Horror movies have been around for about 120 years. Things have changed since Georges Méliès’s The Haunted Castle (although maybe not that much), not just with the movies themselves, but with the way they’re advertised, too.
Movie posters (usually featuring what’s known as “key art,” the singular image that is the foundation for a movie’s marketing campaign) have been around since the beginning of cinema. Many of the earliest have been lost to history, due to extreme wear and tear. Before the advent of television, movies toured the country from theater to theater for months, sometimes years, and the lobby posters naturally followed along with them. They’d get torn, dirty, faded or worse, until the distributor would simply throw them away.
Still, collectors managed to rescue some of the extant film posters and restore them. Since it’s October, we thought we’d take you through a historical tour of the best (and a few of the worst) horror movie posters of the past decades.
Silent horror film posters
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
You might think this poster’s abstract art style with its impossible angles and looming, impractical structures is an odd fit for a film, which is, inherently, a mimetic medium (which means it looks like the thing it represents). In fact, this is pretty much what The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari looks like. The sets were built deliberately askew, the actors’ faces heavily made up; the art department even painted unnatural shadows on the ground.
Not only does the black-clad figure loom over the unconscious woman (a motif we’ll revisit frequently in these posters), but the very city itself closes in. The lamp post leans in, looking over Cesare’s shoulder at the woman, and as do the abstract forms from the right.
Before that, your eye is drawn to the yellow text on red background (tools the black-and-white film is unable to utilize). At the top of the bridge stands our title character, Dr. Caligari. But if you’re unfamiliar with the movie, he could simply be a passerby, an unlucky pedestrian who stumbled across our nefarious scene.
In this way, the poster both primes the audience to be on the lookout for a man in an unusually large stovepipe hat, without giving away any of the plot. (100-year-old spoiler alert: Caligari is the villain, not Cesare.) Would that all movie advertisements be so subtle.
Here again, we’re offered the titillating image of a woman unaware of her impending doom, with the added prurient value of her total nudity. She appears to be sleep walking, or at least groping blindly, despite being in a nicely lit area of the forest.
All of this innocent fun is framed by a darkly sinister tree, in which is perched a devil. Despite being near the top of the frame, he’s not the first part of the frame most people will notice. His skin is a deep red, and our eye is drawn to the lighter, center section of the frame. That’s why the woman’s outreached hands are so important, pointing the viewer to the upper right corner. It’s as if to say, “Oh, you enjoy voyeurism? Well, so does SATAN.”
It’s impossible to judge who in the audience identifies with the woman, and who with the devil. Since “Häxan” is Swedish for “witch,” perhaps the woman herself is also interested in Satan, and the distinction doesn’t even matter.
Nosferatu (1922) & The Lost World (1925)
Here, we see the formation of another horror trend: the villain-centric poster. Both fill their monsters with dynamic energy.
Count Orlok is illustrated as a monstrously elongated creature. The hollow eye sockets and fangs that couldn’t possibly fit in his mouth leave no doubt who the villain is. Speed lines etched around the title give the impression that he’s raising his claw with great force. The rats leap in the opposite direction, going across the panel rather than up.
Even the credit block uses a mix of font sizes, colors, and distortions to keep the viewer off balance. Nothing is stable in the world of Nosferatu.
In The Lost World, the dinosaur’s pose is equally dynamic, stepping forward with its right foot, swinging its head to the left, a trail of viscous saliva to emphasize the turn. Its eyes are focused on the people below, jaw gaping wide and ready to eat.
That eyeline brings the viewer to the bottom of the panel, where we get a true sense of scale. The fleeing people are tiny and insignificant. Even the trolley car seems to be knocked away almost by accident. The dinosaur is so huge, it even intrudes on the title, shoving it up to the top of frame.
Easy to miss in all the dino excitement is the block of text on the right. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive and famous at the time of this film’s release, but his name is printed in thin font, difficult to read. The same paragraph credits “research and technical director,” as if the audience gave two figs about whether or not the film is paleontologically accurate.
