Tattoos are always metaphors. When something is permanently inscribed on the body, it tells a story, and it invites anyone who looks to interpret that story for themselves. That’s why ink can be so powerful: It suggests who we are beneath our skin.
No wonder horror TV shows have such a long history of using tattoos to scare us. The interplay between permanence and identity just writhes with potential. Here are five spooky series, including one that premiered in early January, that prove tattoos can be the perfect outlet for a terrifying story.
Tattoos are powerful because they’re supposed to last forever. Anyone who gets ink makes a statement about their own agency, declaring they have the ability to revise their own body. Even choosing to get a tattoo removed reinforces that idea, since it announces a person has shed part of their past.
But when a tattoo gets removed by force, it’s scary. Or at least it is in Episode 2 of Prime Video’s The Rig, a new series about the crew of an oil rig being menaced by a deadly parasite. In one scene, a crewman named Leck (Emun Elliott) is minding his own business, trying to take a shower, when the ink from his tattoos starts oozing out of his pores. That’s because the parasite is making him a more suitable host by expunging inorganic matter from his body. The result is gruesome, and the pain eventually kills him.
It’s a potent distillation of The Rig’s central premise, that the environment itself is getting revenge on humans who have mistreated it. In expelling his tattoos, the parasite proves that Leck was never really in control. If something as permanent as body art can be undone, the show says, then no one should assume they’ve got any real power at all.
Everything seems to be going so well: In “Never Again,” a Season 4 episode of The X-Files, Scully (Gillian Anderson) meets Edward Jerse (Rodney Rowland), a handsome stranger who seems like good material for a one-night stand. Unfortunately, he recently got a tattoo of a lady named Betty, and the ink is made from psychotropic mushrooms. Now he hallucinates that Betty is talking to him — in the voice of Jodie Foster, no less — and telling him to kill women.
Edward gets the ink to help himself get over his ex-wife (that’s why he has the words “never again” tattooed underneath Betty’s image), but he just ends up controlled by his impulses. It’s brutal to consider someone suffering forever because he tried to do something to make himself happier. It suggests the universe is merciless.
One could also argue that Jerse’s tattoo reveals the monster that was already inside him. That’s certainly what happens in Carnivàle, HBO’s 2003 series about a supernatural traveling carnival. On that show, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) keep having overlapping dreams, and it’s eventually revealed that Ben is the embodiment of good while Brother Justin is the embodiment of evil. Justin embraces his dark side in the second episode of Season 2, when he gets a tree tattooed on his torso. The tree has been in several apocalyptic visions, and by putting it on his body, he essentially gives himself over to evil.
The horror stems from how the tattoo makes the quiet part loud. It’s not unlike white supremacists getting swastika tattoos, overtly aligning themselves with hatred. When a bad guy etches evil on his skin, then he’s terrible indeed.
Similarly — if not quite as intensely — Mateo Vega (Johnathan Nieves) decides to align himself with a gang of pachucos during a crucial moment in Showtime’s short-lived Penny Dreadful spinoff about supernatural happenings in 1930s Los Angeles. He does that by getting a gang symbol tattooed on the back of his hand, and for him, it’s a chance to prove he’s got power. But for Maria (Adriana Barraza), the Vega family matriarch, the tattoo is a sign her beloved boy has lost his way. She knows that several of the pachucos are demonic, and she’s been trying to use her connection to the deity Santa Muerte to protect her family. When she forces Mateo to take the bandages off his hand, she’s horrified by the ink that’s revealed underneath.
This moment is scary in two ways: It not only proves that Mateo has been seduced by monsters pretending to be his friends, but also drives a wedge between family members. Sometimes, expressing yourself can come at a terrible cost, and that’s unsettling, even without demons on the loose.
American Horror Story has had many tattoo subplots. In Coven, frat boy Kyle (Evan Peters) realizes his frat brothers’ body parts have been stitched onto his torso after he recognizes the tattoos on their arms and legs. In Murder House, Tate (Evan Peters again) covers his face in a skull tattoo before he goes to shoot up a school.
But the most disturbing tattoo subplot comes in Freak Show, when Penny (Grace Gummer) tries to leave her abusive father’s house and go live with her lover at a carnival. In retaliation, her dad drugs her and has his buddy both fork her tongue and tattoo scales on her face. By turning her into a lizard woman, he condemns her to life as an outcast.
It’s terrifying to think of anyone intentionally disfiguring another person, and it’s especially grotesque to imagine a father doing it to his child. The tattoo is a manifestation of his betrayal, and Penny will never be able to escape it. By the end of the season, she does wind up in a peaceful afterlife with her lover by her side, but it’s telling that even in heaven, she still has the tattoo on her face. Only a family member can leave a scar that outlasts death itself.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.