Freaky Art: 8 of the Creepiest Works of Art in History

Scary Art before Halloween Scavenger Hunts

Cannibals and skin suits and screaming babies, oh no! Museums are full of dark, disturbing works of art, from guillotined people to hungry gods. And what better time to check them out than Halloween?

Before your join one of our many Halloween scavenger hunts, get into the Spooky Season spirit. Peruse, if you dare, eight of our favorite creepy artworks and artifacts from museums.

A Sharp Dressed Man

Xipe Totec art

Eat someone’s heart out, Buffalo Bill. This Aztec artifact depicts a man wearing the skin of another person in order to praise the god Xipe Totec, charmingly dubbed “the Flayed One.” Neat. Note how the eye and mouth holes make the skin mask all too clear. And what looks like a Charlie Brown design on the guy’s chest is actually where the flesh suit was sewn up onto the wearer. Amazingly, the whole statue is even more graphic, but you’ll have to visit the Art Institute of Chicago’s website to find out.

Art’s About Looking A Head

Guillotined Man painting

Speaking of creepy art at the AIC, check out Head of a Guillotined Man. Lest you think this a flight of fancy, artist Théodore Géricault painted it from the real thing. Apparently he was the sort of guy who sees a moldy head in the guillotine basket and thinks, “Sacre bleu, this is the good stuff!”

Hands-Free Midwife

Salome Nativity

This one’s a thinker. Seems like a pretty normal Nativity scene, right? Wrong! If you look closely at the lady on the left, you might notice she’s missing her hands. That’s Salome, the Virgin Mary’s midwife. And it turns out that because she doubted the divine parentage of the baby Jesus…her hands fell off. How’s that for Biblical body horror? On the plus side, the little blue angel at her shoulder seems to have a new pair of hands for her, so all’s well that ends well, we guess…

As Hangry As It Gets

Saturn Devouring son painting

Gods chowing down on their own kids pop up now and then in various mythologies, but few depictions of it are as gruesome as Francisco Goya’s. Dubbed Saturn Devouring His Son, this is one of 14 so-called Black Paintings Goya painted directly onto the walls of a house he bought a few years before he died.

Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bakhtak Bite

The Nightmare painting

Another creepy classic! Here we have Fuseli’s The Nightmare, featuring Bakhtak, a little gremlin-y dude from Persian mythology. Invisible to humans, it sits on your chest in your sleep and ruins your dreams. That’s rude enough, but it also causes sleep paralysis in its victims, which is one of the creepiest things imaginable.

A Soggy Portent

Alexander the Great painting

Here we have a painting made creepy by context. Unless you’re afraid of water or pasty, naked conquerors, Alexander the Great Rescued from the River Cydnus isn’t horrifying to look upon But when you know Pietro Testa painted it shortly before he “drowned in the Tiber, apparently a suicide”? Now it’s haunting and haunted!

A Scream, But Not the One You Expected

Screaming Child creepy art

This Screaming Child, carved in the early 1600s, is thought to depict a bee-stung Cupid. But it’s hard to get past the squirm-inducingly realistic pain on the baby’s face, the gaping, gummy mouth wailing. Oh, and then there’s the insect crawling on its forehead and the unpleasantly Jabba-the-Hutt-like neck—both quite out of place on your typical baby.

Death Wins

Triumph of Death art

Decades after Hieronymus Bosch created his hellish landscapes, Pieter Bruegel the Elder brought us such delights as The Triumph of Death. The details in this dreadful scene beg to be pored over. Undead trumpeters celebrate the drowning of innocents. Skeletons drive a horse cart full of skulls. The Horseman of Death leads his dead army to the slaughter. A big weird fish thing, uh, hangs out with other fish. It’s all very grotesque. Except maybe the big fish, he seems OK.

Find More Spooky Fun

Get in on the fun while you can! Explore haunted places on the Virtually Haunted: The Online Halloween Scavenger Hunt, or match wits with the Halloween Trivia Slam Game. Or get out and discover the spooky side of cities around the country: Greenwich Village, New York; Philadelphia; New Hope, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; and Hollywood.


Images credits: All images from respective museums or Wikipedia, and in the public domain