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Dalí, Ernst, Magritte, etc., and how their exploration of the absurd influenced horror


Imagine stumbling into a world where clocks melt, eggs rain from the sky, and everyday objects take on disturbingly human qualities. This is the realm of surrealism, a movement that challenged the boundaries of logic and perception, plunging into the depths of the subconscious and revealing the unsettling beauty of the absurd. But surrealism wasn’t just confined to canvases and galleries; its influence seeped into the very fabric of horror, shaping how we perceive fear and the uncanny.

In this journey, we’ll delve into the world of surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte, exploring how their exploration of the absurd transformed the landscape of horror, both in literature and film. We’ll unravel the techniques they employed, from dreamlike sequences to distorted realities, and examine their lasting impact on the genre, from early horror masters to contemporary filmmakers.

Prepare to confront the unsettling beauty of the absurd and discover how it continues to fuel the nightmares that haunt us today.

Table of Contents

  1. Surrealism and the Absurd
  2. The Influence on Horror Literature
  3. The Influence on Horror Film
  4. Conclusion
  5. FAQ Section

Surrealism and the Absurd

Surrealism emerged in the early 20th century, a rebellion against the strictures of rationality and a celebration of the subconscious mind. It sought to liberate art from the confines of logic and reason, embracing the chaotic and illogical world of dreams and desires. Surrealist artists, like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte, employed a range of techniques to achieve this goal.

The Absurd in Surrealism

The absurd, in surrealism, was not merely a whimsical stylistic choice; it was a tool for challenging societal norms, exposing hidden anxieties, and questioning the nature of reality itself. Surrealist artists, like Dalí, often utilized bizarre imagery and dreamlike scenarios to disrupt our expectations and force us to confront the unsettling aspects of our own psyches.

Examples from Surrealist Art

  • Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” (1931): This iconic painting features melting clocks, an unsettling symbol of the fluidity of time and the breakdown of linear thought. The image evokes a sense of unease and disorientation, reflecting the surrealist fascination with the subconscious and the unsettling nature of dreams.

  • Ernst’s “Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale” (1924): This painting captures the unsettling beauty of the surreal, depicting children being threatened by a nightingale with a disturbingly human-like face. The scene is both dreamlike and unsettling, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

  • Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (1964): This enigmatic painting features a man in a suit with an apple obscuring his face. The simple yet powerful image raises questions about identity, perception, and the hidden nature of reality.

Connecting Surrealism to Horror

The surrealist approach to the absurd directly influenced the development of horror as a genre. It provided a new way of exploring anxieties and fears, delving into the dark corners of the subconscious and challenging the very foundations of reality. By embracing the illogical and unsettling, surrealism opened the door for horror writers and filmmakers to create worlds where the familiar became distorted and the unexpected became terrifying.

The Influence on Horror Literature

The impact of surrealist literature on horror writers is undeniable. Authors like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Franz Kafka, though not explicitly associated with the surrealist movement, incorporated elements of the absurd and dreamlike into their works, creating unsettling and unforgettable narratives.

Surrealist Techniques in Horror

  • Dream Sequences: Surrealist artists often explored the distorted and illogical world of dreams, and horror writers adopted this technique to create disorienting and unsettling scenes.
  • Unreliable Narrators: The subjectivity and unreliability of the narrator, a key element of surrealism, became a central tool in horror, allowing for the blurring of reality and the questioning of the reader’s own sanity.
  • Distorted Realities: Surrealist writers often played with the boundaries of reality, creating worlds where time and space were fluid, and the familiar became distorted and uncanny.
  • Subversion of Expectations: By subverting the reader’s expectations, surrealist writers created a sense of unease and uncertainty, playing with their understanding of logic and the natural order.

Examples of Surrealist Influences in Horror Literature

  • “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka: This classic novella tells the story of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant beetle. The narrative explores themes of alienation, the absurdity of existence, and the unsettling nature of transformation.
  • “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson: This chilling novel tells the story of four people who become trapped in a haunted house. The narrative blends psychological horror with surreal elements, creating a sense of unease and the blurring of reality.
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: This unsettling story explores the psychological deterioration of a woman confined to a room with yellow wallpaper. The narrative blends surreal imagery with themes of confinement and mental instability, creating a haunting and disturbing portrait of a woman trapped in her own mind.

