Some images stick in your mind forever. There’s a compelling quality about them that you just can’t forget. Since the dawn of photographic technology, photographers have tried to create those kinds of memorable images on purpose using their art. But sometimes, what’s memorable about a photograph is the subject itself and not the craft of the person behind the lens.
We’ve delved into history to come up with 20 photographs that will stick in your head forever. They cover some of the most haunting, disturbing, and even disgusting moments since the time that photography began. The dead, the demented, the hopeless, the obsessed — photography captures the drama and the emotion of pivotal moments in history just as accurately as it can document the absurdities of everyday life.
You may want to have a GIF of fuzzy kittens or puppies on hand to purify your soul and cleanse your eyes after you take a walk down this dark path of 20 of the creepiest photographs we’ve ever seen.
20. Who Needs Safety Regulations?
The California Alligator Farm opened in 1907 in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and became a hugely popular attraction during the 1920s. For a 25-cent admission fee, you could check out the gators doing tricks on a slide, take a photograph of your kid riding on top of one or petting one, and even buy an alligator handbag in the gift shop. There were hundreds of gators in the park, and people strolled around with them, swam with them, and took pictures with them. Surprisingly, there were only a few incidents of people being bitten, and none of children being eaten, although neighbors did complain of the animals bellowing at night, and they occasionally woke up to find the beasts in their backyards. Eventually, the alligator farm moved to Buena Park and closed not long after.
19. Soccer Fans Crush
The Hillsborough Disaster took place on April 15, 1989 after a semi-final soccer match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The game was sold out with more than 53,000 fans in attendance. Because of violence between fans at previous games, there was a strict policy of separating the two groups, and Liverpool supporters were given one end of the stadium. That meant more than 10,000 fans were coming and going through only seven wickets. Once inside, they were separated into different sections and herded via tunnels to their seats. Fans began to gather at the Liverpool fans’ entrance, and the going was slow, leading to a crush of those still to make their way through just before game time. One of the exit gates was opened in hopes of alleviating the pressure, but it only led to more chaos as the congestion began to build up inside the tunnels. As the game began, there was a rush to the seats, and fans began to fall on top of each other. All in all, 96 people were killed and 766 others injured in the horrific event.
18. 19th Century Medical Experiments
Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne was a neurologist who lived and worked in Paris in the early 1800s. He’s considered a pioneer in the field of electrophysiology; however, we feel that his victims… er, test subjects, deserve just as much credit as the good doctor. This photograph, taken during the 1850s, shows him using electrical probes to stimulate the muscles in the test subject’s face. To his credit, Dr. Duchenne was obviously devoted to his study. He’d go to hospitals in Paris looking for patients with neuromuscular diseases. He documented and diagnosed many disorders, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which bears his name. He was also one of the first physicians to use photography to illustrate his work, including this image, which appeared in one of his books.
17. Victorian Insane Asylum
Looking at this picture, we can all be thankful that we don’t live in Victorian England, and in particular, that we don’t live there with a mental illness. If you found yourself in the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum near Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1869, you may have taken part in one of the “treatments” shown. Chief neurologist Sir James Crichton-Browne took the pics and left detailed notes on patients’ diagnoses for conditions they called “imbecility,” “simple mania,” and “acute melancholia.” Here’s the kicker: for the time, the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum was actually one of the first institutions to try and use scientific methods and evidence to treat mental illness and paved the way for ethical treatments. But we suspect that may have happened after this pic was taken.
16. The Most Disturbing Ventriloquist’s Dummy Ever
Born in Southampton, England, in 1826, William James Harding emigrated to New Zealand in 1855, and set up a photography studio in Wanganui, where he settled for a time. Eventually, he left for Sydney to live with a daughter, abandoning his studio and leaving a cache of photographs, including this extremely disturbing shot of a man named Lieutenant Herman and his ventriloquist dummy from hell. The picture was taken in 1870, and that’s about all we know about it, perhaps fortunately. We have no idea why this Lieutenant Herman would have made a ventriloquist’s dummy that looks like it was made from parts he dug out of graves or who in god’s name would have ever found this entertaining. Those Victorians sure knew how to have fun.
15. Mussolini’s Fascist Party HQ
Imagine going to work each day, having to rush by this chilling building front. Benito Mussolini created the Fascist Party in Italy in 1919 and ruled the country as Prime Minister from 1922 to 1943, entering into World War II as an ally of Hitler’s Germany. The Palazzo Braschi in Rome was turned into the headquarters of the local Fascist Party Federation and decorated as the picture shows just in time for the elections of 1934. In terms of “election,” there was only one party, the Fascists, naturally, and your choices as a voter included a list of candidates prepared by Mussolini himself. The letters across the building, SI SI or YES YES, was meant to err… encourage voters on which way to go. Your only option was to vote either yes or no to the entire list — not individual candidates.
