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Horror in the arts: An undying tradition

Philipp Jedicke
March 1, 2024

From films to fashion to music: An exhibition titled "Death and the Devil" looks at how horror has found its way into different art forms.

A black-and-white drawing of skeletons dancing.
'The Dance of Death' from the 'Nuremberg Chronicle,' published in 1493 Image: Gemeinfrei

Since time immemorial, horror has found its way into various art forms, whether in fairy tales, books, paintings, sculptures, songs or films. 

Despite this long tradition, horror has long been denigrated for being a superficial genre. Curator Westrey Page hopes to demonstrate that isn't the case with the exhibition "Death and the Devil. The Fascination with Horror," which is now on show at the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt after its first run at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf.

In recent decades, the topic has only appeared marginally in major exhibitions, as Page told DW. Unique in its approach, the exhibition explores how horror has inspired creators in all artistic fields, from fine art to fashion, and from music to film.

Albrecht Dürer's engraving 'Knight, Death, and the Devil' from 1513.
Albrecht Dürer's 'Knight, Death, and the Devil' from 1513 inspired Christian soldiers to never deter from the path of virtueImage: Wolfgang Fuhrmannek/Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt

Horror throughout art history

The exhibition begins with a historical prologue that looks into how the arts and culture have been shaped by horror for centuries, from the fantastic demons of the Renaissance to the dark shadows in Romantic landscape paintings to various iconic characters from the early horror films of the 20th century, such as "Nosferatu."

Throughout history, major artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow and Francisco de Goya have also dealt with horror and dark dreams in their works.

"Above all, my hope is that many visitors will then be able to interpret today's manifestations of horror differently, and perhaps have more respect for them," said Page.

A 19th century painting representing hell, with a winged figure overlooking a chaotic bunch of humans.
Hellish imagery: A painting by Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow and his students from 1848-1852Image: Kunstpalast – Horst Kolberg

Depictions of death and the devil from the late Middle Ages

Images of skulls and skeletons widely circulated in European art during the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, especially in times of crisis, such as during the Black Death, the plague pandemic that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s, or the Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648.

The exhibition notes that the macabre motifs served as reminders that life is fleeting, but also that "eternal damnation" should be seen as a real threat.

Different depictions of evil created in the 19th century still characterize representations of horror to this day. Progressively, the idea of death was romanticized and glorified, which is why the devil came to be portrayed as as a charismatic Satan with an intriguing intellect and a muscular human body.

Continuity through renewed adaptations

Through 120 exhibits — paintings, illustrations and installations from various art forms from the past two centuries — "Death and the Devil. The Fascination with Horror" shows how certain horror devices have been revisited over time.

Excerpts from German Expressionist horror film classics such as "Nosferatu" (1922) and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920) and posters from famous later horror classics such as "The Exorcist" (1973) and "Halloween" (1978) show the continuity with which horror has been inscribed in film history.

Film still from 'Nosferatu': the dark shadow of a figure with long fingernails walking up the steps.
An iconic figure of horror: 'Nosferatu'Image: Image courtesy Ronald Grant Archive/ Picture Library/IMAGO

Horror as a tool to 'question social norms

Horror films can promote both conservative and subversive values. They can, for example, serve as a warning about the unknown, but they can also enable a change of perspective about social issues by asking the question: Who is the actual monster here?

Ever since the first "King Kong" film, the old hero-versus-monster formula has been challenged.

In many modern vampire films, the bloodsuckers are no longer the villains, but rather the main protagonists who have to find their way in a cruel society.

An installation with objects that look like meat, hanging from a white box.
King Cobra's sculpture "Red Rack of Those Ravaged and Unconsenting"Image: Doreen Garner / Foto: kunst-dokumentation.com / Manuel Carreon Lopez

A recurring theme in horror is that a central unit is threatened by something that comes from the outside.

But this established storyline can also be used to swap roles, in which "the monster, the witch, the vampire or the outsider can assert an empowered otherness," explained Page. "And this can also be used to question social norms, to question systems of power. And that's ultimately what we're seeing more and more of in horror these days, in very different genres, including pop culture."

Crossing boundaries

The exhibition shows, among other things, how the looks of the younger Goth scene influenced the creations of fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Rick Owens and Viktor & Rolf.

The aesthetics of Gothic, wave and especially metal bands — whether on record covers, band T-shirts or the lettering used for their names — are heavily inspired by old myths that deal with horror and disgust.

Today, this symbolism also appears in pop music. Lady Gaga, for example, lovingly refers to her fans as "Little Monsters."

Horror has been going through a renaissance in recent years, which is reflected among other things in the great international success of series such as "The Walking Dead" or "Monster High," a popular horror doll series from the Barbie manufacturer Mattel, in which figures like Frankie Stein or Draculaura wreak havoc. The franchise's advertising slogan is: "Be yourself, be unique, be a monster."

"So it's about celebrating and accepting one's own identity and differences," said Page.

When preparing the exhibition, she herself was surprised by the diversity of the horror genre. "It can be serious, it can be sociopolitical, but it can also be charming. Horror can be fun, filled with black humor. It's just so diverse," she said.

 Lady Gaga; Born This Way album cover
Lady Gaga's album 'Born This Way' features the singer as part human, part motorcycleImage: Universal Music International, Interscope Records

A sculpture by the US artist King Cobra with imitation flesh that explores the vulnerability of the body and the disgust that arises from it; an album cover by Lady Gaga, who is part motorcycle, part human; Max Schreck as Count Orlok in "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror": all three works cross borders, and can open the mind of the viewers through a moment of shock.

As curator Page emphasized: "I think horror gives us space to process our own fears and ultimately see our society from a different perspective."

The exhibition "Death and the Devil. The Fascination with Horror" runs from March 1 to June 2, 2024 at the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

This article was originally written in German and first published at the start of the exhibition at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf.

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