Sunday, October 18, 2009

Haunted by the "S from Hell"

Jamie and I were walking through Storybook Forest at Idlewild recently when we started talking about how some people were really freaked out by clowns when they were little. I never understood this fear. I always found clowns to be mildly amusing, nothing more.

But then I started thinking about some of the irrational things that scared me as a child. While clowns may not have scared me, I had more than my share of irrational childhood fears—the most absurd of which was a fear of certain TV production logos.

My mom would tell you that I didn’t watch much TV as a kid. It would be more accurate to say that I didn’t actively watch much TV. I remember the TV being on quite a bit, mainly as background noise while I was reading, writing or playing games.

Most TV shows have production logos on their closing credits, which are designed to draw attention to a company’s handiwork at a moment when many viewers might be headed for the bathroom or drifting off to sleep. These logos tend to be friendlier today, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they often featured stark imagery and loud fanfares that had the side effect of scaring small children.

Why I found these logos scary, I don’t know. I think it had more to do with their sound than their images. When I watch them with the sound off, the emotional impact is nil. My mind tends to remember sounds, though. I always seem to have a song stuck in my head. Now imagine that you’re five and the sound that’s stuck in your head as you’re trying to sleep is the Mark VII Limited hammer. You’re in for a long night.

But I wasn’t alone. Google “Scary TV logos” and you’ll find websites dedicated to this phenomenon. Certain logos have become so infamous that they have earned nicknames. There’s the “S from Hell,” the “V of Doom,” and “Closet Killer,” just to name a few.

So for my Halloween blog entry, I’d like to revisit some of my...uh...favorites.

An honorable mention should go to the Rankin Bass logo.

Rankin Bass was the company responsible for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and many other holiday claymation specials. The graphics on this logo are not especially scary, but the music is what makes it creepy. It throws a chord at you that is obviously leading up to something more, but it TAKES SO DAMN LONG TO RESOLVE! My definition of musical hell is having that chord hanging in your head forever.

Third place goes to the early ‘70s Paramount logo.

The fanfare was written by soundtrack legend Lalo Schifrin, best known for the theme from “Mission: Impossible.” He named it “Closet Killer,” which is appropriate. I once scared the crap out of myself when I was little by jumping in front of a full-length mirror in time with the climactic note (the one where they zoom in on the blue mountain). And what’s with the graphics here? I always thought that rectangle looked like a toothpaste box. (You’ll always get the yellow out when you brush your teeth with Paramount?)

In second place—the whole Mark VII Limited/Universal conglomeration.

Jack Webb must have really hated little kids. I had a strange fascination with his no-nonsense action dramas as a child (“Adam-12,” “Dragnet” and “Emergency!”). I especially remember watching reruns of “Dragnet” at my grandma’s house during the early days of cable—and being treated to this double whammy just before I went to bed.

The Mark VII Limited hammer is one of the few logos which is visually scary, in addition to the sound (does anything say “Something scary’s about to happen” like a tympani?). I remember looking at those big, dirty hands (which, according to some sources, are Webb’s) and wondering what they were going to do to me. And it was followed by a Universal fanfare that sounded like the soundtrack for the end of the world.

Is that the scariest possible end to a TV show? Hell, it isn’t even Mark VII Limited’s scariest logo! In 1971, Webb was taken over by the same demon that made everything in America either avocado green or sunset gold around that time. So out went the hammer, and in came this:

Not only is it one of the ugliest logos in history (flat gold lettering on burnt orange?), but the background music could have been titled “The House Is on Fire!” After three years of picturing flames consuming my house whenever this monstrosity came on, Webb went back to the hammer, and I was actually relieved.

And then there’s number one—the one, the only, “S from Hell.”

The Screen Gems logo was an early attempt at electronic music, which may be the reason why it’s so scary. There’s just something about that opening drone that still sends a chill up my spine, even today. Perhaps it was the contrast with the show I just watched (I always remembered this logo from lightweight fare—“I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Monkees” and “Bewitched”), but this logo just about defines late ’60-early ‘70s TV creepiness.

At least as far as TV logos go, that is. I could also write a blog entry on scary TV public service announcements, but fewer of them are available on YouTube. Maybe next Halloween.

Until then, have a blessed Samhain. And watch out for the “S from Hell.”

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