Ghosts, skeletons and witches: art history is full of characters that'll give you a fright
1. 'The Nightmare' by Henry Fuseli
Fuseli's The Nightmare has been frightening viewers ever since it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. The original 18th-century audiences were scared, but also scandalized and titillated, due to the underlying sexual connotations of the painting – it shows a woman stretched out asleep, with a small monster sat on her chest. This mythological demon is what's known as an incubus, which, along with its female counterpart the succubus, sits on the chest of sleeping people. Is the painting showing the woman's dream, or what's actually happening to her? No one knows.
With its depiction of sex, dreams and the unconscious, Fuseli's painting later became well-loved within the study of psychoanalysis, and Freud even had a print of it on the wall of his apartment.
2. 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch
One of the most famously freaky artworks in history, the story of Munch's conception of the picture is almost scarier than the artwork itself. Munch based the painting on an experience he had when out walking with two friends in Ekebergåsen on the outskirts of Christiania in Norway:
I was out walking with two friends - the sun was setting - suddenly the sky turned blood red - I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence - there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with angst - and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.
While Munch's famous painting doesn't exactly depict a spooky or fearful creature, its power comes from its depiction of fear itself.
3. 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony' by Joos van Craesbeeck
Influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, Joos van Craesbeeck's painting of Saint Anthony alongside a giant head features countless devilish creatures and demons. They tumble out of the man's giant skull, almost like evil thoughts given physical form. Among them are the weird additions of a painter, an eyeglass, and a bird’s nest, leaving the viewer to guess at their meaning.
4. 'Ghost of the Wet-Nurse Iohata' by Kunisada
Utagawa Kunisada created this ukiyo-e woodblock print in 1824. Rather than showing a ghost itself, it depicts the actor Onoe Kikugoro III playing the ghost of the wet-nurse Iohata in a Kabuki performance. But the artwork still manages to be pretty spooky, or, should we say... sp-ukiyo-e.
5. 'Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette' by Vincent van Gogh
This skeleton with a lit cigarette in its mouth is a joke by the young student Van Gogh. Van Gogh painted it in early 1886 while studying at art school in Antwerp, Belgium. Drawing skeletons was a standard exercise at the academy, but painting them was not part of the curriculum, so he must have made this painting at some other time, between or after his lessons.
Even if it's a bit of a visual joke, the painting does show that he had learned a good command of anatomy at the academy.
6. 'Witches' Sabbath' by Francisco Goya
The main character in the scene is the devil, depicted as a large male goat who is being given two babies, either as an offering or as part of an initiation ceremony into witchcraft.
Goya loved to paint witches, both intrigued and interested in superstition and fantastical imagery, as well as critical of its irrationality and the ignorance of superstitious practices. Interestingly, many see this painting as actually being a critique of the Catholic religious fervor of the Spanish Inquisition, where fear and irrationality brought out the worst of human nature.
7. 'Princess Takiyasha Summons a Skeleton Spectre to Frighten Mitsukuni' by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Utagawa Kuniyoshi frequently depicted myths, legends, and stories from history in his woodblock prints, like this one dating from 1844 which shows princess Takiyasha summoning a skeleton to frighten Ōya no Mitsukuni. Here we see the princess reciting a spell written on a handscroll, as the giant skeleton specter crashes through the palace walls.