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.
Perhaps one of the creepiest and notorious supposedly cursed paintings is one that was painted by one of America’s most notorious serial killers. John Wayne Gacy is perhaps one of the most infamous monsters to ever walk the earth, who raped, tortured, and murdered at least 33 young men and boys in Norwood Park Township, near Chicago, Illinois during the 1970s. He is well-known for having had a side gig dressing as a clown called Pogo the Clown at charity events, often visiting ill children at nearby children’s hospitals, and indeed he would be e known as the Killer Clown in the media due to this.
While he was on death row in prison, Gacy took up the hobby of painting, for better or worse, and produced multiple works from behind bars. All of them seem to have had an unsettling effect on people who saw them, but one in particular was known for not only being disturbing, but also straight up haunted and cursed. The painting Pogo the Clown is already nightmare fuel even without talk of the paranormal. It is simply a self-portrait of him as Pogo the Clown, and besides the fact that it is a painting of, well, a clown, it has been linked to numerous accounts of death and misfortune. Notably, the singer Nikki Stone purchased the painting in 2000 and immediately experienced a string of woes. His dog died, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he experienced a series of freak accidents. Frightened, he arranged for it to be stored at the home of a friend, who shortly after died in a car accident, and after then it passed on to another friend who went insane and tried to kill himself. Coincidence or something more?
Many haunted paintings just happen to be portraits. Another undeniably creepy piece of work is by the Ukrainian artist, Svetlana Telets. The painting itself is called The Rain Woman, and it depicts a pale looking woman with droopy and cloudy eyes wearing a black hat in the rain, all painted in muted dark colors and exuding a vague sense of menace. Beyond its general creepiness, the story goes that for months before painting it Telets was plagued by nightmares and the potent feeling of being watched. One day she suddenly felt compelled to sit at her canvas and start painting, feeling as if she had no control of her hand and that a strange force was controlling her. She watched on in astonishment as her hand went to work painting The Rain Woman, all on its own, and she also realized that she had no idea who the woman in the portrait was.
The experience was so unsettling for Telets that she promptly sold the painting, but it was returned several times by different customers who claimed that the woman in the painting was watching them, changing expressions, or even following them around, and that they couldn’t bear to look at it. One customer complained that the painting constantly fell off the wall no matter what they did, and another claimed that they were stalked through their house by a shadowy figure, while yet another owner described white eyes appearing everywhere he looked. Many also experienced actual physical symptoms in the presence of the painting, such as headaches, dizziness, and nose bleeds. The piece was eventually purchased by the musician Sergei Skachkov in 2008, but his wife would hide it away after seeing a ghostly figure walk around their apartment at night. Who is the woman in the painting? What compelled Telets to paint her? Is it really haunted? There is no way to know for sure.
Other haunted portraits include the rather unwieldly titled Portrait of Miss Henrietta Nelson in a Blue and White Gown and White Hat, Holding a Rose, in a Rococo Interior, by William Johnson, which is supposedly followed around by the spirit of Nelson herself. Then we have Portrait of a Lady, by Juan Luna, which depicts the artist's wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, who Juan Luna murdered. The painting is supposedly infused with a deep sense of hatred emanating from it, and has allegedly caused sickness, misfortune, and death to anyone who owns it, and during the opening night of a 1987 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the spotlight bulb over the painting spectacularly exploded. It is no longer on display.
In some cases, curses and hauntings seem to infuse not only a painting, but also the body of work of the artists themselves. The Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky is well known for having had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism, and he is often mentioned as one of the most powerful American painters of the 20th century, but there have also long been whispers that his work created between 1904 and 1938 is cursed. The paintings have been reported as falling from walls, catching on fire, and being visited by a black-haired ghost in a blue overcoat, and have even been linked to tragedies. On March 1, 1962, plane with 87 passengers, 8 crew members, and 15 abstract paintings by Gorky tragically crashed into a swamp two minutes after takeoff, killing everyone on board and destroying the paintings. Bad luck or curse? Who knows?
Another artist whose works seem to be pervaded by dark paranormal forces is the famous Russian 19th century realist painter Ilya Repin. Many of his paintings have reportedly provoked anxiety attacks, fear, and physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches, and there are claimed to be shadow figures that lurk around them. There is also a myth about Repin's models dying, most of them healthy young men, and Prime Minister Stolypin was shot in Kiev as soon as Repin painted his portrait. Another painting linked to death is his work The ceremonial meeting of the State Council, in 1903, with everyone depicted on the canvas dying within a few years. In particular, Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan is said to be especially cursed, causing madness and driving many who look upon it to suicide.
