For writers, horror is primarily a matter of action described in words. For illustrators, horror is primarily a matter of image depicted in color and shape. A writer has a few sentences with which to snare the unwary reader’s attention, plunging him or her into the action of the story, an illustrator a few seconds in which to ambush the wandering eye. To do so, creators of horror posters, in addition to traditional design techniques and artistic principles, rely upon creating both a sense of the bizarre and an air of mystery. Their pictures pose more questions than answers, arousing viewers’ curiosity and, their creators hope, make them want to see the films that the posters advertise.
In the early days of horror movies, posters were more verbose, as wordy as they were pictorial. Mostly, adjectives suggested the traits of the featured creature and, perhaps, how the moviegoer should feel about the monster. A poster for The Blob read “Indescribable. . . Indestructible. . . Nothing Can Stop it. . . THE BLOB!” The picture showed a massive, blood-red gelatinous mass enveloping a passenger train from which horrified travelers seek to escape on foot while one of them, a woman, screams in the foreground.
Another early poster, even more loquacious, shows a young blonde woman, lying supine. Facing the viewer, she reaches out with her right hand while she attempts to fend off a monster with her left, a look of abject horror upon her face. Although the text suggests she is being raped, the monster is depicted only as a demonic head, out of which tentacles grow, Gorgon like, some ending in suckers, others in animal skulls, and still others in the heads of bizarre beasts. The text reads, “A few years ago in Dunwich a half-witted girl bore illegitimate twins. One of them was almost human! THE DUNWICH HORROR.”
For films that are associated with a particular person, place or thing, such as The Amityville Horror, the action of which takes place inside a haunted house of sorts which is of a distinctive design, the poster depicts the house, with its eyelike windows looming in the background while, at the center of the foreground, the silhouette of a male figure approaches the viewer, carrying an object that is difficult to identify clearly but may be a rifle. Clearly, the gunman and the spooky-looking mansion are related in some way, but how? Why is he armed, and what sway does the apparently haunted house hold over him?
A more recent film, The Descent, shows six women, the characters who explore the movie’s uncharted cave, who, by the unlikely postures they’ve adopted, form a human skull. “Scream your last breath,” the text advises. How are the women related, and why, collectively, are they posed to depict a human skull? Will they be the deaths of one another? If so, how? And why? And into what will they descend?
A poster for Friday the 13th is divided in half horizontally. The left side of the upper half shows the close-up of a young woman’s head as she screams. The right side of this same half of the poster shows a cabin, lit from within, at the edge of a deep woods; a full moon glides across a partly cloudy, starlit sky. The upper and lower halves of the poster are divided by paper, perhaps representing a diary. Words, in red, on the folded-down sheet of paper on the right read, “On Friday the 13th they begin to die horribly. One. . . by one.” The left side of the lower half of the poster depicts typical events at Camp Crystal Lake, and, thrusting in from the right edge of the same portion of the poster, a hand holds a sharp-edged hunting knife. The juxtaposition of innocent fun at a summer camp with an image of brutal death creates a sense of dread.
A poster for Hellraiser shows the close-up of a man’s head into which, porcupine-style, many nails have been hammered, all to the same relatively shallow depth so that he resembles a human pincushion, giving literal expression to the term “pinhead.” Between the nails, lines of blood are visible, dividing his face into a grid pattern. Who hammered the nails into the man’s head and cut the gridlines into his face, and why? Who is this mysterious “hell raiser”?
For The Hills Have Eyes 2, a vaguely feminine body, trussed up inside a sheet of canvas, and secured by a rope, is being dragged across the desert by a male figure, dressed somewhat like a mummy, whose back is all the viewer sees. Directly behind the dragged figure, a hand pushes through the soil, clawing at the ground. What the hell is going on here?
A film called simply Horror shows a white-collared priest wearing a cross, except that, in place of a human head, he has the head of a long-horned goat, which is emblematic of the devil. The poster’s text reads, “Expect nothing less than sheer. . . HORROR.” The picture is as humorous as it is horrible, suggesting that the movie may be a bit campy, but it does make the viewer wonder what the satanic priest’s motive is and what plan of action he hopes to execute. Is he merely a deceiver--a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were--or is he something much worse?
Jeepers Creepers 2, a film in which a serial killer collects his victims’ eyes, shows what appears to be an orange sky in which a series of crimson lightning bolts flash and out of which emerges the suggestion of a human face, the most distinctive feature of which is its open mouth and teeth. Under the movie’s title, the caption reads, “Feed your fear.” Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that the orange sky and red lightning bolts are really an image such as is produced by a retinal scan--the poster’s viewer is looking at his or her own eyeball and, at the same time, into the face of the serial killer who collects just such trophies. The design for this poster seems to take into consideration the old wives’ tale that the last image that a murder victim sees--that of his or her killer--is imprinted upon his or her retina forever. This poster creates a sense of immediacy, once one sees that the outer world--the sky and lightning--is really the inner world and that, consequently, one might be viewing what will soon become one’s own death
Alfred Hitchcock showed Psycho audiences just how frightening vulnerability can be when he had knife-wielding Norman Bates attack a hotel guest as she was showering in her bathroom. The movie Slither capitalizes upon this same sense of vulnerability. A bather has left her bathroom door ajar, and the viewer--or voyeur--sees her bent knee, rising above the side of the tub in which she bathes, presumably relaxed, unaware of the large, wormlike creature that, poised upon the rim of the tub, is about to plunge into her bathwater while, behind it, others ascend the side of the bathtub--and still more of the loathsome slug-like monstrosities, gathered at the base of the tub, await their turn to join their ilk. The phallic significance of the large worms hardly needs to be mentioned. This poster evokes the fear of both physical and sexual assault.
Sometimes, the movies that such posters advertise actually contain the scenes that the posters depict. For example, the Slither poster suggests that the antagonist--the monster--is going to be a mass of monstrous worms symbolizing, perhaps, the violence of sexual assault, or rape. There is a parasitic worm--a bunch of them, actually--courtesy of a fallen meteorite, which transforms its host--the bathing beauty’s husband, Grant--into a zombie-like monster. There’s sex, too--or a lack thereof--for Grant becomes infected after, refused sex by his wife, Starla, he goes to a local tavern to drown his sorrows, meets a female acquaintance who’s smitten with him, and goes into the woods with her, where, before anything further can happen between them, Grant becomes a host to the alien parasite. At home, he builds a nest for the larvae and, hatching, they possess the townspeople, turning them into zombies as well. Suggesting sexual assault by wormlike creatures, the poster is accurate on a figurative, if not a literal, level.
Of course, it’s not really the task of the poster to provide a faithful and accurate depiction of the movie’s scene; the poster’s task is to sell tickets. To do so, in a few images, digestible by instinct more than reason, within a few seconds, the artwork must create a sense of horror and of fear, and it must also appeal to its viewer’s curiosity by creating an air of mystery that leaves questions unanswered.