Finally, the Halloween season is here! While tricks, treats, and other goodies offer a conventional way to celebrate the spookiest time of the year, we like to get creative while we get into the holiday spirit. So, we've conjured up a spellbinding selection of art history's scariest masterpieces.
Featuring symbolic skulls, smiling spiders, and one very famous Scream, this art collection is sure to dazzle art lovers and scare-seekers alike this haunted holiday—one hair-raising work of art at a time.
To celebrate the spooky season of Halloween with an art history twist, we've put together a spine-tingling selection of scary art.
A Spooky Still Life
Modern art master Paul Cézanne painted Pyramid of Skulls at the turn of the century. Featuring only a stack of human skulls as its subject, this piece offers an ominous alternative to the artist's more traditional still life paintings of fruits and bottles.
While such eerie iconography was not typical of Post-Impressionism, artists had been incorporating skulls and other symbols of mortality into arrangements of objects since ancient times. Defined as memento mori, a Latin title that translates to “remember that you have to die,” this genre of painting focuses on the fleeting nature of life.
As he approached old age, Cézanne became increasingly fascinated by death. From 1898 until the end of his life in 1905, Cézanne painted several still lifes of skulls. While most of these depictions do not focus solely on the skeletal objects, Pyramid of Skulls places them at the forefront, forcing the viewer to confront them and, consequently, reflect upon death. “These bony visages all but assault the viewer,” art historian Françoise Cachin said, “displaying an assertiveness very much at odds with the usual reserve of domestic still life tableaux.”
A Mythological Monster
Between 1819 and 1823, the Spanish artist Francisco Goya created his Black Paintings, a series of 14 particularly haunting pieces. Among the most famous of these frightening works of art is Saturn Devouring His Son, a gruesome painting of a father feasting on his child.
According to Roman mythology, Saturn (Cronus in Greek folklore) was the leader of the Titans. Saturn overthrew his father, Caelus, in an effort to become ruler of the universe. Fearing his own offspring would do the same, he killed and consumed each child shortly after birth—an atrocity Goya opted to portray in this Black Painting.
Goya did not create this series for the public. In fact, they were intended to decorate his own home, with Saturn Devouring His Son hanging—where else?—in the dining room.
The paintings of Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi are characterized by a deep color palette, a skilled use of light and shadow, and, most prominently, an iconographic focus on suffering female figures seeking—and getting—revenge. A painting that typifies this approach is Judith Slaying Holofernes, a masterpiece inspired by a tale from the Old Testament that sees a vengeful widow decapitating a threatening man.
When contextualized (within the context of the bible), Gentileschi's decision to portray the gory scene in graphic detail is not particularly unusual—especially for drama-loving Baroque artists. What sets Judith Slaying Holofernes apart from other allegorical paintings of the period, however, is that Gentileschi most likely snuck a sneaky portrait into the grisly piece, as the slain Holofernes bears a striking resemblance to Agostino Tassi, a fellow Italian artist who raped Gentileschi when she was 17 years old.
An Electrifying Event
In the early 1960s, Pop Art founder Andy Warhol pioneered silkscreen painting. Crafted using a combination of acrylic paint and the silkscreen method—a mechanical printmaking process in which the artist transferred paintings on canvas onto paper–these works allowed the artist to translate photographs as multiple, “mass produced” works.
While Warhol's most famous silkscreen paintings feature popular celebrities and everyday objects as their subjects, his series took a darker turn in 1962, when he started his Death and Disasters series. Featuring everything from devastating car accidents to poisonous cans of tuna to a Big Electric Chair (a painting inspired by a press photograph from the prison where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed), this collection of works speaks to Warhol's morbid interest in—and desensitization to— current events.
“When you see a gruesome picture over and over again,” the artist said, “it doesn’t really have an effect.”
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is known for her collection of 55 self-portraits. While her most well-known works feature the artist as an adult, she also portrayed herself as a child in Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone).
This peculiar piece depicts a young girl standing before a barren landscape. In her hand, she holds a single yellow flower and, on her face, she wears a skull mask. Both of these props are characteristic of Día de los Muertos—or Day of the Dead— prompting the viewer to reflect upon themes related to death. Finally, a beastly mask rests at her feet, adding even more mystery to the chilling painting.
Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone) was painted in 1938—the year before her dramatic divorce from fellow artist Diego Rivera. Like many works created during this time, this piece was likely inspired by Kahlo's feelings of isolation and loneliness. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone,” the artist famously said, “because I am the person I know best.”
Visited by the Skeleton Specter
Edo period artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi created the woodblock print Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter, in which a giant skeleton looms over two samurais as a woman reads a scroll in the wings. The unsettling image is based on a story from the Heian period in Japan that took place in 939 CE.
