Think of Scooby-Doo, old-fashioned haunted houses, Mona the vampire slayer- baddies pretending to be statues, of portraits with creepy eyes that follow you across the room.
It’s a common old-timey Halloween trope (think of Will Smith’s masterpiece The Haunted Mansion) – the art is either sentient, a disguise or just plain out to get you. Doctor Who has the Weeping Angels who hurt you when you’re not looking at them, and countless other works of fiction have moving paintings, or haunted images.
But can real life portraiture inspire the same fear or discomfort that a horror film or an actor-statue can? If paintings are meant to be beautiful, the peak of aesthetics, can they make us feel uncomfortable without being ‘ugly’?
Banksy certainly thinks so: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
If the job of so-called ‘scary art’ is to make us uncomfortable, then there are certainly some paintings that are universally claimed to achieve this: Edvard Munch’s Scream, for example. Unsettling art is no new concept – art that is frightening, not in the sense that it makes us jump or startles us but in a way that is more insidious: a successfully frightening portrait doesn’t scare you, it hijacks your imagination and makes you scare yourself.
If we have created art for the aesthetics of viewing, of a way to attach meaning to an image; then the very notion that it may be looking back at you becomes terrifying.
In February 2000, the ‘haunted’ 1972 painting by Bill Stoneham, The Hands Resist him (which I do not recommend looking up at night) appeared on eBay and eventually sold for over $1000. The artist recalls that both the owner of the gallery and the first art critic that ever saw this painting died within a year of coming into contact with it, and many who have seen it in real life claim to see the subjects of the painting move, or glare at them. The eerie nature of the painting and its legacy became something of an urban legend.
Even worse than that is The Anguished Man, about which the owner Sean Robinson claimed in 2010: “She (Robinson’s grandmother) told me the artist committed suicide shortly after finishing it and that he had used his own blood mixed in with the oils.” He goes on to describe a series of ‘haunting’ events so strange that he moved out of the house the portrait inhabited and back in with his parents – there are several videos online of these spectral activities. His most recent update has over 100,000 views (and is very creepy, real or not).
If you’re feeling particularly brave and want some more examples of these so called ‘cursed portraits’ have a look at The Crying Boy by Bruno Amadio (which could not be set on fire) and The Portrait of Bernardo de Galvez, who watches you- much in the vein of our favourite cartoon villains.
Regardless of whether they are proof of ghosts or just urban legends, the scandal and attention over these particular portraits cannot be disputed. With our horror films, haunted houses and Halloween, sometimes it’s clear to see that we’re looking to, or let ourselves feel, fear. We will always place our own meaning, with our own imagination, on the art we observe (and the art that observes us…).