Sometimes, we like to indulge our fears. We watch horror films, and we read scary stories. Horror movies can thrill us like no other medium, and horror photography is no different.
Our article gives you some chilling examples of horror photography. Using the work of leading horror photographers, we’ll show you themes to open the darkest, scariest corners of our imagination.
What Is Horror Photography?
We’re all afraid of something. Some fears show up in our nightmares. And there are the fears we try to lock away. But they remain in the darkest corners of our minds.
Horror photography aims to excite the darker side of people’s imagination. You want to provoke the viewer and awaken their fears. Horror photography is no different from horror cinema, except you use still images to tell a story.
The imagery we use can be explicit and violent. But horror photography isn’t just buckets of fake blood and fog machines. You can take a more subtle approach, creating tension and unease.
Horror photographers are expert storytellers in their horror photos. And they sometimes use features of surreal and fantasy photography. We’ll show you some excellent examples of how these artists use themes and tropes to frighten and horrify with their photography.
1. Use Darkness and Fear of the Uknown
Fear of the dark is one of our most primal and basic fears. Darkness deprives us of our most vital sense—sight. Without it, we feel vulnerable. We don’t know who or what is out there.
It’s one childhood fear that often stays with us. Maybe we don’t need to sleep with the light on anymore. But unknown noises from the dark can bring those feelings right back. Things don’t look the same at night. The familiar becomes unfamiliar. Friend becomes foe.
Christopher McKenney is a horror photographer passionate about the eerie and evil. In his horror photo below, we see a figure under a sheet. This is unnerving as we don’t know who or what it is.
But the real tension comes from the darkness in the background. We can see parts of the scene but very little beyond the figure. We can’t see where the subject has come from. Nor do we know what is hidden beneath.
2. Take Away a Subject’s Eyes
Our eyes have often been described as “windows to the soul.” And they are an important part of being human. We use eye contact to make connections with our fellow humans and communicate. That’s why removing a person’s sight can have such a strong impact in a horror photo.
Removing or obscuring someone’s eyes dehumanizes them. We lose our ability to make that human connection. They become distant and soulless.
Engin Akyurt demonstrates this in his horror portrait below. He darkens his subject’s eyes with shadows. And the eyes blend with the blackness around her. It creates an emotional vacuum that unnerves the viewer.
3. Portray Fear Through the Eyes and Face
If we see a person looking at something, we have the urge to follow their gaze to see what they’re looking at. It’s one of the ways we can communicate with our eyes. And it’s a behavior often exploited in horror photography.
Having a subject look at something outside the shot can create a sense of unease. We want to see what they see, but we can’t. The edge of the frame stops us. All we have to lead us is the facial expression of the subject.
If the face is full of fear, we feel it too. It makes us want to see what else is there all the more. And the frustration that we can’t adds to the fear.
Ryan Muirhead incorporates many horror storytelling techniques in his film photography. And the image below is a perfect example of how a photographer can direct our attention off-screen using a person’s eyes.
4. Exploit Frightening Phobias
Phobias are persistent and irrational fears that can make our skin crawl. There are many phobias we share. Insects and spiders are loathed by many, as are snakes and scorpions. That’s why these critters are often featured throughout the horror genre.
Joshua Hoffine makes excellent use of these phobias in his work. The example below, titled Bedside, uses the unpopular cockroach. And, given that they’re my worst fear, I can’t go into much more detail!
5. Wreak Terror with Clowns
Clowns are another common phobia. They are meant to be figures of fun and whimsy. But with a skewed mask of makeup and an over-the-top outfit, it’s easy for the imagination to run wild.
Clowns are equally a source of fear as they are of laughter. Not only are they featured in horror movies, but they are sometimes the stars. The “scary clown” has become one of modern film’s most popular Halloween characters.
Lance Reis loves the horror genre. And many recognizable monsters and murderers are featured in his horror photos. In his image below, he uses the clown from the film It.
The character is a perfect example of how a clown can become a monster. And it’s done with a few tweaks to facial features with makeup and fake teeth.
6. Play With Ideas of Childhood Innocence
Children are common characters in horror. Much of the time, they’re used to heighten the sense of danger. We understand a child’s fears because we experienced the same primal ones.
But children can also be used as the source of fear. In horror, children become symbols of lost innocence or corrupted purity. This inverts our assumptions and social norms.
In the image below, Farida Davletshina uses the stark image of a child’s silhouette to stir unsettling emotions. We recognize the figure as a little girl because of her dress. But the dark setting and the fact we can’t see the face makes us uneasy.
7. Create Gory Scenes of Going Under the Knife
Good doctors are the pride of the community. But an evil one is our worst nightmare. They’re usually people we trust. They’re people we have to trust. And this reliant relationship makes a bad doctor all the more horrifying.
We are never more vulnerable than when we undergo an operation. When we “go under the knife,” we’re out cold. Anything could be done to us while we’re unconscious.
Hospitals aren’t exactly pleasant places, but they normally have an air of respectability. But what if people are driven to black-market doctors? They may have medical skills, but can we trust them?
This fearful distrust is something Rick Jones exploits so well. His images are gruesome and gory. But the real horror comes from our fear of being pried open while completely helpless.
8. Take a Person’s Breath Away
When it comes to how we want to leave this world and move on to the next, suffocating is pretty low on the list.
Breathing is so natural to us. We do it without thinking about it. And that’s why the fear of losing the ability to breathe is so strong. When something so basic—something we take for granted—is denied, we panic.
Kyle Thompson plays with our fears in much of his imagery. His photography isn’t as gory as others on this list. But his work is filled with tension and unsettling imagery.