Giant dinosaur! Smashing things! That’s what we want to see, and that’s what the poster gives us.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Carl Laemmle took a different approach to presenting his film’s literary pedigree. Victor Hugo’s name is in huge font, bigger than Laemmle’s (although Laemmle still put his name first), almost the same size as the title.
It’s clear this is not an average scary movie. The pose is melodramatic, with the lovers clasping hands. She draws herself up to him, perhaps for a kiss. But his expression is of fear. His left hand grips the bed, and his overall posture is stiff.
And here’s where the art and text interact. There’s only one man on this poster, but his mouth is completely covered. Presumably he’s the man who’s laughing, so why would he cover his mouth? Clearly, there’s something wrong with his mouth. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out. And that’s the purpose of a film poster.
The Unknown (1927)
Another scantily clad woman and another lascivious man bearing down on her. Ho hum.
The layout puts a greater emphasis on the text than the illustration. From 50 feet away, you could read “LON CHANEY” in bold, yellow type. But what is that woman doing in that awkward pose? It’s not clear until you examine it closely that those are knives around her.
Chaney clearly has ill intent, and Crawford is afraid, but why exactly? Other than the fact that the proportions are off, and he seems to be a giant.
Of note is what’s not depicted. Chaney plays an armless circus freak (director Tod Browning would later direct the classic circus film Freaks), but you wouldn’t know it from the poster. A guy throwing knives with his feet? That’s the way to draw in audiences.
Gothic horror posters
Sick of unconscious, scantily clad women, yet? Clearly, Tod Browning and Carl Laemmle aren’t.
This time, however, the threat is shapeless. The eyes are the only thing human-like in the dark form, and even those are large and red. At first, they might even appear angry. But then you read the tag, “the strangest passion,” and the image is re-contextualized.
All that aside, the bold red-and-yellow title is definitely the first thing you see. The text is so large it stretches from edge to edge. The famous book is now a famous movie, the poster wants you to know.
One questionable aspect of the layout is the placement of the Universal Pictures logo. Over the pillow, it looks like Mina (I assume that’s Mina) is sleeping on an uncomfortable-looking globe. A better location might’ve been near the moon in the window.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
The famously handsome movie star is placed front left, as Dr. Jekyll, but just over his shoulder is the hideous Mr. Hyde. Everything about him is different, not just the make-up, but the costume (no hat over his unkempt hair) and his expression.
This time, the lascivious man is staring straight at us, the moviegoer. It’s no longer an attractive young woman who’s in danger, but you (unless you happen to be an attractive young woman, as well, in which case, you know, that’s nice).
Frankenstein (1931) & The Invisible Man (1932)
Here we have two science-gone-awry pictures, from the same director nonetheless, with two very different posters.
For Frankenstein, the central feature of the poster is text, which, come on, if I wanted to read, I wouldn’t be going to the movies. Everything else is pushed aside: the scientists, the… other scientist (?), the woman in the wedding gown. And what says horrifying monstrosity more than a bridal party? The monster himself seems to have been added as an afterthought, having posed for his Sears portrait separate from everyone else.
The characters generally are crammed along the edges of the poster. It’s impossible to tell who is important, who’s a secondary character, or really what the movie is about. A fire burning down a windmill? Why were they holding a wedding at a windmill anyway? None of this makes sense.
For The Invisible Man, the key element is the title character himself, imposingly large, looming over the entire composition. He does appear to have lasers shooting out of his eyes, which is… odd. A much cooler (and symbolically resonant) effect is that he appears to materialize out of the smoke emanating from Dr. Cranley’s beaker. His invisibility is, after all, the result of an experiment.
The purpose and intent of the characters to the right is less clear. Is he looking at her or the beaker? Are they even meant to be in the same scene? Maybe Universal just wanted to be extra sure the audience know Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan are in the movie.
Now here’s a poster that tells us what we’re in for. The big, bold, red text declares simply, “FREAKS.” The text arcs downward, pointing us towards the eponymous characters.
And while these characters have deformities, they don’t appear monstrous or malicious. Several of them are simply curious, reaching out towards the able-bodied people (named Hercules and Cleopatra). They, in turn, are also not frightened, but also reaching out.
