The Lucifer Effect And Humanity's Evil In 10 Works Of Art

One day Gertrude Baniszewski became the true embodiment of evil. When her nieces Sylvia and Jennifer Likens came to live with her, no one foresaw that she was going to mentally and physically torture one of them. Moreover, she didn't work alone. She forced her sons and some kids of the neighborhood to do the same. They tied, punch, cut, burnt, raped, and deprived the girl of water and food. Sylvia died four months later due to the wounds they inflicted on her and the terrible conditions she lived in. Gertrude Baniszewski poured on this 16-year-old girl all her frustrations and hatred. However, by doing so, she involved innocent people in her sadistic crime.

This is not a movie, nor a film. This crime, whick took place in 1965, was qualified by the authorities as the worst case of physical abuse in the state of Indiana. Sylvia Likens' death is an example of how human beings are capable of committing the worst crimes when they're presented with the opportunity to do so. The "Lucifer effect" comes from psychologist Philip Zimbardo's theories, which assure that, given the chance, any person (no matter their gender, age, nor social conditions) can abandon their ethics and become a violent and oppressive being. 

With the passing of time and through a variety of disciplines, many artists have explored this human tendency towards evil and cruelty. Here are some of the most famous representations of the Lucifer effect. 



Marina Abramovic

Rhythm 0 (1974)

72 different objects, including a loaded gun, were available for the audience at one of Marina Abramovic's most sinister performances. Here, the artist asked the spectators to use any of these objects as they desired. The performance became more intense –and by intensity I'm talking about evil– to the point where one of the assistants took the weapon and aimed at Abramovic.

"What I learned was that... if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you. I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation".


James Ensor

The Intrigue (1890)

For James Ensor, as his paintings reveal, life is a grotesque carnival of distorted, ironic, and evil faces. His art is fed with the feeling of unease that pushes us to think death is surrounding us. This predecessor of surrealism had no problem endowing his models with sinister personalities, representing humans' real nature. Ranging from social commentary and horror to humor and satire, this painting called The Intrigue is a true portrayal of humans' capacity to become evil.


Wafaa Bilal

Domestic Tension (2007)

This Iraqi artist thought of an artwork that soon got out of hand while managing to expose the scope of human evilness. He locked himself for a month in a room at an art gallery where he could only eat what people brought him. In the same room, a paintball machine gun was aiming at the artist. It was synchronized with a website in which users could shoot at him. Some hackers even altered the site so that the gun would shoot automatically every minute.


Frida Kahlo

A Few Little Pricks (1935)

When the famous Mexican painter's husband cheated on her with her own sister, Cristina, she decided to quote a tabloid article about a man who stabbed his wife out of jealousy. This man claimed in front of a jury that these stab wounds had been just "a few little pricks." The painting is a symbolic reference to the emotional damage Diego caused Frida, but also a social critique against the crimes men can commit when they feel their egos are being threatened.


Diane Arbus

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962)

Take a look at this photograph and think: what's the most disturbing thing in this image? Is it the boy's scrawny body or his frailty? Or perhaps the ghastly and maniac expression of his face? Is it, perhaps all we've mentioned plus the grenade he's holding in his hands? What's the motive behind his actions? Diane Arbus explores the limits of human tension and shows that there's a thin line between frailty and the ability to harm someone else, no matter the age.

Cindy Sherman

Untitled #140 (1985)

Evil in its purest stage is capable of distorting a man's face by giving him a sinister appearance. All kindness fades away and his inner demons emerge. What once was a noble being is now a monster condemned to be a beast for the rest of his life.


Massacre of the Innocents (1611-1612)

According to the New Testament, King Herod ordered the killing of all children, from newborns to 3-year-old infants because he was afraid of a prophecy announcing that a child would take the throne from him. This cruel massacre was masterly portrayed by Rubens, who shows how heartless a man can become if given the chance. If a man is capable of killing hundreds of children, imagine all the evilness inside him.

Grace Graupe-Pillard

Boy with a Gun: Saturday Night Special (1992)

The war culture that dominates every level of American lifestyle can be seen in this piece by Grace Graupe-Pillard. She shows us how childhood is stolen every day in the name of violence. An infant turned into a soldier is one of the most devastating images the world has inherited to younger generations. These young people are witnessing how their countries get wealthier out of the devastation of poorer countries. 

Gabriel Aztaroth 

My Demons (2010)

This painting is an allegory to pain, to soul's decay, and all those spirits that have been consumed by evil. It shows the dark impulse that pushes us to act on behalf of our own benefits, without caring about social norms or others' wellbeing. It also represents the way we engage in forbidden activities out of pleasure. All this comes at a terrible price: remorse and the destruction of the soul.  


The most sinister and dark side of human beings has been represented in art throughout the centuries. Check these Paintings That Depict The Devilish Temptation Of Eroticism and how strange and frightening art can be.




Arte de hoy
University of Bristol

Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards




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