There can be no doubt that paintings can have a powerful influence over us. They are truly remarkable things. When an artist puts brush to canvas, they are in a sense channeling their soul and imagination into the images that we see, and these images can have a potent emotional impact on us. We can be moved to tears, reduced to a depressed wreck, be given inspiration, uplifted, or disgusted, and experience the whole spectrum of emotion by merely looking at paint on a canvas. However, can paintings have other influences over us and our world as well? Are there times when, rather than channeling the artist, they are channeling inscrutable powers beyond our understanding as well? Are they sometimes more than mere paintings, saturated with the unknown rather than just paint? While paintings can certainly have a powerful effect on us, it seems that in some cases they can have an effect beyond merely the emotions; reaching out to have an effect on our reality as well or to be home to inscrutable mysterious powers. There have long been haunted or cursed paintings that seem to go far beyond mere works of art and have become something else. Here we will delve into the menacing, mysterious, and often incredibly creepy world of haunted paintings. Please keep in mind that some of these paintings, the images of many of which I have included here, are said to have spooky effects or to be disturbing to people even when viewed online. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
Are you still with me? Good! Let’s begin our tour. Perhaps the most notorious and well known of the haunted paintings is a work by Bill Stoneham called The Hands Resist Him, which has achieved so much notoriety that it is frequently billed as “the most haunted painting in the world.” The story starts back in 1972, when Stoneham was living in California with his first wife, Rhoann, and was contracted to produce two works of art per month for gallery owner Charles Feingarten. With his deadline coming up for his next painting, Stoneham decided to create a work based on an old photo of himself when he was 5 and titled after a poignant poem his wife had written for him about how he had been adopted and never known his biological parents. The result was an image depicting a young boy and a decidedly creepy looking dead-eyed female doll standing in front of a glass paneled door against which numerous spectral hands press out from the darkness beyond the glass. According to Stoneham, the boy is himself at age 5, the doorway represents a barrier between the waking world and the dream world, and the doll is the one who will guide him through the doorway into a world of fantasy. As for the hands, the artist has cryptically said:
The hands were all of the possibilities….You were left with the question, ‘Are these disembodied hands? Are they dismembered, floating there in space? Or are they connected to bodies?
The painting went on to be displayed at the Feingarten Gallery in Beverly Hills, California, where it was eventually mentioned in the Los Angeles Times by noted art critic Henry Seldis. At this expedition, the painting caught the attention of the actor John Marley, who had played the role of Jack Woltz in The Godfather (the guy who finds the decapitated horse head in his bed. You know the scene.) and he purchased it. After that, the painting sort of went on its way and Stoneham went on to other things. In the meantime, within one year of coming into contact with the painting, three people died; the art critic Seldis, the gallery owner Feingarten, and the actor who had first purchased it, Marley. After that, the painting sort of just disappeared and was mostly forgotten about until the year 2000, when an elderly couple found it left abandoned behind a California brewery that had been turned into an art space.
