It’s pretty common for we the people to get spooked out by a book or a movie. Sometimes a TV show will pull it off, and on the super rare occasion, a song can give us the wiggins.
What we don’t discuss very often when it comes to sending shivers down our spines is paintings. Unlike a movie or book or any other form of art, paintings capture not just a moment, but a moment as imagined in the rawest form. Paintings have no beginning or ending, they exist only in that frame, the power of the work never blinking, never moving to the next moment. In all other art, we are given a build up and a come down from the moment – a horror movie isn’t just endless scares – but with a painting, there is only the moment of fear forever trapped on the canvas.
So it is now that we invite you – no, we dare you – to gaze upon these fifteen pieces of painted art and see if your mind can handle them. Turn off the lights, put on some creepy music, and gaze into the abyss of the artistic minds of madmen. And if you feel like these paintings are entering into your brain… into your soul… repeat to yourself that they are just pixels on a screen that capture the oils and acrylics used by the artists. These images can’t come after you. They can’t, no matter what you think, escape from their frames and forever haunt your dreams.
Or can they?
15. Saturn Devouring His Son
Francisco Goya made a name for himself painting relatively normal works. His colors were bright, and his portraits regularly featured happy people. In 1793, this all changed. Goya went deaf after an illness, and the loss of his hearing sent him into a deep depression. In 1799, Goya published 80 Caprichos, a series of etchings that, unlike the work he did as a court painter, were filled with dark images.
Goya’s mental state further eroded, with the one-two punch of a war between the French and Spanish ruining his court painter career and the death of his wife in 1812. In 1819, the deaf painter moved into a house he called Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf Man). Here, he began a series that he called The Black Paintings. These paintings were done on the walls of his home, never intended to be sold.
The most famous of the Black Paintings – Saturn Devours His Son – was painted in the dining room, because when you’re sitting down for a meal, what you really want to look at is a Greek god eating one of his own kids.
14. Wicked Woman
If you thought we would be leaving Francisco Goya behind, boy were you wrong! Goya’s Wicked Woman, which he created in the same period as the Black Paintings, features a ghoulish seemingly bald woman who, having already finished her soup, is moving on to the main course of eating a baby.
This image – the idea of the old feasting on the young to survive – has never been captured in such a terrifying fashion. The titular woman does not appear to find any joy in what she is doing, suggesting that for her it is nothing more than routine. The way she holds the baby is unsettling as well, and not just because she isn’t supporting the head!
Adding to the creepiness of it all is the lack of color, with only blots of red that may or may not have been done by Goya on purpose. Is it red wine that the artist spilled while he worked, or could it be blood placed by Goya to further add to the horror?
13. The Ghost Of A Flea
In 1819, poet and painter William Blake attended a seance where, according to Blake’s pal John Varley, the artist claimed he could see a strange figure. Blake called the figure “Flea” and, while he never told Varley, he had seen the creature before in his home.
Blake’s painting captures the image of the creature he claimed to see – a scaly humanoid figure who drank blood. Blake claimed that Flea told him that his kind, actual fleas, were inhabited by the souls of such men who were “by nature bloodthirsty to excess”.
Throughout his life, William Blake claimed to see many odd things. When he was a child, he saw a tree filled with angels. When he worked, he believed that, along with other angels, some rather famous men would visit him – men like Moses. Of all the spirits that came to Blake, Flea was the only one that frightened him. When he first encountered the creature, Blake ran from his home.
12. Electric Chair
When we think of the artist Andy Warhol, we think of bright colors and soup. We think of a man who turned pop culture into masterpieces and changed food packaging forever.
And while that vision of Warhol’s work mostly stands up, the artist wasn’t afraid to get spooky with it, as he did with Electric Chair. The piece, which showcases an electric chair sitting in the center of an empty room as it waits for a visitor. In the upper right-hand corner is a sign that reads “Silence”. Is it a request for those who are there to witness the death of a man, or what will surely come to those who sit in the high backed chair with their arms and legs strapped down?