14. Shadow Remains At Hiroshima
Did you know that when you’re vaporized by a bomb blast with the energy of about 15 kilotons of TNT or 63 TJ that you virtually disappear — except for one, small shadowy trace? We know this, unfortunately, because we’ve done this. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 dropped a uranium atomic bomb dubbed “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing about 60,000 to 70,000 people and injuring 140,000 more, along with destroying over 60,000 buildings and irradiating about 100,000 people. Of those who died immediately as a result of the blast, all that remain are these sad, black shadows. The following day, another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, and on September 2, the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed, which essentially ended World War II.
13. Subway Victim
In April 2012, the New York Post caused a controversy after the front page ran a photograph that had been taken of a man who’d been pushed onto the subway tracks — and would be killed seconds later. The 58-year-old man from Queens was desperately trying to get back up on the platform when the pic was snapped, and onlookers on the platform were screaming and waving their arms, trying to catch the attention of the Q train’s driver. The following day, a 30-year-old man confessed to the crime of having pushed the unsuspecting man he didn’t know onto the tracks. While the picture seems heartless, in actual fact, a freelance photographer from the Post happened to be on the platform, and he was trying to set the flash off repeatedly to alert the train operator. The man was crushed between the train and the platform as the train eventually came to a stop.
12. Shell-shocked Soldier
War is hell. You can say it a million times and watch all those gory movies about life on the battlefield, but when you see real pictures of warfare as it happened, you get the true picture. And there’s nothing pretty about it. This isn’t about heroics and noble gestures for your country and your brothers and sisters in arms — it’s madness. It’s a soldier who’s seen so much mind-numbing violence that his mind did, in fact, go numb. This photograph of a shell-shocked soldier was taken during World War I at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which was part of the so-called Somme Offensive of September 1916. British and French forces were attempting a pushback against the German 1st Army that ultimately failed to achieve the decisive victory the allied forces had hoped for but led to huge losses on both sides. It was a bloody battle in one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history, resulting in 130,000 casualties on the German side alone, among about a million deaths attributed to the Somme Offensive overall.
11. A Beautiful S—-de
The now-defunct LIFE magazine was renowned for its often spectacular photography. In May 1947, they gave a full page to this photo taken by a photography student by the name of Robert Wiles, the picture depicting the ‘beautiful’ suicide of 23-year-old Evelyn McHale. Evelyn had spent the day with her fiancé, and after they went their separate ways, she wrote a note stating, “He is much better off without me… I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody.” She crossed the note out, apparently having second thoughts, but then went to the observation platform of the Empire State Building on the 86th floor and threw herself off the edge. She landed on a United Nations limousine. Evelyn, somehow, looks peaceful amid the destruction of the landing.
10. Sinister Clown
Clowns are creepy enough, even without trying. Actor Lon Chaney is best known nowadays for the silent horror films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In the 1924 silent film, He Who Gets Slapped, he played an embittered scientist who is betrayed and becomes a clown. His act, as you might have guessed, consisted of getting slapped around by the other clowns in a kind of masochistic fantasy. The plot is convoluted and involves a beautiful girl and an evil Baron. He Who Gets Slapped ends up saving the girl and is vindicated in the end, but we’re not really buying the happy ending. How can you come back to normal from this gig?
9. Man’s Usefulness Ends Not In Death
How’d you like this crack medical team to work on you? Taken at an unnamed American university in 1901, it depicts four med students working on their anatomy lessons with a cadaver. There was such a burgeoning interest in anatomy and medicine in the 1800s that finding cadavers became a problem, one that was often solved by illegal means. Graves were robbed, and in one infamous case in the UK, people were even murdered for their bodies. In the US, there was a thriving trade in grave-robbing from the south, taking the bodies of deceased slaves north to sell to medical schools. Unclaimed bodies — those of the poor, in other words, — were made fair game for medical schools by law in the 1830s, leaving the rich to rest in peace.
8. How Cold Do You Have To Be?
The Bosnian War raged between Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 and resulted in a number of horrific incidents, many fueled by ethnic tensions between Serbian Christians and Bosniak Muslims. One of them was the so-called Bijeljina massacre that occurred when a Serbian paramilitary group called “Arkan’s Tigers” invaded the Bosnian town of Bijeljina, killing Muslim Bosniaks. According to the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, about 1,040 people were slaughtered in the town. One of the witnesses to the massacre was a photojournalist named Ron Haviv, who had been invited on-site by the leader of the paramilitary group. Haviv took this picture of one of the Serbian militiamen kicking a woman who was already hit and dying on the ground. After it was published, Arkan, the militia leader, put a death warrant on the photographer’s head.
7. The Unluckiest Cosmonaut
That charred, twisted shape in the coffin is all that remains of Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. The Russians knew of more than 200 issues with the Soyuz 1 spacecraft but pushed through the launch anyway at the insistence of Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union at the time. He wanted to stage a spectacular feat by having Komarov actually crawl from one spaceship to another in time for the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution. Komarov and his friend, fellow astronaut Yuri Gagarin, both knew the mission was doomed. Komarov had the option to back out, but he didn’t, knowing that his friend Gagarin would have replaced him. Instead, he put his life on the line and lost large. Among countless other problems, the Soyuz 1 capsule’s parachutes failed to open when it began its descent into the atmosphere. It’s not like Vladimir didn’t know what was coming. The United States National Security Agency was eavesdropping and heard the cosmonaut tell Kremlin officials that he was going to die. He spoke to the Russian Premier and left a message for his wife and children. American intelligence observers noted that their surveillance picked up Komarov’s “cries of rage” as the capsule plunged into the atmosphere, incinerating him.
