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What makes a spooky font?

As we celebrate Halloween this year, designs everywhere are trying to jump on the creepy bandwagon. But what typefaces actually look scary?

I’ve always taught that typefaces have meaning tied into the history and usage of the type itself. If you want your design to look classic and sophisticated, you’d do well to choose a stately transitional serif such as Baskerville, or the very similar but slightly darker Old Style Roman such as Caslon or Garamond. Or, if you want something to look like it belongs in the world of high fashion, you’re best to go with a modern Roman (and if you want the skinny on why that is, be sure to check out my video on fashionable fonts).

But, what makes a typeface feel…spooky?

I recently found myself tasked with creating a series of branding items (logo, stickers, website, etc) that needed to look, well, ghostly. On July 1, I launched a podcast, Homespun Haints, devoted to ghost stories—which, may sound a little weird, but has actually been a very interesting and fulfilling artistic endeavor.

Every branding or rebranding initiative should begin with a selection of a typeface. I would argue that this is more important than choosing the brand’s colors, but, of course, oftentimes the colors and the fonts are chosen together rather organically.

Finding the perfect “spooky” font, however, turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined. Mostly because I didn’t want something that looked campy or overused. I wanted something that was truly bone-chilling.

Fonts currently being used in marketing materials for scary or Halloween-related products usually do one of the following:

  • drip with some sort of liquid
  • reference Blackletter
  • reference a broken typewriter
  • look like the handwriting of a deranged child

Fonts that drip blood or goo

I immediately eliminated the “drippy” fonts from consideration for my project. These certainly have their place, with their retro, 1950s horror movie aesthetic, but they also possess a deliberate childishness and naïvete. In other words, they are great for your car insurance Halloween-themed ad, but they have no place in entertainment that wants to be truly scary.

Geico programmatic ad, retrieved from geico.com on 10/31/2019

Blackletter

Spread from Blackletter: Type and National Identity (Peter Bain and Paul Shaw, Ed.) showcasing examples of Blackletter type

Blackletter is always a classic go-to for horror fonts. There are entire books written on this particular type category, but I can sum up why the beautiful blackletter is often associated with scary things in a few bullet points:

  • Blackletter is old. Older than “Roman” type—the way most of our fonts look today. It is based on calligraphy from the middle ages, and it has strong ties to German national identity (there are very long and complicated reasons for that). So, if this font brings to mind haunted forests, witches, and lore, remember this is the same font used by The Brothers Grimm as they recounted the fairy tales set in Germany’s famous Schwarzwald (such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood).
  • Blackletter has been adopted by many heavy metal bands. Again, I won’t go into details as to why, but there’s a fabulous article on Vice.com that gets into it. I don’t know about you, but where I grew up, schoolchildren were not allowed to listen to these bands because we would be corrupted by the music’s sinister themes. My kids now don’t know how lucky they are that they can listen to Ozzie whenever they please.
  • For some unknown reason Blackletter is associated with Gothic themes and Victorian times (again, the old factor). I’d challenge anyone to actually find an English Victorian horror novel or poster actually set in Blackletter. Yes, there was a revival of this font in England by the Arts and Crafts movement, but that was reactionary to the machine-made fonts of the Industrial Revolution and had nothing to do with scary stories. But I digress. The association is there, whether it makes sense or not.

Because my podcast is borne out of homegrown stories in the American South, Blackletter has no place in its branding. Yes, we’ve extended our reach beyond this region, but the impetus for the show itself comes from this particular part of the world, and the branding needs to reflect that.

“Typewriter” fonts

A typewriter font also wouldn’t be appropriate. Again, the broken typewriter has strong associations with horror and scary stuff probably because, well, it conjures images of things that are old. Both the broken typewriter and the ghost residing in your grandmother’s attic are old, so there you go.

A great example of the old typewriter font used for horror comes from The Omen (the original, of course).

But, typewriters do not necessarily mesh well with the stories of rural Appalachia, the Low Country, or any of the other sub-regions of the South that inspired the podcast. The font needed to be more homegrown than that.

Handwritten fonts

So, I had one option left, and that was of something handwritten.

There is a long history of the handwritten font used for horror entertainment. For instance, the original marketing for Pet Sematary and Friday the 13th, to give some easy examples, use handwritten fonts. I had my answer for my initiative. Execution would be another challenge.

Most of the time, handwritten titles in horror are constructed from all caps. A notable example is the writing for Lights Out, which is all lowercase. I did not want all caps because I did not want the logo to scream at people. This was not a collection of jump scare stories. This was a collection of sit-on-the-front-porch-sip-sweet-tea-and-wonder-if-someone-unseen-is-pushing-your-rocking-chair kind of stories.

So, what makes hand lettering—which is not all-caps, nor drippy, nor sliced through the wall with a knife—look creepy?

After several failed attempts to actually write the words “Homespun Haints” by hand without it looking cutesy, I recalled that oftentimes reverse motion is employed to create an unreal, supernatural effect in horror movies. If it’s good enough for special effects, it’s probably good enough for typography, correct?

I got out my trusty Wacom tablet, selected a gritty brush, and began to write backwards.

After I was satisfied, I reversed the image and kerned the letters together.

I’m pretty happy with what I came up with. Furthermore, it’s easy for me to duplicate for other marketing materials.

To listen to the podcast, check out a list of episodes here.

How have you used typography in your scary marketing initiatives? I’d love to hear about other examples!

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