There is no doubt the painting is disturbing. It shows a young boy standing next to a girl doll with hollow eyes and a sad, downturned mouth. The doll is holding a strange device with wires coming out of it. The eeriest part of the painting are the many disembodied children’s hands reaching toward the boy through the glass panels of a door just behind him.
But even more disturbing than the painting itself are the stories of what has happened to people who come in contact with it.
It has an ordinary enough beginning. It was painted in 1972 by the artist William Stoneham, who was on a contract to produce two paintings a month for $200 each. In 1974, it was put on display at the Feingarten Gallery in Beverly Hills, California. It was reviewed by the art critic for the Los Angeles Times, Henry Seldis, and purchased by the actor John Marley, perhaps best known for waking up next to that horse’s head in The Godfather.
But then the story gets weird. A few years after the painting was sold, the art critic Henry Seldis, died. Then the gallery owner died. Then, in 1984, John Marley died. The painting disappeared, not surfacing again until 2000, in a bizarre posting on eBay. The new owners were trying to sell it because, they said, it was haunted.
They claimed the boy and the doll in the picture would fight with each other during the night, terrifying their four-year-old daughter. They set up a motion-sensing camera in the room for three nights and claimed they captured the boy in the picture leaving the frame and coming into the room, apparently fleeing in terror.
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In what a skeptic might think was a marketing ploy, the owners warned buyers not to bid on the painting if they were “faint of heart,” or “unfamiliar with supernatural events.” More than 30,000 people visited the auction page. Many reported just looking at the painting made them feel ill or upset.
The painting ultimately sold for $1,025 to a buyer in Michigan, who is reportedly keeping it in storage and refusing much, much bigger offers to buy it.
Because of the internet sensation, Stoneham came forward with what inspired him to paint such a haunting scene. The boy, he said, was himself. It was modeled on a photograph taken when he was five. The title comes from a poem written by his then-wife. It reads, in part, “The hands - resist him, like the secret of his birth.”
Stoneham was adopted. The children’s hands, he says, represent other lives; the glass door the barrier between worlds; and the doll his guide between those worlds.
The fame of the “haunted” painting led to commissions for more works, and Stoneham has painted a series of sequels. The most recent, called “The Hands Invent Him,” depicts the scene from the other side of that glass door.
In 2016, Darren Kyle O’Neill published a dramatized account of the notoriously haunted artwork. Entitled The Hands Resist Him: Be Careful What You Bid For, O'Neill's narrative uses the painting as the basis for a fictional tale about a serial killer known as "The Life swapper." Unsurprisingly, O’Neill has his own eerie experience with the sinister artwork:
I first saw it online when I was living in Dubai. I printed it out and left it on a side table next to some other documents printed on the same printer with the same paper. Anyway, I went to Italy for a month. When I came back, the air conditioning had gone awry, everything was green mold. The TV, bed sheets, my daughter’s cot and clothing, all of my suits in the closet, and the documents I had printed all green. But right next to them, the only thing that was perfectly untouched was the printout of the painting.