Art and Horror

As the spooky season approaches, our resident horror nerd looks at the relationship between art and horror.

Henri Martin Berenice 1885

In the spring of 2022 the National Galleries of Scotland acquired a rather unusual portrait. Painted by the French artist Henri Martin it depicts a woman looking straight out from the canvas. She is slightly dishevelled; her blonde hair is tied up and adorned with flowers but hangs loosely in tendrils where it has broken free. And the gaze that meets ours speaks of something disquiet. The light which falls on her comes from directly above, like the inverse of the torch beneath the face technique so beloved of campfire ghost story tellers. Here the effect is not so dramatic, but no less uncanny.

The portrait most likely depicts the artist’s wife, fellow artist Marie-Charlotte Barbaroux, but the subject is the eponymous character in Berenice1, a short story by the American master of the macabre Edgar Alan Poe.

While this artwork takes its inspiration from a work of horror fiction there are many instances where horror takes its inspiration from art. Even a cursory look at the genre will reveal a multitude of horror stories exploring the darker side of art. You need look no further than another Poe story, in fact, for a macabre tale of artistic obsession. In The Oval Portrait the author describes an encounter with a painting of a young woman2, viewed while sheltering in an abandoned mansion for the night (of course). Almost immediately Poe’s narrator hits on one of key reasons why artworks so appeal to the horror author.

This confusion between life and art often creates an uncanny effect. What Poe is describing here could almost be a jump scare3. The narrator, thinking he is alone, suddenly spies a spectral human face looking back at him from the shadows. The shock subsides as he realises it’s only a painting. Director Alejandro Amenábar utilises this technique to creepy effect in his eerie and moving ghost story The Others (2001).

Clip from The Others, 2001 (directed by Alejandro Amenábar)

In The Oval Portrait the narrator, having become enthralled by the artwork, turns, as we often do in such circumstances, to the interpretation provided for further context. In this case a catalogue has been conveniently provided describing the artworks on display. In it the narrator reads that the subject, as in Martin’s painting, is the artist’s young wife. Indeed, the description that the narrator reads, ’for many weeks in the dark high-turret chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead’ could almost be describing Martin’s painting of Berenice. The catalogue then describes the artist obsessively painting his wife in the seclusion of his darkened chamber. Only when he has finished the painting does he look up to see that she has died in the process.

Supplying the back stories to enigmatic paintings through the narrative is a common and often effective technique in horror and mystery movies. Alfred Hitchcock ably demonstrates this in Vertigo (1958) and we see it also in the enchanting (if not entirely unproblematic) Portrait of Jeanne (1948) whose narrative hangs on a description of a portrait to a school group. Appropriately both of these encounters take place in an art gallery, hinting at the stories – both real and imagined – that lie behind all artworks. 

In Roger Corman’s splendid film version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher (1960) there is another great example of artworks as backstory. Vincent Price’s Roderick Usher recounts his twisted family history as he guides our protagonist through a gallery of family portraits. The expressionistic portraits combining deliciously with Price’s description of their horrific deeds.

Clip from The Fall of the House of Usher, 1960 (directed by Roger Corman)

The artist and horror

Pickman’s Model4 – another short story by a titan of American horror fiction, in this case H.P. Lovecraft5 – also explores the idea that the power of an artwork may come from the conditions in which it was made. In Lovecraft’s case the grotesque imaginings of the artist turn out not to be works of imagination, but paintings made from life of the unnatural beings kept in the artist’s basement. The wonderfully titled Italian horror movie The House with Laughing Windows (directed in 1973 by Pupi Avati) follows a similar narrative thread. In this case our protagonist is a conservator restoring the works of an obscure fresco artist. The fresco appears to depict The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a subject which throughout the centuries has allowed artists to demonstrate an appetite for gore rivalling the horror films of George Romero or Lucio Fulci6. The conservator ponders how the artist could so vividly depict the rending of human flesh7 and unfortunately for him, he finds out.

Still from The House with Laughing Windows (1976).

The idea of an artist who has seen too much or whose dark imaginings stem from an encounter with real-life horrors has been explored many times. Indeed, Lucio Fulci’s lurid horror classic The Beyond (1981) opens with a scene of an artist accused of being a warlock by an angry mob (dying horribly as a result) and ends with the main characters entering hell (or the Beyond) via one of the artist’s own paintings. In between those scenes we are subjected to all kinds of horrors including a prime example of Fulci’s obsession with piercing eyeballs. Aside from being an on-the-nose metaphor for the experience of watching these horrors this also reminds us of one of cinema’s earliest intersections of art and horror. I mean of course the famous eyeball slicing scene from Un Chien Anadalou8, the surrealist film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel which shocked the world in 1929. Dalí and Buñuel seem to subvert the horror movie technique of cutting away at the moment of violence. Here, as the razor reaches the eye, they cut to a shot of clouds sliding across the moon, only to then cut back for a forensic close-up of the razor sliding across what we all now know is a cow's eye. The image is shocking, nonetheless.

