Art is a hard thing to define. If you ask two art critics to define it, you’ll get three answers. And if you ask ten, you’ll get ten different answers.
So let’s not try to define art, and just talk about a particular kind of art: horror art. Which can be hard to define as well.
What makes something horror? Does it have to be scary?
The world is full of scary things that are not works of horror art, from natural spookiness (spiders) to random violence (muggers). And if it doesn’t have to be scary, does it have to be horrible?
There are plenty of horrible things in the world that aren’t works of horror art either: car accidents, cancer, and death come to mind. But one thing all the examples of horror share is a certain kind of emotional response: a sense of dread or fear or creepiness. So I think it’s fair to say that what characterizes horror art is that it evokes a feeling of dread or fear or creepiness.
In other words, horror art has the goal of making you feel scaredHorror art is an excellent medium for exhibiting the dark side of life. These art prints will make your heart skip a beat.
The basics – the art of horror
We think of art as something beautiful. That’s because most art is beautiful.
But there is another kind of art, deliberately intended to be horrible. No one knows who created the first pieces of this kind of art, or what they were meant to represent. The oldest surviving examples are figurines from around 13000 BC, found in Europe and Russia. They are tiny statues, less than an inch tall, made out of clay.
Some are human-like, with arms raised above their heads or down by their sides. Sometimes they have wide mouths with teeth exposed; others have strangely swollen stomachs. What do these figures mean? We can’t know for sure, but here is one guess: they represented people suffering from starvation.
The swollen stomachs may have been meant to convey that the starving person had swollen intestines full of undigested food. And the raised arms could have signified that the starving person was asking for help. The oldest known example is a tiny sculpture from around 8000 BC, carved into the tusk of a wild boar killed by an archer. One end of the tusk has been sliced off and hollowed out and then carved into a shape like a woman’s head
The best horror stories are usually not about things that go bump in the night, but about the horror of confronting the truth. Dracula is a good example. The story is not about a vampire, but about how to deal with an aging man who seems to have lost control over his appetites.
The same is true of Frankenstein. The story is not about a monster, but about a scientist who loses control over a creation that gets out of hand. These aren’t stories about monsters or vampires or Frankensteins; they are stories about us. They are about our fears that we might not be in control of our creations, and our fears that we don’t know what we are doing.
Horror fiction has never been more than a small part of literature, and has often been disparaged by intellectuals as simpleminded. But it is popular because it deals with real fears in an effective way: by showing characters dealing with them.
The essential elements of a horror tale are:
- Human vulnerability,
- The things that threaten it, and
- The triumph of vulnerability over threats.
The payoff comes in various forms. One is terror: we want to run away from the threat.
Another is the release of tension when we manage to survive (or when we know that someone else will survive). Yet another is the sense of wonder we feel at seeing what happens next; we’re curious about how vulnerable people will cope with what comes next. A fourth payoff, in a good horror story, is a feeling of catharsis: having been afraid, we feel cleansed and purged and ready to take on the world.
A lot of horror art is not spooky, but it has other virtues.
I like the way the human shape gets distorted in a good deal of it. What makes us most afraid, after all? The things that look like people but are really something else, or the things that are not people at all? And how to draw them?
The uncanniness of horror art comes from both of these things. You can see the humanoid figures standing there, expressionless, arms hanging down at their sides. But their faces are twisted and they have claws for hands, or they don’t have faces at all.
They are made out of wire or clay or bits of wood or shards of mirror or what have you. The human form is distorted just enough to be disturbing without being so different that it becomes hard to recognize. and more sections after this one…
Blood Splatter Art
During the 20th century, most horror art has been based on blood splatter.
Blood is one of the scariest substances in nature. It is red and gooey; it flows; it spurts; it smells; it looks like paint; it can be drawn with a pen or painted onto a canvas.
There are few things more naturally horrific than blood. “Splatter” means something like “spatter.” But “splatter” is even more everyday than blood. It’s what happens when you cook eggs, or drive through a muddy road, or drop hot grease into cold water, or chop up onions.
There’s nothing especially gory about splatter. But splatter has its own special look, which is why it has become the preferred medium of horror artists. It can be realistic — red — or abstract — black — but the composition must show the action of forces against a surface: water pressure against a wall, gravity and viscosity against flesh and bone, an egg yolk against a frying pan.
When you look at a scary picture, like a Norman Rockwell picture of a boy and his dog next to a gravestone, you are creating in your mind the imaginary but plausible details that would make it completely convincing. The more you can do that, the scarier the picture is.
The basics of lighting, composition, choice of subject matter, and so on help. But artful scary pictures have something else going for them: they play on our knowledge of real life. We know how things in real life can look harmless at first glance and then turn out to be terrifying in all kinds of ways.
