Watch Your Step: Creepy Staircases in Art History

Halfway through a multi-episode podcast on Princess Diana, after several hours of “aww, poor thing” seeded with “aww, isn’t she adorable?”, comes an awkward revelation.

One evening on September 1989, as she was visiting her family home in Northamptonshire, Diana pushed her stepmother, Raine Spencer, down the stairs in the midst of a furious row.

The twenty-eight-year-old had harbored an intense hatred for Raine Spencer for many years, ever since the latter had married her father and, in Diana’s view, had ruined their family life.

What at first seems to be ludicrous gossip is confirmed by Diana, in her own words, in an interview with journalist Andrew Morton: 

 “I pushed her down the stairs, which gave me enormous satisfaction. […] I wanted to throttle that stepmother of mine. She brought me such grief.”   

Raine Spencer survived and no one ever accused Lady Di of attempted murder. There were bruises, of course, and further family tensions. It was also the second incident involving stairs for the royal mother of two, who several years prior had attempted suicide while pregnant with William by throwing herself down the stairs.

It’s impossible to reconcile these incidents with Diana’s angelic public persona and wide popularity. The myth-making and gushing are all the more perplexing in light of this. How…? Why…? I can’t even…

Then again, perhaps it’s just easier to blame it on the stairs.

Stairs are scary.

Whether they go down to damp basements or climb up to suffocating attics, staircases lead you straight into harm’s way. Sometimes they coil like snakes or rise menacingly in steep steps. Other times they’re swallowed by darkness. Sometimes they lead to nowhere, like a trap that has been set for you, or they keep you stuck in a pattern, a vicious loop from hell. And, of course, stairs almost always leave you out of breath.  

That’s not to say that all staircases are creepy – some are hauntingly beautiful, artists having depicted them to great effect amongst ruins, in lavishing palaces or tranquil monasteries.

But the scary staircases are definitely the ones to remember. They’re not there just for decorative purposes – they hypnotize, they challenge the intellect, they set a morbid tone that lingers long after you’ve averted your gaze. These staircases have personality.

Let’s take a look at some of the creepiest staircases in art history.

Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons

Giovanni Battista Piranesi started working on his Imaginary Prisons(Carceri d’invenzione) series of etchings in 1745 and published it five years later, but the final version wouldn’t see the light of day until 1761. It was then when the second edition of sixteen prints was released, with a few additions and changes.

The timing was quite ominous. By 1760 the Industrial Revolution had already started, bringing with it sweeping changes that would upend people’s lives and make them question their existence amidst the sprawling apparatus of machine-dependent capitalism. 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi – The Staircase with Trophies, eighth plate from the series Imaginary Prisons, second edition (1761). Etching. Princeton University Art Museum

Piranesi’s prisons are very much like factories of hell, working clockwork with their pulleys, levers, cables, staircases and ladders, chains, catapults and other equipment emphasizing brute force and cruel efficiency. 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi – Prisoners on a Projecting Platform, tenth plate from the series Imaginary Prisons, second edition (1761). Etching. Princeton University Art Museum

As physical as they get, the etchings have another appeal, as well. They speak of mental constructs of angst, rising upwards in their own self-determined ways, following unspoken rules. These Gothic labyrinths with their intricate staircases seem to have no end, and the occasionally present figures are either dwarfed by the scale of the architecture, or they’re undergoing gruesome torture (plates eight and ten).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi – The Pier with Chains, sixteenth plate from the series Imaginary Prisons, second edition (1761). Etching. Princeton University Art Museum

You can see all sixteen prints of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons here.

René Magritte’s Stairway to Nowhere

Surrealists were greatly inspired by Piranesi’s existential prisons, seeing staircases as gateways to the realms of the subconscious. You just had to follow them to where they led you.

But looking at Magritte’s Forbidden Literature (The Use of the Word), you see that there’s no escape. The staircase leads into a wall. You’re stuck in a room where a finger with a sphere hovering above it replaces the “i” in the word written on the floor. It’s “sirène”, or siren, the creature of Greek mythology that lured sailors with songs and sentenced them to death.

René Magritte – Forbidden Literature (The Use of the Word), 1936. Oil on canvas. Musée royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles

I think this is Magritte’s take on censorship, equating the call of the siren with the so-called immoral literature that is blamed for corrupting the youth. But there’s no path forward out of this conundrum. There’s no higher moral ground that leads you somewhere, as the staircase shows. If anything, by censoring words, one only draws more attention to them.

(Psst. I like how the shadow of the finger is pointing towards the staircase, as an indictment.)  

M.C. Escher’s Impossible Stairs

Also inspired by Piranesi’s prisons was Dutch artist M.C. Escher. A master of optical illusions, Escher created two famous lithographs using the stairs motif: Relativity (1953) and Ascending and Descending (1960). I have covered them before in a previous post.

M. C. Escher – Relativity (1953). Lithograph

Both lithographs show the absurdity of walking up and down staircases that lead to nowhere, all in a quest to navigate the random hierarchies of the environment. Even though the cult of busyness tells the figures that they are in control as masters of their fate, it is the staircases with their own rules that hold the ultimate power.

