Photography is a great blessing, as we’re able to keep detailed visual records of how the world has changed over the past two centuries. Of course, some photos are more appealing than others – among the changing trends of photography are plenty of historical images that might be best left forgotten.
From chilling memories of sinister events to otherwise harmless pictures that look disturbing to modern viewers, here are some downright creepy photos that show the darker side of history.
This photo is a behind-the-scenes picture from the Madame Tussauds waxwork museum in London. To this day, the museum is a popular attraction, showing off a variety of modern and historical celebrities. While the exact date of this photo is unknown, some attribute it to around 1925, when the museum burned to the ground, leaving a lot of half-melted statues behind.
The Madame Tussauds Fire
When the Madame Tussauds fire was first reported to the police, many officers were at a nearby theatre, and thus rushed over in their best clothes to help contain the blaze. The two models here survived with relatively little damage, but certainly look unsettling. The waxwork on the left is a representation of the notorious Victorian murderer, Dr. Crippen, so it’s completely fitting that this photo looks so unnerving.
Full Face Swimming Mask
Believed to be from 1928, this disturbing full face swimming mask protected the wearer both from the water and from the sun, at a time when pale skin was considered very desirable and dark rans hadn’t yet become fashionable.
Masks of this kind are still worn in Asian countries such as China by those who don’t want to accidentally darken their skin while at the beach, and as odd as they may look, they’re probably better for avoiding skin cancer than any sunscreen.
The Original Ronald McDonald
Ronald McDonald debuted all the way back in 1963, and he looked significantly different. It’s not surprising the that character was eventually given a makeover to make him look more appealing (and to fix the fact that his nose is just an ordinary drink cup). In this incarnation, Ronald McDonald is played by none other than Willard Scott, who would go on to be the weatherman for NBC’s "The Today Show."
Victorian Trick Photograph
While this picture from around 1901 may look disturbing—and while travelling freak shows were very common during this era—this photo is actually an example of trick photography. Because cameras of the time required such a long exposure to record an image, enthusiasts liked to mess around with the technology, moving while the photo was being taken in order to create bizarre images.
The Headless Woman
Another example of trick photography during this era, this photo would have been very trendy at the time. There are huge archives of similar headless photographs, achieved by exposing the same photo twice.
While most such photos involve people holding their own heads, this one takes on a disturbing double meaning when we remember that women at the time who displeased their husbands could be ridiculed for their actions. This man literally and figuratively holds his wife’s mental health in his hands.
Two Women With Long Hair
While the specific context for this photo is lost to time, we do know that, during this period of history, maintaining long hair was a difficult challenge.
Celebrities such as the singing group the Seven Sutherland Sisters marketed themselves largely on their incredibly long hair, and they sold a variety of branded hair tonics and treatments. The women in this photo would have been very proud of their long hair, even if the photo looks unnerving today.
Child with “Mother”
This picture might look odd, but it’s actually rather sweet. Photography took so long in this era that it was essential for children to stay perfectly still for a long time, otherwise, their photos would just be a blurry mess. Of course, getting a baby or small child to stay still in such an artificial environment would be nearly impossible.
To help keep their kids nice and still, the child’s grown-up (usually their mother or a nanny) would hide themselves under a blanket, and sit the baby on their lap. Some of these pictures managed to disguise the hidden adult better than others, of course, leading to this creepy sight.
Halloween Costumes of the 1930s
Let’s be honest: people in the past were way better at making creepy Halloween costumes. This photo, from approximately some time in the 1930s, shows off a collection of masks that would make modern children cry. For all that we like to think of modern generations being jaded and cynical, we’re nowhere near as tough as the kids who grew up thinking these masks were normal.
The Cabaret of The Underworld
Cabaret de L'Enfer, or The Cabaret of Hell in English, was a popular Parisian attraction a century ago. Constructed in 1892, it delighted patrons with spooky cabaret shows, and is believed to be one of the earliest examples of a themed restaurant. Sadly, the Cabaret of Hell was demolished in 1950 to make way for a Monoprix supermarket, which was a tremendous loss to horror enthusiasts visiting Paris for some light entertainment.
