The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
In the pilot, the undead army of Game of Thrones displays a disturbing interest in occult artwork. The show opens with three rangers of the Night’s Watch journeying north of the Wall to track a wildling raiding party. When one of the crows finds the wildling camp, he discovers that someone—or something—had found them first. They’ve been dismembered, diced apart neatly with razor sharp blades, their legs, arms, torsos, heads, and intestines intricately arranged to form esoteric figures for some unknown, unholy purpose (figure 1.0).
Figure 1.0 – Season 1 Episode 1 “Winter is Coming”
So what is the purpose of this artwork? Do those curvilinear figures in the snow mean anything? The show has often encouraged the viewer to ask such questions (especially in the first five seasons) but has rarely been willing to provide any answers. This article doesn’t attempt to make predictions or explain the mysteries that have been left unsolved. I’m mainly interested in exploring the haunting metaphysical elements that many have been overlooked. Throughout, I’ll identify thematic and stylistic patterns—for instance, by noting the graphic motifs recurring in overhead shots of macabre monuments (figures 1.0-1.4)—in order to interpret what is being suggested by these disturbing connections.
Figure 1.1 – S3E3 “Walk of Punishment”
“Always the artists,” mutters Mance Rayder after his army happens upon a field of dismembered horses. The scene recalls the Rangers’ discovery from the pilot (1.0), which had also featured an exhibition of geometrically arranged body parts. Reusing the camera set-up from the earlier scene, a crane shot lifts the viewer above the carnage, gradually unveiling the breadth and disquieting regularity of the Walkers’ spiraling monument (1.1).
The symbolism of this image, like any evocative poetic idea, invites multiple interpretations. Traditionally (as in the work of Nietzsche, Yeats, and Faulkner), the image of the spiral is associated with inevitability, fatalism, and a loss of control. Here, the spiral evokes the cyclical nature of the seasons, reminding the Free Folk (and viewer) that winter is coming—and this time, the White Walkers, who had spread across Westeros long ago (during the “Long Night”), are returning with it. This particular spiral also shares a striking resemblance to a hurricane, reminding us of the storm the Walkers bring.
Figure 1.2 “Oathkeeper”
The final scene of “Oathkeeper” suggests that the Walker’s artwork has some religious purpose. When Craster’s male offering is brought to the Lands of Always Winter, a symmetrical shrine of ice sculptures serves as the site of the infant’s transformation ceremony.
Figure 1.3 – S6E5 “The Door”
During Bran’s dream of the ancient past, we learn of the White Walkers’ origins: the Children of the Forest created them to protect the weirwood trees from the men set on destroying them.
Another key piece of information can be inferred from this scene with motivic interpretation. Note how the Children’s coiling arrangement of jagged stones (figures 1.3, 1.4) resembles the Walkers’ arrangement of the horse carcasses (1.1). It seems that the Walkers have inherited their sculpting skills from their creators.
Like so many scientists and alchemists from other fantasies, the Children of the Forest lose control of their creation. When Bran returns to the weirwood tree (that he had dreamed of earlier that episode), winter has taken over. The weirwood has been torn asunder, its mighty trunk cleaved in two, its branches encrusted in jagged icicles as long as javelins. It seems the Old Gods (who are said to reside within the weirwood trees) that men like Jon Snow pray to no longer have dominion over this northern land.
Figure 1.5 – S7E4 “The Spoils of War”
Figure 1.6 – This image comprises two cropped frames from S7E4.
When Jon shows Daenerys the Children’s cave paintings, the show reaffirms the significance of the spiral in their ancient culture. Dozens of curvilinear figures are sketched along the stone walls, many of which will feel familiar. The two segmented vortices in figure 1.6 are nearly identical in shape to the monument of fragmented horses in “Walk of Punishment” (1.1). Also, note how the curious hieroglyph on either side of figure 1.6, near the bottom—a ring bisected by two parallel lines—resembles the shape of the organic monument from “Winter is Coming” (1.0).
Watchers on the cliff
Figure 1.7 – S5E8 “Hardhome”
For much of the series, the filmmakers have demonstrated a keen eye for detail and a penchant for complex staging in depth, particularly during the many White Walker sequences that rely on visual, nonverbal storytelling. For this next section, I’ll focus on various ways the cinematography and mise-en-scene associate the undead with their treacherous environment, thereby suggesting their uncontested dominion over the frozen tundra.
Figure 1.8 – S5E8 “Hardhome”
When the Knight King marches on Hardhome, the storm clouds move like living organisms. First, we see a claw shaped cloud clutching onto a mountaintop. Then director Miguel Sapochnik cuts to an extremely deep composition overlooking the tents outside the fortress walls (1.8). Careening down the distant mountains, the cloud formations move with the velocity of an avalanche or waterfall. From the northwest (left side of frame), a pincer-shaped appendage reaches down as if to crush the Free Folk in its jaws. From the north, six tentacular plumes stretch out, accelerate, and crash down on the screaming humans with a vicious force. We’ve known that the Walkers bring the storm. Up until now, though, we’ve never seen them control the storm with such precision. Recalling the spiraling monument from “Walk of Punishment” (figure 1.1), this supernatural imagery characterizes the Knight King as an unstoppable, elemental force from another world.
Figure 1.9 – S5E8 “Hardhome”
Throughout the Battle of Hardhome, Sapochnik oscillates between bloody chaos and chilling stasis. The swordplay sustains suspense well enough, but it’s the quiet breaks in the action that I find truly disturbing. In figure 1.9, Jon suddenly stops fighting, frozen with dread at the sight of the Walkers on the cliff. The four horsemen might be mistaken for humans, unless we glimpse, through the momentary partings of the mist, the stilted legs of their skeletal steeds.
Figure 1.9 stages a meaningful reversal of roles: the Night’s Watch are the self-proclaimed “watchers on the wall” who “guard the realms of men,” but beyond the Wall their dominion ends. Here, the Night’s Watch find themselves in the position of vulnerability while the Walkers watch them silently from above. This scenography anticipates “Beyond the Wall,” in which Jon foolishly decides to return to the Night King’s court.
Figure 2.0 S7E6 “Beyond the Wall”
Critics often call Game of Thrones “cinematic” due to its reliance on spectacular long-shots. If you’re not watching it on a large screen, you’ll miss out on a lot of great details. During the silent night sequence, a tracking shot follows Jorah’s gaze and racks focus onto the background, bringing into sharp focus dozens of tiny, luminescent blue lights that remind us that the dead do not sleep, nor do they look away from their prey.
Throughout the battle, the wights remain in a relentless state of motion—twitching, writhing, snarling, hacking—until everything on the beach is dead. Then all at once, they stop growling and become still. The Wights behave like robots controlled by a single CPU that powers them down whenever they’re not needed. In the final shot (1.9), when Sapochnik cuts back to an aerial perspective framing the entirety of the Night King’s army, the breadth of the stillness creates a tremendously unnerving effect. After “Hardhome” aired, I remember reading comments from multiple fans describing the same false impression they had experienced during the final shot: they initially mistook the Wights for rocks. I also made this cognitive error—then I noticed that all the rocks erected on that bank (in the lower-left zone closest to the camera) had an oddly humanoid shape to them. Then came the uncanny valley that often accompanies the realization that something hideously unnatural had been perceived as something natural.