The Night Gallery 50th Anniversary Retrospective Exhibition offers a Walk-Through Experience of Art & Terror.
Though eagerly craving to peruse the macabre art of the Night Gallery, I approached Mountain View Mausoleum with more than a small dose of trepidation. You needn’t think me mad, Eliot – I’m no superstitious fool, trembling at apparitions in graveyards. But had this place not been the setting of more infernal nightmares than I care to remember? Haunted by this multitude of disturbingly gloom-laden memories, can you blame me for not wanting to return to this locus of terror except by daylight?
Visions, manifestations – call them what you will – these preternatural recollections crowded my mind as I entered the grounds and trod the sullen soil and cheerless steps toward the main door, which was both intimidating and inviting, its massive size a threat, its open position an irresistible summons - like a siren’s song - urging me to savor the depraved delights within.
Immediately inside, a ghastly poster, set beside a lamp casting flickering tendrils of illumination upon the names of those interred within the walls, presented a tantalizing collage of what awaited further inside. The positioning of the poster was, I suspect, no accident – it is served as a temptation to sway those who might otherwise have turned away when their survival instincts were triggered by miasma-like atmosphere exuding from within. Ye gods – had I known then what awaited me, I would have dashed away immediately like a mad soul escaping hell.
For me, the urge to flee was amplified exponentially by figments and phantoms of prior experiences. Had I not been visiting Roderick Usher within these very walls when the marble balustrades and vaulted ceiling had seemed to come crumbling down upon our very heads? An illusion, no doubt, but the illusion crowded around me with suffocating effect as I proceeded toward a second poster, near the bottom of a staircase, indicating I should ascend upward.
On the landing above were set numerous artworks, only dimly decipherable in the back-light from the stained-glass windows. I hesitated to take the first step upward. Had I not seen the Egyptian god Thoth, in the form of a giant asp, claim a victim upon these very stairs? And yet, I could not resist. The siren’s song I mentioned previously had now become a haunting reality – music wafted down from above, diluting my will and mesmerizing me into a somnambulistic state. Unbidden by me, my legs ascended the staircase.
Upon the landing, my eyes were rewarded with a ghastly tableau of diabolical artistry. I quickly ascertained that I was viewing reproductions, and breathed a silent sigh of relief – the originals would have been too much to bear. The sinister silhouettes and figures encased in caskets were bad enough; worse yet was a leering bearded face, aglow with mania or diablerie, with a shadowy form of a raven lurking on his shoulder, like an evil familiar. Beside this, a mournful countenance, surrounded by skulls and flames, served as a warning to go no further. But I was beyond resistance.
Ascending to the upper level, I traversed the balcony, where I encountered further horror-laden canvases, placed strategically along echoing corridors that branched off into the depths of the building’s labyrinthine structure. Magicians conjured unknown entities. Demonic vampires leered. An elegant woman feigned an aristocratic air while something in her eyes betrayed a more sinister intent.
Incredibly, these terrors were but a preview of the true depths of horror waiting within. For yet a third time I encountered the poster, this time informing me that the Night Gallery lay around the next corner. What more could possibly await? What further horrors could even the most avid connoisseur of dread endure? “Immeasurable” is the answer.
I cannot even begin, Eliot, to render a full accounting of what I experienced within the hellish Night Gallery. I snapped some photographs you can examine if you have the stomach for it – god knows I never want to see them again.
The canvases literally mocked the eye with devilry. The subject matter was conventional enough for this sort of thing – festering cemeteries, dilapidated mansions, splattered corpses and so on – but somehow these images seemed to bring stories to life, like photoplays unreeling upon the mind’s eye.
You know the names and the styles of the mad geniuses who have toiled in this arcane and esoteric field: Clark Ashton Smith, Giger, Barlowe, Bissette, etc - all visionaries who take us beyond the mundane sphere of existence. But this – this was enough to send even me scurrying back to the safety of normality.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the canvases were the bronzes, depicting dragons and homunculi. The three-dimensional nature of the medium engendered an even greater sense of ancient and supernal entities intruding upon our dimension of reality. The sculptor, Phil Vanderlei, might as well be a necromancer imbuing artificial life into previously inert metal.