Thus, the whole composition is quite dynamic, reading left-to-right, then down along the row of freaks arranged neatly so we can see each clearly, circling left for Cleopatra and Hercules, then gazing back. The effect properly reflects the final film, which is less outright horror than strange and thought-provoking.
The Wolf Man (1941)
The Wolfman might be the apex of the scary-guy-leaning-over-an-unconscious-woman poster genre, because we won’t see it again for another 40 years.
They also steal the monster-from-the-smoke motif from The Invisible Man, although this time it’s a gypsy’s cauldron. Granted, Evelyn Ankers is also floating in the mist, but I guess they had to work cleavage in there somehow–mixed metaphors be damned.
The title text is a bit blockish and cartoony for my taste. It looks like it belongs to a Flintstones-type show. One could argue that Lon Chaney Jr. is regressing to some sort of primitive state and thus the font should reflect that, but we’ve already established that this poster doesn’t know what it’s doing allegorically.
The biggest flaw is the row of floating heads along the bottom left. What are they trying to get at? “Here’s some faces! That you recognize! Give us money!”
Apocalyptic horror movie posters
Them and Godzilla, both released the same year, about giant monsters attacking a major Pacific coast city. Only one of them is a classic, but the other one has a much better poster.
The whole point of both posters is bigness, but with Godzilla, it’s difficult to get a sense of scale. You can barely make out the buildings behind the text; you can’t even see his feet. The perspective seems to be about chest level, which shouldn’t be easy to do when you’re talking about a 164 foot tall lizard. The only things even remotely giving scale are the airplanes, but those aren’t even at scale with each other.
Then there’s the giant, bold text, which presumably reads “Gojira.” What’s wrong with that, you say? Godzilla is big, the title is big. Yeah, but it’s bigger than Godzilla. It doesn’t quite dwarf him, but he’s less impressive when he doesn’t stand alone. In addition, there’s all the other text, crowding him from the right and from below. Godzilla is constrained by the text. Pretty much the opposite of what I expect from Godzilla.
Contrast that with Them: The title text is again huge (and you gotta love the jagged edges), but this time, the huge animal is in front of it, partially obscuring it. “Them” is still clearly visible, but by only showing a portion of the ant blocking it, the insect appears gigantic.
The poster also features a lot more depth than we’ve seen in earlier posters. The conflagration recedes into the distance, where a second big bug is fighting more soldiers. The scale of the scene is as enormous as the ants.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Interestingly, while all of the above movies are black-and-white, this is our only black-and-white poster.
This is more of a collage than any real scene, but it definitely conveys all the highlights: cannibalism, terrified victims, the undead, a naked woman (of course). It’s impossible to tell who the main character is in all this chaos, which is a fantastic way of telling the audience “Anyone can die.”
The title text is fantastic, with the green text popping against the black background. The uneven lettering feels like something a brain-damaged zombie would write.
I’m less enamored of the white text beneath. It’s subdued, but the content itself is overwrought. Either the font should be crazier or the content more subtle.
Lastly, there’s the one zombie’s head sticking out at the top. What happened there? I’m all for monsters “bursting” out of the frame, but it just looks like a misprint when it’s the top of only one dude’s head.
Prestige horror film posters
The Exorcist (1973)
Believe it or not, there was a time when horror movies could be Oscar bait. The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won two.
This poster reinforces the film’s artistic ambitions by first declaring its literary pedigree (“William Peter Blatty’s”), followed by a simple, elegant title.
Below that is a perfectly composed shot of a man standing at the curb, lit by a mysterious window. Traditionally, we think of a beam of light as coming from God, and so this silhouetted figure might appear to be nefarious. But he’s standing tall, unafraid. The light, on the other hand, isn’t very godlike; it’s out of control, splashing around in the fog.
No, whatever is in that house is demonic, and this man is here to exorcise it.
But that’s not the only way this poster could have been designed…
On the right is an alternate design for The Exorcist’s one-sheet. The irony is engaging: an innocent cherub who needs to be delivered from evil? But the font looks like an Adam Sandler comedy. They’re hoping you’ll be in on the joke, but the visceral impact is just all wrong. Squint your eyes and ignore the words; focus on what it feels like. It could be a Parent Trap knock off.