Clip from Un Chien Andalou [An Andalusian Dog], 1929 (directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí)

Horrific inspiration

Horror filmmakers have not been remiss in trawling the history of art for images likely to shock, disturb or unnerve cinema-going audiences. Some are even direct recreations such as in the Val Lewton-produced Isle of the Dead (1945), which takes the painting of the same name by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin as inspiration for the island on which Boris Karloff et al are quarantined9. A similarly faithful recreation of an artwork can be found in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) in which Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare is reimagined on film. Tellingly Fuseli‘s artworks became so synonymous with fear that both M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft reference him in their short stories as a form of visual shorthand, conjuring images of horror in the mind of the reader.

Arnold Bocklin, Isle of the Dead (First Version), 1880, ABKunstmuseum Basel, deposit from the Gottfried Keller Foundation, Federal Office of Culture, Bern 1920
Still from the film Isle of the Dead, 1945 (directed by Mark Robson)

Other influences are more subtle. The fact that the art of Francis Bacon has inspired horror filmmakers should come as no surprise. His influence can be seen in two classics from the early 1990s. The blurred and shaking heads we see in Adrian Lynne’s 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder owe much to Bacon’s work while the production designer of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) cited Bacon’s work as an influence on the design of Hannibal Lecter’s cell.

Two of the most unique and interesting voices in modern horror, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Eggers, have cited Francisco de Goya as a major influence on their work on screen. This influence can perhaps be seen most clearly in Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch.

Francis Bacon Figure Study II 1945 - 1946 © Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London 2023
Francisco de Goya Ensayos from Los Caprichos 1799

The 2017 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It includes a scene in which a horrific elongated figure emerges from a painting. This scene speaks of the irrational belief that there is something malignant in the artwork, that it can (and wants to) inflict physical harm. Although the scene is present in the book the film’s imagery comes directly from the childhood fears of the film’s director, Andy Muschietti.

Still from It (2017), as Jack walks past the painting of which he is afraid.
Still from It (2017), showing the painting come to life and stalking Jack.

Muschietti described the source of this terror as deriving from Modigliani’s style.

A child’s imagination is a fertile playground for the link between art and horror. I still remember with absolute clarity the winter evening when my older brother sat me down in a darkened room with a copy of Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits. He asked me to listen to the track Black Sabbath while looking at the album’s cover, a reproduction of The Triumph of Death (1562– 1563) by Pieter Bruegel The Elder10. As Sabbath’s doom-laden riffs pulsed through my head and my eyes ranged over the grim details of Bruegel’s painting, I was in little doubt that art had the power to unsettle, even terrify, a young mind.

Pieter Bruegel The Elder, The Triumph of Death, (1562 - 1563), © Museo Nacional del Prado

The haunted artwork

Clearly art can inspire terror and the figure of an artist can make for a compelling protagonist in horror fiction, but what about the haunted artwork itself? This is a rich vein in horror fiction and one with multiple variants. One such variant is the possessed painting that exerts a supernatural power from the beyond such as the portrait of Joseph Curwen in Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963)12 or even Vigo the Carpathian in 1989’s Ghostbusters II (directed by Ivan Reitman). In fact, spooky paintings are such a popular trope that one can hardly imagine an episode of Scooby Doo or an old dark house mystery without one. Paintings, portraits especially, connect us the past, to the dead who maintain a presence in the present, like ghosts13. So, it is no surprise that horror returns to them again and again.

Another, more poignant and troubling variant can be found in Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). Roeg is no stranger to horror or art14. His films often feature art historical references, and he directed one of the finest horror movies of all time in Don’t Look Now (1973)15. Both horror and art combine in a short sequence in The Witches where the protagonist’s grandmother tells the tale of a young girl cursed by a witch to live out her life in a painting. The grandmother describes, and we see, the girl appearing in the painting, always static, looking out at us as she grows old and eventually disappears.

Clip from The Witches, 1990 (directed by Nicolas Roeg)

This idea of a haunted artwork that changes can be traced back to a wonderfully uncanny tale by the master of the ghost story M.R. James. In James’s story The Mezzotint a seemingly unremarkable mezzotint16 comes into the possession of the curator of a university art collection. Over the course of the story the picture changes, never before the eyes of the narrator, only when left unwatched (like the fearsome Weeping Angels in Doctor Who, another uncanny artwork that comes terrifyingly to life). As in The Witches the incremental changes wrought on the image tell a chilling tale, in this case an unnatural creature approaching an open window and absconding with a baby.