It’s not only famous paintings and those that are in museums that are said to be cursed, but also one’s in private possession, often owned by people who desperately want to get rid of them by any means necessary. In 2020 a Mel Hamilton, 55, found a portrait of a woman dressed in a white robe and wearing jewelry dumped next to a commercial bin on a street in Brighton, England, and took it home, reframed it, and hung it on her wall. Almost immediately paranormal activity started up, the TV would change channels by itself, lights would turn on and off, doors would open and slam shut, and her healthy German Shepherd suddenly died shortly after the painting’s arrival. Mel has said of the painting and its effects:
I would hear the door handles move and they keys go in and out. The TV changed the channel. This overwhelming darkness was awful and I was alone. It very quickly began apparent that something was amiss. Everything was going wrong, everything. Things got really, really unbearable. There was so much activity that I didn't want to live there. The energy in it (the painting) was just so bad and so dark. I was a nervous wreck and covered in crosses. I went to a meeting and tried to sound rational but nobody believed me.
She would eventually have her son throw the painting away because she was too scared to touch it and the paranormal activity stopped. One painting that definitely should not be touched is a painting of Captain Andrew McKeever that hangs near the office of Corned Beef & Co., in Roanoke, Virginia. General Manager Sal Russo has said of the painting:
They said ‘hey, that picture, don’t ever touch it,” that it was haunted, that if you move it the ghost would follow you around the restaurant. The only time we do go around it is when we clean it. It’s never been moved. A girl that was hanging Christmas lights around the captain, that she actually touched the painting, that she cut her hand pretty bad that day at Corned Beef. The people that touched it and tried to clean it, they saw shadows walking around, that things would get knocked off the countertops. Before I actually turned all the lights off, the lights shut off on their own. Not exactly sure how it happened, but they shut off for about three seconds and then they cut back on all by themselves. A few customers have said they’ve heard voices and thought their name was being called or whispered, and they never saw anybody. Employees said that after hours, even when the crowds have cleared, some rooms still don’t feel empty. I thought I may have seen a silhouette or someone walking through. Or think someone was in the room and there was no one in there, but I thought someone was in there.
In 2022 a man called Dan Smith (not his real name) bought a painting of two dolls at an antique store, a purchase the former owner strongly advises against because the painting was “bad news.” Smith bought it anyway and said that he started losing sleep, discovered an insect infestation in his house, his pet hamster died. He was also overcome with sickness, loneliness, sleeplessness and uneasiness that he had never experienced before and for no discernible reason. He says the painting ruined his life, and before long, he put the painting for sale online, and would describe it as follows:
The woman at the flea market warned me before buying this and I will warn you – no good can come from this painting. I didn’t think much of it at the time and just assumed she was one of those oddball dealers hawking their wares for cheap. As for the painting, it looked adorable, with two innocent-seeming dolls portrayed in it… but she was right – don’t be deceived,” the seller warned. “I don’t know whose cursed blood was mixed in with the paint to create this piece, but its powers are strong. I’m starting the auction at $50, which is what I paid for it but am hoping it goes for more to make up for everything I’ve been through. But before you bid… you’ve been warned!
A spooky story of a haunted painting comes from Reddit user “FreezingM00N,” who claims that in college he and his roommates had a painting of a bartender pouring a martini on their wall, which they called the “Martini Man.” He believes that the painting is tethering to itself a spirit, and explains about the events that transpired:
I had a weird feeling about it right off the bat. His wide eyes would follow you around the room, and there was just something creepy about it. When you were alone with it, it still felt like there was a real presence with you. About a month or two after the move in, activity started happening. One day, I was sitting on the couch in the living room playing some video games, I started hearing slamming at the front door, and it was LOUD. It sounded like somebody sprinting and body slamming the door (btw we have a foyer so I can't see the door from the living room). Thinking it may of been a loud knock, I go to see if there's anyone there. Nothing. This persists throughout the day, and I get up several more times to see if anyone is there. Nothing each time. It's the middle of the day so I'm more confused than creeped out. I decide to test the door, shaking it, slamming it, knocking on it, even jumping into it. Nothing I did was close to as loud as the noises I was hearing. To top it off, this happened one day and one day only. I never heard this happen again. Not necessarily attributed to the painting, but I’ll explain how it connects later.
The last personal story is about the footsteps. This happened in the summer, when it was just me and one other guy living in the house. It was about 2 am, and I was lying in bed playing on my laptop. I start hearing really loud footsteps coming from down stairs. They were like fast stomps. It sounded like someone sprinting while completely drunk. At first I just though it was a drunken roommate, but there was something strange in the pattern to them. I would hear them start in one part of the house, stomp to another, stop for a while, then pick back up in a completely different part of the house. Eventually, they came running up the stairs, directly to my door, and stopped. I was frozen with fear during the silence. They then started up again, downstairs this time. It kept going for at least 10 more minutes.
I should probably explain why I pin all this on the painting and not the house itself. As I already said, its eyes would follow you around the room, and had an overall creepy vibe to it. People would come over and say that the painting scared them without hearing any of these stories. We had some girls over for a party and they insisted that we take the painting down. I hastily agreed and took it off the wall. That's when I saw, written on the back of the canvas, the name of the painting: "The Spirit of the Bartender". Quite frankly I thought this was hilarious, as I had been expressing my distaste for this painting to my roommate for some time, and this corroborated my claims nicely. After that year, the roommate to whom it belonged moved out, and took the painting with him. The activity died down after that.
