From true crime to haunted houses to the endless dramatization of serial killers, people enjoy feeling scared (at least on their own terms), a creepy fascination that extends to spooky art. And with Halloween right around the corner, the evidence of our collective love for exploring emotional limits abounds. Horror movie nights with close friends. The eerie zombie graveyard taking over the neighbor’s lawn. The adrenaline rush we experience is something we’re hardwired to relish and seek out.
So how do we define scary art? Is it an atmosphere? An ominous palette? The retelling of a horrifying tale? Do we recoil at the sight of monsters? Or at the reminder of our own mortality? In a chilling celebration of the season, let’s take a look at spooky art through a historical lens and see how it influences contemporary artists here at Artrepreneur.
Horror in Ancient Greece
The ancient Greeks used at least three different words to describe fear, each with its own distinct nuance. The word that Aristotle used most frequently, phoberon, is derived from a root that means to run away, a descriptor that perfectly captures our animal brains being coerced into a fight or flight response. Another term, phrike, means tremor or shivering, and it shares the same stem as the verb to tremble, another perfect interpretation of the physicality inherent in fear.
These words were widely used in ancient tragedies, which fed our earliest fascination for all things blood and gore. From Homer’s terrifying Gorgon, whose face was so hideous it turned men into stone, to Odysseus’ trip to Hades and the blood sacrifice of a ram to return home, these stories captured the imagination and were reflected everywhere in the visual landscape. In fact, we can still view ceramics, statues, and ancient murals retelling these tales, allowing us a glimpse into what stoked fear in the ancient world.
Early Depictions of Death in Christian Catacombs
Our most common fear is one that is shared almost universally: the fear of death. And yet it is something that, regardless of status or influence, no one is able to avoid. Perhaps it is for this reason that there is such an overlap between death and aesthetics.
In the fifth century CE, early Roman Christians buried their members in catacombs decorated with a repertoire of predominantly Biblical imagery. But interestingly, the images chose not to focus on the loss of the living. Instead, the work expresses the deep-seated hope that we and our loved ones may one day be resurrected. Even beyond the grave, our fear of death shapes our cultural ethos and values, a phenomenon that influences most of us, regardless of our religious affiliations.
Vanitas and Memento Mori
From fantastical monsters to boldly placed symbols reminding us of our own mortality, there is no shortage of spooky art imagery in the classical canon.
“Vanitas” (derived from a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity) and “Memento Mori” (which comes from a Latin phrase meaning Remember you must die) are still lifes specifically dedicated to reminding us of human frailty and fragility. Both beautiful and macabre, these genres typically include symbols such as skulls and extinguished candles to tantalize the eye and stir the soul. The major difference between the two? While both rely on traditional symbols of death, vanitas will also include more frivolous imagery, such as musical instruments or books, to remind us of the vanity — or worthlessness — of worldly pleasures.
Monsters in Classical Art
How do we define a monster? It’s a fun concept to explore: monsters exist in ancient religions and lore, while real live monsters can terrorize a community and dominate a news cycle.
In Goya’s celebrated Saturn Devouring his Son, we see a father (Saturn) consuming his own offspring out of fear that he might one day be overthrown. In Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, we encounter hundreds of impossible creatures that warn us of an unfortunate afterlife should we be consumed with passion, pleasure, and other superficialities. And in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, we see a vengeful woman decapitating a violent man, a story from the Old Testament that also facilitated the artist’s own moment of revenge: it is speculated that the male figure is actually a portrait of the man who raped her when she was 17.
While these specific mentions are far from exhaustive, they begin to paint a picture of how humans have collectively perceived monsters — and feared them — throughout history.
The Victorians: The Ultimate Masters of Spooky Art
If there was anyone who’s embraced a fascination with death, it was the Victorians. In fact, historians have even coined a specific term, “the cult of death,” in order to better characterize the ethos of the time.
Death photography (which is, in fact, another iteration of memento mori) gained prominence in the mid-nineteenth century when the art form was becoming increasingly popular and affordable. Entire families would pose together, including those who had recently passed, creating eerie portraits that seem to exist in a liminal space. Stranger yet? The dead would often be in sharper focus, a result of the long exposure time that was required to take a photograph and, of course, their inability to move.
The Victorians also created bespoke artworks and decorative items from locks of hair, arranging them in an elaborate fashion for wall ornamentation and even wearing them in lockets and rings. Likenesses were also captured in realistic “death masks” that were historically created with wax.
While spooky for some, it might be argued that the Victorian preoccupation with death was, in fact, a healthy way to process and integrate the inevitable. From literal “death beds” that aimed to provide comfort and a final visiting place to working with a Spiritualist medium to commune with the dead, death shaped the aesthetics, day-to-day activities, and cultural dialogue of the time.
