Have you ever seen a horror movie that was shocking, yet made you want to keep watching to see what happens?
Before we had movies, human societies had artists who explored the macabre. Those nightmares that they saw in their mind became works of art on canvas that would change the world.
Even when we could explore the darkness and horrific ideals in other mediums, artists like Salvador Dali kept pushing the medium into new territory. It’s a reminder that what we experience each day doesn’t always match what our expectations or goals are for our efforts.
When there is success on one side of the equation, there is a failure on the other. If one person achieves their dreams, another is potentially murdered by a random stranger.
These scary paintings by the world’s most famous artists work to explore those concepts in greater detail.
List of the Scariest Paintings Made by Famous Artists
Artists have explored numerous dark themes throughout history when creating art. We can see concepts of the supernatural in some pieces, violence in others, and even an interpretation of death.
Some paintings look at real-life events for inspiration, while others turn to religious books and texts.
Whether it was the bubonic plague, rebellion against overbearing ideology, or an uncomfortable truth that required exploration, here are some of the scary paintings that show artistic horror can be a fantastic medium.
1. Dante and Virgil, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
There is so much going on in this painting that it’s difficult to know where to start analyzing it as a viewer. It’s easy to start at the primary scene where you have one man biting another in the neck. As you progress further into the piece, do you stop at the pair of men who seem to be gossiping in the corner?
What about the individual who seems to be lying on the ground? Is he a previous victim of these circumstances?
You also have this demon flying in the background. His arms are crossed defensively, yet his smiling face shows that he clearly approves of the situation.
This scene is a visual representation of something that happens in Divine Comedy. Dante and Virgil have wandered into hell, but they’ve been stopped at the Eighth Circle. This spot is reserved for those who commit fraud against humanity.
The two men who seem to be gossiping are Dante and Virgil. What they see are two souls damned to eternal combat in a fight to the death that will never end.
What stands out the most is the exquisite detail put into the human form. It also shows us that we’re all equal in the eyes of God until free will requires us to make decisions about who we are.
2. Severed Heads, by Théodore Géricault
When you see the works of Géricault, the severed limbs that he uses for illustration in each piece are quite stark when compared to other subject material. If you take a close look at his technique, especially in this shocking work, you can tell how he has mastered the light vs. dark contrast.
It appears throughout the painting to create an effect that leads the viewer to look right in the eyes of one of the severed heads.
Géricault always strived to be an authentic painter. During his era, people were sent to the guillotine for various purposes, including political gain. His paintings were a commentary on what was happening and why people often felt powerless to stop it.
Some might see this painting as a cruel description of death, decay, and loss. When you see the fine details that Géricault includes, such as the serration marks along the neck, there’s enough realism to understand the pain and despair of those who had the blade dropped on them.
What was the artist’s inspiration for this painting? He received the actual head of a thief who had been sent to the guillotine.
The female head was painted from a live model, so there is a bit of contrast between the two.
3. The Massacre of The Innocents, by Peter Paul Rubens
When you read the gospels at the start of the Bible’s New Testament, there is a disturbing section where King Herod orders all of the male children who are two years old or younger to be killed. The command was to snuff out Jesus, who he perceived to be a threat.
Some scholars suggest that Herod takes this horrific step because he feels that the Magi are mocking him.
It’s part of the story that doesn’t get much attention in the Bible beyond a brief mention, but this painting brings that moment to life. Can you imagine being a mother in Bethlehem at the time, having the king’s men coming to kill your child?
The brutality of the infanticide is what the artist hopes to capture with his painting, and the graphic nature of the result is there for all to see. With bodies strewn around, you have mothers fighting with every ounce of strength to prevent what is happening.
There’s a second commentary worth noting in the piece. At the time of his first painting, over 8,000 innocents were killed Catholics and Calvinists as Spanish forces sought to repel Protestant armies in the Netherland. Antwerp experienced issues like this frequently during that era.
4. The Death of Marat II, by Edvard Munch
Munch might have titled his scary paintings in reference to a French revolutionary who was killed in a bathtub in 1793, but his fiancée served as the initial inspiration for the work.
As the story goes, the artist decided to call off the wedding with Tulla Larsen in 1902. That decision led to a fight at his summer home, leading to an incident where a revolver went off. Munch took the shot to the hand, and he insinuated that it was Larsen who created the incident.
His rage from that day would serve as the emotional medium for the two paintings that share the same name.
The second one is the scariest, showing the artist in a self-portrait lying dead in bed. His fiancée is standing upright next to him, naked and unafraid. The wounded hand is the initial clue to show Munch’s representation, along with the physical characteristics seen with the primary figure.
Even the brushstrokes are a testament to his range at the time. They’re quite distinctive, especially with the vertical and horizontal meshing that occurs.
Munch would eventually have an acute breakdown from a lost love, excessive drinking, and the desire to keep fighting. He would spend about a year in recovery before returning to his artwork.
5. The Face of War, by Salvador Dali
When you first see this fascinating painting by one of the world’s best surrealists, it looks like you see skulls within skulls within more heads. Part of that initial view is intentional because war impacts so many people in negative ways.
