Theme Tuesday: “Scary Logos”

File this under “Things that you think about after waking up at 5 in the morning when the cold medicine didn’t work”: there’s a small but notable number of people who have powerful and visceral reactions to the 2-30 second clips that air at the end of TV shows.

Known alternatively as “vanity cards”, “station IDs”, “production logos” or “audio sounders”  some of these innocent-seeming sequences can honestly come back to haunt you in the middle of the night. Others are genuinely thrilling or weirdly entertaining in a way that’s hard to explain. Some have come to be known by fans and foes as “scary logos”.

More after the cut.

A “scary logo” usually comes to be considered so due to a combination of motion and sound elements which appear attacking, aggressive, dissonant or eerie. Although no broadcast logo contains actual screamer elements, some of the legendary scary logos appear to have near jump-scares built into them, or distort the viewer’s sense of space, creating a temporary otherworld between observer and observed.

Probably the best and clearest example of this is Paramount’s affectionately nicknamed “closet killer” television bumper, which had a few variants (A-D, all slightly creepy versions of the same leaping brassy theme) and ran after popular television shows in 1969. Here’s variant C.

According to the site The Projector Has Been Drinking, the theme for this bumper was composed by Dominic Frontiere.

Another legitimately distressing logo was, thankfully, not seen in the United States but has since come into wider recognition thanks to the power of Youtube. VID TV, in Russia, used this incomprehensibly jarring station identifier in the mid 90’s.

Likewise, CBS’s legendary “eye” icon has had more than its share of utterly creepy moments and has always been a creepy design to start with. Imagine being a kid watching TV in 1966 and seeing the next video (Although I could argue that the 1950’s version of the eye has a more innately sinister quality as you actually penetrate into it…)
On the more questionable scale of scare (your mileage may vary) are the two most commonly mentioned examples of scary logos: Viacom’s “V of Doom” and Screen Gems’ “S from Hell”.

For the “S From Hell”, the synthesizer score was played on a Moog and composed by Eric Siday and Van Alexander. This basic logo with byline variants (logos change slightly as companies are sold, merged, and so on) ran for many years on television, from 1965 to 1974. The designer of the visual mark was the firm Chermayeff and Geismar.  A 9 minute short-subject about the “S From Hell” was released at the Sundance Film Festival 2010.

Viacoms’ “V of Doom” ran from 1976 to 1982, with a number of color variants. Like the Closet Killer, this ident creates an unnerving sense of motion in space, and many young viewers believed the V intended to come out of the screen- an impression added to by the music continuing for a few beats after the screen goes black. Much less appears to be known about the V of Doom than the S From Hell- even the monumentally obsessive closinglogos.com pages don’t name the composer.

Other eerie logos include the frigid 1980’s United Artists film bumper with Joe Harnell composition, the Chermayeff and Geismar-designed “Tri-Coloured Everyman” PBS logo of the 70’s to mid 80’s, and the spine-buzzing WGBH “Flash”.  Viewers of a certain age probably remember these from Sesame Street.

There’s a brisk drive in parodies of these logos, as well. Most are pretty lame, but one good parody is  Youtube user korranus’ “Viacom V of Destruction“, which actually does destroy the screen, fulfilling the underlying fear of some audiences. Other logos are sped up and slowed down (sometimes producing very odd effects!) or shoop-da-whooped.

Of course, to counter the scary and strange logos there are always identity packages that are exciting, fun and entertaining to watch. Who could not be thrilled by the early 80’s HBO “Starship” intro? The ending words changed a few times, but all have the same cool, earwormy theme and epic feel. Designed by Anthony Lover at Liberty Studios, the lead starts with a flight through a miniature city and launches into space to meet a spinning chrome HBO logo.

So epic was this opening that a wonderful “Behind the Scenes” making-of short was made by Scott Morris Film. Check out the loving shots of model miniatures being painstakingly assembled, rapidly becoming a lost art as CG animation continues to expand its domination of the market.

While some logo bumpers were memorable for their manipulation of psychological space, one producer took things to the next level. Chuck Lorre, producer of The Big Bang Theory, Dharma and Greg, Cybill and Grace Under Fire, has been embedding text into his company vanity cards for many years. Chuck’s funny, enigmatic and stream-of-consciousness rants were formerly only accessible by taping and freeze-framing an episode, but can now be followed on his website at http://www.chucklorre.com/index.php.