The Influence on Horror Film

Surrealism’s influence on horror film is evident from the early days of cinema. Filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, a key figure in the surrealist movement, explored the boundaries of cinematic language and narrative, creating films that challenged conventional storytelling and delved into the depths of the subconscious.

Surrealism and the Rise of Horror Films

The development of surrealism in cinema paved the way for the emergence of classic horror films like “Nosferatu” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” These films utilized distorted imagery, dreamlike sequences, and unsettling visual effects to create an atmosphere of unease and fear.

  • “Nosferatu” (1922) by F.W. Murnau: This silent horror film, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, features a haunting portrayal of Count Orlok, a vampire with an unsettling appearance. The film utilizes chiaroscuro lighting, distorted perspectives, and nightmarish imagery to create a sense of dread and the uncanny.

  • “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) by Robert Wiene: This German Expressionist horror film tells the story of a hypnotist who uses his power to control a somnambulist, Cesare, who commits murders. The film utilizes distorted sets, exaggerated shadows, and a subjective point of view to create a sense of psychological unease and the blurring of reality.

Modern Horror and Surrealism

The influence of surrealism continues to shape modern horror films. Directors like David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Jodorowsky have embraced the surrealist approach, utilizing bizarre imagery, dreamlike sequences, and unsettling narratives to explore the dark side of human nature and the unsettling nature of reality.

Specific Examples

  • “Mulholland Drive” (2001) by David Lynch: This neo-noir mystery film blends surrealism with psychological horror, exploring the fragmented nature of reality, identity, and the dark side of Hollywood. The film features dreamlike sequences, unsettling imagery, and an ambiguous narrative that leaves the viewer questioning the nature of truth and sanity.

  • “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) by Guillermo del Toro: This fantasy-horror film combines elements of surrealism with historical fiction, creating a haunting world of nightmares and fairy tales. The film features stunning visuals, a compelling narrative, and a blend of the real and the fantastical, exploring themes of childhood innocence, war, and the power of imagination.

  • “Holy Mountain” (1973) by Alejandro Jodorowsky: This psychedelic and surrealist film uses a blend of fantasy, science fiction, and satire to explore themes of spirituality, transformation, and the absurdity of human existence. The film features bizarre characters, surreal imagery, and a non-linear narrative, challenging viewers to confront the absurdity of life and the nature of reality.


The influence of surrealism on horror is undeniable. By embracing the absurd and exploring the depths of the subconscious, surrealist artists like Dalí, Ernst, and Magritte provided a blueprint for horror writers and filmmakers to create worlds where the familiar becomes distorted and the unexpected becomes terrifying. From early silent films to modern cinematic masterpieces, the legacy of surrealism continues to shape how we perceive fear and the uncanny, reminding us that the most unsettling horrors often lurk within the shadows of our own minds.

FAQ Section

Q: How can I tell if a horror film or book is influenced by surrealism?

A: Look for elements like dreamlike sequences, unreliable narrators, distorted realities, and the subversion of expectations. These techniques are commonly used in surrealist art and can create an unsettling and dreamlike atmosphere in horror.

Q: Is surrealism always a good thing in horror?

A: While surrealism can add a unique and unsettling dimension to horror, it’s not always the best choice. Too much surrealism can sometimes be confusing or alienate viewers. A balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar is often key to creating a truly effective horror experience.

Q: Are there any other artists who have influenced horror in a similar way?

A: Many artists outside the surrealist movement have also influenced horror, including gothic artists like Francisco Goya, expressionist painters like Edvard Munch, and even artists like H.R. Giger, whose biomechanical sculptures inspired the design of the Alien creature.

Q: What are some other examples of surrealism in modern horror?

A: Beyond the examples mentioned above, consider exploring films like “The Babadook” (2014), “A Cure for Wellness” (2016), “The Lighthouse” (2019), and “Midsommar” (2019). These films all utilize elements of surrealism to create an unsettling and unforgettable experience.

Q: How can I learn more about surrealism and horror?

A: Start by exploring the works of the surrealist artists mentioned in this post, like Dalí, Ernst, and Magritte. Read articles and books about surrealism and its influence on art, literature, and film. Explore classic and contemporary horror films and books, paying attention to how they employ surrealist techniques. You can also delve into the history of horror cinema and literature to understand how surrealism has evolved within the genre over time.