There are certain moments in history that were so terrifying that even decades later we still get a chill looking at them in a photograph. Obviously, some of the more terrifying events in our world’s history, such as the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials, could not be frozen in time on film, since the earliest cameras did not exist until the 1800s. But there are still plenty of great examples of historical photographs, both recent and not, that still do and will forever invoke within us a certain fear. And we as humans react that way for a few reasons, the main ones being that our fellow humans were capable of very inhumane acts, and that these inhumane acts could quite possibly happen again. After all, it is said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, and I think we can all agree that there are those among us who have not learned.
Not all of the following 15 photos are accounts of evil by the hand of man, however. Nature is very capable of disaster on a much worse scale than any person could ever create. Our planet may be beautiful, but it is also dangerous. Between earth’s penchant for various kinds of natural disasters and man’s penchant for evil, history throughout the last 200 years has provided us with numerous frightening events to document on camera. Some of these events were so terrible, in fact, that the memories that live on in photographs have the ability to be chilling to this day.
Below are 15 iconic photographs of scary and tragic events from around the world that you have probably seen before, and that will still manage to strike fear through your heart. Unless y0u are sociopathic or something similar, these images will haunt you, or at the very least, send a shiver down your spine.
15. The San Francisco Earthquake
The frightening circumstances that all of these photos depict are frightening for one predominant reason: like I just said, they could happen again. There are always more bad guys out there to plan the next terror attack, and there is always going to be another natural disaster, as well. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc. will always be a present danger on this planet, and sometimes they can be so bad that they go down in the history books, like the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake that brought the city to its knees. That 7.8-magnitude earthquake that shook the ground for 42 seconds killed 3,000 people and destroyed 80% of San Francisco. Seeing the photos of the following fires that broke out and of the devastation caused in such a short amount of time is an ominous reminder that natural disasters can and will strike at any time, although with today’s technology we may have a better chance to prepare, and also to survive. Still, that does not take away from the suffering that is so evident in this photograph, and others from our world’s many other natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, or the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
14. Vietnam War
Called one of the 20th century’s most iconic and haunting images, this photo shows children hiding in a sewer during the Vietnam War. It’s an image that depicts the sad reality of those truly impacted by the war. Whenever children are involved, images such as these can be truly difficult to view. This image memorializes the pain and terror of so many during that time, and for many of the survivors of Vietnam who are still alive today. Even for those of us that had no connection to it, this image is enough to scare anyone of war. It should also be a reminder of who actually suffers during wartime.
13. Old Medical Practices
This photo depicts someone having a lobotomy, and in a way, it hurts just to look at, as do most photos of lobotomies or other outrageous procedures doctors used to deem necessary. A lobotomy, specifically, is a type of psychosurgery that severs the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain. This was thought to calm patients’ emotions and stabilize their personalities, without inhibiting their intelligence or motor function. Doctors used a tool resembling an icepick (though they used an actual icepick on cadavers to practice) called an orbitoclast. They would enter the brain through the eye socket, give the orbitoclast a light tap with a hammer to break through a thin layer of bone, and then twirl it to sever the fibers. This photo, and related photos of medical procedures from so long ago, are cringe-worthy to look at, but they also cause one to wonder what crazy procedures we are having done now that in the future will seem just as insane and dangerous as a lobotomy seems today.
12. The Falling Man
One of the more intimate photos of that fateful day (which is now taught in schools as a historical event) is this image of a man who would come to be known only as the Falling Man. Perfectly vertical, the man, whose identity has never been verified, falls to his death from the World Trade Center’s North Tower. That morning, at least 200 people jumped or fell to their deaths trying to escape the smoke and fire, and the series of 12 photos showing a close look at this man’s final seconds has attracted criticism from people who found it disturbing. It probably always will be. But the most anyone will ever know about this photo is that it was taken at 9:41 A.M. on September 11, 2001 by Richard Drew of the Associated Press. There are some guesses as to who he might have been (Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at a restaurant on the 106th floor, or Jonathan Briley, a sound engineer from Mount Vernon, New York) but no one will ever know for certain. The only truly certain thing about this haunting photograph is that it memorializes the final seconds of one human being, and that is something that is not often captured on film.
The Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by an American B-29 bomber on August 6, 1945 during World War II. It was the first time in human history that an atomic bomb was used, and the effect was catastrophic. 90% of the city was wiped out, killing 80,000 people in an instant. Later, tens of thousands more would die of radiation exposure. Three days after Hiroshima was effectively erased from the map, Nagasaki was bombed in the same way, immediately killing 40,000 more. On August 15 of that year, Emporer Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the United States. This iconic photo of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima was taken just after the bomb, known as “Little Boy” was dropped onto the city. Other than the B-29 bomber called the “Enola Gay”, there were two other accompanying planes, and the shot was taken from the air. It, like the photo of 9/11’s Falling Man, forever freezes a tragic moment in time. In this case, that moment was the last for tens of thousands and not one man.
These train tracks leading into Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, once carried 40-50 cars of Hungarian Jews through the so-called Gate of Death to be gassed. This photo has become symbolic of the concentration camp, which is located outside of Krakow in southwestern Poland. Here, up to 12,000 Jews were gassed and burned each day at the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews. At that time, the plan to exterminate all the Jews in Europe was mere months away. This frightening photo encompasses all of these facts and more into what is really a simple black and white snapshot of railroad tracks and a brick building. However, as someone who has physically walked those tracks and stood beneath that gate, I can tell you that the railroad tracks extend about a mile into the camp, ending at the gas chambers. I can also tell you that this photo, nor being there in person seven decades later, could ever accurately shed light on the horrors that took place there. Now it is green with grass, and farmers have made use of the fields. Tour groups walk through every day. It is a far cry from what it once was, and the eeriness of this photograph more closely illustrates the atrocities of Auschwitz than even being there does. This photograph is representative, to many, of the genocide that happened there.
9. Tank Man
The iconic image of the unidentified man known only as “Tank Man” became a powerful symbol of the day China’s People’s Liberation Army violently gunned down hundreds of civilians who were protesting government corruption in Tienanmen Square. This inspiring photograph of the “unknown rebel” does not come with an ending, happy or otherwise. No one knows the fate of this brave, mysterious man, but theories abound. They include that he was a student who was ultimately put to death for his actions, that he was pulled to safety by the crowd, that he escaped mainland China to Taiwan, that he was arrested, and that he is alive and well to this day, 27 years later. That would be impressive, given China’s notoriety for carrying out swift and severe punishments, especially for crimes committed against the government. It is doubtful that we will ever know who he is or what happened to him, but everyone seems to agree on one thing, that he was not run over by the tanks. This photo will always evoke in people a fear of dictatorship, I think, and an admiration for those who fight it at the utmost risk. China is without a doubt better than they used to be when it comes to censorship and human rights issues, however they have a long way to go. My firsthand experience while living in small-town China was that, exactly: they have a long way to go with a lot of things, a fact they try to hide by doing things like censoring the number of drivers on the road during the 2008 Olympics so Westerners don’t know how over-populated it really is there.
8. The Plague Doctor Mask
Obviously, they did not have cameras in the 17th and 18th centuries to take photos of anything, but the mask pictured above is a real one from that time period, and it is in a museum in England. The photo of people donning the mask, though, is enough to make anyone shiver. This is what they really looked like wearing the beak-like mask, and ankle-length overcoat. As physicians, they definitely did not look the part of a healer, but there were reasons for the frightening appearance. The long nose of the mask was often filled with different aromatic items such as lavender, dried flowers, herbs, and spices. The purpose of it was to keep putrid smells away, and they believed the herbs would counteract the “evil” smells of the plague, thus preventing them from becoming infected. Although the Bubonic Plague took place in the 14th century and the doctors were thought to also wear bird-like masks, this exact kind of mask is attributed to Charles de Lorme in 1619 and was used by physicians during the Plague of 1656, which killed 445,000 people in Europe. Then, as now, people were terrified of the mask. To them, it meant imminent death. To us, it is a reminder of what could happen, and what (according to statistics) should happen, as we are long overdue for a pandemic of massive proportions.
7. Nazi Germany
With the swastika in the background and thousands upon thousands of loyal soldiers at attention for Adolf Hitler, this photo should very much strike fear in the hearts of anyone and everyone. The people in this photo are the same people who carried out the worst genocide in human history, and who, if things had gone their way, would have mass-murdered millions more to achieve their sickening goal of eliminating every Jew in what they called a “mass cleansing” of the world. That there are this many men who would either blindly follow Hitler without question, not stand up to him out of fear, or genuinely believed in what they were doing is the first horrifying part of this photograph. The other is knowing that, as humans, we do not always learn from our mistakes, and history does repeat itself. This image would only invoke feelings of sadness and anger if it were not possible that it could ever happen again. But since it invokes sadness, anger, and fear, we need to be careful.