The piece was screen-printed with silver acrylic paint over green paint, giving it a very unsettling feeling. The darkness edging in from the sides and top create an almost claustrophobic essence while drawing our eye to the chair and all the connotations that come with it.
11. Severed Heads
In college, I took a painting class. I wasn’t a bad painter, but I sure wasn’t very good. Maybe part of my problem was that I tended to paint basic things like apples or flowers in a vase. It never occurred to me to do a still-life of a couple of severed human heads.
That kind of thinking is why Théodore Géricault is a famous artist and I’m not. Oh, and the talent – the guy is way more talented than I ever could have been.
Géricault’s Severed Heads is part of a series the artist did of dismembered human remains. These works started when Géricault began visiting the Hospital Beaujon in Paris so that he could work on his anatomy skills. Géricault came to find beauty in the dead bodies and decided to capture their essence for all to see. This, I can only imagine, made for some very uncomfortable conversations on first dates or at dinner parties.
10. Judith Beheading Holofernes
Caravaggio’s painting takes a moment from the Book of Judith in the Bible and brings it to life in a very colorful and very nasty way. In the story, Judith, irritated by her fellow Jewish countrymen sitting around complaining instead of dealing with the Assyrian invasion lead by Holofernes, decides to take matters into her own capable hands. Judith ingratiates herself to Holofernes, waits for him to get drunk, then cuts off the general’s head.
Caravaggio wasn’t the first person to paint Judith and Holofernes, but he was the first to paint the moment where Judith was actively cutting off the guy’s head. What makes Caravaggio’s painting stand out as super creepy is the look on Judith’s face. She is emotionless as she cuts into Holofernes’ neck. Her expression is more like that of a kid dissecting a frog than it is a woman killing a man to save her people.
9. Le Suicidé
Édouard Manet isn’t known for “dark”. His paintings, most of them at least, capture the more innocent and calm moments of French life in the second half of the nineteenth century. From time to time, like with The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, Manet would paint a moment of violence, but he never put too much, if any, blood in his paintings.
Then came Le Suicidé. The painting itself is a bit of a mystery. Created towards the end of Manet’s life, the piece is unlike anything else the artist had done. The pool of blood on the floor, as well as the blood on the man’s shirt, stands out as very un-Manet, as does the face of the dead man in the painting – his mouth agape as if he died gasping for air.
Adding to the oddity of the painting is that no one is sure if Manet painted this from imagination or from real life. Some believe the painting is of an assistant or friend of Manet’s who took his own life, while other art historians are sure this is Manet expressing his own feelings as his health was deteriorating and painting was becoming harder and harder for him.
8. The Triumph Of Death
Some four hundred years before heavy metal, Pieter Bruegel the Elder was painting images that would make for some awesome album covers. Here, with The Triumph of Death, Bruegel the Elder depicts an army of skeletons straight up massacring people on the shores of a destroyed land as the horizon turns red and black from the fires on the other side of the hills.
Of all the horrific imagery in this painting, the two that really stand out to us are in the bottom left-hand corner where a skeleton wears a human flesh mask and in the lower center where a freakishly skinny dog is eating the face of a baby.
Bruegel the Elder painted this not very pleasant conversation piece after witnessing the second outbreak of the Black Death in his lifetime. Three years after finishing this piece, Bruegel the Elder would be dead himself.
7. Wounded Soldier
World War One left a nightmarish mark on artist Otto Dix, and he worked to rid himself of those hellish dreams through his work. Wounded Soldier is perhaps his most terrifying work.
The piece, an image taken from Dix’s own experience as he watched a soldier next to him get shot and fall to the ground dead – shows the agony of war in the exaggerated eyes and mouth of the dying man as he grasps at his wound. The dirt trench surrounding the man as he lies dying creates an uneasy claustrophobic feeling, and the soldier’s contorted body tells us of the screams of pain that we can not hear.
The lack of color, leaving us with only blacks, whites, and grays, forces us to truly look at the art, taking the almost cartoonish style and making it feel all too real, leaving the soldier’s pained expression forever burned into our memories.
