Figure With Meat, Francis Bacon (1954)
Good God is Bacon terrifying. This painting appropriates Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (and was not Bacon’s only use of this image), but makes it gruesome. You can almost hear the screaming from here.
A Few Small Nips, Frida Kahlo (1935)
This painting is based on a newspaper story in which a man murdered his girlfriend by stabbing her 20 times, exclaiming when interviewed, “But I only have her a few small nips!” The image is horrifying enough, but then there’s the blood on the frame, which makes the viewer feel unsafe, and worse — complicit.
The Face of War (Visage de la Guerre), Salvador Dalí (1940)
As much as those spiny-legged things give me the wiggins, I’m going to have to go with this one as the scariest of Dalí’s surrealist oeuvre, painted just after the end of the Spanish Civil War. You can see the imprint of his hand on the canvas in the lower right corner; Dalí has said that this is the only work of his in which you can do so.
Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya (c. 1819-1823)
Based on the Greek myth of Cronus eating his children to prevent any of them from overthrowing him (one of them finally survived and did — you know him, his name is Zeus), this was one of the “Black Paintings” that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his own house. You can just hear the guests: “Charming decor, Francisco, really!” Second place goes to Peter Paul Rubens’ (earlier) painting of the same subject and title.
Child with Toy Hand Grenade, Diane Arbus (1962)
Many of Arbus’ works are deeply unsettling, but this one is particularly scary: the face, the hand, the grenade. Arbus got the shot by constantly walking around the boy, Colin Wood, telling him she was trying to find the best angle, and eventually catching him “in a moment of exasperation.” “Take the picture already!” he cried. She did, and it captures the terrible thing lurking in all of us.
Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio (1598-99)
“Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head, and said, ‘Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day!’ And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.” (Judith, 13:7-8) This scene was actually painted by tons of people, but for my money, Caravaggio’s is the scariest.
From Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (1901)
Note Typhoeus, the scariest monster in Greek myth, and all-too-human Hostile Forces: representations of sickness, madness, death (on the left there) and unchastity, voluptuousness and excess on the right. Me, I like voluptuousness, but those first three were pretty scary.
A Thousand Years, Damien Hirst (1990)
Whatever you think of Damien Hirst, he’s a) famous and b) terrifying, so he belongs on this list. This piece is a gruesome ode to life cycles: the flies lay eggs in the severed cow’s head, the eggs become maggots become flies and die again in the fly-zapper.
The Lovers II, René Magritte (1928)
Oh, what’s that you say, this looks just like the time you and your boyfriend both dressed up as last-minute ghosts for Halloween and ended up drinking too much and forgetting that just because you couldn’t see other people didn’t mean other people couldn’t see you? You creeper.
Untitled #140, Cindy Sherman (1985)
So much of Sherman’s work is horrifying — she habitually bends reality to its most gruesome (and will put you off dolls and clowns forever), using her own body as ever-shifting subject. This one, part of her Fairy Tales series, might haunt me the most.
The Egg, Alfred Kubin (1901-2)
Symbolist Kubin was obsessed with the female body as both victim and aggressor, and often put pregnancy and death right up against one another. This figure looks like it walked right out of one of Tim Burton’s nightmares.
Suicide, Andy Warhol (1964)
In the early ’60s, Warhol became interested in applying his pop art techniques to the macabre, hence his Death and Disaster series, which included images of suicides, car crashes, and other violent disasters.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon (1944)
Sorry, Bacon again. This one is not as conventionally terrifying as “Figure With Meat,” but is somehow even more existentially disturbing. As is probably clear, he was obsessed with religious painting and iconography, and he originally meant to paint a huge crucifixion scene and put these figures at the base of the cross, but he never did. This triptych is considered his first mature work.