The Properties Of Blood And Their Relevance To Storytelling

As a child I had severe haematophobia that started with an incident involving a Ghostface mask, a zip-wire, and a lot of red food colouring. I was terrified of blood before I had any notion of the science. We know instinctively that the sight of blood means something has come apart; this coming apart kept me up at night. 

That our heart pumps blood around our body in a continuous circular motion is a fact we take for granted, but the theory of blood circulation was first proposed by William Harvey in 1628. The word “circulation” thereafter became associated with the exchange of information (18th century) and a synonym for communication [1]. Stories are, if you will, the blood of culture—they circulate, and sustain. 

From a storyteller’s perspective, blood’s properties (life-giving, life-taking, deep shocking red, metallic tasting, etc) all have excellent narrative value. Blood is often utilised for its shock value, for example, in splatter horror, or more conservatively bloody movies such as Se7en. It can even be used for comedic value (such as the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). In this article, I want to look beyond the visceral to the cerebral, and the many meanings that blood has taken on across different times, cultures, and works of art. 

John Doe walks into the police precinct, covered in blood


Blood symbolism has this duality where it represents both life and death. In pre-modern East Asia, some Buddhists practised blood writing. This was a ritualistic, sacrificial act, in which the writer used their own blood to copy Buddhist scripture, allowing them to literally embody the Buddhist teachings. In ancient China, blood was considered the source of life, the ultra-yang that could keep the dark and demonic yin forces at bay [2]. Conversely, in other cultures it is an omen of death. In The Iliad, the skies rain blood as a warning from Zeus about the slaughter in an upcoming battle. In Medieval and early modern Europe, blood rain appears in literature and historical accounts variously as a portent for the Black Death, and a moral caution from God

Blood sacrifices in Ancient Greece were violent, fetishistic, and cathartic. The blood itself had a theatrical significance by playing a part in the ritual—being sprinkled on the altar—and a spiritual one too. It purified the soul. In Aescylus’ trilogy of tragedies, The Oresteia, Apollo purifies Orestes by dousing him in pig’s blood. Homer’s The Odyssey offers insight into Ancient Greek blood rituals; Odysseus sacrifices a ram and a ewe and lets the blood drip down into the ground so as to reach the souls in the underworld and give them temporary life. 

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned”

W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming

In other instances, rather than being able to exorcise evil, blood is a vector of evil. In Carrie, Mrs White refers to menstruation as “the curse of blood” put upon Eve; blood, therefore, is evidence of sin. This theory predates the Christian notion, as Ancient Romans supposedly believed that menstrual cycles had the power to destroy crops and sour wine. Henry Maudsley wrote in Body and Mind (1870) that “the monthly activity of the ovaries” could lead to “a direct explosion of insanity” [3]. The tidal wave of blood in The Shining has been compared to many things, and one of these is menstrual blood. It could be interpreted as the physical manifestation of Wendy Torrance’s hysteria (need I point out, the word hysteria comes from the Ancient Greek for “womb”).

Today, the blood in religious rituals is often metaphorical, for example, the Eucharist wine, but certain Christian denominations believe in transubstantiation, i.e. that the wine literally becomes the blood of Christ. The significance of the wine in this doctrine is to imbue the drinker with Christ’s gift of salvation. By transferring the physical properties of Christ’s blood, so do they receive his spiritual properties.

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”

— Leviticus 17:11 .

Jennifer, with blood across her face and down her neck, glares evilly at someone off-screen

Vampires have become one of the most prolific denizens of pop culture. As Agent Mulder says in The X-Files episode ‘Bad Blood’: “there are as many different kinds of vampires as there are cultures that fear them”. Their relevance to this article is apodictic, but if blood can symbolise identity, life, etc etc, then what are vampires truly consuming?

In Midnight Mass, the vampires’ craving for blood is used as a metaphor for alcoholism. The vampires crave blood like a drug, and it makes them behave in antisocial and selfish ways. Addiction is vampiric, and vampirism is an addiction. In Jennifer’s Body, Jennifer’s violence is revenge for sexual assault. The image of Jennifer hunched over a mangled body scooping handfuls of blood and gore into her mouth is cathartic, because she consumes as sexual assault consumes, as the patriarchy consumes.

Throughout history people consumed blood to cure diseases or achieve eternal youth. This is the premise of one of The X-Files’ goriest episodes: ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. In this episode, fame and fandom are cannibalistic (consume, consume, consume). At the opening of the episode, a priest recites: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life […] whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them”. This makes rather a bleak parallel between the Eucharist wine, and the very explicit scenes of cannibalism throughout.

