The World's Scariest Painting
Revisiting the eBay haunted painting; PLUS a Criminal ghost story and Secret Sleuths
Happy Halloween! Here’s a bonus edition of Singular Discoveries featuring a creepy story from my archives. Almost 20 years old, this one, so please enjoy this dusted-off tale of the world’s scariest painting. You’ll also find the usual recommendations and plugs below. Please remember to share and subscribe, and don’t have nightmares…
When Bryan first saw the painting, he began to cry. The college student found the artwork listed for sale on eBay. As he studied the photographs on the auction website, he claims his computer screen turned white and he felt a blast of heat coming from the monitor, “like when you open a hot oven door”. He called for his flatmate who was watching TV in the next room. Now Bryan was speaking in tongues, tears were streaming down his face, his hair was standing on end, and his face was beet red. The flatmate held him and recited prayers. “I’m telling you the absolute truth now,” Bryan says. “I have never been so scared in all my life.”
Hands Resist Him – a 36” x 24” oil on canvas painting – is one piece of art you wouldn’t want to hang on your wall. Linked with hundreds of strange occurrences, ranging from poltergeist activity to unexplained deaths, it has been dubbed the “Haunted Painting”. The spooky artwork shows a small boy and a toy doll standing in a doorway, with ghostly hands pawing at them through the door’s glass panes. Reactions to the painting have reached extremes that the likes of Damien Hirst can only dream about.
Christine, a web designer, began to have difficulty breathing when she viewed the picture. “It felt like my throat was tightening,” she says.
Sara’s three-year-old son began uncontrollably crying when he saw his mother looking at the painting. “I tend to be a skeptic when it comes to claims of the supernatural, but the painting… well, it is different.”
Jeff felt nauseous and became overcome with anxiety when he saw the picture. “I’m a horror movie buff, and I’m not easily spooked, but the painting just terrified me.”
The painting, so the story goes, was found abandoned behind an old brewery by an art picker. It was bought by a Californian woman named Lucy. At the time, she wondered why someone had discarded such an impressive piece of art. Within weeks of her purchase, she wondered no more. She took the painting down, locked it in an LA vault, and listed it for sale on eBay after experiencing a bizarre supernatural event.
One morning, Lucy’s four-year-old daughter claimed that the boy and the doll had come alive during the night and had begun fighting in the room. “I don’t believe in UFOs or in Elvis being alive,” Lucy explained, “but my husband was alarmed. To my amusement, he set up a motion-triggered camera. After three nights, there were pictures.”
“I’m telling you the absolute truth now. I have never been so scared in all my life.”
The photographs, Lucy claimed, show the boy leaving the painting, apparently under duress from the doll. “After seeing the boy seemingly exiting the picture under threat, we decided the painting had to go,” she said.
Lucy immediately offered the painting for auction on eBay with a list price of $199 (£170). But she offered strong warnings to potential bidders. “Do not bid on this painting if you are susceptible to stress, are faint of heart, or are unfamiliar with supernatural events,” she said. “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 related to this painting. This painting may or may not possess supernatural powers that could impact or change your life.”
“Now that we have got this out of the way, one question to you eBayers,” she concluded. “We want our house to be blessed after the painting is gone. Does anybody know who is qualified to do that?”
Word of the bizarre auction spread quickly across the world wide web, as internet chatrooms, message boards, and weblogs filled with links to the eBay listing. “Ingenious put-on or truly haunted painting?” asked a typical weblog entry, posted by Wendi. “I don't know, but it's definitely creepy artwork. Haunted or not, I don't think I'd want to hang this in my living room.”
As the painting’s notoriety grew, Lucy began to be inundated with emails. She received 40 messages offering advice on the blessing of her house and many more reporting “strange or irregular events” in connection with viewing the image, including computers crashing, printers going berserk, uncontrollable crying, temporary illness, strange behaviour from children and animals, an “Exorcist–type voice”, and a “blackout/mind control experience”.
As the auction drew to a close, Lucy added a further comment to her listing, thanking visitors for their interest and advice. “I will also relay two suggestions made by the senders,” she said. “First, do not use this image as a background on your PC screen. Second, do not display the image around juveniles or children.”
Over the ten-day listing period, the painting’s eBay page received over 16,000 visitors but attracted just 30 confirmed bids. Many were interested in the haunted painting, but few were interested in owning it.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, gallery owner Kim Smith was unaware of the hysteria surrounding the painting. A two-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago, Grand Rapids sits among the Great Lakes of the American Midwest, surrounded by sandy beaches and tree-filled state parks. Gillian Anderson, Agent Scully from TV’s The X-Files, went to high school in the city, but, up until now, that had been just about the most mysterious thing that had ever happened in Grand Rapids.