6. The Evil Of King Leopold Of Belgium
It’s hard to really grasp what’s going on in this photograph. A father is looking at the hand and foot that were brutally cut off from his young daughter. Why? Because he failed to deliver his daily quota of caoutchouc or rubber. This occurred between 1885 and 1908, when King Leopold II of Belgium became the largest private landowner in the world when he stole an enormous chunk of Central Africa — what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo — right out from the people who lived there. The King was crafty, sending in fake humanitarian missions to scout out prime rubber plant territory. He’d then kidnap the women and children of a village and force the men to work for him. And the results if you couldn’t live up to the quota, as we can see, were dire. King Leopold II of Belgium was a monster on par with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or any other greedy madman throughout history. He used his wealth to keep the whole thing a secret from the outside world for years by bribing newspapers and other media. When word got out finally, what was King Leopold’s punishment? The Belgian state bought him out of the country to the tune of millions of dollars.
5. The Young Pioneers
As creepy as this image looks, it was actually meant to be a PR pic testifying to the rugged readiness of the Russian people no matter what the circumstances. The image of kids in gas masks was taken by a photographer by the name of Victor Bulla in Leningrad in 1937. It was about four years before the infamous Nazi Siege of Leningrad that cut the city off from the outside for nearly two and a half years during World War II or the Great Patriotic War, as it was known in Russia. The Young Pioneers was an organization for Russian youths 10 to 15 years of age during the Soviet era, lasting from 1922 to 1991. Think of them as a Russian version of Scouts, with a key link to the military during the war, including battle-ready preparedness.
4. Suffocating Smog
This is not an optical illusion. This is good old thick, stinky smog. Taken in January 2014, this picture shows the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has a pollution problem; it’s undeniable. Its population has exploded over the last few decades, and along with it, the number of cars and other vehicles on the road, with many using low-grade fuel during these tough times. The blanket of smog is pretty much a permanent fixture in Kazakhstan’s largest city, hovering over the valley while the snowcapped mountain peaks around it are clear. The city’s tall buildings have eroded green spaces and changed wind patterns, contributing to the problem. To compound the issue, the geography and climate cause what is called a temperature inversion — warm air rises above the cold air, trapping the layer of pollution low to the ground over the city so it doesn’t disperse.
3. A Catalog Of Skulls And Bones
Pol Pot was leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), also known as the Khmer Rouge. When the CPK seized power of Cambodia in 1975, it began one of the most brutal regimes in history. With paranoid Pol Pot at the helm, the party set about killing and massacring anyone they saw as rivals. Essentially, the entire country was turned into a massive graveyard for hundreds of thousands of people who were slaughtered by the radical Marxist regime, and that included CPK members and even senior leaders who fell afoul of the demented leader. To put it into perspective, if three people got together and talked, they could all be arrested and executed for being enemies of the state. By 1979, Vietnamese troops entered the capital, Phnom Penh, and ended the reign of terror — but the remains of all the dead were waiting to be dug up from mass graves now put on display as a reminder of the dark period in Cambodian history.
2. Self-immolating Monk
In 1963, against the backdrop of the ongoing war between North and South, the South Vietnamese government went to war against most of its citizens. Buddhists, who made up about 90 percent of the population, were alienated by acts like the banning of their flag. Protests erupted, and nine of the protesters were killed by government forces. The unrest had been going on for a month already when foreign media got the notice to show up near the Cambodian embassy on the morning of June 11, 1963, so many skipped the invitation. One of those who did was Malcolm Browne, then the Saigon bureau chief for AP, who took this haunting picture of the moment a 65-year-old monk named Thich Quang Duc calmly set himself on fire as a form of protest, aided by a crowd of about 350 other Buddhist monks and nuns who had arrived in a procession. After dousing him with gasoline, the other monks stepped back as Thich took out beads, said a prayer, and lit the match. The image was widely circulated and did create a great deal of visibility for the plight of the people under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated later that year. The photo won Browne a Pulitzer Prize.
1. Burial Of Unknown Child – Bhopal, India
On December 2, 1984, there was an accident at the pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, run by a US-based multinational company called Union Carbide. The accident resulted in a leak of highly toxic gasses, including methyl isocyanate. The cloud of poisonous gas blanketed the shantytown that surrounded the factory, and its impoverished inhabitants paid the price as they slept. The official death toll is estimated at 15,000, with thousands more becoming sick as the gasses left eyes and throats burning. Many victims were left blinded by the damage like the little girl being buried in the picture. Hearing and speech disorders were also common. Even now, decades later, there’s still toxic material onsite, and there have been reports of many births involving physically and mentally disabled children.