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The spookiest typography in pop culture, from 'Psycho' to 'Suspiria'

What do Psycho, Halloween, and Stranger Things all have in common? Killer type treatments.

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

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Creepy monsters, scary slashers, and supernatural demons have always been a part of the horror movie playbook, but there’s another tool that filmmakers use to induce fear: typography. Horror movies have long used type design to summon the feelings of mystery, suspense, and straight-up bone-chilling terror that the movie promises.

But movie titles don’t have to show dripping blood to be scary. When Stanley Kubrick hired Saul Bass, the master of movie posters, to design the poster for his 1980 cult-classic film The Shining, he gave him this brief: “I would like to suggest it as a film of terror and the supernatural.” Designers have been making haunting titles using elegant serifs, handwritten lettering, and even modern, neutral typefaces like Futura.

Horror movies and graphic design are as connected as two ghouls in an attic. As Halloween approaches, we’ve rounded up some of the most legendary and frightening typography from across cinematic history.

1. Psycho, 1960

Alfred Hitchock’s psychological horror-thriller set a new bar for violence and deviant behavior in American films. Tony Palladino designed the fractured, bold, sans-serif typeface, which evokes the mind of the film’s disturbed protagonist Norman Bates, while Saul Bass designed the opening credits with a kinetic sans-serif typography.

2. Halloween, 1978

The slasher franchise that instilled the fear of Michael Myers into public consciousness also brought together a match made in Halloween heaven: the sharp serifs and terminals of the film’s ITC Serif Gothic typeface and its glowing orange color, now pillars of the Halloween aesthetic. The elegant gothic typeface designed by Herb Lubalin and Tony DeSpigna made such an impact that it became one of the most used horror fonts in the '70s and '80s.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street, 2010

It’s hard to imagine the classical Trajan as a scary font, yet since the 90s it has been one of the most overused fonts in horror movies and in cinema in general. Designed by Carol Twombly for Adobe in 1989, Trajan’s grandeur lends pomp and ceremony to a film, a Presidential campaign, and to corporate branding, and a lot of spookiness when depicted in blood red as in the A Nightmare on Elm Street movie title.

4. Stranger Things, 2016

The supernatural Netflix show about a group of kids dealing with government experiments is set in the 1980s, and its title borrows from the neon-lit aesthetic of the time. For the title sequence on screens, creative studio Imaginary Forces put the iconic ITC Benguiat font in motion, with the letters locking together like puzzle pieces over an eerie synth track. Very mysterious.

5. Suspiria, 2018 and 1977

Poster art for the 2018 movie Suspiria.
Poster for the 2018 version of horror film Suspiria. Image courtesy Amazon Prime Video Originals.

The dark and dreamlike Suspiria was remade 40 years after its initial release, and the two versions have dramatically different titles. The original 1977 film’s handwritten, stark white lettering implies unease. Designer Dan Perri uses inconsistent weights and colors to infuse emotion and chaos into the jumble of letters of the 2018 version, subverting the harmonious, geometric shapes of the Bauhaus style from which it is inspired.

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