When it comes to the art of horror, writers can use creeping suspense and even creepier characters, filmmakers have grotesque makeup and eerie sound design, but graphic designers have an even more chilling tool up their sleeve: typography.
Okay, maybe no one has shrieked over a font since the invention of Papyrus, but typography carries a lot of weight in supporting the themes of any design project. And since horror themes are much more extreme than other genres, the typography they produce can be especially striking.
Fear and dread are not the only feelings horror typography can evoke. This creepy genre is also great at expressing strength, mystery, temptation and much more. If nothing else, horror has a way of demanding our attention—even if we’re watching through the gaps in our fingers. There’s so much we can learn from the typography of the horror genre, so we’ve collected the best lessons for you here.
The type designers of the early days of film understood that audiences were still accustomed to a night out at the theater—which meant playbills, live actors and (sadly) very little gore. This led them to gravitate towards stately serifs and scripts, typefaces that wouldn’t look out of place on a wedding invite.
Their choices fit in with the demeanor of classic hollywood monsters. In the good old days, monsters were respectable gentlemen you’d be happy to bring home to mother, even if they might end up gorging on her blood later. Likewise, these typefaces made the films feel like art gallery pieces, giving audiences permission to indulge in their baser desires for shock and terror.
But such well-mannered typefaces also work for edgier concepts. While there is a conventional refinement associated with these kinds of fonts, there’s also something old-world, superstitious and gothic about them. They’re a little too well put together if you ask me, and you can imagine there must be something lurking beneath the surface, especially when set in contrast to a murky background.
Taking their cue from Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, poster designers for B-movie horror films were none too shy about attention-grabbing headlines. It’s probably no coincidence that these movies are low rent and hilarious today.
Since newspapers were such a key part of daily life back then (no smartphones, no Instagram, no distractions), passersby were more likely to be stopped in their tracks by bold headlines. The stark sans serifs of newspaper type—even while they seem a little desperate for our attention—are imprinted into our psyche as markers of danger, given how closely they resemble the simple, utilitarian fonts of signs telling us to stop our cars, to beware of high voltage fences. Like warning signs, newspaper headlines seek to inundate the viewer with an immediate sense of impending doom.
When this style of layout is used for other design projects, the reader is instinctively compelled to scan through the text. If you’ve done your job as a designer, the reader won’t be laughing at the low budget special effects.
With the horror comics of the 1950s, typography trends finally started to get weird (no, not that weird). Given that it’s an illustrated medium to begin with, typographers could explore more creative ways of drawing horror right onto the actual letterform.
To balance the composition out, decorative type and effects like drop shadows were largely focused on a single word, which gave designers free range to make it as ragged and oozy as they pleased. Meanwhile, the bold sans serifs of the supporting text provided a strong but unadorned compliment. The end result is an emphatic singular word that echoes in your mind as if uttered by the Crypt-Keeper himself.
Designers may not always intend to spook us with their adventurous typefaces (though they can have that effect), but when they decide to get a little wild, bare supporting typefaces can provide contrast and emphasis.
The advantage of handwritten type is that it makes a design feel intimate and personal, as opposed to the geometrically precise fonts found on a computer. But designers of the horror genre show that there is a difference between a personal touch and a friendly one.
A wordmark full of imperfect letters and shifting baselines can create a subtle sense of unease, making the viewer fearful to discover to whom that quivering hand belongs.
While the intimate quality of handwritten typefaces tends to pair well with more personable, nature-friendly products, there is a chaotic association to them as well. Try out a messier font style when you want to communicate traits like urbanity and ruggedness.
While the goal of a horror novel’s book cover is to prepare the reader for the chills to come, sometimes it’s spookier to leave them unprepared.
Many horror book covers of the 70s feature large, decorative serifs in a centered alignment paired with remarkably tame imagery. This was primarily connected to recognition of the author’s name. With a Stephen King novel, you knew you were in for some sleepless nights, so the design could get away with a pared back approach.
Unlike the title screens of old monster movies which were going for that classy night-at-the-opera vibe, these decorative serifs create a serene and inviting book cover in stark contrast to its menacing contents. Similarly, graphic designers can use their typefaces as enigmatic and intriguing centerpieces to their composition, leaving the viewer wanting to know more.
Inspired by the oozing typefaces of horror comics, many typographers have sought even more adventurous ways of pushing letters to the limits of their form. Hence skeuomorphism. Traditionally, skeuomorphism was used by artists to mimic traditional structures and shapes of the past. It sought to capture nostalgia and comfort. Who knew designers would one day use it to capture the texture of rotting flesh?
Skeuomorphic fonts stand out from others by deliberately blurring the line between typography styles and the artistic medium they are representing. In the realm of horror, it’s as if you’re not reading a poster about a scary movie—you’re already watching it. Maybe you’re in it.
Logo designers can use this style of typography to blend the wordmark and the pictorial mark into one entity. Space saving is one key benefit, but skeuomorphism (and the visual interest it inspires) also has the contradictory effect of making the viewer actually want to decipher text that is warped and harder to read.
Though there have been many advancements and changes throughout the history of typography, fonts tend to follow a strict set of conventions. They are always ordered into standards of measurement: x-heights, baselines, kerning and more. Even when they are messily handwritten, all of the letters are consistently so. This is why an exaggeration of a single character will strike the viewer as immediately out of place.
Breaking the conventions of typographical measurement is not necessarily a bad thing. Although the designers of horror posters might emphasize one letter to create an intuitive sense of wrongness, designers for other projects can use this method to create a focal point. This simple change can elevate a standard typeface into something unique.
When it comes down to it, a typeface gets all the attention as a complete word, but typographers spend time and effort crafting each character. Why not let a single letter take center stage once in while?
Fonts from the darkside
Some designers might treat their typefaces like the supporting cast to a composition, but designers throughout the history of the horror genre have made them the featured act. While the more ghoulish incarnations might not work for everyone, horror fonts have a subtler, more nuanced side as well. The next time you find yourself fed up with the same old font styles, consider stepping outside your usual typography realms into a world that is just as real, but not as brightly lit—the darkside.