Inside the Cabaret of The Underworld
The interior of the Cabaret of Hell certainly lives up to its name, with grotesque statues bulging out from across the ceiling and walls. There’s no denying that a place like this would be a popular attraction even today— a gothic haunt that has never really gone out of style.
Rasputin and the Tsarina
In the middle of the photo is Grigori Rasputin, to his left is Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and to their right are a few of the Tsarina’s children. The myths surrounding Rasputin are almost certainly exaggerated; it’s unlikely he was quite the monster that his enemies made him out to be. One thing is certain though, he definitely looked creepy.
Survival Town, Nevada
These residents of Survival Town in Nevada are not long for this world. Soon after this photo was taken, the entire area was decimated by a nuclear explosion as part of Operation Teapot, as the United Stated government experimented with blowing things up using atomic weaponry.
As a test to see how well American infrastructure would survive such explosions, false towns were built in the desert and made to look as realistic as possible – right down to the inclusion of mannequins to simulate people.
Of course, the horrors of war cut both ways. This nuclear shadow is all that remains of a Japanese victim in Hiroshima, having been caught in the blast from an atom bomb. There’s a good reason why American troops wanted a better understanding of the effects of this technology during Operation Teapot, and we’re all extremely lucky that these weapons haven’t been used en masse against civilians since the end of World War II.
The Original Disneyland Mickey and Minnie
When Disneyland first opened, Walt Disney needed some costumes. The quickest and the simplest way to source these was to simply borrow them from the Ice Capades, where Mickey, Minnie, and other Disney characters regularly performed. The problem?
These costumes were designed to be seen from a far distance, and they were designed to allow trained ice dancers the best possible field of vision. Up close, these costumes were downright terrifying.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
If this photo looks like something out of a horror story, then it has succeeded at its purpose. This trick photograph from 1888 shows Richard Mansfield posing as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the popular horror story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Mr. Hyde’s sinister form has been superimposed onto the picture by exposing the photograph twice. Consider this an early example of a cosplay photoshoot.
This photo appears to show a forlorn man with sideburns, looking down, while... is that a ghost? Is there a ghost behind him? No, this is, of course, another example of trick photography from this era. That woman was very much alive at the time that this picture was taken, she simply hopped out of frame part way through the exposure of the photograph so that she left nothing more than a ghostly outline.
The Oldest Surviving Human Photo
The oddly elongated figure at the center of this photograph might look a little creepy, but he is actually the first human ever to be caught on camera. The picture, View of the Boulevard du Temple, was taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838.
Lengthy exposure times generally meant that photographing humans was impossible – they would need to stay tremendously still for the picture to actually record their image. The man in this photo, though, has a good reason to stay so still: he’s having his shoes shined. Thus, he unwittingly became the world’s first photo model.
A Student’s Dream
How do you keep your subjects completely still during a photo? Well, it helps if they’re all dead. Medical students who embraced early photography found it funny to pose their cadavers for pictures, which is something that would be entirely inappropriate now, but at the time, didn’t seem at all unusual.
A very common type of posed photo to take was a Student’s Dream, in which medical students were being dissected by their cadavers, rather than the other way around.
Another Student’s Dream
Another example of this trend in medical student photography, these photos were by no means uncommon during this era. Comic photos weren’t always easy to maintain given the era’s limited technology, but these pictures managed to compensate for lengthy exposure times because the only living person in the photos would generally be lying on their back, motionless.
Drunk Man in the Mist
This photo shows a drunken man, dressed up in top hat and tails, clinging to a lamppost in London. The cold mist, combined with the city’s natural pollution of the time, obscures everything else from view, making for a visually striking image that would not be out of place in any modern horror movie.
Not every creepy historical photo has to be very old. Redditor u/jewbo23 has shared a photo taken of their aunt holding a human skull – apparently, their aunt happened to mention the time that she found a huge pit full of human remains in her garden in Norfolk, England.
This, it turns out, was a plague pit, a mass grave for victims of deadly disease. It’s a nice reminder that history is never all that far away, so long as you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.
Over a period of fifty years, European settlers managed to reduce the American buffalo population down from over thirty million, to just three hundred. The result of this destruction can be seen plainly in this photo, which shows off thousands upon thousands of buffalo skulls, all piled together in an enormous mound.