Although the deaths associated with the painting were already strange enough, it was with the couple’s acquisition of the painting that its decent into a dark world of terror would truly begin, and it would become a work plagued with strange phenomena, dread, and evil. In February of 2000, the California couple put the painting up for sale on eBay with an ad that made some extremely chilling and bizarre claims that it was cursed, haunted, or both. The ad says that the sellers had been very perplexed as to why such a perfectly good painting had been discarded, but that they had quickly realized why. The ad generally reads more like a dire warning rather than an ad, saying dramatically in all caps and with many spelling errors:
WHEN WE RECEIVED THIS PAINTING, WE THOUGHT IT WAS REALLY GOOD ART. A ” PICKER ” HAD FOUND IT ABANDONNED BEHIND AN OLD BREWERY. AT HTE TIME WE WONDERED A LITLLE WHY A SEEMINGLY PERFECTLY FINE PAINTING WOULD BE DISCARDED LIKE THAT. ( TODAY WE DON’T !!! ) ONE MORNING OUR 4 AND 1/2 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER CLAIMED, THAT THE CHILDREN IN THE PICTURE WERE FIGHTING, AND COMING INTO THE ROOM DURING THE NIGHT. NOW, I DON’T BELIEVE IN UFOS OR ELVIS BEING ALIVE, BUT MY HUSBAND WAS ALARMED. TO MY AMUSEMENT HE SET UP A MOTION TRIGGERED CAMERA FOR THE NIGHTS. AFTER THREE NIGHTS THERE WERE PICTURES.THE LAST TWO PICTURES SHOWN ARE FROM THAT ‘STAKEOUT’. AFTER SEEING THE BOY SEEMINGLY EXITING THE PAINTING UNDER THREAT, WE DECIDED, THE PAINTING HAS TO GO.PLEASE JUDGE FOR YOURSELF. — BEFORE YOU DO, PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWIND WARNING AND DISCLAIMER. —-WARNING: DO NOT BID ON THIS PAINTING IF YOU ARE SUCCEPTIBLE TO STRESS RELATED DISEASE, FAINT OF HEART OR ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH SUPERNATURAL EVENTS. BY BIDDING ON THIS PAINTING, YOU AGREE TO RELEASE THE OWNERS OF ALL LIABILITY IN RELATION TO THE SALE OR ANY EVENTS HAPPENING AFTER THE SALE, THAT MIGHT BE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS PAINTING. THIS PAINTING MAY OR MAY NOT POSESS SUPERNATURAL POWERS, THAT COULD IMPACT OR CHANGE YOUR LIFE. HOWEVER, BY BIDDING YOU AGREE TO EXCLUSIVELY BID ON THE VALUE OF THE ARTWORK, WITH DISREGARD TO THE LAST TWO PHOTOS FEATURED IN THIS AUCTION, AND HOLD THE OWNERS HARMLESS IN REGARD TO THEM AND THEIR IMPACT, EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED.———— NOW THAT WE GOT THIS OUT OF THE WAY, ONE QUESTION TO YOU EBAYERS. WE WANT OUR HOUSE TO BE BLESSED AFTER THE PAINTING IS GONE, DOES ANYBODY KNOW, WHO IS QUALIFIED TO DO THAT?
The strange ad was accompanied by the images taken by the motion triggered camera that claim to show the doll from the painting threatening the boy from the painting with a pistol in her hand, as well as a warning not to use the painting’s image as computer background wallpaper and not to show it to juveniles or children. Pretty spooky so far, right? Well, the whole story quite quickly spiraled into new levels of weirdness. The ad drew a great amount of attention on the Internet, accruing over 30,000 views, and it rapidly became the stuff of legend. Many people who went to go look at the The Hands Resist Him reported immediately feeling queasy and faint, or of being overcome with a sense of deep unease, but it seemed these disturbing effects were not even limited to seeing the thing in person. Many people reported strange occurrences by merely viewing the painting online. Some people said they felt nauseous, faint, dizzy, or irrationally terrified when looking at the image, while others claimed that their children would sometimes run away screaming when they saw it or that infants would cry in its presence. A few online viewers claimed that their printer would malfunction if they tried to download the image of the painting. Even more ominously, there were those who reported hearing eerie disembodied voices or feeling hot gusts of air when looking at the painting, blanking out for long periods of time, being gripped by some unseen force, being grabbed or tickled by invisible hands, or even having their mind controlled by a mysterious entity. One person who viewed the painting reportedly felt so unsettled and defiled when they saw it that they actually burned white sage to spiritually cleanse their room. Reports like this quickly propelled the painting’s scary reputation into every corner of the Internet, and it became a regular discussion point on sites such as 4chan’s paranormal portal /x/, Reddit’s r/creepy, Encyclopedia Dramatica’s creepypasta wiki, and pretty much every other site devoted to the paranormal or the world of the weird.
Amazingly, even with all of this going on, and with the painting’s ominous reputation and creepy lore growing every day, some people still actually wanted to acquire it. The Hands Resist Him would go on to get over 30 bids and ended up being purchased by Kim Smith of Perception Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan for $1,025. Around a month after the purchase, Smith was approached by the paranormal website “surfingtheapocalypse.com,” and asked about how things were going with regards to the allegedly haunted painting. Smith told them:
I wish I could report a bizarre happening or mind possession type of thing, but the unusual things started happening with the first email and counting. Prayers and quotes from the scriptures from a man of faith. Advice as how to cleanse my residence of this evil thing from a Native American Shaman in Mississippi. Reports of people being repulsed, made physically ill, or suffering from a black out/mind control experiences.
