Prestige in Horror: The Semiotics of Penny Dreadful’s Intro Sequence

The opening titles sequence of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful visually invokes genre conventions while using music to connote quality. The first shot is a selective focus close-up of a spider emerging from frame left in low-key light as violin music commences with suspenseful charge, two-thirds of the screen still in darkness. This isn’t any ordinary spider, as the rack focus between parts of its body reveals the markings of a predator. Though it appears ordinary at first glance—just like our protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green)—upon further inspection it is exotic, its body showing neon yellow markings. Perhaps it is even poisonous. We then get the show’s title alone on screen in a font that evokes knives, then a dissolve back to black.

Penny Dreadful is the name for a genre of horror fiction written to be quick to read, disgust and titillate. This intertextual meaning is contrasted with the quality implied by the rich and expansive title sequence, pulling the audience in with nightmarish imagery amid orchestral flourishes. The strings, associated as they are with classical music and thus high class intellectualism, elevate the lurid shots. The sequence suspends the audience in a state of morbid trepidation as we see graphic images of skin crudely stitched together, dead things, blood, and birds as though peaking through fingers. The ghastly subjects are shown in extreme close-up selective focus, usually only filling a third of the screen—the golden ratio conjuring quality and effectuating an anesthetizing of that which is otherwise gruesome. We are scared…but we want to be scared…so we don’t look away. The low-key lighting suggests mystery and evil lurking in the darkness: this is not a show that will explain everything to you.

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