Pairing Scary Movies and Abstract Artworks


In a new study published this month in the journal Emotion, psychologists suggest that to really enjoy abstract art, you should watch something scary first. After experimenting on 85 Brooklyn College students, researchers deduced that fear tunes one into the abstract aesthetic, to the “novelty, ambiguity, and the fantastic” — more so, than say, 30 jumping jacks or a funny video. Science!

Why? Because fear and the sublime are emotionally linked. Because fear motivates the fight or flight instinct and makes us more alert, priming us mentally for “difficult” geometric abstractions of Lissitzky or the measured cubist chaos of Picasso. Because one of the “evolved mechanisms for coping with danger” is escapism from daily life. Why not escape into a good painting? We’ve curated a modest selection of frightening film scenes and art duos, specifically selected to complement each other. We think this will enhance the experience of the works and bring out their punch… or jab, stab, slash, what have you. Let’s try it out!

Psycho (1960) and the work of Russian artist El Lissitzky… a classic duo. Watch Alfred Hitchcock’s shower murder scene, soaking in its own abstractions — the ominous triangular glimmer of a knife, the diagonals of the falling water, the furious multi-angle montage of the slashing and the cropped, minimal glimpses of flesh, gashes. and bloody streaks. Then, quickly, switch to Lissitzky and his charged, clean, Constructivist compositions. Look at this 1919 Soviet propaganda poster, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge again. Tell us that wedge doesn’t look a bit more violent!

Speaking of slashings, even though the work of Robert Longo is tied with Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), the film will enhance a Jackson Pollock. Is it cliché to compare the abstract expressionist’s paintings to blood splatters? Perhaps, but shhh. Watch the “Hip to Be Square” slaughter scene. Then look here, at a close-up of Number 5 (1948). Tell us that the murderous drive of Patrick Bateman doesn’t echo within the catharsis of the drip painting.

Are you apathetic to Piet Mondrian’s Neoplastic paintings? Do they look like so many lines and color swatches? Prime yourself with these two scenes from The Shining (1980): Watch Jack watch the model of the mansion hedges with a crazed grin as one of Kubrick’s best cuts puts Wendy and Danny running through its labyrinth. Then, watch Jack murderously stalk his family through the frosted maze. See if this particular Mondrian abstraction circa 1921 doesn’t suddenly seem treacherous or if your mind isn’t scrambling for an escape exit from its grid.

Let’s branch out a bit from abstract art and blockbusters. Moving on to Picasso’s The Weeping Woman (1944/45) and the cult classic Possession (1981) by Andrzej Zulawski. In it, a gorgeous and completely insane heroine (Isabelle Adjani) is freaking out of her mind inside a web of jealousy, adultery and… monsters? Take your pick: How about this dramatic domestic confrontation or, the often censored, horrifying metro scene? If the Weeping doesn’t get stronger, there might be something wrong with you.

Have you seen David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979)? No? Uh… Belated spoiler alert? Sorry. Well, there’s a character to Cronenberg’s monsters in general — the tumorous sacs, veiny tubes, and misshapen lumps of plasticine flesh. It almost seems to echo the work of surrealist mistress Louise Bourgeois — see the lumps? the dysmorphic genitalia? Louise wasn’t very fond of her mother, so we’d like you to watch the final scene of Cronenberg’s horrific vision of motherhood, parasitic and destructive, and then look at Bourgeouis’ sewn pink series and its mutants. And then, see some of her giant Maman spider sculpture series, dedicated to mommy dearest. And then, you reconsider your personal beliefs on breeding.