Fuseli, Henry: The Nightmare (1781)

Can a picture be scary, like a film? You might think not, for a simple reason. What makes a movie scary is not the subject alone, but the timing. You need sequence, you need editing, to create suspense and shock, the horrible realisation, the sudden jolt. And this a picture cannot do - because a picture (so one old theory goes) is all taken in at a glance, in a single blink.

Of course, this is sort of true. Looking at a picture is not like watching a film or turning the pages of a book. You grasp what's going on quite quickly (well, depending on what you notice). A whodunit in paint would be hard to do. But in another way, the glance theory is quite wrong. The eye sees a picture, not in a blink, but in a series of fixations that dart and scatter across its surface.

But the "timing" of a picture - that's something else again. Even though the scene is all before you, a picture can pace and direct your attention. Though it lacks the syntax of a strip cartoon, it can create episodes and sequence and surprises. The sequence may not correspond to literal eye-fixations. (Words on a page have an order, after all, but the eye darts all over the page as it reads). It's a matter of managing the viewer's interest.

To see a pictorial edit at work, take that classic scary picture, Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare. The voluptuously flopped sleeping woman is visited in her dreams by a revolting incubus and a frightening horse. All very Gothic, Freudian etc. But put psychology to one side, and look at stage-management.

Look at the picture, and watch how you look at it. It may seem upfront enough, with its three prominent characters, a woman and a couple of creatures. And it's true that these elements are clear(ish) in your field of vision. But you don't attend to them all at once. Fuseli controls your involvement.

The Nightmare is not a fluent, unfolding composition, where one thing leads smoothly to another. It's made up of separate incidents, each requiring a distinct act of attention. Move between them, and attention jumps. What's more, these incidents have an order. The picture arranges things so that you move and jump in sequence. This still image is cunningly and abruptly edited.

The brightest patch is the woman's bust, her breasts, shoulder, throat, cheek, closed eyes, the unconscious mind in the helpless and exposed body. This is the first "shot" in the edit. It is not simply eroticism. It uses eroticism to manage the viewer's attention, and it won't just be the eyes of the male viewer that are immediately drawn to this area. Sexy female vulnerability, with a spotlight on it, is a general hot grab. That's where Fuseli begins his sequence. Though far from the centre, it is the picture's hub, the point from which everything else is paced.

This hub, you notice, is not the whole woman, just a part. The woman's body is itself delivered in shots. The bust is one incident. The left forearm and the flaccid hand, trailing its fingers on the floor, are another. (There's a clear jump of attention as you look between them: this - that.) And the rest of her, the tapering mermaid's tail curve, ending in a single toe-point, is a third shot, another jump. This fragmenting of the passive figure is not only fetishism. It's editing. You the viewer have to put this distrait body together from its parts. It makes it all the more passive, less in control of itself.

And then, the monster! - the devilish hunched incubus, that squats on the woman's belly. The jump juxtaposition is obvious here: compact brown lump set upon stretched-out, languid white curve. There's an extra scari-ness in the way this figure lurks. Its lower half is shadowy and formless, blending into the gloom behind, not really anything. Its hideous shape and nature only come to light, materialise, as you go up, with a gradual realisation.

What adds to the fear, when you see what the creature is, is that it isn't actually doing anything to her. It's just sitting on her, inert, like a monkey-ornament. It's not performing a horrible act. It has some calm and horrible purpose, which is worse. And it turns its bulging eyes to meet the viewer's in a way that shows a mind at work, and may invite complicity.

But as this horror is sinking in, the scene's big shock effect strikes: on the far left the crazy nightmare horse, flash-lit, eyes burning, hair standing on end, barges into the picture out of the darkness, out of nowhere, out of control. It enters suddenly, and Fuseli depicts it like something that is seen suddenly, its form not fully grasped. He paints a Francis Bacon creature, in elusive, flickering highlights and blurs that don't integrate into a single solid. It is hysteria and suddenness embodied. Without its white-hot eyeballs, the horse would hardly read as "head" at all.

The scene carefully paces its horrors. It is made of shots and jumps, gradual realisations, sudden shocks. It is thoroughly and dramatically timed. True, the editing of a picture is always more flexible than the frame-sequence of a cartoon strip or the cuts of a film. You can always go back, you can move between things in other sequences, every part can be related to every other.

You can do your own edit. But still, a scene such as The Nightmare, emphatically divided into its distinct and horrid incidents, puts a potential scare into your every move.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum