Terrifying art: can a painting scare us?


While we’re all terrified of those hilariously ugly renaissance portraits of babies, there is a lot of other art that was actually intended to scare us. Usually, we turn to Netflix when we want our annual dosage of horror for Halloween, but the history of art is packed full of dark paintings exploring the evil goriness the world has to offer. Though these may not give you a jump-scare, they are disturbing in their own right, and sometimes even more arresting in their stillness than the high-octane chaos of a motion picture.

The history of art is packed full of dark paintings exploring the evil goriness the world has to offer

Hell as a topic has always fascinated painters. It is described in the bible as the “blackest darkness”, a “lake of fire” and “the second death”. Yet, Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ triptych (1490—1510) presents a nightmarish abstraction of hell more akin to Salvador Dalí’s surrealist dreamscapes than the biblical descriptions which inspired most early Renaissance art. Unlike fifteenth century church murals, Bosch places paradise alongside, not above, his vision of hell. Our eyes consequently move up, not to a celestial ceiling, but into a blitz-like metropolis of fire. 

Here, large atomical parts have a monstrous life of their own, resembling the scientific gore of Frankenstein, while the mass-maiming of human bodies in the foreground confirms fragmented violence rules – a classically hellish landscape. Yet the unreality of the central tree-man and human-eating birds strays away from biblical motifs and enters into Bosch’s own imaginations. It feels like he is constantly inventing new realities capable of scaring himself as he paints, making us equally terrified of this vivid hellscape produced in the dark recesses of his mind.

Equally nightmarish is a painting, that not only provides shock-factor, but gives the viewer a deeper, psychological, sense of anxiety. Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893) was inspired by a walk through a fjord where Munch glimpsed a perfect red sunset, but this expressionist masterpiece reinterpreted such beauty as an “infinite scream passing through nature”. Characteristically blurred lines give the work a distorted, hallucinogenic quality, which instantly unbalances us, while the skeletal, alien figure seems to embody the very feeling of fear, as if its horrific appearance wasn’t terrifying enough in itself. 

It also incorporates the viewer into the image – staring directly at the audience, as if we are the reason for the budding terror. Yet two phantom figures in the background seem unaware of its shriek. The sound is therefore an internal, private experience the viewer shares with this central character, an intense and pure landscape from the psychological realm. As opposed to Bosch’s paintings, the horror is all in your mind. 

An intense and pure landscape from the psychological realm

This final, and perhaps most famous, painting from the horror canon is Francisco Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ (1819—23). By title alone, this is pure gore. The mythological figure of Saturn emerges from a black background. His horizontal, sinewy limbs crouch and contort beyond the frame. This is contrasted with the child’s body extending vertically – into the Roman God’s mouth – the bright red of the blood stunting its limbs. Goya devoted himself to depicting the horrors of the Spanish civil war, and here it is Saturn who embodies the brutal carnage of conflict

However, his white eyes, staring wildly towards us, takes on a more recognisably human expression of fear than say, Munch’s abstract, unnamed screaming figure. He seems both afraid of us, and of himself. His horrified expression, wispy white hair and bony limbs show true weakness and dread of defeat. Painted close to Goya’s death, it may also concern the painter’s own mortality, as the old God devours youth without getting stronger. The stark humanity in Saturn’s eyes therefore makes the painting’s emotional power truly terrifying, as it has a clear allegory to humankind’s inherent weakness and evil. 

It is important to explore what makes us feel uncomfortable in art, so we can find pleasure in the fear it inspires

To conclude, I thought I’d compare each painting with a Halloween classic which reflects the ideas the painting encapsulates. Bosch’s painting exemplifies the surrealist obscenities from Eraserhead. Although a more private setting, it portrays an internal hell as strangely tangible as Bosch’s external one. ‘The Scream’ is more like The Shining. Its psychologically infused horror has the same internal, eerie fear Munch depicts, and both show how a landscape (or hotel) can be transformed by our own thoughts, visions, and memories. Finally, Goya’s painting reminds me of Jordan Peele’s Us. It shows the stark, gory horror of killing someone connected to you, but also explores deeper ideas about societal violence and the hidden fears we try to conceal. Whenever art depicts the beautiful, it will also depict the dreadful. It is therefore crucial to explore what makes us feel uncomfortable in art, so we can find pleasure in the fear it inspires. 

Image: Caffe_Paradiso & Art Gallery ErgsArt – by Erg Sap via Flickr

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