His hair, his smoke, his dreams
And now he's so devoid of color
He don't know what it means..."
There's a lot of symbolism associated with color. From red being the color of violence, heroes, or evil, to purple being associated with grace, power, and magic, all colors have some special associations and meanings beyond just being pretty to look at. The color gray is no exception, being the color of many things and having many meanings. One of those associations is sadness.
Maybe it's just because, unlike the bright and cheery colors of the rainbow, gray can seem dull and dreary in comparison. Maybe it's because the gray-and-white color palette of winter can come with "seasonal depression" and gray clouds bring rain and a lack of sunlight. Or, maybe it's just because it's lacking any "real" color, and can thus be used to convey a "lack" of emotion or happiness.
Whatever the reason, the color gray ends up being used as a shorthand for characters being unhappy- if not clinically depressed, then just down in the dumps and needing a hug. And sometimes, they're completely emotionless! Downplayed examples may instead associate gray with boredom, a feeling heavily associated with depression while having less stakes. Regardless of the specific mood it's meant to symbolize, gray is associated with all feelings that may be considered "dreary" or "glum".
A common tactic used by medicine commercials is to portray the world as gray and miserable until the commercial's narrator takes the advertised product, suddenly lighting up the world around them. Thus, the gray world is used as a metaphor for being stuck with allergies, depression, heart problems, etc., and the colorful world is the world when everything is happy and perfect. Infomercials take a slightly different spin on this, with the greyscale footage of people apparently too stupid to operate basic implements being contrasted with footage of people using the advertised product in colour, to show how owning the product will supposedly make everything better. This "world brightening" affect is used by other works as well to show the end of the depression, or at least the beginning of things getting better. Alternatively, something turning gray symbolizes the opposite- the start of sadness.
A Sub-Trope of Colour-Coded Emotions. Supertrope to Gray Rain of Depression, when gray rain is used to exaggerate a bad mood, and Grave Clouds, where cemeteries are dreary and gray. Overlaps with Deliberately Monochrome. Compare to Coloring in the World where bringing color to the colorless is linked to a positive change, where the gloomy and grey world improves by being colorful.
- The Downer Beginning of Kotoura-san anime applies a progressively grey desaturation filter to mark Haruka's progressive, downward spiral of broken-ness that was brought by a power that she couldn't turn off. The beginning of her journey towards Heal the Cutie is symbolized by the shattering◊ of this filter, which is at a graphite colour at this point.
- A Guest In The House by Emily Carroll: The emotionally isolated, socially withdrawn narrator's day-to-day life is drawn in black and white, in stark contract to the vivid colors of her Fantasy Sequences.
- The Sandman (1989): Despair is the personification of, well, despair. She's strongly associated with the color gray — her skin is described as clammy and her hair and eyes grayish. The Endless's realms are representative of their domains, and Despair's is gray and colorless, comprising of several mirrors where she can look upon others who are suffering.
- Inside Out: Gray symbolizes depression, not sadness (which is symbolized by blue). When Riley descends into depression, the Memory Islands start turning gray before collapsing, and in the final stages, the emotion console turns gray as well. The filmmakers originally wanted to include a physical representation of depression in the form of a gray-colored emotion, but felt that it would have unnecessarily added a face to the problem and distracted the plot, so they instead left it as an abstract concept.
- The Little Mermaid (1989): In the aftermath of King Triton's Unstoppable Rage, Ariel's secret grotto turns from a cool undersea blue to a chalky gray.
- Trolls: The Trolls' colorful bodies turn gray when they're depressed. Branch is gray for most of the film, while Poppy and the others turn gray when they they're captured by Chef and seem doomed to be eaten.
- In Unedited Footage of a Bear, the Claridryl ad starts with Donna's world being full of gray and muted colors, until she "stands her ground" with Claridryl and lights everything up. As the film is a parody of drug commercials, there are numerous hints that Donna is suffering from depression after the death of her husband, and the grayscale beginning of the commercial symbolizes this issue and how Claridryl helps her... with some side effects.
- The Belgariad: Discussed regarding the Rivans, an isolated people who live in a grey stone Citadel City on a rainy island and wear grey cloaks as a national costume. Some outsiders think they're totally joyless, but they're actually dutiful pragmatists with Hidden Depths — their private lives are full of colour and art.
- N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy: Discussed when a goddess creates a castle in the ocean. She makes it uniform grey at first, her Color Motif, but adds colours and plants when someone asks if she wants the inhabitants Driven to Suicide.
- In Kishmish by Teffi, the main character, a little girl, gets scared when she wakes up before dawn and muses that "if dreariness and fright get translated into color, it will be a vague grey darkness".
- Old Kingdom: Death is an infinite frigid river shrouded in grey mist that inflicts a pervasive sense of grief and hopelessness on living visitors. However, the spirits of the dead don't suffer the emotional effects, finding it peaceful instead.