A soldier who takes a life creates death and destruction along the entire family line of the individual killed in the line of duty. When we allow war to ravage on, those problems keep getting stronger.
When you take a closer look at the painting, you’ll see small places where the artist makes a commentary about why we go to war. There are swarming serpents looking to devour around the primary skull, while the barren desert landscape shows the apocalypse left behind.
The most significant component of the painting is that each face is a duplication of the original.
Dali painted this piece in California in 1940. For many, it feels like a commentary on World War II, but it is more accurate to call it a reminiscence of what occurred during the Spanish Civil War.
Dali wanted to make sure that everyone knew he approved of the work. It’s the only painting where you can see his hand’s imprint on the canvas.
6. Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi
This scary painting often gets confused with its sequel Judith Slaying Holofernes, but they both look at the same incident from Biblical history. King Nebuchadnezzar has his army marching on the Israelites. During the siege, a young Jewish woman from Bethulia sneaks into the enemy camp while wearing her best clothes.
She is there on the idea that it might be possible to forge an alliance, but it is a ruse. The Assyrian general doesn’t realize this, deciding to invite her into his tent for a lavish feast.
They start eating and drinking. Holofernes probably has too much wine. After he passes out on the bed, Judith seizes her blade and kills the military leader.
None of the details are left out from this painting, including the jugular squirt that most certainly covered Judith in blood.
It was such a horrific scene to those who first saw the work that it was denied placement when it initially arrived at the Gallery. It took the help of Galileo to ensure that payment was rendered for the piece.
Gentileschi would finally get the credit due to her, helping her to become the first woman accepted for admission into the Academy of Art and Design.
7. The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli
Fuseli was painting during the Age of Reason in the late 1700s. When other artists explored what it meant to be enlightened, this Swiss-English painter started exploring darker themes.
In this scary painting, you can see a demon, an apelike figure, posed on a woman’s chest bathed in light. The white color of her apparel symbolizes her innocence.
The background offers a horse with flared eyes and glowing nostrils, looking at the scene with what can only be described as delight.
What makes the painting such a remarkable piece is the expressionism on the demon’s face. He looks shocked, as if you just walked in on him about to do something. There’s also a sense of theatrics with the curtains in the background and the woman’s pose to consider.
This painting comes straight from Fuseli’s imagination, an ambitious effort that uses single-source lighting to emphasize the environment. It’s a fascinating combination of morbidity, sexuality, and the supernatural from an artist who was once an ordained minister.
The work would eventually become one of the defining images of Gothic horror, inspiring numerous artists, poets, and writers to take on their darker side.
8. Hell, by Hans Memling
This 15th century painting is quite unique from a horror-art standpoint because it is reversible. Memling composed three panels for this piece, and all of them are painted on both sides. When the panels are folded in a little, the work can stand on its own, creating a symbol that reflects the continuous battle between good and evil.
The religious scary painting is completed in the Northern Renaissance style, created on wood to serve as a reminder that all natural things can decay. The piece’s primary figure is a demon, casually staring out at the viewer with what appears to be lust in the eyes.
There’s a second figure also looking at you from the demon’s belly, reflecting the idea that a soul has already been consumed.
With one claw, the demon is grabbing another soul for potential consumption. The flames of hell are all around, but there is also the suggestion that a ferocious beast keeps people trapped in the underworld.
This piece is part of a triple panel called Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation. For over 100 years, the painting’s authorship was in dispute, with it only being resolved in 1994 after a thorough examination.
9. The Judgment of Cambyses, by Gerard David
This painting is a diptych, showing two panel scenes on oak panels. It was first mentioned in the city archives as a way for the burghers to encourage honesty with the magistrates. Some even suggest it was used as a public apology following the imprisonment of Maximilian I.
David made a name for himself by painting religious works, but this piece is arguably the most famous. Bruges authorities directly commissioned it.
As the story goes, a corrupt judge was ordered by the King to be flayed alive. The artist shows how the arraignment is done in the left panel, with the charges getting recounted against the man. It includes a bribery offer to allow an unjust verdict to occur.
On the right, you can see the punishment getting handed out to the judge.
You can see several Renaissance elements in the piece in the background, along with the coats of arms present in the left scene.
10. David with the Head of Goliath, by Caravaggio
What makes this painting unique is that the artist became inspired by seeing it done by one of his competitor’s students. He decided that his talent could portray the scene better, so he got to work showing off this gruesome scene.
As with many religious paintings, the idea that good is conquering evil cannot be ignored. Caravaggio attempts to show how David is moved by Goliath’s death, which can also be seen as a plea for mercy while requesting a papal pardon.
It’s hard to tell what is happening with David in the piece. His expression is one of sorrow, determination, and satisfaction. On the sword is an inscription meant to reflect the idea that humility kills pride.
Once you get past the initial impression, you can see the blood dripping from Goliath’s severed head as David lifts it upward.
Some art experts believe that the painting could be a double self-portrait, with the young artist destroying the reputation of the adult.
Even with the complexities of this final piece, it’s clear to see that scary paintings can have multiple meanings. What may be true for the artist could also be very different than what the viewer takes away from the art.