We have come to consume our media in an echo chamber of reference and commentary, and this, among other things, has made it difficult to scare us. The classic principles of horror – much like its close cousin comedy – are largely built on the elements of surprise and misdirection, and these are becoming ineffective for the simple reason that we are now so familiar with the tropes of terror, we can no longer be surprised or misdirected (and indeed some studies show that we no longer even crave such things in our entertainment).
“A more chilling and permanent way to disturb people is to activate a sense of things being not quite right in conforming to the way we understand the world, to do it by suggestion and implication rather than making something overt,” said Richard Holman, creative director of Holman + Hunt, the London-based agency behind the recent rebrand of Horror Channel, AMC Networks International’s genre channel in the UK. “The function of this identity,” he continued, “is to establish that mood as the bedrock for the entire channel.”
The effectiveness of H+H’s Horror Channel rebrand can be boiled down to the following components: 1) A series of 12 stylish, boldly subtle IDs that favor a sense of unease over traditional scare tactics. 2) An extreme minimalist on-screen graphics package driven by frightening red clouds that spread across the screen like a nightmare. And 3) a thrumming, painstakingly crafted soundscape by sound designer Simon James that was made possible because, unlike most channels, Horror Channel does not carry a continuity voiceover.
“One of the great things about this project was having the space to do what we wanted with the audio,” Holman said, “because sound is so important in enhancing the mood of the uncanny and unnerving.”
The cumulative effect of these three elements is truly haunting, but perhaps most importantly, it appeals to a viewership that is no longer fooled by bells and whistles.
“One of the things about genre channels is they are loved by fans who have a very acute sense of the genre and can smell imposters a mile off,” Holman said.
“Our viewers pride themselves in [their knowledge of] the genre,” added Matt Stott, director of creative, marketing and communications for AMC Networks International UK. “They love and read and research. They cross-reference series and films and they go on forums and talk about it and they engage in digital and social media. They’re very informed and literate because of that.”
To speak to these fans in an authentic fashion, one of their own was brought in to direct the idents: Chris Turner, a seasoned collaborator with Holman + Hunt and AMC, and a horror buff in his own right with a track record of crafting works that chill the bones.
“You can’t cheat [Turner’s] passion for all things horror,” Stott said. “He live and breathes it. Every layer and element of these idents, the tone, the direction, the audio, reflect his obsessive knowledge. That helps give them an integrity.”
Planning the idents was a matter of selecting moments to depict that would have a high dread factor while also subtly recalling familiar horror and sci-fi movie moments ranging from The Blair Witch Project to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Each ident script included detailed descriptions of the color of the light that would appear, ensuring that the full array of spots would reflect different day parts from the brightness of morning to the darkness of night. Then it was a matter of applying a technical rigor to the production that would instill brand ownability and drive up dramatic impact.
“We knew that we wanted to try and execute each ident with a single shot,” Holman said. “We called it ‘creeping in.’ The word ‘creeping’ was intentionally used to draw you in deeper to this unnerving moment.”
Whether slowly panning across a bathtub full of blood or pulling back from a radio broadcasting eerie static above a kitchen sink, the creeping effect has an unmistakable tugging sensation, a pulling of the viewer from their safe space into the discomforting environments of Horror Channel. Capturing those environments occurred over a two-day shoot across two sizeable locations “that I believe were haunted houses,” said Lucy Hunt, executive producer for H+H.
The estates, located in England’s West Sussex and Essex counties respectively, came loaded with charmingly off-putting details such as a decrepit backyard, faded dinosaur wallpaper in a child’s bedroom, and a basement that was “probably 10 degrees cooler than the ground floor, with no electricity,” Holman said. “It was not a place I would have wanted to be on my own.”
In any time of year, it would have been a challenge to shoot in these places without transferring at least a modicum of sinister intent into the footage. But just to make sure, the Horror Channel idents were shot in the dead of winter, when the weather was icy and the London skies were as grim and gray as could be.
“The locations could do quite a lot of the work for us. We didn’t have to spend as much of our budget on set decoration,” Holman said. “We were in the right place at the right time to feel the shiver down our spines.”
The atmosphere of the houses is so potent, there are some spots where it simply speaks for itself, with no narrative embellishment needed. In one ident, we get nothing more than a POV shot from someone running down a hallway of that aforementioned basement, combined with the sounds of terrified breathing. In another, a doll simply rests amidst the weeds in the yard as surrounding fog, the looming building in the background and a few artfully layered sound effects do their part to raise our neck hairs. There is a second version of this spot in which the doll has been set aflame, but all we really need is the first one with its air of brooding malevolence.
When H+H rebranded Horror Channel it also, in a two-part collaboration, rebranded AMC Networks International’s CBS Reality channel.
In an intriguing instance of cross-channel design chutzpah, CBS Reality not only utilizes a similar creeping camera move in its idents, but also features the same clouds of colored ink as its graphical through-line. It seems puzzling at first, the repetition of elements across two seemingly quite different channels, until one remembers that “both CBS Reality and Horror Channel are about human beings and lives and emotions and stories,” Holman said. What’s more, the ink proves to be a shockingly adaptable substance. On Horror Channel, its relentless red crawl resembles a terrifying bloom of blood, as though we are witnessing the aftermath of something terrible that has just gone on off-camera. On CBS Reality, the exact same material, turned yellow, reflects the irrepressible, joyous essence of life itself.
Shot practically in a tank with high-speed cameras, the ink also has real-world physicality that adds to Horror Channel’s gritty authenticity. “There’s something elemental and simple and uncomplicated about the ink,” Holman said. “Because these textures are slow-motion and they’re organic, you can watch them for hours. You see things, shapes and forms that you haven’t seen before. It’s like staring at clouds and that abstraction is a really beautiful thing.”
Now, he continued, “when you open the creaking cemetery gate of the Horror Channel, you walk into an environment that is messy and unnerving, where shapes and forms are not clear, where the narrative is not immediately explicable, and where anything can happen.”
Creative Agency: Holman + Hunt
Creative Director: Richard Holman
Executive Producer: Lucy Hunt
Director: Chris Turner
Producer: Thalia Murray
Director of Photography: Jason Berman
Sound Design: Simon James
Post Production (Idents): Raised by Wolves
Post Production (Ink): Envy
Lead Designer: Mirjami Qin
Client: AMC Networks International
Chief Programming Officer: Chris Sharp
Director, Creative, Marketing & Communications: Matt Stott
Channel Manager, Horror Channel: Stewart Bridle
Head of Production: Marta Rossi
Senior Production Manager: Alison Thompson
Head of Graphics: Clive Collier