Prince Arthur and His Nanny
Given many of the other photos on this list, you might be forgiven for thinking that this photo, which appears to show a ghost trying to steal a small boy, is another example of trick photography. The likely context is actually a little more charming.
This is Prince Arthur, one of Queen Victoria’s children, and he is doing his absolute best to stand still on the top of a box for a photo. It appears that, worried that he might fall, his nurse edged into shot while the photo was being taken, ready to catch him if he wobbled.
Gas Mask Practice
Is there any photo of gas masks that doesn’t look incredibly creepy? This picture from 1940 shows a group of children from Hallow Village school in Worcester, England.
The girls are taking part in a practice exercise, having donned their gas masks, that would have helped prepare them should enemy forces begin using chemical weapons. While there was a lot of paranoia surrounding mustard gas during World War II, this weapon was not widely used during the conflict.
Fake WWI Heads
These fake heads were used during World War I to keep trench soldiers safe. It wasn’t particularly safe to stick your head out of the trench, as more often than not, this would result in getting shot. Fake heads were held up first in order to check whether the coast was clear – if your decoy exploded in your hands, it was a good sign that you were being watched.
Cleaning a Crucifix
This photo, purportedly from 1938, looks at first glance like a woman is cruelly hosing down a starving child. Look closer, however, and it’s clear that she’s actually cleaning a statue of Jesus Christ upon the cross – a common sight in many Christian churches across the world. Even though this picture isn’t quite as terrifying as it initially looks, surely there must have been a better way to get the statue clean?
Redditor u/TheMoose65 claims to have discovered this photo in an old box of family records. While the context is unknown, they believe that it might have been some kind of Halloween costume – which makes sense, as it’s certainly incredibly creepy. This is a good reminder that it’s worth writing context on the back of old photos, otherwise your descendants will have no clue what’s going on.
Death and the Lady
Context for old photos is often difficult to confirm, but it’s reported that this picture comes from a 1906 vaudeville play entitled Death and the Lady. The pictures are surprisingly full of humor and wit, given the style of the time, which does suggest that they might be a little older than they appear, but regardless, they’re an absolutely beautiful collection of flirtatious fun.
Another Death and the Lady
There are a dozen photos in this particular collection, many of which show the titular lady enjoying the presence of her ghostly caller. The play, apparently, was supposed to highlight the evils and danger of riotous living – such as playing cards. Regardless of the original meaning of these photos, there’s no denying that, rather than make card-playing look dangerous, they make flirting with death look like a lot of fun.
An Everyday Clown
Clowns have come a long way in the past century, but they’ve never not been creepy. This photo, supposedly from the early 1900s, shows the kind of circus performer that could be expected at the time. The furrowed eyebrows and pursed lips don’t exactly scream lighthearted fun nowadays, but then, tastes were different back then.
The Rat Catcher
Yes, this is a photo of dozens of rats. These pests were a real problem in the trenches during World War II, and as such, a variety of different methods were employed to try and get rid of them. This rat catcher and his dog (arguably the more efficient catcher of the pair, let’s be honest) are posing with just a few of their successful finds.
Mardi Gras Masks
It’s time for another photo of terrifying masks, because for some reason people love making these things. These masks are for Mardi Gras, supposedly at Venice Beach in the 1930s. Whenever these masks were from, it’s probably for the best that they’ve long since rotted away to nothing.
A March of Owls
This photo depicts students at Manchester Grammar School in England in around 1920. The school’s mascot is the owl, so, naturally, the students are all dressed as owls. There’s nothing strange or unusual about that – it makes perfect sense. The owl is still the mascot of the town of Oldham, and a similar but significantly less creepy costume is worn by the mascot for the local soccer team.
Sun Shield Bonnet
Another victim of the European love of pale skin, this woman is wearing a special bonnet designed to shield her from the sun and even the slightest chance of getting a tan. Whatever the logic behind wearing this mask, it’s weird that more effort wasn’t put into making it either comfortable or pleasing to the eye – what’s the point of having pristine skin if you’re wrapped up like the Invisible Man?