Horror in Modern Art
Our preoccupation with fear and horror has not waned over the years. In fact, with the advent of new technologies like photography, film, and even video games, it seems we have more opportunities to trigger our fear response than ever before.
This holds true in the classical art canon, as well.
Damien Hirst’s iconic shark, preserved in formaldehyde with jaws agape, challenges us to consider death. Even the title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, speaks to how the collective’s thinking has changed since the Victorian era. Even when faced with a dead animal, our fear of death refuses to allow us to acknowledge our own inevitable fate.
In his Death and Disasters series, Andy Warhol took inspiration from everyday horrors printed in the local papers. Car crashes, electric chairs, and even cans of tuna fish are removed from their journalistic context and cropped, allowing the artist to explore how visual information can be altered to convey new meanings.
Horror can even live in the mind of the artist. The infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who also moonlighted as a clown-for-hire, created work while he was on death row. The deranged paintings are still a hot ticket item for contemporary collectors, despite their crude execution.
Spooky Art from Artrepreneur Collections
Is this quick tour through art history getting you excited for additional spooky art exploration? You need not look any further than Artrepreneur’s archives. Here are some great places to start.
Both majestic and mysteriously foreboding, Stephan Powys Fowler’s digital masterpieces are a fascinating technical interpretation of decay. The artist explains:
My work discovers structures that emerge from non-linearities, ghostly artifacts, and transcendent imagesPixels are equivalent to brush strokes only when they become visible; I believe digital art is most visceral and successful when it escapes high-res utopia and instead crumbles before the eyes, showing the brittle parts that its sum is greater than.
It is fascinating to think of decay outside of an organic context, and while very different from the more traditional interpretations we’ve explored, it goes without saying that Powys Fowler reminds us of our enduring fragility even in an imagined future.
In a recent interview with Artrepreneur, Moonbound Studio reveals a world that celebrates the softer side of the mysterious and misunderstood. Magical gals and their spooky pals make up this charming universe, and Leitner’s characters always feel real to me – like they’ve been wandering around in my head, and I just need to discover them rather than create them. Enchanted forests, haunted castles, and landscapes filled with paranormal spirits characterize the artist’s work, shaping a universe that highlights our most ancient preoccupations in a totally new and unique way.
When searching for horror, the natural place to start is in the human psyche. And diving deep into surrealist works reveals a treasure trove of images that can raise existential questions within all of us. Artist Pony Ma explains:
My artwork tends to create an imaginary world which has been buried deeply in my mind since my childhood. In my work, I deconstruct iconic pop culture characters then use my own imagination to recreate an image which represents my inner world. People always ask me if there are any stories behind my work and the answer is always the same: ‘No.’
There is something delightfully nihilistic in the “No” that Ma offers as an answer about their work. What if, at the end of the day, everything really is meaningless?
It can be argued that humans are most fearful of what they do not understand and cannot control. Is there any space that encapsulates that sense of uncertainty more than when we’re just moments away from slumber? Kathryn Reichert states:
‘Hypnagogia’ refers to that nebulous, albeit brief, state of consciousness between asleep and awake. The mere minutes spent toeing this threshold are among the most remarkably elusive and least understood tier of the human experience- despite the fact that we all share this experience, usually every day. During this fragmentation of thought, our minds release from the mechanism that inherently demands rationalization. Free of this demand, our dreams, whether narrative or formless, are simply illustrations of our inner truths and vulnerability. Our thoughts are displayed as visual poetry, beautiful and relatable in their openness and a beacon of introspection to those who care to delve deeper into interpretation. What is left is honesty, unfiltered.
While Reichert’s description is undoubtedly poetic and beautiful, allowing the truths of our subconscious to emerge in a totally unfiltered way feels strangely dangerous. What if we reveal a monster within?
It is human nature to categorize and conform, so what happens when were confronted with a radical shift in the perception of the self? Through deformation, concealment, and the use of expressive strokes, Filip Gyurkovsky attempts to let the essence of the unknown and the mysterious emanate from his portraits. Flesh falls away, and the familiar becomes distorted, creating haunting portraits that linger long after the viewer has turned their head.
From monsters in antiquity to grizzly displays of revenge in Renaissance art, we have always looked towards the macabre for thrills and inspiration. And while it seems strange that we may consciously seek out the uncomfortable, it is, eerily, a universal phenomenon. Perhaps it’s the hit of adrenaline we experience challenging boundaries when our environments are ultimately safe and controlled. Or maybe it feels subversive and exciting to gravitate towards what was otherwise conditioned to run from in fear. No matter the reason, one thing is clear: be they ghosts from the past or haunting visions of the future, spooky art is here to stay.
What imagery makes your skin crawl? What triggers deep-seated fears? And do you enjoy challenging your senses? Let us know in the comments!