• Post author:
  • Post category:Adults

In my opinion, art should be beautiful. If I’m hanging a painting on my wall, I want it to be something that will uplift my spirits, rather than something that will depress me. Of course, that doesn’t mean that art can’t be sad. Or that it can’t inspire other feelings. But, the pieces of art in these stories are a little more complex than that. Some of them are actually pretty ugly. They are unsettling, disturbing. They bring madness in their wake. Others are beautiful, but there is something wrong about them. They cause obsessions, they hide dark secrets. Are these paintings still to be considered art? I suppose that’s up to the reader to determine. If you’re looking for a scary story that features a painting or portrait as its central theme, then look no further than this list. You’ll find plenty to provide thrills and chills and to leave you nervously reaching out for more.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

Artist Basil Hallward creates his greatest painting when he finishes the portrait of his young friend, Dorian Gray. Fearful that he has revealed something of himself in the painting, he gifts it to him. Dorian is completely overcome by the beauty of the portrait, and by his new friend Lord Henry Wotten’s philosophies on hedonism and beauty. Deeply jealous that the portrait will remain forever beautiful, while life will start to mar his own perfect features, Dorian expresses his desire that it would be different, that the painting would age and that he would remain young, offering his very soul for such a chance. And it happens. Dorian soon starts to notice that his descent into hedonism, rather than marring his own features with hardness around the eyes or a cruelty in his smile, only changes the picture, so that he continues to look as youthful and angelic as the day that the painting was completed, while the increasingly vile state of his soul is hidden away in the back of the attic.

The Oval Portrait (Edgar Allan Poe)

Perhaps one of Poe’s less famous stories, “The Oval Portrait” is a nevertheless a quick and chilling read. The narrator, an injured man (who provides no reason for his injury) stumbles upon an abandoned house in the Apennines. There, he discovers a strange room full of paintings, and spends his time admiring each piece, while reading about them in a book he finds on a pillow in the room. When he discovers a painting depicting the head and shoulders of a young woman, he becomes absolutely enthralled, and consults the book to discover more about her. There, he learns the tragic history of the painting’s subject (the wife of the artist), in a story of obsession and perhaps even a little madness (would you expect anything else from Poe??). For readers who want to hear more about the tragic women in Poe’s stories, consider checking out my previous list here.

The Black Painting (Neil Olson)

The four cousins in the Morse family are summoned to their grandfather’s mansion at Owl’s Point. None of them have visited the estate since they were children, when a prized painting–a self-portrait by Goya–disappeared. The painting was rumored to cause madness and death upon viewing, and its disappearance brought out suspicions and accusations that tore the family apart. Any hope that their grandfather planned to make amends evaporates when Teresa, the youngest of the cousins finds the old man dead, a look of horror on his face as he stares at the empty spot where the painting once hung. As suspicions mount, Teresa hopes to find the reasons behind both the patriarch’s death and the painting’s disappearance. But in order to do so, she must first uncover some ugly family secrets and confront those who would keep them hidden.

The Road Virus Heads North (Stephen King)

Richard Kinnell, a successful horror writer, is driving from Boston back to his home in Derry, Maine, when he decides to stop at a yard sale. There, he finds a bizarre, disturbing painting of a man with sharp teeth, driving his car over Boston’s Tobin Bridge. The painting is titled “The Road Virus Heads North” and was created by a tortured genius who burned all his other pieces before committing suicide. Kinnell is a collector of such oddities, so he purchases the painting without hesitation. But, as he drives back home, he starts to notice chances to the painting. But, despite early attempts to explain away the changes, he soon is forced to admit that there is something deeply wrong with his new acquisition. After attempts to discard the cursed object also fail, he discovers that there are some horrors that just might be impossible to escape from.

BONUS: Rohan at the Louvre (Hirohiko Araki)

Note: This title is not currently in the library’s collection and must be borrowed through SearchOhio.

In one of the most deeply chilling manga that I’ve ever read, Rohan Kishibe, a deeply misanthropic manga artist, shares a story that happened to him back when he was still a young man living with his grandmother. When one of the guests tells him of a painting made with a pigment so dark that it reflects no light (and that was produced from a cursed tree, no less!) Rohan becomes infatuated with the story, and eventually goes to see the painting in person, which is said to be in the Louvre. But, when he arrives, Louvre staff reveal the painting is impossibly stored in a disused part of the museum that has not been touched in decades. When a team of high-ranking museum officials decide to explore the mystery, they unlock a series of horrors that will cut to the bone.


I'm the Reader's Advisory Librarian at WPPL. My interests include old horror films, classic novels, manga and anime, paper-crafting, and plants. If you like my suggestions, you can request personalized recommendations from me on My Librarian page.