6. Head I
Seriously, if you can look at Francis Bacon’s painting and not feel freaked out, you may need to see a therapist. This image is the stuff of nightmares recreated with paints on a canvas, forever sitting there waiting to scar the innocent minds of children whose teachers brought them to an art museum to get some culture.
Why this is called Head I and not Freakishly Screaming Mouth I is beyond me. The color choices just add to the terror, with the head in question done in a grayish blue and the walls of the room black. There is no sense of goodness or hope here, only insanity and dread.
If you stare at Head I long enough, you can almost hear the tortured, mutated scream that comes from the monstrous mouth, and if you do hear it deep within your mind, a shiver is sure to travel up your spine.
5. Head I, 2000
In 1995, artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the next eight years, Utermohlen created a series of self-portraits. As the disease ravaged his mind, Utermohlen’s style changed drastically. When he started the journey, Utermohlen’s style was realistic, but by the end, his work was unrecognizable.
Utermohlen’s work is a heartbreaking look at what Alzheimer’s does to a person’s mind. When you look at the series, with each painting becoming more and more childlike, it is impossible to keep from thinking about the artists, and your own, mortality.
Utermohlen passed away in 2007, but his work will live on, not only as great pieces of art that showcase the fragility of mankind, but as a way for researchers to learn more about the terrible disease that took his life.
4. Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X
Frances Bacon, who you may remember from Head I, took his creepy screaming head concept and brought it to other people’s paintings in a series he called Screaming Popes. In this case, Bacon took Diego Velázquez’s painting of Pope Innocent X and turned it into a literal nightmare.
Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X takes the original painting, which Velázquez did in a realistic style, and transforms it into something that you may expect to see in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Pope is screaming as he is enshrouded by dark yet transparent curtains. His golden throne appears to be turning into a cage of a sort, going through the Pope’s legs, trapping him there for an eternity.
3. Gallowgate Lard
Scottish painter Ken Currie created this eerie self-portrait in 1995, giving himself a face only a mother could love – and even then only if that mother was the Crypt Keeper.
Currie made his name by creating works inspired by his upbringing in a working-class family in Scotland, depicting the hardships of urban life in the country. His goal in the creation of Gallowgate Lard was to capture the struggle for survival and I know that, when I look at it, I fear for my life. The idea of waking up to see that face in the darkness is the definition of a nightmare.
Along with a thick layer of oil paints, Currie mixed in beeswax to give the painting a more realistic flesh-like look. The result is an amazingly unsettling image of a face, the black eyes and dark red lips inducing nightmares in the millions of people who have gazed upon it.
2. The Deterioration Of Mind Over Matter
Have you ever had that nightmare where your head starts to rot away and underneath is a birdcage? No? Well, thanks to Otto Rapp, you very well may tonight.
Otto Rapp’s The Deterioration Of Mind Over Matter is nothing but frightening. The head, most of it rotted away with just one eye still looking forward and a section of skull being held together by a safety pin, isn’t just terrifying, it brings out a sense of sadness, of loss. The open cage door with the unattached, dry tongue sticking out suggests that, at one time, there was something inside that has since left.
The dark nude figures standing below looking at the head almost as if they worship it bring about a feeling of dread. Are we those figures, worshipping a dead and decaying god who was nothing more than a shell for something long since lost?
1. Pogo The Clown
A quick look at the painting Pogo the Clown and you can probably tell that the artist is not really up to the standards of everyone else here. So why is it here? Why is it #1 on a list of nightmare inducing paintings? Sure, clowns are creepy, but not that creepy right?
This one is.
Pogo the Clown is a self-portrait done by John Wayne Gacy Jr., the man who killed at least thirty-three teenage boys over the course of six years.
Gacy owned a construction company, but whenever the chance arose, he dressed as Pogo for children’s parties, fundraisers, parades or any other event that came around. Gacy designed his clown costumes himself as well as his own make-up. An interesting note to Gacy’s clown make-up is that Pogo had sharp corners to his eyes and mouth, while clowns usually have rounded edges – sharp edges tend to make people uncomfortable and scare children. Apparently, it also denotes that the clown is a serial killer.