Everyone should recognize this haunting photograph as the ill-fated RMS Titanic, which was advertised as being unsinkable when it set sail in April of 1912. As we know, two days into its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, it sank in the north Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg. Of the 2,224 passengers on board, 1,500 died, partly because there were only enough life boats available for one-third of the ship’s capacity. The story of the RMS Titanic is one that is known well around the world, even to this day. 104 years later, the black and white photo taken of the Titanic before she set sail still has the ability to send a chill down one’s spine, because her story and the story of the people on board is so gripping and tragic. Many ocean liners and ships have sunk since, but for some reason it is always the Titanic that is the most memorable. Seeing the picture of the final preparations for Titanic’s first and only voyage is like looking at a picture of dead men walking.
This disturbing but very real photograph depicts a time in American history that even now is difficult to stomach. In the United States, lynching as a form of informal punishment by a mob increased after the Civil War. Though it is commonly associated with racial tensions, lynching was also utilized for people of all races, albeit very disproportionately. Between 1882 and 1968, 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 Caucasians were lynched. Lynching declined in the 1930s, and very few happened by the 1960s. Pictured above is a frightening image from August 7, 1930, the night Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana after a mob (one member of whom is actually smiling in this photo) took them from jail and beat them. They were in jail as suspects in a rape, robbery, and murder case. Even so, I don’t think there are many people who could look at these hanging men and not feel troubled even 86 years later.
4. The Second Plane
This sickening photo captures the split second before the second airplane hit the South Tower, instantly killing countless people. What we are looking at here is a number of people’s last second of life, and there will never be a time when this is not a hard image to stomach. It depicts only a fraction of the terror the passengers of the airplane as well as the people in the tower were probably feeling at that moment. We know now that as a result of this coordinated terror attack on the Twin Towers, they would inevitably fall and the death count would total a horrific 2,606 people in or near the towers, as well as the 157 people on both planes. Knowing that makes looking at such a photo even harder. This and all of the pictures taken on September 11, 2001 will probably always invoke within us painful memories of that day, and a fear that it could always happen again.
3. The Klan
One of the scariest images of our time is one of men in a white cloak and pointed hat, especially when they are in a large group or by a burning cross. We all know what that means: the Ku Klux Klan, probably the most hateful group of people in America, and a group who is willing to kill for their beliefs. What is horrifying is that they walk among us every day in plain clothes. Classified as a “subversive or terrorist organization” and a right-wing extremist group, Klan members are approximately 5,000 in number in the United States. Historically, they are responsible for violent crimes such as murder, bombings, arson, lynchings, and shootings in the name of white supremacy and the “purification” of America. They encourage violence toward homosexuals and anyone who is not white and Christian, although all Christian sects have denounced the KKK. Their costume invokes fear even just in photos, and likely always will.
2016 marked the 30-year anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. On April 26, 1986 near the town of Pripyat (in what was then the USSR, but now is Ukraine), a nuclear reactor exploded, and it is classified as the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. 31 deaths are directly attributed to the explosion, those being of two plant staff, and 29 emergency workers. 4,000 cancer deaths were predicted totally. The above view of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is taken from the nearby city of Pripyat. As you can see, the areas surrounding the reactor are abandoned, and have been for some time. It is essentially a ghost town whose image was made even creepier by the 2012 horror film Chernobyl Diaries, and you cannot deny it is a great setting for a scary movie. As we see it here, with the ominous nuclear reactor looming in the background and the dozens of ghostly Soviet-era apartment blocks in the forefront, it looks positively eerie. The Chernobyl disaster and reminders of it such as this are scary for the simple reason that, like many of the things on this list, it could happen again. Unlike all of the other events on this list, however, Chernobyl was neither natural disaster nor the evil of man; the accident was due to human error and a severely-flawed Soviet-era reactor design.
1. Holocaust Victims
Our final frightening photo from history, and the third on this list from World War II, is this photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners, wearing the “striped pajamas” garb that has become symbolic of the war’s largest death camp. There are hundreds of worse photos than this that we have all seen before of emaciated children, bodies piled on top of one another, and people being killed. This photo is not the worst by far, but it encompasses all of the above. Standing behind a wire fence and caged like animals, we know what these girls were going through. But actually, the girls in this picture were a few of the survivors. They were likely spared their lives but lost their loved ones. Alexander Vorontsov was a cameraman with the 1st Ukrainian Front who helped liberate the camp in winter 1945, and he took this iconic photograph just when the world was learning the truth of the concentration camps in Europe. These children were a few of the “lucky” ones, but images such as these still manage to strike fear through the hearts of many, as they should. Because this could be any one of us, and as it has famously been said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”