18 artists changing the face of horror

Horror and gothic art won't lose its appeal as long as society maintains its fascination with death. For some artists, the macabre provides a release from internalised fear. For others, it's a playful way to seek a reaction from their viewers.

Whatever the motive, managing to capture a truly frightening scene, and present the viewer with a disturbing yet beautiful image, is a real skill.

In honour of Halloween, we take a look at great contemporary artists who focus on dark fantasy themes, with many revealing why they paint such deadly themes.

01. Keith Thompson

Keith Thompson's Pestilential Advent illustration

If you haven't heard of Keith Thompson, you have almost certainly been privy to some of his inner artistic workings, bringing to life some of the most revered film director's characters (including Guillermo Del Toro) and injecting his creativity into video games and book projects. 

A concept artist, creature designer and illustrator, Thompson has worked on projects such as 2017 horror flick The Ritual, to create the movie's 'big bad'. He's also worked on Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan book series.

One of Thompson's illustrations used in Guillermo Del Toro's Don't be Afraid of the Dark (in the film they are maddened illustrations created in 1909 by character, Blackwood)

Thompson's work focuses on characterisation and that is what makes his art so terrifyingly good. His characters are believable, and could be injected into any good work of horror fiction. 

02. Scott M Fischer

Copper X: Fischer painted this stunning piece on engraved copper, so the piece changes dramatically as you move around it

You might recognise Fischer's intricate artwork from his years spent illustrating for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer graphic novel covers, and their various spin-offs.

His process is no less than artistic alchemy, each image meticulously layered full of glorious detail and lyrical line work – it's a treat to watch, and he generously allows his fans to witness it through videos on his YouTube channel. Fischer uses a unique variety of techniques, including painting on copper.

Cover for Dark Horse Comics, Angel #3. Fischer worked in FWink on Duralar, hitting both sides of the translucent material

Of course, not all of his work is horror, but all maintain a distinctly eerie, yet romantic feel to them – perhaps an unwitting insight into the artist's own delights and his gravitation towards all things fantastical.

03. Anne Stokes

Summon the Reaper: "the girl stands with confidence, in control of time as the darkness swirls around her," says Stokes

"I am a fan of all things fantasy and much of horror falls into this. It's the dark side of fantasy with many monsters, characters and fantasy situations," reveals illustrator Anne Stokes.

"I love the style of the gothic architecture with its soaring, sweeping shapes and detailed carvings. Dark and deathly imagery offer great scope for artists and the possibility of suggesting a sinister story in the picture. I like the possibilities for contrasting softer and darker subjects."

Stokes has created works that have been used for metal band albums, poker decks, tees and zippo lighters (like this design)

"I have always enjoyed the creativity and look of gothic clothing and enjoyed visiting the Whitby Goth weekends," Stokes continues.

"Many people who attend make a great effort to dress up for the occasion which provides an interesting spectacle as the picturesque old town gets taken over by Goths."

04. Alexandros Pyromallis

Pyromallis's Visual Horror Sequences evokes the golden age of horror flicks with a VHS vibe [Click for the full image]

Pyromallis is the co-founder of Viral Graphics, a music-related artwork collaborative set up back in 2006 with fellow artist and music aficionado, Konstantinos Psichas.

Under this name, they have provided some stand-out poster art for bands like Soundgarden, the Melvins and Swans.

One of Pyromallis' T-shirt designs for Cvlt Nation. The artist also designs skateboards and band posters

Pyromallis explains that he is "influenced by the plague of culture, horror films/comics, the metal of death, monsters, the hidden paths of the mind, human stupidity and fear."

He practices what he calls "analogue illustration" – traditional techniques using ink, brushes and paper. He seeks to add his "own ideas and manifestations into the ever-boiling Cauldron of Depravity", and his illustrations certainly don't stray away from this macabre manifesto.

05. DZO: Olivier

Olivier's illustration Persephone, originally drawn for guitarist Adam Crossman

French illustrator Olivier (or DZO, as he's also known) wishes to go deeper into his exploration of the "noosphere" (a philosophical concept about human thought) with his art.

Conjuring up the aesthetics of old etchings and religious engravings, occult manuscripts that flirt with alchemy, witchcraft and blasphemy, the artist creates intricate drawings dull of enigmatic detail. 

Close up of Persephone, black ink on Canson paper

Mixing sensuality, darkness and mythology, he strives to create pieces that are disturbing, haunting and stimulating, oozing with mystery and fascination.

06. Wes Benscoter

Part of Benscoter's album cover design for death metal legends Mortician's Darkest Day of Horror

Wes Benscoter is a master of metal music album artwork. His terrifying visual skills have been enlisted by pretty much every self-respecting death metal band, including Cattle Decapitation, Morticia, Kreator and Autopsy, not to mention thrashers Slayer, and heavy metal masters Black Sabbath. 

Autopsy's Skull Grinder finished album cover with featured artwork by Benscoter

It takes a seriously strong stomach to take on the challenge of lending your hand in illustrating merch for such brutal acts – one that many an artist would understandably find a little hard to handle. 

Benscoter never fails to deliver, no matter how gruesome and gory. He'll happily intricately etch a corpse's entrails or set up a more subtly sinister scene.

07. Aly Fell

Tiffany May recalls the vibe of classic tongue and cheek slasher flicks

"I’m not really a 'horror' artist as such, but the 'Gothic' is an aesthetic that has always resonated with me, from music, fashion, literature and of course visual art. Confronting the shadows is the best way to come to terms with them," says artist Aly Fell.

Fell classes his art as gothic rather than horror

"That 'long night' is waiting for us all, pretending it doesn't exist is to kid yourself. My fluffy bunnies have teeth, but 'Death' looks good in a tutu."

08. Michael Whelan

Smiler is sinister rather than gruesome

Illustrator Michael Whelan is one of the most important science fiction illustrators of our time, having been the first living artist inducted in the Sci-Fi Hall of Fame in 2009.

"I just think about things that seem eerie, or recall frightening situations from my own experiences then adapt them to the exigencies of illustration," admits Whelan.

"I don't go for blood and gore; that's about creating revulsion, not fear. I'm inclined towards establishing a situation that provokes more of a feeling of unease than anything else. It's really very hard to actually create a sense of fear in an image alone.

Deadend: Whelan is known for his surrealist art, beginning his career as a book cover illustrator

"We, as viewers, are so accustomed to hearing soundtracks with scary noises and music to trigger a 'fear' mood that to do it with an image alone seems almost impossible in these jaded times."

09. Laurie Lipton

Tete A Tete: Lipton describes this unnerving image as her "shadow"

"I do not love horror. I draw about the things that annoy or frighten me," explains artist Laurie Lipton.

"When I visited Mexico after my mother died, I realised that I could grab onto my fear of death and feel an illusion of control by drawing about it."

Family Reunion

Of the image above, Family Reunion, the artist says: "Death will reunite us with our ancestors. This is how I imagined it will look."

10. Godmachine

Godmachine's horror-shaped illustrations have been printed by major gothic apparel companies as well as for skateboard designs

Godmachine is inspired by pop culture visions. "There was this video shop in my village when I was a kid, the only video shop for miles around. It was run by one of my older brother's friends and it was wall to wall awesome video cases of drawn, bad photo manipulations and terrible moustaches (a la Tom Selek)."

Darkness inside: Godmachine's work varies from pop-culture posters and intricate gothic illustrations to striking graphic designs like this one

"I think without fail that shop defined my outlook on the art I am creating at the moment. I am working towards refining my shit but as a starting point;

"My inspiration came from a video shop in a small village (think Werewolf in London) crossed with the little curiosity shop in Gremlins where he buys the Mogwai and Royston Vasey... these fictional places created a great launching pad for me."

Next page: 8 more superbly creepy horror artists

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Alice Pattillo

Alice Pattillo is a freelance journalist with a passion for heavy metal, horror, science fiction, fantasy and comics. She has over seven years experience in magazines, formerly working as a staff writer at Creative Bloq, Imagine FX, Computer Arts and 3D World, as production editor for Guitar World and Guitar Player and online editor of Metal Hammer.