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 toxic predator. Though it appears ordinary at first glance just like our protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), upon further inspection it is revealed as exotic—its body showing neon yellow markings—and perhaps even poisonous. We then get the show’s title alone on screen in a font that evokes knives, then dissolving 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 with classical music, high class, and 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 anesthetization 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.