M. C. Escher – Ascending and Descending (1960). Lithograph

While working on Ascending and Descending, Escher explained the symbolism of the stairs in a letter to a friend:

“Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”

If you’ve watched Squid Game, the South Korean hit show from Netflix built as a survival game where people compete for the chance to win a lot of money and get themselves out of debt, then Escher’s stairs will look more than familiar. 

Squid Game staircase design

Hwang Dong-hyuk, the director of Squid Game, credits Escher’s Relativity as the source of inspiration for the design of the staircase that leads the contestants to their games. It’s a commentary on the absurdity of the situation, as well as to the characters’ aspirations to climb the social hierarchy.

On a grimmer note, we can also see it as a passage to death, the prelude to the arena that will seal the fate of the contestants. 

Sam Szafran’s Winding Staircases

Grim and dizzying like plunges into the void, Sam Szafran’s winding staircases have fascinated me for a long time. But I can never look for too long at them before the walls start crawling in and the ground slips beneath my feet.

Sam Szafran – L’escalier, 54 rue de Seine (1992). Watercolor and colored crayon on silk. Private collection

Szafran, a contemporary French artist who passed away in 2019, stayed outside of the mainstream art world, focusing instead on a few subjects that obsessed him — studio interiors, staircases, greenhouses — and which he mastered from sheer repetition and passion. For several years in the 1960s, he mostly painted …. cabbages.

Sam Szafran – Escalier 54 rue de Seine (1990). Watercolor on silk. Private collection

The 1960s was also the time when Szafran’s interest in stairs got kindled. He photographed and drew countless studies of staircases, playing with perspective and different angles, as he found himself drawn by their hypnotizing geometry.  Thirty years later he returned to the staircase on 54 rue de Seine, leaning more and more towards abstraction.

This is how the artist explains the origins of his staircase motif:

“One evening I was working in this staircase – I’ve always lived in stairwells – and I fell asleep. It was night and I had a nightmare. I woke up and it was the full moon. There was a shadow falling from the window onto the steps of the staircase. I saw it suddenly – I had passed by a thousand times without seeing it and suddenly I noticed it, so I decided to draw it. But the shadow moved every three minutes…the earth turns…There was a slice of light here, while everywhere else was dark. I drew by the light of a flashlight until everything became dark. At one point, everything that had been very dark became light and everything light became dark. To create the whole, I had to keep moving. I was forced to identify myself with a spider, who ascends and descends the end of his thread.”

Sam Szafran – Escalier de la rue de Seine (c. 1981). Pastel on paper mounted on cardboard. Private collection

Due to copyright issues, the inaccessibility of Szafran’s works as they belong to private collections, and the confusing/generic Escalier (Staircase) titles, it is difficult for me to share as much of his work as I want with you.

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

I’d be amiss to write this post without naming Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

I’m not doing it for the staircase, which has a rather minor role, and is barely distinguishable. I’m not doing it because it’s the most famous artwork with staircase in its title either. I’m doing it as a nod to Frank O’Hara who mentions Duchamp’s painting in his poem Having a Coke with You

In the poem, O’Hara — who was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art — tells his lover that his beauty eclipses that of the artworks that matter most to him. And if Frank O’Hara loves Nude Descending a Staircase, then surely this deserves an honorable mention.

Marcel Duchamp – Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art

In Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase the focus isn’t on the staircase, but on the movement it provokes. The nude figure descending the stairs, in a mixture of Cubism and Futurism, looks dehumanized, like a mannequin, and is presented as if in a time-lapse, its past, present and future movements cascading at once. 

In Duchamp’s own words:

“My aim was a static representation of movement, a static composition of indications of various positions taken by a form in movement—with no attempt to give cinema effects through painting. The reduction of a head in movement to a bare line seemed to me defensible.”

The muted color palette of browns and grays makes this painting all the more unnerving, as if we’re watching a soulless, mechanized performance, while the vertical format and the towering moving figure add to the sense of claustrophobia. Creepiness may not have been what Duchamp was looking for, but there’s an inherent risk in stripping down humanity to its bare essentials.

 Perhaps we can blame the stairs.

So there you have it: a glimpse at some of the creepiest staircases in art history. Whether they reflect architecture, social conditioning or our own existential angst, staircases hold so much potential – both visually and metaphorically – that they can never grow old.  There must be a reason why most horror movies have them.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. An excellent post, Gabriela. First, I’ve never heard about Princess Diana’s dark incidents with the stairs. Poor William! The paintings featured are all disorienting. Indeed, many of the stairways of life lead us nowhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thanks for reading, Rosaliene. I figured these staircases would get us closer to Halloween.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rebecca Budd says:

    A brilliant post, Gabriela – I learn something new every time I stop by your welcoming space!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Rebecca!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. They certainly are creepy, especially the ones from the 1700s. Those pieces really do speak to collective fear and angst, as you pointed out.

    I really, really like the staircases by Sam Szafran. I find myself getting lost in those images.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Szafran’s stuff is really something. I wonder if he got vertigo while painting. I get dizzy just looking at those staircases.

      Liked by 1 person

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