If you visit Etsy or eBay and type in the word “haunted,” you’ll pretty much be spoiled for choice. There are pieces of haunted jewelry, dolls, clothing, virtually any item imaginable that someone can wear, hold, or have is available for purchase, wayward soul included, often for a fairly exorbitant price. Paintings, in particular, are popular objects for hauntings and other supernatural activities, with a number of very notable examples.
It’s more than reasonable to wonder how, exactly, a painting ends up with a curse or haunting attached to it. Are they the products of some deranged artist, working his madness into the canvas itself with every brushstroke? Spiritual leftovers from some unfortunate previous owner? Several of the allegedly haunted items for sale online claim to be the products of witches deliberately binding spirits to them. Could that be the source of the stories about haunted paintings?
The Hands Resist Him is a sort of surrealist self-portrait painted by California artist Bill Stoneham in the early ’70s. It gained notoriety as the “haunted ebay painting,” when it appeared listed on that site along with a laundry list of bizarre phenomena. These included the figures triggering motion-sensing cameras, appearing to move or change, and causing young children to scream, feel ill, or feel as though hands were gripping them.
Did these things really happen? It’s entirely possible. What’s noteworthy here is that the painting wasn’t subjected to any of the things normally associated with cursed objects– there are no murders, rituals, or unfortunate accidents in its pedigree. Even the subject itself is innocuous. The artist himself described it thus:
“When I painted the Hands Resist Him in 1972, I used an old photo of myself at age five in a Chicago apartment. The hands are the ‘other lives.’ The glass door, that thin veil between waking and dreaming. The girl/doll is the imagined companion, or guide through this realm.”
This paining and others like it are best known for allegedly being paintings “no firefighter will hang in their home.” These paintings, all featuring teary-eyed little urchins, were mass produced and gained popularity in ’50s decor. The legend attached to the painting generally goes something along the lines of a couple having a framed copy in their home. A fire starts, and the house is burnt to the ground– save for the framed painting of the crying child. (Which makes me wonder– what’s more dangerous? The painting’s curse, or the bouquet of chemical flame retardants it’s apparently saturated with?) The story seems to have begun circulating around 1985, when The Sun ran a story about a firefighter in Yorkshire who claimed that undamaged copies of the painting were often found amid the burnt rubble of houses.
Did fires mysteriously occur in houses with this painting? No doubt– it was a mass-produced painting in the mid century. Chances are at least some of those houses caught fire. What’s notable here is that the painting itself is a fairly run-of-the-mill picture of a crying kid, and there don’t appear to be any bizarre stories about its origins. Nobody claims the original sitter died in a fire, or attaches any fiery significance to the picture until the beginning of the legend– well after the pictures were in circulation. What’s more, the Fire Service even released this statement in the aftermath of The Sun‘s story:
“The reason why this picture has not always been destroyed in the fire is because it is printed on high density hardboard, which is very difficult to ignite.”
I’ve always thought that belief is essentially the currency of the universe, and it’s entirely possible to endow something with characteristics just by believing hard enough. A coat, a ring, or a perfectly ordinary painting can become cursed, not through any kind of spiritual working or grisly event, just by picking up on the idea that it’s cursed. Some things will behave the way you want them to, whether you’re consciously aware you want them to or not. Did an eBay listing and a tabloid article unwittingly set imaginations up to spin curses for these objects? Could a perfectly innocent painting and a bunch of prints of some crying kid now carry the weight of belief? And what about other famously cursed objects, like the Hope diamond?
What do you think about the moral/ethical implications of creating and selling haunted objects?