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Pull Up a Chair: Fuseli’s ‘Incubus’

Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’

Halloween is just around the bend, and with it the draw of horror to the imagination.   A major work exhibited in 1782 in London, above, was a depiction of nightmare that appealed to the Romantic movement.

The impact John Henry Fuseli made with his painting of a nightmare, called sometimes “Incubus” and sometimes ‘The Nightmare‘, drew in very large part from the Romantic genre.  Gothic figures were darkly powerful, and the wild side of heroes often their dominant attraction.

The Nightmare simultaneously offers both the image of a dream—by indicating the effect of the nightmare on the woman—and a dream image—in symbolically portraying the sleeping vision.[2] It depicts a sleeping woman draped over the end of a bed with her head hanging down, exposing her long neck. She is surmounted by an incubus that peers out at the viewer. The sleeper seems lifeless, and, lying on her back, she takes a position believed to encourage nightmares.[3] Her brilliant coloration is set against the darker reds, yellows, and ochres of the background; Fuseli used a chiaroscuro effect to create strong contrasts between light and shade. The interior is contemporary and fashionable, and contains a small table on which rests a mirror, phial, and book. The room is hung with red velvet curtains which drape behind the bed. Emerging from a parting in the curtain is the head of a horse with bold, featureless eyes.

For contemporary viewers, The Nightmare invoked the relationship of the incubus and the horse (mare) to nightmares. The work was likely inspired by the waking dreams experienced by Fuseli and his contemporaries, who found that these experiences related to folkloric beliefs like the Germanic tales about demons and witches that possessed people who slept alone. In these stories, men were visited by horses or hags, giving rise to the terms “hag-riding” and “mare-riding”, and women were believed to engage in sex with the devil.


The Nightmare likely influenced Mary Shelley in a scene from her famous Gothic novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Shelley would have been familiar with the painting; her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, knew Fuseli.

The painting was so striking in its effect that Fuselli later painted a few other nightmare depictions, and much of his fame revolved around this imagery.

The dark hero was a draw that George Gordon, Lord Byron, and William Blake, later Edgar Allen Poe, felt, along with many of the contemporaries who portrayed as powerfully alluring that dark side of our imagination.

The draw of darkness lends enduring fame to classics such as the Incubus, and many of the uses of fright we’ll celebrate on the 31st of October.

Hope you get a chance to celebrate your holiday with such great classics as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or a Nightmare of your choosing.

What is your favorite horror show or celebration of Halloween? or another spooky enjoyment, this season or any other?

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.