A picture in a horror movie has an advantage if it can trigger that memory without being too close to reality to be scary. You don’t want it to look like a photo from a murder scene, for example. The scariest things are not necessarily the most gory or fantastical.
If you watch a scary movie with someone who hasn’t seen it before, you will find yourself trying to guess what kind of scary thing is going to come next. If it’s too much like something that really happens, the movie won’t work very well; too much gore or too much realism will be counterproductive because it won’t create any room for imagination.
Body horror digital paintings
Body horror is a subgenre of horror art. Body horror is the unsettling or repulsive effect of things that are not right with the human body, especially when displayed in an un-natural way.
Body horror often involves mutilation or deformity, but can also include more subtle horrors like disease, decay, or metamorphosis. Body horror art has been a staple of horror since the genre existed. The idea is to show your characters in a situation that is so disturbing to them, or so sickening to the audience, that it constitutes a threat to their life and well-being. In film, this often takes the form of a character being physically transformed in some disgusting way.
In art, it is usually portrayed as a medical procedure gone wrong: something happens to the patient’s body and all we see is the result. The appeal of this trope, also known as “gross-out,” is obvious: we get irrationally upset at bodily fluids and deformities, we fear we might be made sick or poisoned just by looking at such things.
So showing something like an eyeball being poked out with a sharp stick will immediately get any viewer’s attention, no matter how jaded he might otherwise be. It gets him involved. It invests him in the story. And if you’ve ever had an actual medical procedure go wrong — or even seen one portrayed in TV and movies — you know how absurdly terrifying it can be: why wouldn’t you want to confront that fear in fiction?
There are many beautiful sculptures in the world, but I have always been more interested in the ugly ones.
So here are some of the best. Goya’s sculpture of himself as a decapitated head is an early masterpiece of self-portraiture. It shows how he saw himself, not just as a genius but as a kind of monster. Bizarrely, he also carved another sculpture showing him with two heads.
The second one was not so good; it made him look silly, so it must have been easier for him to laugh at his own joke than to laugh at himself. It would be easy to dismiss Damien Hirst’s sculpture by saying it is ugly and mean-spirited and cynical and stupid and shallow and stupid and derivative and stupid and trite and stupid and obvious and stupid and derivative and stupid and obvious…
But if we want to defend it we can say that those qualities make it a good satire on art made by young people who think they know everything there is to know about life. A lot of art made by young people who think they know everything there is to know about life is like that; why shouldn’t some of that art be made by an old person who knows better?
Bloody body parts
Bloody body parts are the essence of horror. That is why it is hard to make a horror movie without them. And why it is almost impossible to make a good one.
If you are trying to scare someone, it helps to have some blood on hand. Just as if you are trying to seduce someone, you are better off with an attractive partner. But blood is not scary in itself. Scary things are monsters, not body parts.
The problem for horror movies is that monsters aren’t real; they are just people in rubber suits or CGI animations. Bloody body parts cannot be animated or made out of rubber; they have to be real. But real blood is never scary. Even if it comes straight out of your own veins, your own blood doesn’t scare you much, because you know that whatever happens, you won’t bleed to death in the next ten minutes.
You can handle real blood. Body parts can be scary if they belong to someone else—especially if that someone else screams when they lose them—but even then your imagination fills in most of the details and makes them seem less gruesome than they really are.
There’s nothing in the world more hideous than a monster that wants to eat you. Monsters are one of the most popular things in art. Why? I like monsters because they’re not real, and therefore harmless. I like monsters also because they’re weird; they’re what Alfred North Whitehead called “contrasts to the norm.” This is valuable in art.
Art is valuable partly because it helps us see what we don’t normally notice. One way to do this is to make something strange, not normal; monstrous. A monster can also be valuable because it makes us appreciate the good thing it threatens; horror movies often try to do this by showing us how wonderful life would be if only the monster weren’t around.
Horror comics and scary movies don’t just show us monsters and murderers. They also show us ourselves. The characters in horror stories are often ordinary people, like you and me. We don’t have special powers or magic weapons or anything else that would make us invulnerable.
We’re just the same as we always are, and that makes us perfect targets for monsters and madmen. The more we see ourselves as helpless victims, the less we think of ourselves as heroes. But heroism isn’t about having powers; it’s about doing the right thing even when you don’t have powers.
When we think of ourselves as helpless victims, we become less likely to do the right thing — because if we’re helpless victims, doing the right thing is unlikely to do any good anyway. We can see this in action in the news every day. When a mass murder happens, people call for laws forbidding things that might be related to it: guns or video games or whatever else is popular that week.
But these laws are always ineffective against criminals who aren’t interested in obeying them anyway. They would have just as much effect if they banned math textbooks or chemistry sets — they’d just be less effective at taking away our power to defend ourselves.