Home Entertainment ‘Just too frightening’ – the most terrifying art, from horror films to haunted ruins and sinister songs

‘Just too frightening’ – the most terrifying art, from horror films to haunted ruins and sinister songs

‘Just too frightening’ – the most terrifying art, from horror films to haunted ruins and sinister songs

A slow unsettling chill

In 2012, French series The Returned, or Les Revenants, introduced us to a small town in the mountains where the dead simply reappear as if no time has passed. It combined other spooky standards, such as creepy children, roads that circle back on themselves and serial killers, with only the occasional trip to the “lek poob” (the pub on the lake) to try to work out what the hell was going on. I am a fan of the good old-fashioned jump scare, but nothing really gets to me like the slow, unsettling chill of a situation that is not quite right. Best not mention season two, or the US remake, though. Rebecca Nicholson

Left to rot … the ruin of Bokor Palace.
Left to rot … the ruin of Bokor Palace. Photograph: travelbild.com/Alamy

The ghosts of 900 enslaved labourers

“We should turn back now – before the wild bears come!” This was not a reassuring thing to hear while exploring the mist-shrouded ruins of Bokor Palace, an abandoned casino at the top of a mountain in Cambodia. Hollywood set designers couldn’t have conjured a more spooky structure. Built as a symbol of colonial decadence by the French in the 1920s, it had been left to rot, its ruined walls encrusted with moss and lurid orange lichen. When I visited in 2003, I started to notice strange symbols carved into the walls – marked by the ghosts of the 900 indentured labourers who died while building the place? Or victims of the murderous Khmer Rouge, who used the place as a stronghold? As dusk settled, and I realised I was alone in this damp, sprawling carcass, I didn’t want to stay to find out. Oliver Wainwright

‘I’m still haunted’ … Die Familie Schneider.
‘I’m still haunted’ … Die Familie Schneider. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Door-to-door doom

Two adjacent terrace houses in Whitechapel, London. In one, a woman is doing the dishes and a man is masturbating behind the shower curtain. They ignore the visitors who’ve been given the keys and are free to snoop and rummage about. You must visit alone. A boy is breathing under a bin-bag on the bedroom floor and there’s a cot in the coal-hole. The atmosphere is sickening. Somewhere a baby is crying. When you go next door, the same thing is happening. The same woman, the same man. Almost. Populated by twins, German artist Gregor Schneider’s 2004 Artangel project, Die Familie Schneider, remains the creepiest art work I’ve ever seen. I am still haunted. Adrian Searle

Death rattle … Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide.
Death rattle … Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

‘We are all lying in hell’

In 1977, three years before Dolly Parton sang 9 to 5, Suicide offered a much less FM-friendly take. “He’s working from seven to five,” blurts Alan Vega, about a desperate factory worker’s descent into insanity. “He’s just trying to survive.” Frankie Teardrop has never scored high on listenability, but it remains a feat of tension and release, a chilling takedown of the capitalist death machine. Paired with Martin Rev’s stifling synth minimalism, Vega’s screams hit like a death rattle. The closing reveal after the gunshots – “We’re all Frankies. We’re all lying in hell” – nods to the terror lingering beneath just trying to make ends meet. Brian Coney

Bury it … The Woolworths Choir of 1979 by Elizabeth Price.
Bury it … The Woolworths Choir of 1979 by Elizabeth Price. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Scary, satanic and true

The Woolworths Choir of 1979, the title of a piece of video art that 10 years ago won Elizabeth Price the Turner prize, is pure heartstopping horror. It creates a creepy atmosphere from the start with grotesque medieval carvings in the choir or “quire” of a gothic church, but this MR James-style spookiness is just the prelude to the disturbingly true story of a lethal shop fire in 1970s Britain. The soundtrack makes the Shangri-Las as sinister as The Exorcist rendered Mike Oldfield, as Price weaves together images and sound to suggest a dark satanic pattern of fate and conspiracy. Bury it in the vault. It’s just too frightening. Jonathan Jones

Judgment day … Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls.
Judgment day … Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

A very plausible apocalypse

When I studied the JB Priestley play An Inspector Calls at school, the imposing Inspector Goole made his way into my nightmares. I was an angsty teen and very hard on myself, so the idea of being judged by a moral arbiter was too much. Today, the books I find scary tend to be about the most terrifying issue of our age: the climate crisis. Last year I read The High House by Jessie Greengrass, which imagines a very plausible apocalypse. It still fills me with dread. For a more classic horror, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is brilliant – and very, very scary. Lucy Knight

Uncanny wrongness … Dead of Night.
Uncanny wrongness … Dead of Night. Photograph: Ronald Grant

A hospital awakening

The Hearse Driver was a tale in Dead of Night, the 1945 Ealing Studios ghost story portmanteau classic. A racing car driver is laid up in hospital after a crash. In the dead of night, the man awakens, puzzled and aware that something is strange: his bedside clock is wrong and the building is silent. He gets out of bed and opens the curtains to discover it is broad daylight. From the window, he sees a Victorian horse-drawn hearse, whose driver gestures to the coffin in the back and shouts up to him amiably: “Just room for one inside, sir!” Baffled, the man returns to his bed. Out of hospital a few days later, he is about to board a bus. The conductor, who has the same face as the hearse driver, tells him: “Just room for one inside, sir.” Fearful in ways he can’t understand, the man doesn’t get on – and sees the departing bus crash. What for me is scary is not the prophetic revelation but the basic detail from its opening: that unearthly daylight in the middle of the night, that eerie uncanny wrongness flooding the screen. Peter Bradshaw