The gallery even approached the artist of the piece himself to ask about his thoughts on the matter, to which he responded with surprise and claimed that the “gun” in the painting wasn’t even a gun at all, but rather merely a dry cell battery and a tangle of wires. Currently, The Hands Resist Him is kept in storage at Smith’s gallery and has only been taken out for viewing 6 times, with the painting stirring up feelings of unease and dread every time. In one of the viewings in 2007, a group of men ranging in age from 14 to 60 reportedly stared blankly in silence at the painting, almost as if in a daze, for around 30 seconds before one of them stated simply, “That’s creepy.” That seems to be probably the most common and apt description of it, to be sure, and to this day there are stories that trickle in from people having unexplainable experiences when looking at The Hands Resist Him. Stoneham actually went on to paint two sequels to the infamous painting, called Resistance at the Threshold, which depicts the same characters within the picture 40 years later, and Threshold of Revelation, which was completed in 2012, both of which as of yet appear to be free of any strange phenomena. For his part, the artist, who has been deluged with mails asking him about the original haunted painting, has gone on to say:
We live in an age of science of revelation and hard realities and hard facts, but we are still drawn to the mysterious. And what is more mysterious than paintings? More than any other object, paintings are a one-of-a-kind thing created by someone using their hands.
The Hands Resist Him is not the only allegedly haunted or cursed painting by a long shot. At the end of a downstairs hallway at The Hotel Galvez in Galveston, TX, there hangs a portrait of Bernardo de Galvez, who was a Spanish military leader who aided American forces during the Revolutionary War, and for whom the town of Galveston is named. Although Galvez died in 1786, it has long been claimed that this particular portrait of him harbors the man’s ghost. There are various strange phenomena associated with the painting. Numerous guests and hotel employees alike have claimed that the painting’s eyes very unmistakably follow them up and down the hallway, and cold spots or a sudden sense of unease felt near the painting are not uncommon. One of the weirder aspects of the painting is that it apparently does not like to have its photo taken without permission. People claim that any photo of the painting will turn out blurry, or show inexplicable orbs, fogs, streaks, or even be marred by frightening ghostly skeletal images, unless explicit and verbal permission is asked of the painting to take its picture, after which photos turn out perfectly fine. This strange claim was actually tested out by the paranormal investigation team Strange Town, who were quite chilled to find that in fact their photos of the painting really did turn out blurry unless it was asked for permission.
The next haunted painting is not just one, but a whole series of paintings collectively known as The Crying Boy. In the 1950s, Italian artist Bruno Amadio, also known as Giovanni Bragolin, painted over 65 portraits of Italian orphans crying, which he sold as souvenirs to tourists in the wake of the Second World War. During the 50s, the paintings went on to become one of the most popular mass produced series of prints in England, but it was not until the 1980s that any particular strangeness was associated with them. Starting from 1985, it was claimed that firefighters were finding completely undamaged copies of The Crying Boy amongst the ashes and rubble of burned down houses, always lying face down on the floor. In over 50 house fires The Crying Boy paintings were claimed to have inexplicably avoided fiery destruction and to have ended up in the same face down position. It was also reported that homes which had copies of the paintings were prone to a higher rate of house fires than usual.
Numerous psychics would go on to make claims that the portraits were haunted by the ghosts of the many orphans who had died during World War II, and the whole story almost took on the air of an urban legend. It must be noted that the original story appeared in the British tabloid newspaper The Sun, so it should be probably taken with a grain of salt, yet many have insisted that the prints are actually capable of repelling flames. The Sun actually organized mass bonfires for owners of the paintings to come out and burn them, with many participants saying that indeed they seemed to burn remarkably slowly. There is even one BBC video of a guy who I presume thought to himself “only one way to find out,” and can be seen trying to burn a copy of The Crying Boy, which it is claimed seems to be more resistant to the torching than a normal painting would be. Not sure what to make of this one, but for what it’s worth there have been those who blame preservative varnish on the paintings for causing them to be more resistant to flames.
