Halloween is nearly upon us. This is the perfect time to talk about those scary paintings that you might have seen or taken a peek at before. Or if you haven’t yet, prepare to be shocked, disturbed, scared, or if you have a love for all things macabre - thrilled and entranced. Whether you’re one or the other, you’ll find them interesting at the very least. They range from the visually terrifying, to shocking, to the unsettling stories behind the paintings. After all, what we find most fearful or disquieting differs from one another.
Take a look at the list I’ve compiled below and be spooked out of your mind from the comforts of your own home! There are certainly more paintings and other works out there. So just let these be a sort of aperitif before a multi-course meal that you may or may not decide to partake of.
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1891
Let’s start it off with perhaps one of the most iconic paintings that accurately depict our internal horror and anxiety. From the colors to the brushstrokes, there is a general feeling of things being out of whack.
In his diary, Munch wrote:
“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord – the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”
Later describing the inspiration for the image:
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
There are several versions of this same subject done in paints, pastels, some surviving lithograph prints, and the lithograph stone.
Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya, 1819-1823
It’s one of the 14 of a series of Black Paintings that Goya painted directly on his house’s walls. All the paintings are dark and haunting. But many agree that this particular painting is the most frightful of all.
Saturn, fearful of a prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of his children, decided that he would devour each one as soon as they were born. He himself overthrew his own father and terribly feared that he would suffer the same fate. In the end, it did come to pass.
Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemesia Gentileschi, 1614-1620
This scene is an episode from the Book of Judith (deuterocanonical) found in the Old Testament. The painting shows the moment when Judith beheads the general when he falls asleep (from inebriation), with her maidservant aiding her.
Many early feminists believe this to be Artemesia’s way of exacting revenge against her rapist, Agostino Tassi. And many historians view the painting as a great success in showing strong women.
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781
A woman is asleep with her arms thrown and extended below her, a demonic creature (incubus) sits on top of her chest. The scene is both fascinating and horrific, and how viewers interpret it greatly varies. Some think it to be an erotic scene while some believe it to be the very stuff of nightmares.
I personally view this from the nightmare angle as I have experienced sleep paralysis. It feels as though a heavy weight has been placed on my chest making it difficult to breathe and impossible to speak, and the whole body just refuses to move. We have the same creature in our Philippine native folklore called the Batibat or Bangungot, and it does the same thing - crouch on the sleeper’s chest.
This is one scary painting for me!
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch, 1500-05
No scary paintings list would be complete without Hieronymous Bosch. This particular work is an oil painting triptych, he painted two other large triptychs - The Last Judgment and The Haywain Triptych.
From left to right: First, we see the garden of Eden, where everything is still pure and we see the joining of Adam and Eve. Then, we move to the center panel (the biggest) and we see the garden of earthly delights. People engaged in all manner of “earthly delights” from the sexual, to the sensory, and everything else in between. And the final panel on the right shows hell where people are reaping the repercussions of engaging and succumbing to the temptations that lead to evil deeds.
I always find something new to ponder on whenever I look deeply and closely into this triptych. It’s chockful of symbolism, visual details, horror, and story-telling.
The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bregel the Elder, 1562
An army of skeleton soldiers are waging war and destruction. The entire landscape is of desolation and death. People from all walks of life are killed willy-nilly and a skeleton on a horseback is seen wielding a scythe for killing. Just like Bosch’s triptych above, you’ll have to zoom in on various parts to see how the whole macabre story unfolds.
The Smiling Spider by Odilon Redon, 1881
Redon greatly loved the color black, he called his works done in shades of black his “noirs”. I include this smiling spider in this list because the moment I first looked at it, (well, whenever actually haha!) a shiver goes down my spine.
His painting perfectly captures the fuzzy texture of a spider’s body. The way he positioned the spider as if it was about to leap at me with its quick-moving and spindly legs, I stifle a small scream. I feel the same way about cockroaches, especially flying ones. It’s the ghastly sensation I feel when they crawl on me that’s really horrifying. We all have things and critters that we are fearful of.
The Face of War by Salvador Dali, 1940
This was painted by Dali between the end of the Spanish war and the start of the Second World War. The painting shows a decapitated and somewhat shriveled head on a barren landscape. The eye sockets and mouth have identical faces in them. And each one’s sockets and mouths have identical faces yet again. And this goes on and on perhaps to infinity. Around the faces, you’ll find swarms of biting snakes that add to the ghastliness of the whole scene. It perfectly encapsulates the interminable horrors of war.
And this is the end of this ‘scary paintings’ list. I’m sure you’ll have paintings that you personally find scarier. What is the scariest painting in art history? I think this will vary depending on who you ask. Which one do you find scariest? And which ones not really?
We’d love to hear from you!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Join our friendly art community Painting Inspiration Daily on Facebook. You can share your art and ideas, watch LIVE tutorials, and be inspired to paint!
- MEET THE AUTHOR -
Kathleen is the Wordsmith at ZenART, resident artist and art editor. When God sent a shower of talents, Kathleen made sure she got a basketful of them! She's a visual artist with practical knowledge on various fields from painting and sculpture, to costume and set design which comes in very handy when writing about various art techniques and theories. She also shares her passion for the arts through teaching. She runs her own brand of handmade wirework jewelry designs.