Smith was searching eBay for new exhibits for his Perception Fine Art Gallery, located in a renovated 19th-century brick building in the city’s Downtown area. With his family in bed, he poured himself a couple of shots of schnapps and began to browse art auctions that were shortly due to end. Then he found the “Haunted Painting”.
“I initially thought it was a 1940s American work, and hence pretty valuable,” he says. “I can't deny that the sales pitch helped with my enthusiasm, and, of course, the schnapps. So, I took a calculated risk and bid $1,500. Fortunately, it came in considerably under that.”
The $1,025 (£879) purchase was packed up in a cardboard box and shipped via UPS from Los Angeles to Grand Rapids. Smith’s first impressions of the large painting in a thin welded metal floater frame were mixed. “The surface crazing and composition hinted that it might be from the 60s,” he said. “I was disappointed that it wasn’t older but still liked the image and talent exhibited. My wife, Patti, looked at it the way she does most things I buy: ‘What did you pay for that again?’”
That should have been the end of the story. But visitors continued to flock to the now-closed eBay auction, finding Smith listed as the auction winner. And then the emails began to arrive, containing questions, advice, and tales of strange experiences related to the painting.
“I got an eerie feeling when I looked at the painting,” said Michelle. “I felt like the little boy is terrified of the little girl doll. Her eyes have an evil look about them. I have heard of demons that have possessed toys. Have the painting blessed by your local Catholic priest to be safe.”
Kate, from New York, claimed to be a skeptic. “I have trained in the medical field and have seen and dealt with rationally many things that cause others to be upset or squeamish,” she said. “But the picture brought about such a state of anxiety that I nearly fainted. I am aware of the power of suggestion, and I assure you that I read nothing about the picture before I saw it. Only afterwards did I read about it, I suppose to find out what the hell the picture was.”
“Have the painting blessed by your local Catholic priest to be safe.”
Little Eagle Heart, from Alabama, sent Smith an email saying, “I am a Native American, and we know evil when we see it. When I first viewed the painting, my heart sped up, I got horribly sick to my stomach, and my dog, who is afraid of nothing, jumped up and ran to the bedroom. I felt so ill I had to burn white sage to cleanse my house. Please do not put it anywhere there is a child. There is great evil there.”
Other correspondents reported problems with computer hardware when viewing the painting. Others reported strange feelings of déjà vu as if they had seen the painting somewhere before. One suggested it should be destroyed in the presence of priests, shamans and demonologists. Another offered the services of famous paranormal investigators. “I know a couple in Monroe, Connecticut, who have participated in the exorcism of over 200 homes,” wrote a correspondent called Lee. “They were in charge of the Amityville house exorcism. They have a museum of possessed items in their basement, and I am sure they would be interested in the painting. Their names are Ed and Lorraine Warren.”
In 1974, Ronald DeFeo butchered his family in a house in Amityville, Long Island. He claimed to have been driven by demonic voices. A year later, the Lutz family moved into the house. They moved out after a month, describing bizarre supernatural activity, including bleeding walls, “ghost pigs”, and a “pit to hell” in the basement. Ed and Lorraine Warren, regarded as the world’s top demonologists, were called to investigate. The case inspired the 1979 movie The Amityville Horror. [The Warrens’ case files have subsequently inspired The Conjuring series of films.]
Smith also received emails purporting to offer insight into the painting’s background and history. One referred to a horrific 1940s child murder said to have occurred in a house in Woodlands Hills, California, which was now apparently haunted by the ghosts of two children. “I have visited this house a few times with friends of mine,” said a correspondent named Ailda. “We saw a boy, angry in appearance, and felt threatened by him. He was wearing a light T-shirt and shorts. His sister was in the shadows. He seemed to be protecting her. We named them Tom and Laura. When I saw the painting, I saw their faces. My friends agree. It’s Tom and Laura.”
Another email sender, amber, claimed to know the painting very well. “My grandmother had the very same painting when I was young,” she wrote. “When she died back in 1978 her property was divided up really fast, and some things were sold off. The painting disappeared. No one seems to remember who took it or who it was sold to. I have always wondered about it. The painting haunted me as a child, and my grandmother would never get rid of it. She said there was a story behind its creation, but she would never tell us what it was. It sent chills up my spine. I still can’t think about it for more than a few minutes.”
Unbeknown to his correspondents, Smith was already researching the painting’s history, a task made easier because it was titled and signed. Smith sent an email to artist WP Stoneham, saying, “Do you know ‘Hands Resist Him’?”
“I replied that it was the title of a painting I had completed in 1972,” Bill Stoneham tells me. “He sent me the eBay page link, and I must admit seeing the close-up of my own face scrolling up the monitor was creepy.”
