The Art of Fear: The Picture of Dorian Gray

In The Picture of Dorian Gray – a young man’s debauchery and vice manifests in his portrait after his wish to remain young is mysteriously granted.

We’re starting off The Art of Fear with one of my personal favorites and one of the strongest examples of art in horror cinema, Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). It’s based on Oscar Wilde’s delicious 1891 novel of the same name and, with some small variations, stays pretty true to the original narrative.[1] On that note, I want to clarify that this discussion is on the 1945 film version so any deviations and changes from the literary language or subsequent remakes are not considered.

The story goes like this: Dorian Gray is a young man so distraught after realizing that his portrait, painted by friend Basil Hallward, would always exist in a beautiful youthful moment while he would eventually age and whither that he manages to magically transmit the residue from his ‘lust for life’ experiences onto this painting. Meaning that the painting would bare the brunt of these actions, turning ugly and old while Dorian remained the same. His decades-long reign of the 19th century’s version of ‘sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll’ (and murder) leads him down many regretful paths. He tortures himself by viewing each of the portrait’s new evil transformations but revels in his cheating of death. It’s only until a young woman believes in his goodness that he, rather forcibly, expels his history from the painting back onto himself and dies a hideous old man.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril – Oscar Wilde

Portrait painting and photography can be a subversive art form whereby the sitter is depicted in the best manner possible – attractive, wealthy, intelligent, important. Often fabricated, this representation manipulates one’s identity and establishes a status value that lives on long after the subject had passed. This is true of court portraits of Elizabeth I to the society portraits of Thomas Gainsborough to the West African 1960s culture photographs of Seydou Keita to the self-portraits on today’s social networking websites. So given this inherent history of fudging the truth, I’d argue that the trouble with Dorian begins exactly because his picture is so truthful to his likeness and such a life-like version of his youthful self. That Dorian has to reflect upon his fleeting actual perfection rather than wistfully imagine his idealized self is the exact point where the space for horror becomes realized. This is highlighted by Lewin’s luscious Technicolor depictions of the painting amidst a very otherwise crisp black-and-white film.

It’s more than a painting, it’s a part of myself – Dorian Gray

Delving into societal and sexual repression, The Picture of Dorian Gray deals with the foolishness of youth, desire for youthful immortality, and the corruptible power of suggestion. All of this glorious tension is held, of course, in real-life artist Ivan Albright’s monstrously morphing painting (you can see it in all its glory at the Art Institute of Chicago). It becomes the central character, the focal point of the spectator’s curiosity and of Dorian’s actions. It becomes alive through these actions and ultimately entangles itself so closely with Dorian that the only way to destroy him is to attack his representation.

This mimetic representation of Dorian Gray in his painting can be compared to Steven Shaviro’s discussion of George A. Romero’s zombie trilogy [2], ‘…the zombies are allegorical and mimetic figures. They are allegorical in the sense that allegory always implies the loss or death of its object.’ He continues, ‘Allegory is then not just a mode of depiction, but an active means of subversive transformation.’ So much like the uncanniness of the zombie, Dorian’s alter ego can be viewed as the visual representation of the culmination of his transformative experiences (i.e. tiny deaths). Shaviro also says:

‘The zombies do not…stand for a threat to social order from without. Rather, they resonate with, and refigure, the very processes that produce and enforce social order. That is to say, they do not mirror or represent social forces; they are directly animated and possessed, even in their allegorical distance from beyond the grave, by such forces.’

Indeed Dorian’s painting is possessed, a ghostly figure animated by actions deemed inappropriate by society’s standards: crime, prostitution, murder, drug binges. In Shaviro’s terms then, the narrative as expressed through the device of this painting tackles the process that ‘produces and enforces social order’ and explicitly exposes the ugliness of disobeying these norms. Dorian’s portrait is the ‘return of the repressed’ in a painterly form; a man at his baser animal level or an undead version of the living.

So the usage of a painting, an artist character, and the art studio environment in The Picture of Dorian Gray combines the history of portraiture with the cultural morals of a specific time period to visually express a man’s soul. The horror arrives at this expression, almost as a warning that art must not go too far but also as a confirmation of the powers that art holds. It’s ability to convey and contextualize even something as intangible as a soul is profound. Like many horror films, The Picture of Dorian Gray exudes a fear of the familiar (in this case the conventional portrait and one’s self realization) to insist that we be careful what we wish for.


[1] Other literary example of evil portraits are Edgar Allen Poe’s The Oval Portrait and H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model which will be discussed here in relation to the Night Gallery television show.

[2] Shaviro, Steven 1993: The Cinematic Body, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.