In Psycho the blood literally was food. Without the need for red colouring, Hitchcock found that chocolate syrup portrayed the most effective texture and density. Later, a formulation known as Kensington Gore was developed (a mixture of syrup, water, food dye, and corn flour) and became the standard recipe. It was used in The Shining, for example. The way that colour and texture translates to screen is not true-to-life, and many filmmakers favour a garish red colour to make a big visual impact. For example in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, of which Godard reportedly quipped that it was “not blood”, it was “red”

Vampirism has also been used as an allegory for blood’s property of being a vector for diseases. In his book The Vampire: A New History, Nick Groom draws many connections to the dawn of vampires and the European bubonic plagues [4], and Stoker’s Dracula has been associated with “the spread of syphilis at the end of the nineteenth century, an infection which, at the time, was seen as both a medical problem and a metaphor for social and cultural degeneration” (Antonio Sanna).

At the end of the 20th Century, the rise of HIV and AIDS triggered paranoia about “dirty blood” (though largely perpetuated by misinformation about how the disease is spread). In The Hunger, the tainted vampire blood destroys a virile young body, behaving very much like AIDS. The way that the vampires seek their victims has obvious similarities to cruising for gay sex. The leather-clad aesthetic of the vampires, and the chosen family allegory have led to queer interpretations of The Lost Boys. To me, the movie’s tagline “sleep all day, party all night […] it’s fun to be a vampire” seems to me a coded reference to gay nightlife, and the stigma surrounding it.

The Millennium pilot opens on the shocking visual of blood pouring down the walls of a peep show. The episode goes on to make explicit reference to AIDS; the serial killer known as the Frenchman drains blood from his victims to test them for the disease, and mutilates them in ways that will prevent them from having sex and contracting HIV. He believes he is purging Seattle of a plague prophesied in the Bible. The effect of the bloody visual in the teaser is firstly to unsettle the audience, perhaps make them feel the same mortal anxiety as the Frenchman (the sight of blood in such an unnatural volume triggers that primal “coming apart” fear). Secondly, a blood-soaked peep show dancer finds the connection between sex and death that HIV typified, and is doubly meaningful in the context of the Frenchman’s repression / internalised homophobia.

Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula: “There is hardly a foot of soil in all this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men, patriots or invaders” [5]. “Enriched” is certainly an interesting word choice. Throughout history, the aristocratic classes have been obsessed with blood purity (“shall our blood, / The royal blood of Aragon and Castile, / Be thus attainted?”, The Duchess of Malfi [6]). This quote seems to express the outdated and frankly terrifying belief that there’s something about European blood (otherwise, royal blood, gentile blood, heterosexual blood) that is better, or cleaner, when in fact blood should be seen as a unifying constant. It also shows that even before the discovery of DNA, blood was seen to contain the essence of our identity.

“If you prick us do we not bleed?”

— Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

In an episode of The X-Files called ‘The Unnatural’, the alien living under the alias Josh “Ex” Exley, wants nothing more than to be human, so that he can live on Earth and pursue his passion for baseball. He can shape shift to look just like Jesse Martin, but his toxic green blood gives him away. Then, at the end of the episode, he is fatally wounded. At the moment of his death, his wish is granted, for he bleeds red blood: “it’s just blood, Ex. Look, it’s just blood”.

This moment garnered some criticism for not making scientific sense, to which writer David Duchovny responded: “it makes poetic sense”.  This, I think, is apt of most examples I have used. Therefore I think that two seemingly contradictory ideas must be true: firstly, the broad and various metaphorical powers of blood are more compelling than the scientific facts; secondly, that one substance can mean a hundred different things is amazing (and useful) but ultimately blood is just one thing. Blood is universal. Since the invention of blood transfusions, we have literally been sharing it. And all of those metaphors would not work if we didn’t understand this. The reason why I was so averse to gore as a child, was that I would see blood and imagine that even though it wasn’t my blood, it might as well be. It would look just the same. 


  1. Groom, Nick. The Vampire: A New History. 2019. London. Yale University Press.
  2. Yu, J. Blood writing as extraordinary artifact and agent for socio religious change. 2020. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 7, 3. 
  3. Maudsley, Henry. Body and Mind: An Inquiry into their Connection and Mutual Influence, Specially in Reference to Mental Disorders. London, Macmillan and Co. 1870. (Quoted in Groom, The Vampire: A New History, 150-151).
  4. Groom, Nick. The Vampire: A New History. 2019. London. Yale University Press.
  5.  Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, Page & Co, 1920. 
  6.  Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. 1623. Edited by Brian Gibbons, Bloomsbury, London, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Christopher Lieberman

Writer, actor, John Webster appreciator. Talks about The X-Files a lot.

Jacky using his gift

The Strange Case of Jacky Caillou Squanders Its Potential

A skeletal hand from Yellowjackets S2E3

Yellowjackets S2E3: “Digestif”