This is the sort of gag that seems clever, especially if you’ve seen the film, but it’s just going to confuse the new viewer. It won’t attract the horror crowd, and might accidentally attract a family audience. All of which is to say, it fails on the basic level of advertising the product. Clever as it is, you can see why it was rejected.
Marketing Executive 1: “What’s this movie called?”
Marketing Executive 2: “Jaws.”
Marketing Executive 1: “What should we put on the poster?”
Marketing Executive 2: “Jaws.”
Marketing Executive 1: Done! Let’s go get lunch.
Here’s a poster featuring original art that evokes the feeling of the film without actually representing anything in the film. In fact, this looks nothing like the egg from the film; it looks more like a chicken egg. Because that’s what it is.
The eerie mist and internal glow are enough to give that chicken egg an otherworldly feel, appropriate for a movie called Alien. The title text is ultramodern for the 1970s, giving it a futuristic vibe, while the wide kerning makes it all seem off.
The Shining (1980)
I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that frightened, alien-baby face tells me nothing about this movie. I wouldn’t say that the spotlight effect, along with the title by legendary horror author Stephen King, might mislead the viewer into thinking this movie is somehow about a bright light. And who am I to say that the credit highlighting legendary actor Jack Nicholson is the most attractive part of this poster?
Lastly, I don’t mean to imply that Bass’s other, rejected designs are all superior in every way, both as art and as advertisement.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Obligatory woman-in-peril comment.
For a film that’s famously gory, this horror movie poster makes a good effort to hide it.
The woman is horrified, but we don’t actually see what’s being done to her. Instead of focusing on gore, the poster designers wisely chose to focus on the clever tagline, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Chilling. They don’t overplay their hand by using excessive bold or color or anything else.
But then there’s two other taglines? Why? The “brutal crimes!…” tag interrupts the imagery. And as for the the bottom line? Totally unnecessary. Your movie is called Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You’ve made the sale. Stop talking.
Halloween is the slasher movie. It may not have invented the genre, but it perfected it. It casts a shadow over every horror movie of the last 38 years.
Too bad the poster is shitty.
The title font is great. Evocative of olden times, while still clean and easy to read… Why is the N bigger? What is going on there? HalloweeN? What?
The central image is a pumpkin. Because it’s Halloween. Gotcha. It sort of has fangs, I guess? But they’re not carved into the pumpkin like the eyes and nose. It would be kind of cool, until you see the transform effect they’re going for: the Jack O’ Lantern’s forehead turning into (presumably) Michael Myers’s hand. It’s a goofy effect, like the after image of the fast moving knife forms the shape of the pumpkin. Except the implied motion is left-to-right, when he should be stabbing downwards. They’re trying to associate a traditional symbol of Halloween with a slashing knife, and it just doesn’t work.
Evil Dead (1981)
This is easily my favorite poster on this list. I actually have it hanging on my wall.
Nothing at all like this happens in the movie, but it is a perfect representation of The Evil Dead. The perspective is at a canted angle; the actress’s pose is dynamic in every possible direction; the monster is unrelenting, not even the earth itself can stop it.
The Stephen King quote fills the negative space nicely, almost like a flag waving off the woman’s outstretched arm, commanding your attention.
The title text is all angles and sharp points, the letters crammed in on each other. The V and A reach outside of the bounds of their lines, as if trying to escape like the victim in the image.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The central conceit of this poster is pretty solid. For a horror movie about nightmares, the horror movie poster should feature a scared young woman in bed. Why is she sleeping naked? Maybe it’s hot. Look, don’t ask too many questions.
Freddy Krueger’s outstretched claw hovering above her head is great idea, too. The splayed fingers counter her Medusa hair, which is flowing up. The lens flair is a nice touch, emphasizing the blades’ sharpness.
But Freddy’s superimposed face is a bridge too far. First of all, is he holding his hand out by his chin? The effect leaves much to be desired; he blends in with the background, making it difficult to see the contours of his head. In addition, there’s another figure over Freddy’s pinky claw. Is it meant to be Freddy? He’s the only villain in the movie. Why is he on the poster twice?
