the Usher children vary slightly from the story, the characters have a specific, colorful light when they meet their fate.
Scholars and theorists have puzzled over the colors in the short story, some arguing there’s no purpose at all but aesthetics and disorder, others thinking each room is a stage of Prospero’s life. Others also associate the seven rooms with the Seven Deadly Sins—an interesting theory for the Usher children, too.
We’re not scholars, but thought it would be fun to delve into each character and their associated color. Flanagan used theory like this as episodic structure before—each character in The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, is based on one of the five stages of grief. Are the Usher children the rooms of Prospero’s abbey? One of the deadly sins? Let’s explore .
Prospero Usher = Red
The youngest Usher child and illegitimate son of Roderick, Prospero a.k.a. Perry (Sauriyan Sapkota), lives a life of decadence. After his father rejects a business proposal, he decides to throw an exclusive rave in one of the family’s abandoned properties as an act of revenge. Perry’s color is red, which makes sense—his story is the Red Death, after all. We also see him dressed in red clothing in his episode: red pants, red patterns on his shirts. He drives a red sports car. But, most tellingly, when Verna (Carla Gugino), the show’s angel of death herself, appears to him, a red light bathes her. “You are consequence, Perry,” she tells him, moments before he dies from acidic poison. “And tonight you’re consequential.”
Red appears as an illumination in the last room of the story. Red has an association with death, disease, and the fires of Hell, but also wrath—the deadly sin associated with vengeance, which Prospero is motivated by. It’s also the color of extroverts and figures of passion, aggression, and energy. Certainly fitting for a character who lives and dies by excess.
Camille L’Espanaye = White
Camille L’Espanaye (Kate Siegel) gets her name from the Poe story Murder in the Rue Morgue. She is the youngest illegitimate daughter of Roderick and the family’s public relations head. Camille leads a very empty life—she has no family of her own, no friends, and no purpose outside of her job. Her life is, in many ways, void of color, so it makes sense that her color is white. Her office, home, and even her hair is white. When she learns of her sister Vic’s medical experiments on chimpanzees, believing her to be the “mole” in a family court case, she aims to expose her. Before she can, Verna claims her, posing as one of the chimp victims before ripping her apart.
White is a color of reflection, as opposed to its opposite black’s absorption. Camille is in many ways a reflection of the Usher family’s misdeeds, which she broadcasts to the world in the form of PR. It is a color of impartiality and neutrality. In Poe’s story, the white room is thought to be the color of the west, representing a transient walk towards death.
You could argue that her color is also baby blue. There is a bluish tint to her death scene and her clothing is occasionally light blue. Baby blue is the color associated with the deadly sin of sloth—someone with an absence of interest or “ habitual disinclination to exertion.”
Napoleon Usher = Yellow
Roderick’s eldest illegitimate son Napoleon (Rahul Kohli), or Leo, is miserable. He spends most of his time at home, playing video games and doing drugs. He cheats on his partner Julius and, in one of his drug-induced blackouts, kills his cat. Leo adopts another black cat hoping Julius won’t notice but the new cat is sparring and violent. It attacks Leo, prompting him to call the animal shelter where he got him. The shelter worker who arrives is actually Verna. She induces Leo’s madness over the cat—now hidden in the walls—prompting him to jump out a window to his death.
Leo’s color is yellow. He wears yellow clothing, his apartment has a yellowish hue, and a yellow light illuminates his death sequence. Verna also wears a yellow shirt when she appears to him. Yellow is not a color that appears in Poe’s story, but it is associated with the deadly sin of greed. It’s also a color with ties to temperament, indulgence, and treason—all traits that Leo represents.
Victorine LaFourcade = Orange
Victorine (T’Nia Miller) is one of the show’s most interesting and morally complex characters. The eldest of Roderick’s illegitimate children, she is a surgeon who along with her girlfriend Al is working on a piece of tech to embed into human hearts. The tech works like a pacemaker and data collector and will be revolutionary. But Vic seems to be driven less by altruism and science than a desire to out-fame her other family members. This quandary is relayed to her by Verna, disguised as an ill patient, shortly before Vic is driven to madness. Her story mimics Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
Vic’s association with orange might be the most obvious color call-out. She is almost always wearing orange, sometimes layers of it: shiny orange blouse with an orange blazer, orange top with orange pants—even her scrubs are orange. Her office has bold orange shelving and Verna appears to her in an orange sweater. She’s also awash in garish orange light when it’s revealed she killed Al and stabs herself to death.