A no doubt scarier allegedly haunted painting would have to be one called The Anguished Man. The undeniably creepy and somewhat terrifying painting was allegedly kept for 25 years in the attic of the grandmother of a man named Sean Robinson. The grandmother had always made odd claims about the painting, such as that the painter had mixed his own blood into the paint when creating the work and that he had committed suicide right after completing it. The grandmother had also claimed that voices could be heard screaming or crying when the blood infused painting was viewed, and that a somewhat threatening shadowy, spectral shape could also be seen in its vicinity, which convinced her that it was haunted by the artist and was the main reason it had been tucked away into her attic for all of those years.
In 2010, Robinson inherited the painting from his grandmother upon her death and allegedly almost immediately his family was beset by weird happenings, seemingly harassed by a strange force pervading their house. Robinson claimed that upon acquiring The Anguished Man, his son had been pushed down the stairs by unseen hands, that his wife often felt something stroking her hair, and that there were numerous instances of poltergeist activity around their house. The whole family also heard the screaming and crying that Robinson’s grandmother had described, and spotted the mysterious shadowy figure lurking near the painting on many occasions as well. The Anguished Man gained the most notoriety when Robinson decided to set up a camera near the painting to record the paranormal phenomena and uploaded them onto YouTube. The videos show various instances of alleged ghostly activity such as the painting falling to the floor, doors slamming shut, and even smoke rising up from the painting. Spooky stuff, but many viewers have claimed that it is nothing but a hoax. Whether The Anguished Man is really haunted or not, it is hard to argue against the fact that it is indeed extremely unsettling to look at. Robinson has reportedly locked the cursed painting in his basement and refuses to sell it. Incidentally, The Anguished Man is another painting which some say instills feelings of panic, dizziness, or unease even when viewed online. Take a look at it and decide for yourself. What do you think?
Our next haunted painting is actually a painting of a photograph. In the mid-1990s, an artist known only as Laura P. was making a living off of creating paintings based on photographs, and her attention was caught by an odd photo taken by commercial photographer James Kidd. The photograph in question shows an old fashioned stagecoach in the foreground along with a rusty wagon. The strange thing is that looming off to the side there is a wispy figure that appears to be headless and which Kidd insisted had not been there when the photo was taken, instead appearing upon development. Although Laura was not sure what exactly drew her to the picture, she became overcome with an irresistible urge to paint it, and went about creating a 16 x 20-inch oil painting based on it.
The artist reported that almost immediately upon starting the painting she was overcome with a palpable sense of dread, fear, and unease, to the point that she was hesitant to even finish it, yet something compelled her to keep on painting through this overwhelming sense of doom that was hanging over her. When the ordeal was over, the finished painting, titled Painting of a Headless Man, was hung up at a local office where it proceeded to promptly creep everyone right out. Workers at the office claimed that as soon as the painting arrived, papers started going missing, objects would be moved to different locations when no one was looking, and that even the painting itself would move on its own, always crooked even when it was constantly being straightened. After a mere 3 days of freaking everyone out, the office asked Laura to take the painting back. When she moved with her husband to a new home, the painting went with them, and so did whatever mysterious force it was imbued with.
At the new home, the couple repeatedly heard various anomalous sounds such as knocks, bangs, footsteps, and other less definable noises, which always seemed to happen in the general vicinity of the painting. Additionally, other weird occurrences started happening with increasing frequency, such as objects moving on their own, spilt salt next to an upright salt shaker, doors opening by themselves, roof leaks that even professionals called in to investigate could not explain, the dogs suddenly growling or being spooked for no discernible reason, and other similarly minor but generally unsettling phenomena. One alleged incident seemed to be more sinister, when a glass Laura was drinking from suddenly broke in her hand and a large piece of the jagged shattered glass vanished without a trace.