The most insightful explanations I’ve come across of the “scary logo” phenomenon are unsurprisingly found on an old Metafilter thread from January discussing the release of “The S From Hell”. I’d like to single out small portions of the larger commentary here.

User eschatfische said:

 “Television production was a lot less professional or reliable then it is now. The gaps between shows and ads — or even between the credits and these logos — were often awkward and unexpected. You might be watching a show at a normal volume, see the screen fade to black for a curious period of many seconds as the commercials weren’t completely queued up, and then have the commercial appear (already in progress) at blaring volume. Transitions just weren’t smooth, creating a sort of anxiety when it came to these segue ways… Watching TV was one of the only times when as a young kid I was alone, and I suspect this was the case for many folks of my generation. So when there was the shock of the closing logo or an EBS test, there wasn’t anyone or anything else in the room to buffer that eeriness. The hollowness of the synthesizer tones, or the strange, automated glitchiness of the television station switching equipment only exacerbated this sense of loneliness.”

User sonascope also noted:

“I wonder if it’s possible that all these things were scary because TV itself is scary, as an disembodied, disjointed central train station of stacked, shifting, unrelated imagery, flashing one thing after another at us with the logic of a post-human committee intelligence running the show.”

Viewers who engage heavily with television enter into a kind of psychological contract space with the imagery presented. We expect, with our primal brains, to see a certain kind of reality, conforming to certain natural laws. Color, movement and sound are expected to be within our realm of reference- people’s bodies, people motions, people sounds.

But logos and bumpers and ID cards exist in a psychological grey space, conforming to no natural law or recognizable logic of motion. They are often set against a void of a single color or black (the better to draw your attention to them) and so the only definition the lizard viewing-brain of the watcher has to define reality, for those few moments, is the motion of the elements of the logo.

I would argue that the eerie effect of some logos is actually tied to a more subtle variant of the Uncanny Valley – that is, we are looking for meaning where there is no meaning, which creates inner anxiety and frustration. There will be nothing human or recognizable about the motions of a fractured logo element coming forward from (apparently) behind us, or racing toward us. This violates our sense of personal space, the wall we keep in our heads between television illusions and our tangible reality. Add to that that the movements within the void space are often aggressive, hostile or inexplicable. They lunge at us, shine at us, pierce us with strange otherworldly sounds, creating an experience of incoherent unreality. Adults can parse this away, but as children, our textual defenses are low; we don’t have enough experience of reality to counterweight what we see. The veil is thinner.

Remember that in the earliest days of cinema people, inexperienced in parsing film illusion, were startled that the train might come toward them off the screen. On The Straight Dope discussion boards, one person even mentions that as late as 1970 moviegoers were still ducking for cover when a shot of a plane in Ice Station Zebra appeared to be hurling off the flat screen toward the audience. The problem is that we believe what we see, even though seeing often isn’t really believing. It’s the same lack of visual sophistication that affects children with logos, and it’s that memory of being affected that drives the “scary logo” discussion today.

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3 thoughts on “Theme Tuesday: “Scary Logos”

  1. >Love the article, very well written! Reminded me of a lot of scary logos from my childhood. Remember the "DIC" logo going through the child's bedroom? Always made me uncomfortable.

  2. >@Holland: the DIC logo never really bothered me, although I remember it distinctly from the end of The Real Ghostbusters – I think by the time that show rolled around they had already softened it into the friendlier, softer-sounding chime. The logo that actually got me as a kid wasn't on television- there was a large carved sign outside of a mall here (Mall 205) in some 70's font, like a totem pole. For whatever inexplicable reason, that pillar scared the unholy hell out of small-child me, to the point where I would shriek when we drove by it, to the bemusement of my parents. Yes, I was actually scared of a FONT. Strange child. ;D I suspect though that the ultimate factor was the same as the effect here – a moving element beyond my control that was large (the pillar was HUGE, much bigger than me) and violated my sense of space.

  3. >Hi! Thank you for the acknowledgement of my blog and my essay. I've been getting a lot of traffic from your site, so I really appreciate you steering that my way.Small note – the '83 UA logo music is by Joe Harnell, not Jerry Fielding. Harnell is best known for the "Lonely Man" ending theme for the TV incarnation of "THE INCREDIBLE HULK."

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