The Depiction of Horror in Art


Amin Shah, Managing Editor

This is Edvard Munch’s ‘‘The Scream’’, one of the most iconic paintings in western art. Many movies, scenes, other artworks, and other forms of visual media have been inspired by the work of Munch (specifically this painting), and as Halloween comes around, the depiction of such horror in art pieces would be an interesting topic to briefly speak (or write in this case) on.

As his cold eyes with small black dots depicting pupils glare at you, you can’t help but feel an eerie, suspenseful, or even paranoid feeling. The two seemingly normal people behind him contrast heavily with the horrific figure in the center of the painting who isn’t exactly screaming as the name of the painting depicts. It looks more as if the figure is gasping to begin a scream, leaving the reader in a state of suspense and slight anxiety. What happened to the figure or around the figure that caused such an expression isn’t important, but the anticipation for the scream that never comes gives off a horror that isn’t exactly scary but chilling in the way that it makes you in a tense mood for something that will never occur. This can also be seen as a self-reflective horror piece for Munch, as his life was shadowed by mental illness that ran in the family and followed him until his death. Whether or not it was a literal piece, a philosophical piece on existentialism, or a self-reflection of his mental state, the horror in the piece is not one of immediate terror, but of a lingering anxiety that constantly follows.


This horrific piece (Saturno devorando a su hijo) was created by Spanish painter Francisco Goya, famous for pieces that reflected contemporary events (of his time). This piece is one of a figure far before his time, that of the Ancient Roman god Saturn in the process of devouring one of his several sons in response to a prophecy that one would become stronger than him and overthrow him. Luckily he missed that one son his mother hid, who became Zeus, and did fulfill that prophecy (bringing Saturn’s children back with the use of a potion). The painting displays Saturn in the process of eating one of his sons in a very graphic manner. The body is that of a grown man in a very small size, as no baby has that body structure, which displays the size of Saturn. While it may mean his size literally or figuratively is up for debate, it displays Saturn as an intimidating monster. His eyes are not blank though, as they display a lingering feeling of regret or remorse for the action he is currently committing, as although he might have not wanted to do this, he had no other choice (in his opinion). No matter how you look at the painting, Saturn is always looking at the viewer, his gaze never escapes your view as you never escape his gaze. Almost as if he was caught, waiting for someone to make a move (as he is in the process of opening his mouth to devour his son, not devouring him at the moment that the painting depicts). Goya, like Munch, creates an uneasy feeling through tension and suspense with the figure in the painting and the reader, as the act isn’t even the most horrifying part, but the stare of Saturn’s eyes into the souls of the viewer. There is a feeling of waiting for Saturn to look away as if one accidentally glimpses at someone and makes eye contact, except Saturn will never look away.


A piece of literature that the art world will never stray away from is ‘‘Dante’s Inferno’’, and for good reason. The book is full of imagery, symbolism, grotesque depictions of the nine circles of hell, and other such ideas that would make masterpieces on canvas, such as this piece ‘‘Dante and Virgil’’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (although not horror-related, ‘‘The Barque of Dante’’ remains my favorite painting to this day thanks to the fantastic imagery detailed in the painting). It is a depiction of Virgil, Dante’s guide in the journey of Dante’s Divine Comedy through the circles of hell, through purgatory, and up to paradise. The author, Dante Alighieri, based this book on himself and created it almost like a proto-fanfiction of himself and Virgil, as Virgil in history was a roman poet best known for his epic ‘‘The Aenid’’. In the painting, two men are in ‘‘eternal conflict’’ with one another in the 8th circle of hell (reserved for frauds or counterfeiters). Without going into any more of the lore, the horror itself isn’t a scary or even eerie type of horror. It serves to be more of an existential horror, as it is a display of a scene where men are at their truest and purest forms of malice towards one another. It is a complete loss of brotherhood and the human nature to help one another. Instead, it is a hopeless turmoil that will never end, neither of them realizing that their conflict will ever be solved or have any point. It is the farce of human nature that this is meant to go on forever (ignoring the fact that they were sentenced to eternal damnation). The imp/demon acknowledges this, as it smiles towards the two spectators while a waterfall of bodies (or possibly corpses) is seen in the background. It is unknown what they may be doing or if they are even alive, but it is a mesh of pure human agony that is encapsulated within this image with no comfort factor in sight.

As Halloween comes around, be sure to take the time to appreciate the culture of horror in more ways than just trick-or-treating. The art forms that horror is encapsulated in (like visual arts, painting, music, movies, etc.) go to show the advancement of the genre and how it may evolve. Some may prefer art pieces such as these to enjoy their Halloween season with while others may enjoy re-watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the 6th time (such as myself). Do yourself a favor by indulging in both (or more) to fully get the true feeling of the Halloween spirit (at least before November comes around and Christmas music starts playing in every Target).