At that time, samurai warlord Taira no Masakado traveled from his home in Kantō and led an army to rally against the central government in Kyoto. He eventually tried to set up an “Eastern Court” in Shimōsa Province but was defeated and decapitated. His daughter, Princess Takiyasha, continued to live in the family’s shōen, turning to witchcraft and studying dark magic.
Kuniyoshi's piece shows her reading a spell to bring forth a Gashadokuro, a spirit that takes the form of a giant skeleton. It looks over Ōya Taro Mitsukuni and another samurai who were both sent to get the princess. Their plans were foiled by the haunting spirit.
A Creepy-Crawly Creature
In 1887, French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon created The Smiling Spider, a lithograph of an unusual arachnid with ten legs. Still, even with this extra set of limbs, the most peculiar thing about this spider is its unsettling grin, which the artist has delineated with a row of tiny teeth.
The Smiling Spider is one of many noirs, or “blacks” created by Redon between 1870 and 1890. Rendered in charcoal and as lithographs, these pieces illustrate the artist's interest in the obscure and, most importantly, are characterized by darkness—both in color and subject matter.
“Black is the most essential color,” Redon said. “It conveys the very vitality of a being, his energy, his mind, something of his soul, the reflection of his sensitivity. One must respect black. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and it awakens no sensuality. It is the agent of the mind far more than the most beautiful color of the palette or prism.”
A “Scream Passing Through Nature”
Expressionist artist Edvard Munch is renowned for his dark and dreary paintings and prints. From 1893 until 1910, he produced his most famous masterpiece, The Scream, as a series of 4 works.
During this 17-year period, Munch recreated The Scream in crayon, tempera paint, and oil pastel. While the mediums vary from piece-to-piece, each one features the same subject matter: a mysterious figure standing on a bridge and holding his face as he screams.
While this scene appears dream-like, it was actually inspired by a real-life location and a particularly frightening phenomenon. “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below,” Munch wrote in his diary. “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.”
A Bad Dream
Henry Fuseli was a leading figure of Romanticism, a 19th-century art movement defined by dreamy iconography. In his most famous (and aptly named) painting, The Nightmare, Fuseli delves into the scary side of the subconscious.
This spine-tingling work of art shows a sleeping woman with an incubus—a male demon that preys upon women as they sleep—perched on her body. A ghostly horse emerges from behind a red velvet curtain, forming the only perceivable part of the blackened background.
Most art historians believe that The Nightmare was inspired by German folktales. According to legend, men who slept alone were visited by horse specters, while lone women were possessed by demons or the devil. By incorporating both of these frightening figures in the composition, Fuseli visually represents the manifestation of a living nightmare.
Death is Victorious
For many, few things are scarier than death itself. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1562 painting The Triumph of Death, an army of skeletons consumes the barren landscape that's on fire and absolutely wrecked. The army destroys the living and they have no chance of achieving salvation. Highly detailed and gruesome, the piece begs a long look to truly take in the unsettling sights of pure chaos.
This piece was a “moral work” by Bruegel and influenced by the idea of the Dance of Death. Also called the Danse Macabre, it's based on a medieval artistic allegory that death unites us all, no matter our station in life.
A Monstrous Beauty
Caravaggio drew on the ancient Greek myth of Medusa for this frightening painting. It depicts the severed head of Medusa, a mythical monster who's described as a female woman with bronze hands and countless venomous snakes for hair. Legend has it that anyone who even so much as glanced at her would be turned to stone. Medusa was cursed by the Greek goddess Athena, who turned her into the venomous monster she became. Perseus, son of Greek god Zeus and princess Danae, decapitated Medusa using a shield given by Athena.
Caravaggio made two versions of his Medusa painting—one in 1596 and the other in 1597. In this work, Caravaggio used a mirror and painted his own face in the place of Medusa. He did so to indicate his immunity to her terrified expression. Though the head is decapitated, it still appears conscious, capturing Medusa's final horrific moments. Blood pours out from her severed neck, while her mouth hangs wide open, baring teeth.
A Surreal Scene
Though he lived 500 years ago, Hieronymus Bosch remains the master of the macabre. The Early Netherlandish Renaissance artist is known for his surreal paintings of otherworldly settings—like the fantastic and frightening Garden of Earthly Delights.
While little is known about the origins of this this topsy-turvy triptych, it remains Bosch's most resonant works of art. Featuring hybrid animals, make-believe machines, and everything in between, the chaotic painting strikes a perfect balance between eye-catching peculiarity and nightmare-inducing horrors—especially when observed in detail.
A whimsical interpretation of the Bible's Story of Creation, the Garden of Earthly Delights proves that any subject can be scary if given a surreal twist.