Art Term of the Month: Spooky – The Nightmare


Your chest tightens. You begin to sweat. Your scalp crawls and your knees tremble. Just as you’re about to let out a bloodcurdling scream… you wake up and realize it was all just a dream!

Nightmares are a universal spooky experience - so their popularity in art is a given! Artists have explored these dark visions both by depicting the contents of their nightmares (especially Surrealists like Salvador Dali) and by personifying their nightmares.

The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli

One of the most iconic images of the latter is “The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli. Created in 1781 during the height of the Enlightenment, this oil painting paradoxically portrayed the irrational, sensual and horrific. 

The main figure of the piece is a sleeping young woman draped in a white nightgown. She has totally succumbed to her dreams - her arms tumble, limp and defenseless, off the side of her bed. On top of her chest squats the gargoyle-like Nightmare. His apparent weight and unnatural stare bring to life the oppressive and unsettling feeling of a nightmare. His placement also suggests the subconscious sexuality of the dream (Sigmund Freud allegedly kept a reproduction of this painting in his apartment in Vienna).

In the top left corner, a spectral horse brings home the subject of the painting – the poor woman is suffering from a nightmare!

Poster for the 1931 film version of “Frankenstein” where Frankenstein has just left Mae Clarke’s room

This image successfully shocked and frightened its first viewers and continued to haunt art enthusiasts over the centuries. The 1931 film version of “Frankenstein” – a more contemporary classic of horror – clearly referenced Fuseli’s painting in its above poster. The artistic tradition of the nightmare lives on!

What do you think your nightmares would look like if they came to life? How would you go about painting your scariest dreams?

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