From the site Your Ghost Stories we have an account from a witness in the U.S. state of Georgia who has a story about a haunted painting that their mother brought home from an auction when they were about 8. At the time the parents apparently imported and exported antiques, with their house full of antiques to the point that it looked more like a museum than an actual home. One day, the mother brought back an antique painting by an unknown artist that she had purchased from an estate sale. The painting is described as being of a women wearing a long blue-grey gown standing in a veranda of an old house, with a table with a tea set and kettle next to her and what looks like some cake or sandwiches on a plate, and there are some flowers and a chair and part of a window. Almost immediately this painting spooked the witness, who says of it:
I felt very strange around the painting from the first day it was hanging up. The hallway in summer was comfortable and not too warm but after the painting was hung up the area around the painting turned almost ice cold. Passing the painting I'd get goose bumps on whatever exposed skin I had. I also started feeling like the lady in the painting was watching me. My twin sisters started saying that they didn't like looking at the painting as it made them feel uncomfortable and like they weren't meant to be around it. My baby brother would walk on the other side of the hallway to it. And when asked why he'd say he didn't like the lady and that he was cold when he looked at her (he was 5 at the time nearly 6).
Soon it went past just feelings in the hallway. At night we'd start hearing whispers that hadn't been there previous. Our house already had its share of spooky behaviour we had got used to but this was new. Movement of a flash of blue-grey like the dress out of the corner of your eye. A strange touch occasionally in the hallway when no one else was around. This may sound like something from Tales From the Crypt but I assure you this isn't something I saw on tv. I only wished sometimes it was. After my father (6'5", 350 pounds of him) got a cold hand run up his back when he was in the shower was any real notice of what we all had said to our parents. Used to other ghosts in the house we at first thought oh it's just another spirit making itself known to us as its new here.
After this, all manner of strange phenomena began to escalate, with the witness describing numerous mysterious happenings. On one occasion their baby brother was tripped on the stairs and pushed by a cold hand when he tried to get up again. Plants near the painting mysteriously wilted away and only regained their health when moved away from it. Their dogs wouldn't go past the painting without whining or growling at it, even though they were normally very placid and gentle dogs. The painting would frequently fall off the wall to crash the floor, and one occasion the family cats attacked it and scratched at it for no discernible reason. The family finally decided that the painting had to go, and he explains of it:
So off to the auctions it went. Several times. My mother who knew the buyers found out they only kept it a month (they too heard whispers and their cat also attacked the painting) and gave it to a neighbour who liked it. The neighbour sold it on after her dog freaked out around it. It kept getting sold on or auctioned or given away until 2014 when a man who collected art in Florida bought the painting and did not know of its history. Having again tried to research it's past. He only found out it was possibly a painting of an artist's wife who died young. I don't know if it's true of not. There is no real record of the artwork anywhere and it's not signed. The man who owned it last I heard keeps it in his basement, as it frightened his grandchildren. He says he won't sell it on and keeps it locked up. I think too he knows something isn't right with it. I'm worried as he's old what's going to happen when he dies. This painting I think isn't safe. Either a ghost is in it or attached to it and it's not friendly. So please anyone of you see this painting let me know, it really should be destroyed. I know it probably sounds like a made up story for kids. And a adult man like myself shouldn't be weary of an old oil painting of someone Unknown. This painting is dangerous. Please destroy it if you buy it. It's really not worth the trouble.
From Willenhall, England there is the case of a spooky painting owned by local historian and medium Phil Solomon. The painting itself is by an unknown artist and depicts a derelict castle with a bank of clouds above it, and it at first glance is not particularly extraordinary. However, it apparently has strange paranormal powers infusing it, as people looking at it have seen all sorts of strange visions within the details of the painting, as well as figures moving around in the castle. It has spooked a string of owners, and Solomon has said of the painting and its odd history:
I’m trying to find out who painted this picture and what exactly it is of. People also see literally dozens of ghostly figures in this painting and skulls in the clouds alongside other numerous visions. The painting was bought by a woman in a second hand shop in Horseley Fields, Wolverhampton, about 30 years ago. She liked the painting, but it unnerved her and both her children insisted it scared them. The first night she put it up it fell off the wall twice, so she had her husband secure it with a screw. But when they got up the next day it was on the floor once more. One of her children told his mother that he saw figures coming out of the tower.
It was then sold the picture to a woman who owned a New Age shop in Walsall Road. People who came into the shop said they saw faces or glowing areas on it. Some people absolutely loved the painting and wanted to buy it, others didn’t like it at all and said it scared them because they could see unusual ghostly figures and lights. The painting was sold on and it even went to America at one time, amazingly to some friends of mine who insisted they wanted it. But they didn’t keep it long before they sold it to a couple, who actually lived in all places, my home town of Willenhall. Then a gentleman who had the painting met me by coincidence and asked me if he could give me a present because he was scared by it.
The bizarre painting is still in Solomon’s possession, and he has rather ominously warned that anyone of a nervous disposition should not stare or even look at the image. 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.