Halloween is just around the corner and in honor of what’s arguably the world’s spookiest holiday, we thought we’d take a look at some of the world’s creepiest paintings.
What I love about art is that I don’t need to be an expert to enjoy it–I only have to know how it makes me feel. Art can move, inspire, elate, unsettle and even, yes, terrify. In fact, some of the creepiest paintings out there can terrify on a level a much deeper than the ghoulish fright depicted on the surface. So, in honor of Halloween–one of Musement’s favorite holidays!–, here’s a look at ten of the world’s creepiest paintings.
1. Picture of Dorian Gray by Ivan Albright, 1943
The story of a man who sells his soul to keep his youth and beauty, Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (one of my favorite books of all time!) encompasses the themes of morality and macabre, serving as somewhat of a cautionary tale. Gray adopts a libertine lifestyle and while age and time never alter his physical appearance, his portrait ages and rots to reflect how ugly and corrupt he grows inside. Macabre artist Ivan Albright’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” painting actually appeared in the 1945 film adaptation.
Where: The Art Institute of Chicago
2. The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893
Once upon a time, the mere sight of this painting would have made my teenage stomach churn. The figure depicted served as the inspiration for the serial killer’s–or killers’?–mask in the “Scream” horror movies of the 1990s. However, Munch’s “The Scream” prompts a deeper level of uneasiness in the sophisticated grownup I am now. The figure stands on a dock, mouth agape and hands clutching the face, a perfect personification of that feeling of trying to cope with the angst and anxiety that comes with adulthood and life in general. Definitely not a comfortable place for one’s emotions.
Where: The Munch Museum in Oslo
3. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
I remember quite vividly the first time I ever saw this painting as part of a museum visit for an art history class. At first glance, it seems like an extraordinary depiction of an ordinary scene: two ambassadors. Wait, what’s that blurred object at the bottom? Well, the painting must be viewed from the right to see the anamorphic images transform into a skull, a “memento mori”, to serve as a reminder of our own mortality. (See the video after the painting.) My skin bristling with goosebumps as the professor explained all the details as the painting is, in fact, filled with intriguing symbolism. I won’t get into all the details, but notice the broken lute string? Jesus on the top left?
Where: The National Gallery in London
4. Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette by Van Gogh, 1885 – 1886
One of Van Gogh’s earliest works, the painting was initially supposed to be humorous. However, it strikes a completely different, more relevant cord today as it could easily be part of an anti-smoking campaign. This foreshadowing of sorts is creepy enough in and of itself.
Where: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
5. The Face of War by Salvador Dali, 1940
Keeping in line with the skull theme, the surreal master’s take on war is an image that hits hard. Sadly, war is pretty much as old as humanity so while war tactics might change, the devastation it imparts is timeless, and Dali captures it quite hauntingly in this painting.
Where: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
6. Saturn Devouring his Son by Goya, 1819–1823
Once upon a time, a prophecy foretold that the Titan Saturn (Cronus to the Greeks) would be overthrown by one of his children. To prevent his forthcoming doom, Saturn tried to commit filicide via cannibalism. However, his immortal children grew inside him and he eventually barfed them up. And yes, they eventually overthrew him thanks to their brother Zeus. A man eating a child? Gruesome on so many levels.
Where: The Prado Museum in Madrid
7. Medusa by Caravaggio, 1597
A woman with a gaze that can turn one to stone: sounds like an old wive’s tale. However, Medusa isn’t a human woman but rather a gorgon, a mythical creature with snakes instead of hair who, if looked directly in the eyes, can turn one to stone on the spot. Perseus managed to outwit her by letting her catch a glimpse of her own reflection in a sword. He then beheaded her corpse and brought her head back to Polydectes, but not before saving Andromeda from a sea monster. Caravaggio captures this with his unmistakable flair that can be found in some of his most famous paintings.
Where: The Uffizi Gallery in Florence
8. Hell by Hans Memling, 1485
So, here’s the thing. I’m a former Catholic school girl who is currently a lapsed Catholic. Among the church’s many teachings embedded in my brain is a little voice that tells me that since I no longer practice, I am committing a mortal sin and therefore hell awaits me. Needless to say, I see this painting and it terrifies me. And I’m sure it has the same effect on other recovering Catholic school students out there as well.
Where: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg
9. Study of the Heads of Torture Victims by Théodore Géricault, 1814
This painting gives me the heebee-jeebies as it brings to mind the “Criminal Minds” episode in which a serial killer decides to dole out punishment to those he considers immoral. If I remember correctly, the unsub was a non-recovering Catholic school student.
Where: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen
10. The Judgment of Cambyses by Gerard David, 1498/1499
This painting is so grim that I flinch, close my eyes, and then can’t even look it. It depicts the flaying of corrupt Persian judge Sisamnes, who was sentenced to death under the work’s titular emperor. This is one of the most morbid paintings I have ever seen. It looks like the scene of a gory period film. “Game of Thrones” hasn’t even gone here…yet.
Where: Groeninge Museum, Bruges