Modern art horror posters
It Follows (2015) & The Witch (2016)
Here are two posters that evoke bygone eras. Nothing says retro like a neon sign and a 70s-era car. It immediately calls back to the heyday of slasher films. Meanwhile The Witch poster brings us full circle back to Häxan: once again, we find a naked woman walking through the woods, framed by looming trees.
The most daring thing about both horror movie posters is that there’s absolutely no horror shown. The one features just two people making out in a car in the woods. But the world around them is dark, where anything (the eponymous “it”?) could be lurking (erm, excuse me) following.
As for The Witch, this time, there is no devil in sight. It’s just her and the moon. Is she The Witch? It’s impossible to tell without seeing the movie for yourself. Which is exactly what a film poster should entice you to do.
Speaking of not seeing, the characters are clearly naked, but you don’t get to see much skin. The lighting (and in the case of It Follows, the car door) obscure the details. You can’t even see their faces. These posters wants you to know these movies are about sex, but it doesn’t really matter who is having sex. And that’s the truly frightening part: it could be you.
Other Halves (2016)
As we’ve discussed many, many times already, gore and nudity go hand-in-hand on horror movie posters. Other Halves turns this on its head (no pun intended) by not making the featured woman a victim.
She’s covered in blood, sure, but it’s plainly not her blood. And whatever’s on that screen must be pretty interesting, if she’d rather watch that than clean herself up. That phone, combined with the numbers flowing by in a Matrix-like fashion, tells us the movie is about technology of some kind.
That digital effect is carried over in the title with the slash right through the middle. The unfortunate side effect is that it’s harder to read. If you look closely, you’ll find the ‘r’ in ‘other’ lines up with the ‘h’ in ‘halves,’
The Saturn Club (upcoming)
Unlike most of the movies on this list, I legitimately have no idea what The Saturn Club is about. It hasn’t even been released yet! I know it’s an independent film, because they used 99designs to find a designer for their poster.
The central image is what’s known as a “hidden skull,” a horror movie poster tradition going back decades, including Silence of the Lambs and The Descent.
Here, it’s not exactly hidden, but that works to the poster’s advantage. Three people standing in front of a Hogwarts-esque school isn’t terribly frightening. Layer a decapitated head over it, and now you’ve got yourself a horror movie!
The title text doesn’t blow me away, but it fits the snobbish air that the relaxed figures outside a prep school. Cutting up the text doubles down on the horror aspect, as well.
St. Jude’s Crossing (upcoming)
Here’s another indie film that found its poster designer via a 99designs contest.
For once, we’ve got a bare-chested man as the central figure of the poster. He’s floating in a pool of what I hope is water, horizontally across the frame. Maybe even crossing it? (I totally just got that!)
The poster gives us nothing. Is he dead? Is he staring into space? Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, but that doesn’t help much.
While the imagery is intriguing, the opaque title doesn’t give us nearly enough reason to head out to the theater (or streaming site). A tagline would go a long way towards clarifying the intent of the film.
Don’t Speak (upcoming) & Dead Smart (upcoming)
Here are a pair of horror movie posters, both from design contests here at 99designs, that are almost at opposite ends of the abstract scale.
Don’t Speak hits every point on the horror movie poster checklist: Creepy girl with long black hair? Check. Blue tint over everything to make the blood stand out? Check. Feathered edges fade to black? Check. Sliced lines through the title? Check.
Dead Smart, on the other hand, is graphically abstract; the light emanating from the phone does double duty, acting a speed lines as well as illumination. Possibly even triple duty, as it draws the eye away from the figure up to the title of the film.
But don’t assume one is necessarily better than the other. Sometimes ambiguity gets in the way of the main purpose of a poster: to get people to watch the movie. Looking at the poster, I know exactly the kind of movie Don’t Speak is, and I can be reasonably certain whether or not I’ll like it. On the other hand, Dead Smart is incredibly striking; it’s not a poster you’ll soon forget.