Haunted Art Institute of Chicago | Varyer

Insider Tour

A haunted review from a former AIC employee

From 2014 to 2018, I worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, producing interpretive digital content for exhibitions and the permanent collection. During this time, I got intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of the museum, the buildings, the people who work there, and the collection. While there may be far more sinister things than the artwork at the AIC (including a facade of inclusion, history of colonialism, pay disparity, union-busting, etc) and I no longer grace the halls of the Museum, I haunt it from afar by creating this list of the ~CREEPIEST~ artworks and locations at the museum to check out this Halloween season.

Ivan Albright. Self-Portrait (No. 10), 1982

Literally anything by Ivan Albright (Gallery 262)

Ivan Albright is one of my favorite artists and was from Chicago, but damn, look at his artwork. Albright was a medical draftsman during WWI and kept detailed diagrams of the wounds he encountered, which inspired his paintings. Albright was a complete psycho and would sometimes paint with a paintbrush that had a single hair on it, taking years to complete each work. On top of all of this, he also had an identical twin brother, Malvin, that he believed shared the same soul. When you look at his “self-portraits” you can’t really be sure who they depict.

10/10 SCARES, this guy is nuts.

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Théodore Géricault. Head of a Guillotined Man, 1818-19
CC0 Public Domain Designation

Head of a guillotined man (Gallery 219)

I honestly don’t know that much about this artist, but this artwork is in the gallery that we affectionately called “The Doom Room.” Full of scenes of death and destruction, this gallery has to be on any list that showcases the AIC’s darker artworks.

8/10 SCARES, and doesn’t really need a reason why.

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Boy's Armor, 1675–1700

CC0 Public Domain Designation

Boy’s Armor (Gallery 239)

This suit of armor immediately sticks out when you walk into the gallery. It’s nestled in with weapons and other pieces of armor meant for war use. You can’t help but wonder what a child was doing going to war, and imagine the horror of that. Even though the intent of this artwork was not for warfare, but rather to be used in Parade, it still feels eerie to see the size of this piece, probably created for a child around the age of 6-7 in the context of other tools for violence.

4/10 SCARES because it wasn’t really used in a violent way, but still feels….off.

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Antonio Canova. Head of Medusa, 1801.

CC0 Public Domain Designation

Head of Medusa (Gallery 219)

One of the very original monsters, Medusa, is famous for her snakey hair and ability to petrify people with one glance. This plaster bust by Antonio Canova perfectly captures Medusa’ horror while she is in the throes of being decapitated.

5/10 SCARES, points for the mythological monster, but lacking in impactful scare.

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Hell Courtesan, 1885/89

Kawanabe Kyōsai. WESTON COLLECTION.

Hell Courtesan (Not on display)

This item is one that is not on display, and in fact, not in the AIC’s collection (yet), but it felt important to include as one of the most haunting pieces of artwork I worked with - this is both because of the imagery of dancing skeletons, but also because of the reality of the life of the Courtesans depicted in Ukiyo-e prints. These women were typically sold into slavery at a young age to cover their family’s debts. Here, they would be groomed to be companions of the wealthy, but in reality lived in confined spaces and usually died by the age of 25 from sexually transmitted diseases.

10/10 SCARES for the lives they had to live.

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Francis Bacon. Figure with Meat, 1954
© 2016 Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / ARS, New York / DACS, London

Figure with Meat (Gallery 399)

This one doesn’t need a lot of context to know why I find it chilling. Images by Francis Bacon are haunting, and that’s because he lived in the existential postwar area and was constantly reminded of the horror of humanity. Most of his artwork is pretty fucked up in the same way and I have a hard time looking at them for too long.

8/10 SCARES for the tortured look on the figure’s face plus the hanging meat.

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Male Figure (Nkisi Nkondi), Early-mid 19th century.

CC0 Public Domain Designation

Male Figure (Nkisi Nkondi).

This piece’s primary function was to hunt down evil and wrong doers, and it’s definitely not something I would want to run into when I tell a white lie. The term Nkisi refers to spirit-invested objects empowered with magical ingredients. Each time the figure was consulted, a nail or blade was driven into the object to prompt the inhabiting spirit - meaning this guy was used quite a bit.

8/10 SCARES, seeing this object IRL really carries a weight to it. It was also not intended to be on display in a museum, creating an additional layer of unease, knowing that there is much greater purpose to this piece than what we see.

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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Portrait of Jeanne Wenz, 1886.

CC0 Public Domain Designation

Bianca says: Miss Jeanne looks just like one of my scariest aunts. Maybe we all have a version of her in our lives 👁️👄👁️ it's a 7/10 for me.

Portrait of Jeanne Wenz (Gallery 242)

Okay so this one isn’t scary, but I kid you not, it looks almost identical to my ex-boyfriend (and he knows it). Talk about haunted!

0/10 SCARES for you, 5/10 SCARES for me!

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Not my cup of tea 🍵 Not my cup of tea 🍵

James Hadley. Teapot, 1882.

CC0 Public Domain Designation

Teapot (Currently off view)

You guys I am so sad that this artwork is off view, but I wanted to include it anyway. This is such a weirdo piece, it’s not really scary at all, but if you read the backstory on the website, the premise is essentially that the man and woman on the teapot worked so hard to live up to the aesthetic expectations that they literally morphed into the teapot itself. Pretty weird and sounds like one of those stories that would be in a nostalgic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

5/10 SCARES. IDK may be a stretch, but I feel it.

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Fragment (Hanging), Roman period (30 B.C.– 641 A.D.), 5th/6th century.

Textile Gallery (Gallery 61)

Considered the most haunted location in the museum, this gallery is right next to the textile collection storage. There’s a belief at the museum that clothing is the most haunted item left behind because it plays such an important role in identity, and is draped on our bodies day in and out. This is the area of the museum that also gets the darkest, and TBH no one really wants to be there alone, and staff members have heard/seen things down there.

10/10 SCARES literally, just haunted.

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This list is not exhaustive, and it is only representative of my views and experiences while I worked at the AIC. If you check these out, let us know - what is the most horrifying thing you encounter, and why does it make you feel that way?