In the image below, he plays with the idea of suffocation. It could be a murder scene from a film. Or it could be a crime scene photograph. It makes us take a deep breath and be thankful we still can!
9. Use Hands and Limbs as Props
Most of the time, hands and limbs are fairly mundane and non-threatening. We can look at our own without suffering a cold sweat. But with horror, these body parts can be used as props to frighten us.
The fear comes when we can’t see to whom—or to what—the hand, arm, or leg is attached. We fear what we don’t know and what we can’t see. Our hands are an especially dexterous part of our bodies. They can grab and grope. They can grasp, squeeze, and strangle.
Joshua Hoffine again provides us with a perfect example. He has a pile of anonymous arms and hands rising from the floor, grabbing and pulling the subject below. Are the hands disembodied? Who do they belong to? We can’t see. That’s why this composition is so powerful.
10. Show the Darker Side of Religious Symbols
Christianity isn’t all angels and Sunday songs. There’s also fire, brimstone, and the pit of eternal damnation. And we can’t forget Satan himself.
The darker aspects of Christianity are used as themes throughout the horror genre. Nobody wants to go to hell. But we also fear what might rise from the underworld and enter our realm.
Being possessed by a demon is another common theme. It is an example of losing control of your body to something dark and sinister. This is something we see in the photo below by Alex Stoddard. This piece is titled Servant.
We are given some clues about whom the subject is in service to. He has a blood-red face and a bleeding cross singed on his chest. And his outstretched arms allude to the religious figure of Christ on the cross. It is an eerie image upending symbols of faith.
11. Shine a Light on Vampires
Vampires have been a staple in horror fiction for generations. From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they’re characters that capture our imagination.
In modern media, vampires have become romantic figures. They play the mysterious and taboo love interest. But they can still bring fear to many. They’re the undead, and they feast on blood!
Jannike Viveka is an expert in gothic horror photography. Her photo below depicts many themes we associate with vampires. There’s a contrast between horror and romance.
The subject appears to be attacking. But she wears an elaborate white wedding dress, usually associated with purity. This juxtaposition heightens the dread of “good” becoming “evil.”
12. Bring the Undead to Life
The zombie apocalypse is one of the most popular subgenres in horror. Whether it’s a post-nuclear fallout or the dead rising from the grave, zombies are horrifying.
The dead coming back to life is a perversion of our reality. A half-decomposed corpse is disgusting, and the person’s soul is no longer there. The zombie is human in form but stripped of all humanity. And they need to feast on the living!
Lance Reis revels in the world of the undead. His costume and makeup design are exceptional, making a frightful nuclear winter a reality. Lance is a master of horror portraits.
13. Showcase a Dead Body
In horror, finding a dead body is more complicated than just seeing something we’d rather not. The questions surrounding the situation create tension just as much as the body.
Who killed them? Why did they kill them? Will the killer strike again? And the person who finds the body becomes part of the story. Are they part of the crime? Will they be the next victim?
The tension that arises from these questions is evident in the image below by Alex Stoddard. We have a murdered body in a woodland area. And we see how the horror is amplified by the body’s remote and isolated location. We have questions but no answers.
14. Create an Eerie Scene in the Wilderness
No one wants to find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere. But sometimes, that’s exactly where we end up. Being lost in a town or city is one thing. We can ask for directions, and there are people (witnesses) around. But if you’re lost in the country, you’re alone.
Many horror films use rural locations for this very reason. Not knowing where we are puts us at a disadvantage. We are vulnerable and at the mercy of others. And we don’t know who those others will turn out to be.
Henri Prestes is a landscape photographer with a strong cinematic style. His images exploit these ideas of being alone and are full of mystery and tension. We always feel like we’re venturing into the unknown when looking at his images. The photo below is a perfect example.
15. Create a Haunted House Scene
Our houses are our homes. They’re meant to be the place we feel most comfortable and safe. But our imaginations can run wild with the idea that a house has absorbed bad omens of the past.
Old houses hold a lot of history. They’ve been host to a lot of events. And in some cases, those occurrences are not always nice. Houses have sometimes been the scene of a death or a murder.
So, we think the building itself has been infected with a spiritual presence of the past. And we believe those who live there many years later will relive the unpleasantness of past horrors. We no longer feel at home. We feel trapped.
The image below, by Jannike Viveka, draws on this haunted house folklore. It depicts a haunting, scary figure. But the setting of an old, shadowy house is just as important. Is this figure linked to the house? Or has she been created by the house?
16. Combine Horror and Sexual Fantasy
Over the decades, horror has become intertwined with sexual fantasy. We’ve seen the sexualization of vampires in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the Twilight series. Modern Halloween costumes have become less scary and more sexy.
If you look at some of the costumes used in horror and BDSM, there’s a lot of overlap. There’s leather, straps, and other torture devices. And there’s the combination of pleasure and pain.
Maybe I’m getting too Freudian, but a person’s kinks—like their fears—come from the deepest depths of their personality. And in a highly sexualized world, the two can be confused. While some people like to get undressed in the bedroom, others like to dress up.
Conclusion: Horror Photography
Horror photography gives us a thrill by playing with our fears. Images stick in our minds, whether we want them to or not.
There are many ways photographers scare us with their imagery. They use elaborate props and sets and realistic horror makeup. Or they set eerie scenes that rely on story and tension.
If you are passionate about the gruesome and the macabre, you can create horror photography yourself. Explore some of these themes demonstrated by pro photographers to create your own horrifying imagery!