A Visit From The Krampus
In recent years, the internet has developed an unhealthy obsession with the Krampus, a Germanic mythological creature who comes around at Christmas, capturing naughty children and carrying them away into the woods. This photo, purportedly from Bad Mitterndorf in Austria, shows a child who is understandably not thrilled about meeting the Krampus in the flesh. Even so, this guy is nowhere near as creepy as the Elf on the Shelf.
The French Poodle
Charles Lauri was famous in his day as the “Garrick of Animal Mimes” – he would give apparently scintillating performances as a whole menagerie of different animals. Here he can be seen posing for a promotional photo dressed as a French poodle. This might have been the talk of the town in 1893, but today, it’s downright unsettling. Bad dog!
Girl with a Gorilla
Why is this girl being held captive by a gorilla? Why, this is no ordinary great ape: it’s Charles Lauri in costume, yet again! The king of animal impersonators had an awful lot of different costumes that he would wear for shows, and they were all terrifying in their own special way. Let’s be thankful that these days, moviemakers just use CGI animals instead.
It only feels fair to show off how Lauri looked when he wasn’t dressed up in one of his abhorrent costumes. Of course, even when in human attire, his horrible outfits were never too far away – hence what looks like giant deflated horse and cat toys on either side of the great performer.
Melting Department Store Mannequins
Finally, let’s wrap things up right back where we started: with melting waxwork people. These store mannequins have been the victims of a dreadful 1929 heatwave, and their soft necks haven’t been able to bear the weight of their heads. There’s a good reason why stores use plastic mannequins instead now.
Chinese Ghost Hotel
Every culture has different rituals for dealing with the dead, and in China it is sometimes customary to store a person's remains for a period of time until they can be properly put to rest. Thus the creation of these so-called "ghost hotels" where many people are awaiting their final resting spots in peace.
This may seem like a shocking photo of two men carrying a heavy weight on a hot summer day, but in reality, this spooky photo is just two suits filled with wind. The wind makes the clothing look almost lifelike and nearly ghostly, and the vintage nature of the photo really sparks the imagination.
Haunted Train Wreck
This train wreck happened in Greece, and some people may find that wreckages left to deteriorate in nature are just as terrifying as any grave site. There have been many stories of people visiting wreckages and feeling spirits following them for some time afterwards, so always keep your wits about you and try to only travel to haunted sites while the sun's still up.
Don't Look Now
Gloria Vanderbilt was a fashion designer and heiress, but even she had to watch her back for ghouls, spirits and apparitions! Standing behind her is actually fashion designer Geoffrey Beene, so she has no reason to actually be frightened, but the photo itself looks like it came right out of a horror movie.
An Unexpected Visitor
This photo has an absolutely chilling backstory. The man in the photo thought that he was driving alone to visit the grave of his wife's mother. But upon looking at the photograph, he realized that there may have been someone else with him for the drive, and that person was the spitting image of his wife's mother.
The Oldest Trick in the Book
But with many spooky photos, the stories behind them have been debunked. This photo, taken by William Hope, features a ghostly apparition in the car who is supposedly the man in the photo's deceased son. But Hope purposefully edited the ghostly figure into the photo, as he did with many other pictures.
Terror Comes in Threes
This fashion photo isn't from too long ago, but its vibe is still downright spooky. The haunting glare of all three of the models immediately brings the twin girls from "The Shining" to mind, while the old apartment they are in seems like it has been frozen in time. Even their outfits are more haunting than chic.
This photo might look like something out of the Twilight Zone, but it's not as old as you probably think it is. This isolation tank, located at Catherine-de-Barnes Isolation Hospital, was made for patients suffering from smallpox in the early 20th century, and this photo of the tank itself was taken in 1983.
Digging Up the Past
There's plenty of hidden wooded areas across the country, and some of them are far spookier than others. Someone once stumbled upon this scene in the middle of the woods and they had to photograph what they saw. The graves in this picture may not be real, but the backstory behind the photo is anyone's guess.
Welcome to the Table
Because this photo isn't creepy on its surface, you might expect there to be some kind of sinister hidden story behind the sheep sitting at the dinner table. But in reality, these are just two kind women who loved their dear black lamb Betty so much that they couldn't stand to make her eat dinner in the stable with the rest of the animals.