Orange is a medial tone—it’s the middle room in Prospero’s abbey and is associated with balance and transition. Vic is the middle Usher child and the first of the bastards, so the “transition” from legitimate heir to illegitimate. Orange is also the color associated with the deadly sin of gluttony.
Tamerlane Usher = Green
Tamerlane a.k.a. Tammy (Samantha Sloyan) is Roderick’s only legitimate daughter, borne by his first wife, Annabel Lee. She’s in a fraught and loveless marriage. She hires sex workers to live out a fantasy life with her husband that she watches from the sidelines. We learn that she’s working on a project called Goldbug, a high-end subscription box full of luxurious items. Her husband is also the head of a fitness empire that she helped develop. Tammy is controlling and cold, drained of kindness by exposure to her father’s wealth.
Her color is green. We see it most prominently in her death episode, based on the Poe story that lends her subscription box its name: Goldbug. She wears a green dress when she presents the box to investors, and Verna wears a green ensemble as she watches from the crowd. Her home is a minty green color and she is bathed in the same bold light as her siblings when she dies: a very bombastic green shade.
Green has an obvious correlation to the deadly sin of envy. We know Tammy hates herself—Verna purrs words about her lack of self worth in her dying moments. She longs for a life she can’t have because of an absence of emotions she can’t conjure. Green was also a symbol of madness in the Middle Ages and is associated with money. It is the third room in Poe’s Red Death story.
Frederick Usher = Blue
The eldest Usher child and heir, Frederick (Henry Thomas), is perhaps the most unsympathetic. Furious at his wife Morelle for attending Perry’s party, where she is near-fatally wounded by acid, he grows obsessive and mocking of her. He’s a cocaine user, which runs rampant when he becomes the last surviving child. He neglects his daughter Lenore and is purely selfish, lacking all motivation and morality. His story is based on Poe’s The Pit and Pendulum, and he dies the same way: with a swinging pendulum to the abdomen.
Frederick’s color is blue. He is almost always wearing blue clothing and is lit with blue when Verna appears to him at his death. Blue evokes beginnings: it’s the first room in Red Death and Frederick is the first Usher child. In many ways he represented purity before he was corrupted by his father. It is the color associated with the deadly sin of lust.
He could also, arguably, represent violet. The exact hue of his death scene is debatable—it’s almost purplish blue. Violet is the color that represents the most serious of the deadly sins: pride. It’s also a color of kings and royalty, which is fitting for Frederick, the family heir.
Lenore Usher = Black
Last is Lenore (Kyleigh Curran). Though she’s not one of Roderick’s children, as his grandchild she is an Usher heir, and therefore still a victim of Verna’s curse. Her death is the saddest of them all. Even Verna hates that she must take her. She dies in a black room with white flowers on the wall. The bed and furniture are black, as is Verna’s clothing when she comes for her. She tells Lenore that her life was not in vain: her goodness will motivate her mother to start a charity that saves millions of lives. She dies softly and painlessly.
Black is a color of finality—the last room of Prospero’s abbey. It’s the ultimate color of death, so it makes sense that the last Usher heir would have this color. Black evokes melancholy, and what is more heartbreaking than Lenore’s fate? Her death also happens in the final episode of the series, titled, appropriately, “The Raven,” a black bird.
Who’s to say what any of this means—if it means anything at all. Perhaps, as scholars like Eric h. du Plessis suggest, color in Poe’s works are meaningless aesthetics. Meant to evoke but not provoke. And so the show is equally showy without purpose. But it seems unlikely that a creator like Flanagan, who loves his symbology and meaningful detail, would do any of this by accident. Perhaps these colors are codes for deciphering, like meaningful breadcrumbs to the center of a delicious, hearty horror story. There’s certainly plenty to feast on in The Fall of the House of Usher and details like this, purposeful or not, don’t feel like empty calories.