A constant feeling of being watched … It Follows.
A constant feeling of being watched … It Follows. Photograph: Icon Film Distribution/Allstar

Primed to kill you

In 2014, I saw It Follows, a horror film about a teenage girl who, after a sexual encounter, is stalked by some kind of humanoid that’s constantly walking behind her. David Robert Mitchell gave his film a dreamy, perpetual sunset aesthetic – so when it began to swing towards deep dread, I was unprepared. It’s not a jump scare film. Instead, it counters its soft aesthetic with a constant feeling of being watched, as if anyone you see in the street might be primed to kill you if you get too close. I ran all the way home and found myself looking over my shoulder for months after. Shaad D’Souza

‘Oh god!’ … Bette Davis in The Watcher in the Woods.
Creepy … Bette Davis in The Watcher in the Woods. Photograph: Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock

Steer clear of the woods

In the late 1980s, I made the earth-shattering mistake of switching on the telly one afternoon and watching … a Disney film. It was the most terrifying straight-to-TV release known to childkind: The Watcher in the Woods. Oh god. Just writing the title makes me want to run screaming from my laptop, even though I can recall only vague horrifying snippets. The little blond girl wearing a blindfold trapped in a mirror. The other little blond girl running after her golden retriever into the woods. Bette Davis standing at the window of a creepy manor, watching said woods. A chapel seance in the woods. Oh god, THE WOODS. Basically, this obscure piece of 1980s daytime trash ended my childhood. I learned three things: trust no one, fear Bette Davis and never, ever follow a dog into the woods. Chitra Ramaswamy

Group hysteria … Lily Allen in 2.22.
Group hysteria … Lily Allen in 2.22. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Towards the haunted hour

Somewhere in the middle of 2.22, a haunted house play by Danny Robins, the audience flipped. One minute, we were sitting decorously watching Lily Allen and Hadley Fraser play a couple who kept being woken up every night at 2.22am. The next, the auditorium was in the grip of group hysteria. As a clock on stage hurtled towards the haunted hour, the tension was cranked up with jump scares and sudden plunges into darkness. On one side of me, a colleague sat frozen in his seat. On the other, a woman juddered, clutching at the arm rests – and at me. When a teddy bear was found drowned in the couple’s bathroom, I started to clutch back. Arifa Akbar

Genuinely unsettling … The Hamburger Lady on Throbbing Gristle’s DoA album
Genuinely unsettling … The Hamburger Lady on Throbbing Gristle’s DoA album

Throbbing with gloom

Unlike films and literature, rock and pop music struggles to instil fear. It can do preposterous grand guignol horror – Alice Cooper, the Misfits – but seldom actually scares you. Yet Hamburger Lady, a track from industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle’s 1978 album DoA, remains a genuinely unsettling listen 44 years on. The backstory is grim: the lyrics are taken from a letter describing the plight of a horribly burned woman kept alive “by medical advances”. But the matter-of-fact vocal is so distorted you can only make out occasional lines. Its effect is predicated on its sound: the slow thud of a bass drum; a guitar that emits arcs of distorted noise; a persistent, mournful whine (actually made by a duck call); phrases like “qualified technicians” and “burned from the waist up” emerging from the gloom. It’s all oddly quiet, almost becalmed, but the sense that something terrible has happened – and something worse might be about to happen – is impossible to shake. Alexis Petridis

Indie horror … Slender.
Indie horror game … Slender. Photograph: BrendenFrank/Midnight City

Slender Man gets closer and closer

Based on the ultra-creepy Slender Man meme mythology that swept the internet in the 2010s, 2012’s Slender is an indie horror game in which you are trapped in the woods with nothing but a flickering torch. There is a tall, faceless man stalking you as you run through the trees and look for shelter in battered cabins. Every time you turn around, there is a chance you will see him in the distance, getting closer over time until you can hear his footsteps and his breathing. Eventually, he finds you, and the screen goes black. The game only lasts a few minutes, but at night I kept thinking I could see Slender Man in my peripheral vision FOR YEARS. Keza MacDonald

‘The sleepover had to be called off’ … BBC spoof documentary Ghostwatch.
‘The sleepover had to be called off’ … BBC spoof documentary Ghostwatch. Photograph: BBC

Possessed by Mr Pipes

I can’t remember that much about Ghostwatch, only that the sleepover had to be called off and both Rachels were crying. I was 13: the prime age for permanent traumatisation by the BBC’s now-notorious staged paranormal documentary, broadcast one Halloween. Children’s presenters Sarah Green and her husband Mike Smith, along with a camera crew played by real BBC technicians, investigate a haunting in Northolt, London. What they find is pretty conclusive: Mr Pipes possesses a homeowner called Suzanne, scratches her face, then retreats shrieking to his “glory hole” in the basement. Everyone basically dies. Back in the studio, Michael Parkinson takes a call from a probation worker who confirms that Pipes was a paedophile who hanged himself and was eaten by cats. At the end, Parky stumbles about, apparently possessed himself. The show was preceded by a “Screen One” banner to indicate fictionalisation, but few appreciated its import. Anyone who got through when phoning in to share their own paranormal experiences was told it was made up, but the lines were so mobbed by terrified viewers – as well as Parkinson’s elderly mother – that most people just got an engaged tone. Afterwards, there were 100,000 letters, mostly of complaint. I’ve never rewatched it. Me and my schoolfriends have never discussed it. None of us have the guts. Catherine Shoard



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