If you’ve gotten hooked on American Horror Story, chances are you enjoy getting creeped out. There’s no better title to wrap around ghosts and mental wards than American Horror Story, and there’s no better font to get the skin crawling like the Rennie Mackintosh Font. But why is it creepy?
Fonts help us easily recognize a brand. They sway our emotions, if well done, on a subliminal level. And when you see Rennie Mackintosh, your mind knows something terrible is to follow. But is that a connection your mind’s made by mapping the horrors of the show onto the font, or was there something unsettling about those drawn out letters to begin with?
The typography was originally designed based on the handwriting of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It is recognizable in his 1904 design for the Willow Tea Room in Glasgow, Scotland.
Surely the purpose wasn’t to make patrons uneasy as they came in for tea. So then maybe it’s not the design itself that’s spooky, but our interpretation of it with respect to Bloody Face or psychotic ghosts who just want to be loved.
So why does the edited version of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh font match so well to American Horror Story? Let’s start with the A since it kicks off the title. The bar, or horizontal stroke, for the A and the H both occur near the very top, or cap line, of the font. This gives the letters a hunched, looming quality; as if they are standing over you, ready to attack. Outside the context of American Horror Story, these ominous letters that seemed to have pulled their pants up too far would perhaps only give the reader a sense of elegance or distinction. But in AHS, they seem to be a metaphor for houses, asylums, and the unquestionable authority of those in power that constantly hold sway over the lesser characters.
Speaking of lesser characters, there are none in the CRM font. This style is called all-caps. Before the 8th century, there were only uppercase letters. In text today, uppercase only decreases readability and takes up more space on the page. Texting and emailing in all caps is akin to screaming at the recipients and is considered a big no-no in communications. Not so in the world of design. Shouting at the consumer is now the status quo for marketing. American Horror Story also stands tall, unapologetically creating uncomfortable situations for the viewer and shouting it’s horror at you with divorce, death, torture, and psychological breakdown. There’s no need to for the whispering of lowercase letters here.
The arms of the E are chopped off and the upper terminal of the S is prematurely clipped. This adds a disproportionate feel to the characters. I’ll leave the chopped off and premature metaphors for you to ruminate on. Ghost nannies and malevolent doctors are perfect for fleshing out those similarities.
In horror of any kind, there are irregularities. Things that are out of place. Did I leave that knife lying on the counter? In the title font, this is exemplified with the uppercase O. Unlike the other characters, it appears to be perfectly circular; a perfection that in context, seems out of place. Offsetting this circular, disproportionately-sized letter is a small, square dot that lifts the letter up between it’s mutated brethren on an uneasy dais. Or maybe it’s just an O with a dot under it.
If you were hanging upside down, as you might be in American Horror Story, you would notice the now inverted O has an eerie diacritic. A diacritic you may have seen in words like Chloë or naïve. These two snake fang dots, also referred to as an umlaut or dieresis, tells the reader to either ignore a vowel sound completely, change the sound slightly, or make sure, as in Chloë, to pronounce the vowel sound separately. Something vaguely recognizable and foreign turned on its head to elicit a subconscious, literary vertigo. Or again, maybe it’s just an O with a dot under it. But being a fan of American Horror Story, I like the former explanation.
The tall, vertical stems of most letters and the stretched spines of the S makes you wonder if all the characters have been forced onto a medieval rack; their lower halves elongated with a sadistic crank from the artist.
Finally, there’s the sickle-like leg of the R. There are five in all. Five curved blades stabbing at the reader. And though there’s plenty of space between a few of the letters, the aforementioned O‘s appear to be compressed tightly between their surrounding siblings, creating a slight claustrophobia. Watchers of American Horror Story know that not one episode goes by where the walls are not closing in on some hapless victim.
With its disproportionate letters, irregular structure, claustrophobic kerning, and sharpened characters, this particular font is a good match for the bedlam in each episode of American Horror Story.
The CRM font is actually based on Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s handwriting. CRM was a main representative of Art Nouveau, water colorist, furniture designer, and architect. He was influenced by Japanese art and the natural settings of the countryside. So how does the style of Art Nouveau; natural forms, curved lines, and a harmony with nature, come to sufficiently represent the supernatural horrors of American Horror Story?
Maybe the same philosophy that designed the delicate curves and natural lines of Scottish tea rooms has produced an elegant, dignified typeface. Or perhaps there is nothing between those fanciful letters in AHS but a hollow, beckoning darkness.
Maybe it’s all in my head. Sometimes a letter is just a letter.