Ghosts of Decades Past
Rattle your bones and jangle your chains, Los Angeles, for once again it is Astor, wailing out a dark serenade from the shadowed recesses of Speakeasy Tattoo. I promised that every week of October I would discuss some piece of spooky art history. Still in keeping with that theme, I have something a little different planned for you today. So sit back in your sepulchres, as we turn back the clock to the year 2000.
Things were different then. Fears over Y2K were barely in the rear view, terrycloth tube tops were in, and a webpage being viewed 30,000 times was considered viral. Such was the case for one particular listing on eBay in February of that year. The listing was for a painting, and the reason for the attention was that the seller’s description claimed… the painting was haunted.
Created between 1972 and 1974 by California artist Bill Stoneham, the painting is entitled The Hands Resist Him and is the product of two great stressors in the artist’s life: first, that he was an adopted child, and could only speculate upon the possibilities had he been raised by different parents, imagining the hands of different mothers, fathers, siblings, reaching out to him but being arrested by a darkened pane of glass; and second, that he was under contract with a gallery in Beverly Hills and needed to complete two paintings a month. Running up against a deadline, Stoneham found an old photograph from his childhood, depicting himself standing in front of a glass door, alongside a neighborhood girl. This, and the words of a poem his then wife had penned, would serve as inspiration for the work. His playmate was transformed into a lifesize doll, and she was given a curious piece of mechanical junk to hold (according to the artist, it’s a dry cell battery and a tangle of wires— more on this later). The doll has empty, eyeless sockets and a permanent frown. This was perhaps an effort by the artist to convey the feeling that he couldn’t relate to his peers as a boy, but in the here and now, it severely creeps out a lot of viewers.
The painting went on display during the gallery show at the end of his Beverly Hills contract, was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, and was purchased by actor John Marley (you know, that guy who wakes up next to a horse head in The Godfather? That guy).
Within a year of the show, both the gallery’s owner and the journalist who had reviewed the painting were dead.
John Marley sold the painting sometime before his death a few years later, and it disappeared for almost 30 years.
But then. Somehow it had found its way to a space behind a California brewery, where in or about 2000, it was acquired by a couple, who took it home to display in their daughter’s room. Full disclosure, I can only find the original listing in bits and pieces, so here is the story I have gleaned from the sum of those parts:
Their four year old daughter did not like it. Specifically, she claimed that the children were fighting, and that they’d come out of the painting and into her room at night. The couple claims that, in order to allay her fears, they set up a motion-activated camera in their daughter’s room, and that what they saw next shocked and terrified them. They say that the footage revealed the boy crawling out of the painting, and that later photographs showed the doll holding a gun (and not a dry cell battery) and forcing the boy out of the painting. Indeed, the red-tinted nighttime photographs of the painting look as though the doll could be holding a crudely-painted gun shape, though this is likely just the effect of thicker white paint(lead or titanium-based) in the battery and one of the struts of the door coming forward to the eye, as white tends to do. While the couple initially urged caution to any potential buyers, later in the listing, they also walked back their claims, stating that there’s no such thing as ghosts or supernatural powers, and that the fact that they wanted their home blessed after the painting was gone should not dissuade any bidding. Sure, Jan. But the painting sold anyway, for the princely sum of… $1025.00. This is how you know a story took place in the early 2000’s. If a story like this went viral today, I estimate that the painting would have sold for at least ten times as much, falling into the hands of an influencer mining it for content, or some other person wanting a slice of internet fame and riding the coattails of a viral post to get it.
Back in 2000, though, much of the interaction with the piece was through that eBay listing, and the people engaging with it claimed to have had paranormal experiences simply from viewing the jpeg. One claimed feeling ill and needing to cleanse his home with white sage; another reported hearing voices and feeling a blast of hot air; another said that viewing the painting online caused “blackout/mind control experiences”. But the paranormal anecdotes did not end when the painting was sold, and the listing expired.
In 2016, Darren Kyle O’Neill, having acquired the film rights to the story and the image licensing rights for the painting, published a dramatized account of the memetic tale. He, too, had an unusual experience with the piece. He’d printed out a photo of it, and left it on his desk in Dubai while he went to Italy for a month. When he returned, he found that something in his home’s ductwork had gone awry, and everything was covered in a carpet of green mold: the bed, his suits, his daughter’s cot, all of his paperwork… everything except the printed photo of the painting, which lay untouched by the spores, while everything else on the desk was buried by them.
The painting, along with others purported to be haunted or cursed, is a popular topic online for communities dealing with the ooky, kooky, and/or spooky. And I suppose this is one of those spaces. One wonders, though, is it possible to get a haunted tattoo? I remember there was an X-Files episode like that, but it turned out that (spoiler alert) the artist’s inks had somehow become contaminated with ergot fungus, leading the subject of the episode to have powerful hallucinations. No ghosts this time, Mulder. I’ve heard of haunted tattoo shops, but so far I can find no record of a haunted tattoo. So, if you and your ghoulfriend want to make the commitment that says ‘forever’, even after death do us part, let us know. Exorcism not included.