I don’t know, Eliot, whether you are fully aware of The Night Gallery’s history. No, this is not the first time the infernal thing has manifested, though it has morphed so much over the decades it’s easy to lose track. It began as a one-off on November 8, 1969 – that’s right, fifty years ago. The current Night Gallery exhibit is a 50th anniversary celebration of terror in art.
Anyway, the original exhibit was small-scale, just three paintings by Jaroslav Gebr, who passed away a few years ago – 2013, I think. The first was “The Cemetery,” something about a murdered man who comes back from the grave for revenge. “Eyes” features the aristocratic woman I mentioned earlier, a blind millionaire who pays for an illegal eye transplant. The last of the triptych was “The Escape Route,” depicting what happened to a Nazi war criminal whose prayer to escape his past by entering a painting goes badly awry.
But that was not the end of it. The Night Gallery became a series of exhibitions, hosted by NBC, lasting nearly two years. The subsequent paintings were by Tom Wright – dozens of canvases depicting every kind of depredation imaginable. The public was fascinated for a while, but eventually the parade of nightmares was too much for the average viewer. NBC cancelled their sponsorship, but the Night Gallery’s creators kept the show alive, moving it to smaller venues around the country, where it appeared at different times in different cities, attracting the morbidly curious fed up with the usual offerings. There were not enough paintings to sustain what amounted to a touring version of the exhibition, so new ones were commissioned by Gebr, inspired by a series of televised photoplays about psychic phenomena, known as The Sixth Sense.
I can see in your eyes, Eliot – you know I’m digressing to avoid getting to the real point: why I ran out of that Night Gallery never to return. You remember Richard Upton Pickman - the artist I told you about – the one who disappeared mysteriously, shortly after I visited his private studio? Rumor has it he became a ghoul of some repute in the underworld – nonsense of course, though it’s easy enough to believe if you had seen what I have seen.
In any case, Eliot, one corner of this Night Gallery exhibition – a “Walk-Thru Experience of Art & Terror” they call it, and they are not dissembling! – is devoted to Pickman’s work. I had seen the paintings before, of course, and the dreadful photograph that led me to sever my acquaintance with the artist. In the interim I had almost managed to convince myself that I had hallucinated the entire episode. But here in broad daylight – all the more terrifying, because there were no shadows to hide the truth, no way to pretend my eyes were not seeing what was clearly etched in front of them – were more paintings – and more photographs! The dreadful ghoul-thing that Pickman painted was indeed no figment of his fervid imagination. It was real as life, and the proof is there for all to see! Yet the foolish patrons ignore the reality, preferring to interpret it as mere artifice!
Even that much I could understand. The human mind can bear only so much before it shuts down in denial – would that I could join the self-deceived in their self-deception. Unfortunately for my turbulent soul, I know too much to deny awful reality. What twisted my soul was not the unconscious self-deception but the self-conscious embrace of horror. One photographic image depicts the debased creature’s intended victim fondling it, like a pet – or worse yet, like a fellow being, an old-friend, the fundamental and immeasurable gulf between human and inhuman bridged in a way that illustrates our inevitable doom more clearly than Pickman’s most disturbing masterpiece. For what hope is there when, confronted with horrifying reality, instead of fleeing for safety, we rush to embrace it?
Night Gallery Exhibition Rating
Creature Features’ 50th anniversary celebration of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery offers a wonderful presentation of ominous artwork in a perfect setting – a real mausoleum – enhanced by atmospheric music. This is more an exhibition than a gallery showing: though some reproductions are for sale, the presentation here is more like a pop-up immersive experience, with the canvases strategically placed within the marble hallways of Mountain View Mausoleum for maximum atmospheric impact. Most of the works on display are reproductions (lithographs, photocopies) of the paintings seen on the television series, but there are some originals from the collection of artist Tom Wright. Avid art collectors may find a few items to purchase, but fans of macabre art in general and of the Night Gallery in particular are encouraged to attend.
The final day of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery Walk-Thru Experience of Art & Terror is Sunday, February 10, from 1pm to 2;30pm. If you’re a fan of the television show or of macabre art in general, you should make the effort to get out to the Mountain View Mortuary & Cemetery, 2300 N. Marengo Avenue, Altadena, 91001. Get more information here.
Full Disclosure: The author of this piece has a business relationship with Taylor White, owner of Creatures Features.
Night Gallery 50th Anniversary Complete Photo Gallery