The Scary Story Behind The Most Haunted Painting In History

Paintings are always kind of scary — especially portraits or any painting depicting a person. There's a reason, after all, that portraits are always included in haunted houses. Even though the feeling we get that the eyes in a painting are following us can be explained by science, it sure doesn't make it any less creepy.

Paintings seem to trap those people inside the frame and canvas. If the painting is very well done in terms of realism — or in terms of dream logic — it can be very tempting to believe that the painting has literally trapped a soul or spiritual force inside itself. In other words, it's easy to believe the painting is haunted.

Don't take our word for it. Two decades ago when the internet was new and wild, the whole world was introduced to "The Hands Resist Him," a painting that may in fact be haunted. Creepy and disturbing, the painting has actually existed for a lot longer than that, having been painted in the early 1970s. For nearly fifty years a trail of terrifying stories has become associated with the painting — and whether you're inclined to believe in stuff like haunted paintings, there certainly seems to be something going on with this piece of art.

It was intentionally creepy

Unlike some haunted things, there's really no mystery surrounding the origins of "The Hands Resist Him." The Daily Dot tells us it's a work by artist Bill Stoneham, completed in 1974. The painting is based on a photo that Stoneham's parents took of him and a friend he was playing with when he was just five years old — yes, the creepy staring boy in the painting is the artist himself. Which makes it extra creepy, really.

Stoneham's wife had written a poem called "Hands Resist Him," which was based on her husband's experience being adopted and never knowing who his true parents were. Stoneham was under contract with a local gallery owner Charles Feingarten to produce two paintings a month for $200 each. Needing inspiration, he used his wife's poem and the old photograph. According to Vintage News Daily, Stoneham has a very specific and defined meaning for the painting: The door the boy stands in front of represents the dividing line between the real world and the realm of possibility. The doll is a guide of sorts who will help the boy pass through. And the hands pressed against the glass represent alternate lives.

In other words, you think this painting is creepy because it is, in fact, kind of creepy.

It had a famous owner — and a lot of deaths

"The Hands Resist Him" was shown at the Feingarten gallery in 1974. According to The Lineup, the evening was a very successful one for Bill Stoneham because of two key events. One, his show was reviewed by famous Los Angeles art critic Henry Seldis — a huge get for a struggling artist at the time. And two, he sold one of his paintings: "The Hands Resist Him" was bought by actor John Marley, who you probably recognize from his iconic role as Jack Woltz in "The Godfather" — the movie producer who wakes up with a horse's head in his bed.

The painting vanishes from history at that point. The Daily Dot reports that Marley sold the painting at some point, but Dummies notes that the painting was later found abandoned behind a brewery that had been converted into an art space.

But what's really chilling is that several of the people associated with the painting's history died under mysterious circumstances. The New York Times reports Harry Seldis died in 1978 of an apparent suicide. Charles Feingarten passed in 1981, and Marley in 1984, per Urbo. The painting remained out of sight and forgotten, and artist Bill Stoneham wasn't aware of any connections between these deaths and his painting.

It became a meme in 2000

Then, "The Hands Resist Him" reemerged in 2000 when a couple posted the painting for sale on eBay — and claimed, with photographic evidence, that it was haunted.

As reported by Vintage News Daily, the sellers claimed that the painting was cursed. According to Dummies, the sellers' children claimed that the figures in the painting were fighting with each other and would move at night, sometimes coming into their room. The Daily Dot adds that in order to put his daughter's mind to rest, the man placed a motion-triggered camera in the room, thinking he'd prove that haunted paintings don't exist. Instead, he claimed to have captured footage of the young boy attempting to escape the painting. The sellers added that anyone seeking to purchase the painting would have to sign a disclaimer releasing them from all liability.

The whole thing went viral. The eBay listing was visited 30,000 times, and many people claimed that simply viewing the painting on their computer screens made them physically ill, caused them to blackout and lose time, or hear creepy voices. The price ballooned from $199 to $1,025. The winning bid was a gallery owner, and the painting remains in storage in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

There are more paintings in the series

Artist Bill Stoneham was as surprised as anyone else when his painting became a viral sensation in 2000. According to his official website, in 2004 Stoneham was commissioned to paint two accompanying works to "The Hands Resist Him," titled "Resistance at the Threshold" and "Threshold of Revelation." In 2021, he painted a fifth and a final entry in the series called "What Remains." What about the fourth painting? Glad you asked, because the story gets weird again in 2017.

As he wrote in Dummies, paranormal investigator Zak Bagans contacted the gallery in Michigan that owned "The Hands Resist Him" to try and buy the painting. When he failed to do so, he called Bill Stoneham, who told him he wanted to paint a new piece specifically for him.

As Bagans waited for the painting to arrive, he claims to have heard a children's tricycle bell ringing in the walls. When the painting arrived, it was a prequel titled "The Hands Invent Him— which includes a disembodied hand connected to a tube ringing a tricycle's bell. The hand is similar to an old machine in Bagans' "Oddities Room," which Stoneham had never seen. Bagans admits that he was totally shocked by these events.