Hands Resist Him is a self-portrait depicting the artist, aged five, at a Chicago apartment. “The painting was one in a series of family album images, derived from old photographs from my childhood,” explains Stoneham, a former Penthouse magazine illustrator and now a computer graphic artist. “The title was inspired by a poem my wife wrote about me.”
Stoneham read the eBay item description with wonderment and began to explore the various message boards and chat rooms devoted to his work. “I quickly learned of the growing internet chatter about the painting and the weird reactions it caused in viewers,” he says.
The artist is unsure how the painting ended up abandoned behind a brewery. “I seem to recall the painting being purchased by a character actor of some fame,” he says. He can’t recall the actor’s name. “As to where it was found, I don’t know if the eBay story is true.”
Hands Resist Him was designed to have a spooky theme. “The painting is a reflection of memory from childhood and is a self-portrait of the shadow-self,” says Stoneham. He explains that the door is a gateway to a supernatural realm. The doll in the painting is an automaton, a mechanical robot-like toy, holding her own battery as if she has come alive. She is the boy’s guide to the supernatural realm.
“I must admit, seeing the close-up of my own face scrolling up the monitor was creepy.”
The painting was first shown in 1974 at a Los Angeles gallery. According to Stoneham, both the gallery owner and the Los Angeles Times art critic who first reviewed the show died in mysterious circumstances within the year. When I ask him about the deaths and other strange happenings which occurred at the time, Stoneham obliquely replies, “Most of the occurrences were coincidental and not necessarily associated with the painting.”
Hand Resist Him is not the only Bill Stoneham painting to have elicited unexplained responses. “There have been other occurrences,” he says. “If I were to find any insight into this, it’s the revelation that people seem to need an external image to define their inner selves, even when these may be disturbing.”
Although the original eBay auction has long been removed, copies of the listing remain on the web and continue to evoke strange reactions. “I have been simply overwhelmed by the inquiries I still continue to receive,” says Kim Smith. “The reactions seem to range from, ‘That's weird!’ to ‘It made my stomach ache!’ to ‘Do you know a priest that can cast out the demons in this work?’ Most agree the painting has a creepy quality.”
His purchase of Hands Resist Him has changed Smith’s life, although not in a supernatural way. “I have not personally experienced anything unusual, but a couple of friends have appeared visibly affected,” he says. If Lucy’s life has changed for the better since selling the painting to Smith, she isn’t saying. Despite maintaining contact for several months after the sale, Smith has been unable to contact Lucy for some time. ”The seller has disappeared completely,” he says.
Today, Hand Resist Him remains in Michigan. “I still own the painting,” says Smith, “though I have been tempted with a couple of very serious offers. I look at it often and still like it very much, and may never sell it. Which would mean one of my two sons would inherit it in the future, and neither seem too keen on it presently.”
Smith’s sons refuse to have the painting in the family home. Instead, it resides in the back room of the Perception Fine Art Gallery. “It is brought out for special occasions and whenever someone is interested in the story,” says Smith. “I have had giclee prints made of it, in the same size as the original, but I am not even listing these on eBay because I don't want to cheapen Bill’s work. Neither he nor I are interested in this image ending up on a McDonald's cup.”◆
This story originally appeared in the Sunday Herald Magazine, 26 October 2003.
Criminal: The Hammersmith Ghost (Podcast)
The long-running Criminal is my favourite true crime podcast, presenting a different story in every episode and telling those stories in a concise 20 or 30 minutes (instead of dragging them out over 8 or 10 episodes). In this episode, host Phoebe Judge talks to Alan Murdie of the Ghost Club and Fortean Times magazine about an 1803 haunting that became a true crime scandal. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts, or at the Criminal website.
Secret Sleuths by Dr Nell Darby (newsletter)
Crime historian Nell Darby is the author of a book about female detectives, Sister Sleuths. While researching that book, she amassed a database of female and male detectives from historical archives. This newsletter tells their stories. Secret Sleuths combines social history with some wild true crime tales, and should definitely appeal to readers of Singular Discoveries. Start with the recent tale of a female detective and a half-naked chemist and subscribe here.
Tyne Bridge book
Pre-orders really make a difference when booksellers are deciding which books to stock and how many to order, so if you’d like it for yourself or as a Christmas gift for someone else, please do consider pre-ordering ahead of the release date of 3 Nov.
Published ahead of the Tyne Bridge’s 100th anniversary, the book uncovers the forgotten histories of the Tyne Bridge's predecessors and tells the untold stories of the men and woman who designed and built the current bridge. Expect lots of unusual stories of the type that fill this newsletter, plus rare archive photos specially restored for the book, in a lovely hardback book that will make a very nice gift.
I’ll be talking about the Tyne Bridge at the Books on Tyne Newcastle Book Festival on 22 Nov. Get free tickets here.
More next time. See you then.
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