Shadows represent secrets, deceit, uncertainty, and dark magic. They are usually associated with darkness and therefore given negative traits.
But there are also some positive meanings we can ascribe to shadows, particularly when it’s you and not monsters who use shadows as a refuge to escape the limelight.
Overall, shadows symbolize:
- Dark Magic
- Social Exclusion
- Following and Stalking
- Mirroring and Copying
- Suspense and Foreboding
Below I’ll outline the meanings and origins behind each of these symbolic meanings.
Shadow Symbolism – What do Shadows Symbolize?
Read Related: Darkness Symbolism
The symbolism of shadows is intimately related to the idea of light vs. dark. Things that are out in the light are considered to be transparent and good, while things in the dark are occurring in places where others cannot see what’s going on.
Secrets exist in this dark space.
They are (by definition) bits of information that we want to keep to ourselves and away from others. We don’t share secrets in the light of day. We share them in the shadows.
So, a shadow in literature or film will often be a place where people retreat in order to whisper, scheme and plan. In the shadows they are safe to share information that is too sensitive and secret to share in the light of day.
Read Also: Light Symbolism
This is one of the more positive definitions of shadows. While we often think that shadows obscure evil-doers, it’s also true that we can use shadows to hide ourselves.
By sticking to the shadows, we’re protecting ourselves from the gaze of others. We’re also potentially using them to sneak past people who might otherwise do us harm. The shadows are our friends during times when evil is out in the light and in a dominant position.
For example, you could picture yourself escaping a dungeon by sticking to the shadows and avoiding brightly-lit spaces.
Another way that shadows protect us is that they keep us from getting sunburnt. If we are spending a day on the beach, we use an umbrella or cap to shade ourselves from the harshness of the sun.
Read Also: Sun Symbolism
People who wish us harm will likely do so in the shadows. Instead of being out in public telling you they are plotting against you, they’re going to be in a corner whispering things.
Things that are said in the shadows might not be the same things that are said in public. In ‘the light of day’, someone might be giving you one piece of information. But in the shadows behind your back, they’re sharing a more sinister truth.
Lies happen in public, while truths lurk in the shadows.
4. Dark Magic
We often ascribe magic to things we cannot see or understand. Our vision is obscured in the darkness of shadows, meaning we’re never exactly sure what happens there.
As a result, we will often consider monsters to be ‘lurking in the shadows’. Similarly, witches and warlocks will likely do their work in the shadows in order to hide it from us mere mortals.
It’s more likely, though, that our imaginations just get carried away when we look deep into a forest or a black cave because our minds are opened up to the idea that anything could be happening in that dark space where the sun doesn’t shine!
Read Also: Night Symbolism
Darkness and sadness go hand-in-hand. Culturally, we look at the light as a place where happiness flourishes. The tickling of the sun on our skin and the summer weather tends to make people happy, while a blistering cold winder that never ends will make most of us miserable.
Therefore, people who are sad or depressed are often depicted in art and literature as being in the shadows.
In fact, people who are depressed are often referred to as being “under a cloud”, referring to the idea that they’re living in a gloomy (shaded) world where they can’t escape the shadow of the cloud and get into ‘fairer weather’.
6. Social Exclusion (Forced or Chosen)
If you picture a stage, the stage lights will be pointing at the people who are under the spotlight, and people around the edges might be in the shadows.
If you’re not “in the limelight”, you’re “in the outskirts”.
You can be a social outcast because you were forced – people don’t like you, you’re a criminal (see: illegality), or you’re stuck in poverty.
Or, you can be a social outcast by choice. People who choose to remove themselves outside of society might be said to be “living in the shadows of society.”
7. Following and Stalking
Shadows can be sinister places. It’s where people who wish you ill might be hiding, ready to attack.
You can imagine someone who is following you would hide in the shadows so you can’t see them. As you turn a corner, they will run to the next patch of shadows to continue to watch and follow.
8. Mirroring or Copying
Your shadow mirrors your own movements. As you move your arm or hand, your shadow also moves.
Because of the shadow’s constant following and mirroring of your actions, we have a saying: “you can’t outrun your shadow”. (Which, also, is an idiom that means that when you get a bad reputation it follows you around like a shadow).
We can also do puppet shows with our shadows, what we’d call “shadow puppets”. You can manipulate your hands to make them look like dogs or ghosts on the walls behind you.
Read Also: Mirror Symbolism
We’ve all heard of people “living in the shadows”. These are people who attempt to live outside of the law. They might be doing illegal things like selling contraband. We consider them to be living in the shadows because they hide their activities from the rest of society.
Furthermore, illegal things often literally take place in the shadows. People will go into dark corners to spray graffiti or trade in illicit goods. By doing these acts in the shadows, they feel they will not get caught out.
When we look into a dark place, the shadows hide what’s within. The darkness fills us with uncertainty. We don’t know what we’re looking at or what we’ll find when we enter.
This is one reason why we so commonly associate shadows with negative things – humans generally avoid risk and uncertainty because it can lead to bad outcomes.
But it also gives us a strange sense of mysticism: what’s in behind those shadows, and will it reveal something new or magical about our world? (see earlier: dark magic).
11. Suspense and Foreboding
Shadows are often used in films in creative ways to create a sense of suspense.
A flash of a moving shadow in the corner of the screen will make the hairs on your neck spike up. Is someone there? Are they about to jump out at you?
Similarly, you can imagine a horror film where someone is looking into a dark hallway. The suspenseful music might be playing. And it feels as if someone is about to jump out of the shadows at you.
In these situations, shadows are a tool to create suspense and a sense of foreboding.
People will hide in the shadows if they feel shame.
If you have done something you’re ashamed of, you might try to escape the ‘spotlight’ and lick your wounds in the darkness where no one can see your ashamed face.
You can also hide things you’re ashamed of in the shadows. This might be literal (hiding something under your bed where no one can see it), but also figurative. Figuratively, you might say your family’s secrets are “kept in the shadows”, meaning they’re not discussed openly by the family.
Growing up in the hot summers of Australia, shadows would often overwhelmingly symbolize relief.
I recall walking along the road following the shadows cast by telegraph poles because they weren’t so hot underfoot. When the shadow would end, I’d look for the nearest shadow and run as fast as I could to the next shadow. By the time I got there, my bare feet would be hot and sore, and the shadow would be welcome relief underfoot.
Read Also: Rain Symbolism
It’s remarkable how versatile shadows are as symbols. Shadows symbolize suspense, uncertainty, and dark magic. But they can also be positive. They can represent relief and protection. But the most overwhelming shadow symbolism is that of secrecy and the unknown. They hide things and obscure our vision so we’re not sure what we’re looking at behind the cover of the darkness.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.