Richard Wells, Illustration for The Mezzotint (2021), © Adorable Media / Can Do for the BBC
Richard Wells, Illustration for The Mezzotint (2021), © Adorable Media / Can Do for the BBC

James rarely pulls his punches and for a supposedly reserved Victorian, his stories are filled with macabre and often gruesome details. The Mezzotint was recently brought to the screen by Mark Gatiss, another writer/director with a love of art17. This adaptation is especially notable for the quality of the art depicted on screen. So often in films about art and artists the actual art can be a major let-down. However, in this case Gatiss called on Richard Wells an illustrator/designer with a fantastic track record in the macabre18 to realise James’s haunted artwork.

This has been a personal look at just a few of the many intersections of art and horror. There were so many others that I had no time to list and so many more dark corners to explore. If you want to explore art in horror movies further, then The Giallo Canvas by Alexandra Heller-Nicolas19 was a key text in my research and is a much more exhausting look at this subject matter.

So, come Halloween, why not settle into the dark nights and indulge your love of art with a sprinkling of seasonally appropriate horror. Or explore some of the chilling works from the National Galleries of Scotland collection. And next time you feel like the eyes of a painting are following you around the room, check again because maybe they are.

Footnotes

1 You can read the whole story online at poestories.com.

2Poe describes the painting in The Oval Portrait as being like the work of Thomas Sully, a British-born artist who made his name in the United States as a portrait artist from the late 18th century. While we have no works by Sully in our collection, we do have a splendid portrait of Lord Byron made by his student William Edward West. Byron of course was no stranger to the horror genre having been one of the participants in the macabre story-telling session at the Villa Diodati that spawned not only Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) but also The Vampyre (1819) by Byron’s physician John Polidori. The events of that night were fantastically dramatised in Ken Russell’s film Gothic (1986). Russell is a filmmaker well versed in the horror implicit in art and utilised Henry Fusilli's painting The Nightmare in one of the film's most arresting scenes.

3 Jump scares are a common device in horror movies. They usually take the form of a quiet scene that is interrupted by a sudden shock (usually accompanied by a loud noise) designed to create a physical jump response from the viewer. The first use of this technique is often cited as being in the Val Lewton-produced 1942 film Cat People (directed by Jacques Tourneur). In this scene, the tension builds as Irena (played by Simone Simon) feels she is being stalked from the shadows as she walks home. As the tension reaches its climax it is interrupted noisily and suddenly by a bus pulling into frame. For this reason, the technique is often referred to as Lewton’s bus.

4 For those interested, Guillermo del Toro has recently adapted this story for the Netflix series Cabinet of Curiosities.

5 In the National Galleries of Scotland collection there is a blood-red painting by Scottish artist Graeme Todd named after H.P. Lovecraft.

6 Before becoming a filmmaker, Fulci was an art critic, a fact that helps explain the huge number of art historical references in his film.

7 Sadly, although Italian horror and giallo films of this time often have a close relationship to art, the quality of the artworks themselves often fails to match the importance given to them by the narrative.

8 You can view the whole film at https://www.openculture.com/2014/05/watch-a-restored-version-of-luis-bun...

9 Viewers of this film today are likely to be struck by the idea of people quarantining themselves to prevent the spread of disease. Indeed, the film even includes a hand-washing montage that feels as much 2020 as 1945.

10 The painting is part of the collection at the Museo del Prado and if you cannot make it in person you can zoom into the painting on their website (maybe play a little Sabbath at the same time to get the full effect).

11 See also the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw for another example of this horror trope.

12 Although Corman’s film takes its title from a poem by Edgar Alan Poe, the actual story is an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

13 Photographs do this too but this is such a rich vein in horror cinema that it deserves its own feature. Highlights include the fortune-telling photographs of The Omen (1976) and Ringu (1998) and the people disappearing from photographs in the episode of Sapphire and Steel (1979–1982) that haunted me as a child.

14 Neither for that matter is Dahl, who adapted his own short fiction in order to terrify TV audiences from 1979 until the late 80s with Tales of the Unexpected.

15 In Roeg’s horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now Donald Sutherland plays a conservator, while Roeg’s follow up film, 1974’s David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth features Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560) by Pieter Bruegel The Elder.

16 A form of monochrome printmaking process popular in the 18th century.

17 Although best known for his work with The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who and Sherlock, Gatiss has also presented a BBC Four documentary on the life and work of the artist John Minton and has written about him for ArtUK.

18 Wells has produced artworks for other BBC productions including Dracula (2020), adapted by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and Doctor Who. He has also compiled and illustrated Damnable Tales, a collection of folk horror stories (which includes M.R. James) and illustrated an adaptation by Robert Wynne-Simmons of his own screenplay for the classic British folk horror film The Blood on Satan’s Claw.

19The Giallo Canvas by Alexandra Heller-Nicolas, 2020. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

By Phil Hunt, 28 October 2022