Laura told a friend about these strange events befalling her house, but the friend was highly skeptical and even reportedly laughed out loud when she saw the painting itself. According to Laura, when the friend returned to her home that night, a large clock that had been hanging on the wall for nearly 40 years suddenly fell and was smashed to pieces. Coincidence, or did the painting perhaps not like being laughed at? Another friend of the woman came to photograph the painting, and when he was laying the photos out at his home, he claimed to have seen a spectral, headless figure looming in the shadows from the corner of his eye, prompting him to immediately dispose of the pictures he had taken. The artist of the painting has apparently lamented the fact that she ever painted Painting of a Headless Man in the first place and has expressed a desire to have it destroyed. What is going on with this painting? Why does it attract so much weirdness to it when the photo it is actually based on seemingly does not? It is an odd case to be sure.
The list of haunted or somehow cursed paintings goes on and on. The Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas, already has a reputation as being heavily haunted, and it seems even its paintings are as well. At least one of them is. One painting exhibited there is called Love Letters, which is a replica of yet another painting depicting a little girl. It is said that although the girl in the picture is a different person, she resembles very much another girl named Samantha Houston, the four year old daughter of a U.S. Senator who died while staying at the hotel when she fell to her death down a flight of stairs while chasing after a dropped ball. Guests and employees have reported that the girl in the painting will sometimes change her expression or slightly shift positions. There are also numerous reports of the painting making anyone who looks at it feel ill, dizzy, or nauseous, or creating the rather unsettling sensation of being lifted into the air when standing in front of it. Even though it is not a portrait of her, it is thought that the ghost of the dead senator’s daughter has taken a liking to it and chosen to take up residence within the painting.
Another haunted painting is The Dead Mother by Edvard Munch, the artist most famous for his painting The Scream, and an overall fairly dark individual. Munch had been driven nearly insane by his upbringing in the house of an abusive, religious fanatic of a father after the tragic death of his mother and sister by tuberculosis when he was only 5 years old. The Dead Mother seems to reflect some of that angst, despair, and insanity, with these elements congealing to form what can only be described as a truly disturbing painting to look at. It depicts a young girl with her back turned to a bed on which her dead mother lies as she holds her hands to her ears and displays a wide-eyed expression of disbelief. Munch himself said of his work in his typically dour way, “Sickness, madness and death were the black angels who watched over [his] cradle.” Already creepy enough then, but it gets even creepier. People who have owned the painting claimed that the girl’s eyes incessantly followed them, that the sheets on mother’s bed in the painting would rustle or move, or even that the girl’s apparition would occasionally leave the painting altogether.
Not even establishments of higher learning and rationality are free from the scourge of cursed paintings. In the picture gallery of the Royal Holloway College at the University of London there hangs a painting called Man Proposes, God Disposes by Sir Edwin Landseer. The painting shows the crew of the doomed Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin being devoured by ferocious polar bears, so it is rather chilling in its own right. The odd thing about this particular painting, other than being exceptionally spooky, is that it is thought to drive students mad or to make them fail their exams, a bit problematic considering the picture gallery is often used for taking exams. So persistent is the rumor that it is customary for the college to cover the painting with a Union Jack flag in the days leading up to, as well as during, an exam. One famous story at the College is that one student became so utterly and hopelessly upset by the painting that she was driven stark raving insane and allegedly killed herself right there at her desk in front of everyone. I would say that would be good enough reason to get rid of the accursed thing, but apparently it still hangs there, freaking people out as it always has. It’s hard to say if this denotes a haunting or something else, but it certainly is a fairly creepy story nevertheless.
I have only covered some of the world’s allegedly haunted or cursed paintings here, a sampling of bizarreness from the world of art but there are certainly more. Are any of these works of art truly haunted or possessed of some sinister force? Or are they just merely constructs of canvas, wood, and paint? There can be no doubt that paintings can have the power to have a profound emotional and mental effect on the people who view them and stir up a wide range of feelings including elation, sadness, disgust, the whole range of human feelings, so does this perhaps have something to do with these phenomena? After all, these are windows into the mind and soul of the artist, in a way giving us a glimpse into a world outside of our own mind and range of sensory experience, perhaps even influencing ours. However, in the case of these haunted or cursed paintings perhaps they are windows into something else as well. Just maybe they are portals into the unknown, from which forces or entities beyond our understanding reach out to us through them. Either way, it is clear that paintings are, in more cases than not, much more than simply the sum of their parts.