- Music/BTS: The song Blue and Grey is probably one of the most depressing that the band has made.
- Malinda Kathleen Reese: In "An Honest 2020 Christmas Song", there are two Malindas singing: An optimistic one whose segments are in color, and a depressed cynic whose segments are in gray. The video switches color rapidly whenever one of them changes the mood.
- Taylor Swift: The Colour-Coded Emotions in the song "Red". The passion of loving is associated with red, the sadness of losing with blue, and the loneliness and depression of missing is dark gray.
- In Halsey's song "Colors", she uses gray to describe her unhappy ex-lover:
Everything is gray
His hair, his smoke, his dreams
And now he's so devoid of color
He don't know what it means
- "Puff the Magic Dragon": Jackie Paper stops visiting on "one gray night".
- O-Zone,: The official English version of "Dragostea Din Tei" states that everytime the singer's love interest leaves, his colors fade to gray.
- Chronicles of Darkness: Depression shows as a grey glow to emotional Aura Vision powers.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- The Neutral Evil afterlife in the default cosmology is Hades, a gloomy grey landscape with a sunless grey sky where the dead lose their colour and sink into eternal despair.
- Eberron: Dolurrh, the Realm of the Dead, is a grey wasteland that leeches the colour and emotion out of everything that enters. Shades and incautious visitors soon succumb to complete apathy.
- Pathfinder: Gnomes who don't get enough excitement and novelty in their lives suffer "the Bleaching", which turns their skin, hair, and eyes grey and ultimately causes Death by Despair.
- The once-happy Raydian civilians in the de Blob series have become depressed Graydians after INKT drained all the color from both their city and themselves.
- Pokémon Sword and Shield gives the previously-introduced pink and perky coral Pokemon Corsola a Galarian form: a gray and white, red-eyed, sad-looking Ghost-type. The species had nearly gone extinct in Galar due to environmental change, evoking real-life coral bleaching.
- Room 302 in Silent Hill 4: The Room is practically the posterchild for this trope, being as washed-out and colorless as possible. Which, appropriately, matches the atmosphere and tone of the entire game.
- Prayer of the Faithless: The Emotional Affliction system has the Gray icon to represent Despair.
- In The Sims 4, the "Bored" moodlets have a gray color. If a Sim is bored, the UI near the Sim turns gray and they need to do something fun to feel better.
- Cans Of Beans: Carl's Mental World is in greyscale when he's sad and lonely, but gains colour when he starts to open up to Dude.
- Erfworld is set in an RPG Mechanics 'Verse where a character's appearance is linked to their disposition and true nature. Characters who have suffered a terrible trauma and not yet recovered turn ash-grey; in Wanda's Darkest Hour, she also becomes withered and emaciated.
- In Homestuck, where every character has a theme color, Karkat's color (used in his text color and clothing) is gray, fitting with his cynical and self-loathing nature.
- Widdershins: When a spirit of Sloth traps Mal in a memory of his Dark and Troubled Past, Mal becomes desaturated as he starts to give up on helping his friends. The memory is also in greyscale — because Mal is colour-blind, but it conveys the bleak atmosphere to the reader.
- On Neopets, the "Gray" paintbrush color is universally associated with sadness. The gray pets all look unhappy, with red, puffy eyes and drooping body parts. The gray faeries have no magic and are always sad. Even items, such as gray-colored food, are either said to make you sadder or are themselves limp and miserable. To hammer it in, pets will occasionally ask you "paint them gray" if you're going to keep leaving them unhappy.
- Their competitor Marapets pokes fun at this with their "Sad"* costume color. Meanwhile, their "Gray" costume averts this trope, as gray marapets are just normal pets who happen to have gray fur or skin.
- Strong Sad from Homestar Runner, fitting both his depressive name and depressive personality, has a body that's colored in various shades of gray.
- Drew Gooden: In one video, Drew's obsession with awful life-hacks leads his wife to abandon him. The colors turn gray as he monologues about how lonely he is...before deciding to just transition into the rest of the video.
- Kurtis Conner: In a collab with Danny Gonzalez and Drew Gooden, they're poking fun at an account called "Tiktokids", which they note kind of sounds like "took the kids". This transitions into sad piano music and the video's colors turning gray as they joke about how "she took the kids".
- Twisted Translations: A common visual gag in the videos is for the colors to turn gray as soon as the song gets unusually depressing for a moment, like spontaneously referencing death or anxiety.
- Cream Heroes: TT is a pale grey tabby with sad looking eyes. She tends to be the grouchiest of the cats, punching those who get in her personal space as well as meowing and hissing whenever she has to have a bath or go to the vet.
- OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes: In "Rad Likes Robots", when Rad says he never loved Shannon, she's heartbroken, so much so that her reset button and eyes turn from red to gray.
- Richard from Unikitty! is a gray-colored LEGO brick with a dour personality, contrasting the brightly colored and far-more optimistic others.