Depicting or Experiencing Fear in Art

Fear is a pretty understandable feeling. We’ve all felt it – I hope. The three panelists, at the 11th of December Fear event, all talked about fear from different angles. Sacha Golob viewed it from a philosophical viewpoint, William Badenhorst from a psychoanalytic one and Caterina Albano from the perspective of contemporary art. The discussions were engaging, and my mind was racing: trying to pinpoint which artworks I connected the most to fear.

Golob categorized the way in which we can view fear in four different ways: evaluative, phenomenological, physiological and behavioural. Most of the pictures that Albano, the last panelist, gave examples of represented fear in its evaluative form, where it tracks the world around us and its actual threats, and its depiction in visual art. As the glass figure of the Coronavirus COVID-19 by Luke Jerram:

Luke Jerram, Glass Microbiology

There is, however, another way that art depicts fear that she also mentioned: the scary or horror – the phenomenological aspect of fear in art. When we experience the feeling of fear through something not inherently dangerous, we engage with art to feel fear itself.

We can, therefore distinguish between depicting fear in artworks and experiencing fear through them. Watching Marina Abramovic & Ulay’s Rest Energy makes one feel fear. Fear for her life (even though one knows that she didn’t die).

The same applies to Francis Bacon’s scary and uncomfortable paintings.

The art in itself freaks us out, causes uncomfortable feelings and makes us want to walk away or not dwell on it. When we choose to engage with the artwork it might be because we want to relish in fear itself. After all, it means us no real harm. A philosophically intriguing question is; why do we do that? And why do we often feel as if that particular type of fear is more engaging and more satisfying than the other type of art that simply depicts what we are afraid of? An artwork that engages with the phenomenological type of fear, making us experience it directly, makes us feel the fear in a physiological manner, heart pumping, and makes us react to it either by intrigue or terror.

With the new strand of Covid-19 and Christmas almost being cancelled we would rather dwell in a fake fearful situation than a real one. The realistic depiction of our genuine fears seems to, at least to me, bum us out. I felt this particularly strongly when I saw a photograph by Mitch Epstein called Biloxi, Mississippi 2015, depicting the aftermaths of hurricane Katrina.

Biloxi, Mississippi 2005 2005 Mitch Epstein born 1952 Presented by the artist 2010

Instead of intrigue with the fear of the situation itself, I felt repulsed by the photograph. I didn’t want to look at it – the photograph ignited my flight response. I walked away quickly without wanting to dwell too long on my all too real fear of actual natural disaster. However, after watching the discussions, I will ask myself next time I have such a feeling: Why I feel the strong urge walk away from a work that reminds me of what I find truly terrifying and daunting.

Eva Vilhjalmsdottir

Eva Lín (b. 1995) writes about art on the side of her MA philosophy studies. She currently lives in London but is from Reykjavík, Iceland. You can find her work is on her website: