Alice Vincent tracks down the artist behind the most haunted painting of them all
William “Bill” Stoneham was checking his emails in 2000 when he received one from somebody he didn’t know.
“Do you know The Hands Resist Him?”, it read. Stoneham, an artist in his fifties, replied, saying that the phrase was a title of a poem written by his first wife and, subsequently, a painting he’d done in 1972.
“He responded back with a link to an eBay auction page and this image, this close-up image of my five-year-old face,” Stoneham explains, over the phone from North California. “It was creepy, very creepy, to see that scrolling up on the computer.”
The email had been sent by Kim Smith, a gallery owner who lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had recently bought Stoneham’s painting in one of the first viral eBay auctions in internet history.
The listing, posted in 2000, caught international attention thanks to its item description, which included the disclaimer: “This painting may or may not possess supernatural powers that could impact or change your life.” Here begins the story of what’s said to the most haunted painting in the world.
The couple selling it did so anonymously. According to the listing, they had discovered Stoneham’s painting in an abandoned brewery and taken it home to hang in the bedroom of their four-year-old daughter. “At the time we wondered a little why a seemingly perfectly fine painting would be discarded like that” they wrote, before adding: “(Today we don’t!)”
Then things became worthy of a scare-by-numbers horror movie script: “One morning our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter claimed that the children in the picture were fighting and coming into the room during the night,” the eBay listing continued. The husband was alarmed, so set up a motion-triggered camera to see what really happened at night.
What was perhaps most intriguing about the eBay sellers is that they both denied that any otherworldly activity was going on and suggested that there could be something untoward about The Hands Resist Him.
“To deter questions in this direction, there are no ghosts in this world, no supernatural powers,” they wrote. “There was no odour left behind in the room. There were no voices or the smell of gunpowder. No footprints or strange fluids on the wall.”
And yet, there were photographs – ones taken by the motion-sensor camera that paint the doll-like figure in a far more sinister light, even suggesting that she was holding a gun towards the boy in the picture. The eBay sellers dismissed it as “probably a fluke lighting effect”. People viewing the listing claimed to have odd reactions, such as falling violently ill or fainting. Children began to scream and others found themselves gripped by an “unseen entity”. Early internet users were nevertheless intrigued: within a month, the auction rocketed from an initial bid of $199 to a final price of $1050 in just 30 days.
The numbers seem underwhelming by today’s standards (more recent eBay viralities include fans spending more than $65,000 on a bag of air taken from a Kanye West concert), but at the turn of the millennium, the combination of potentially haunted painting and lucrative expenditure warranted coverage on the BBC. For Stoneham, it meant being reminded of a painting he first sold more than 25 years earlier and being affectionately dogged by it ever since. “It became a phenomenon. I figured it would go on until the next grilled cheese Madonna turned up,” he says, “but it’s still there. It won’t die.”
Stoneham is a surrealist painter – he likens his works to film stills, capturing moments in narratives that make the viewer wonder what had just happened or what is about to ensue.
He was in his twenties when gallerist Charles “Chuck” Feingarten visited his studio. “He rolled up with his chequebook and bought all of the paintings I had.”
Among them was The Hands Resist Him, which Stoneham had been inspired to paint by a poem his first wife Roane had written about him and which shared the title. Stoneham was adopted at birth, he had never known his parents and Roane was referring to this in her poem.
“At the time, I had an old family photo album,” Stoneham said. “I had photographs of myself and there was one that intrigued me. First of all, the lighting was so dramatic, coming down on me and the neighbour girl who was standing next to me,” he explains, saying he added the “disembodied hands” through the window as a reference to the distance and sense of unknown opportunities that stemmed from his adoption.
The painting is unnerving – Stoneham has rendered girl in the original photo as a lifeless doll, and the boy has a steely look. It takes a little while to notice the hands, grasping in the darkness of the window behind both of them – but not necessarily sinister.
At the time, Stoneham says, nobody thought it was particularly creepy. If anything, it was one of the less unsettling paintings he’d made: “Feingarten didn’t buy one painting,” he says, “called The Gathering. He said ‘I can’t take it, it’s just too dark’”.
It’s difficult to trace the painting online, but Stoneham’s description sounds fairly grisly: “It’s a night scene with a lot of ghostly figures, with a horse crashing into a family,” he rattles off. “So you’ve got this vulnerable group and this strange power coming down and the rider on the horse is partly skeletal and there’s a dark, winged apparition up above.”
“The guy who bought that painting went mad, set his warehouse on fire and ended up in a penitentiary!” Stoneham continues, laughing: “So Feingarten made the right choice in not taking that one.”
He hadn’t thought much about The Hands Resist Him, though, which was bought by John Marley, the character actor best known for playing Jack Woltz, the belligerent film mogul who wakes to find the head of his prized horze in his bed during The Godfather. At the time, Stoneham points out, Morley was working on a horror film.
Since the eBay listing imbued The Hands Resist Him with a new paranormal quality, people have been quick to point out the deaths that took place after it was exhibited in 1974. Henry Seldis, the Los Angeles Times art critic who covered Stoneham’s show, died of an apparent suicide on the eve of his 53rd birthday in 1978 – although friends said he’d been depressed since the beginnings of his divorce. Feingarten died three years later and then, three years after that Marley died from open heart surgery, having previously sold the painting.
Nobody’s really got to the bottom of how The Hands Resist Him ended up in an abandoned brewery, least of all Stoneham. “It’s what makes it so bizarre,” he says of the eBay listing. “These paintings are owned by Weingarten, he sells them, and that’s it. I don’t live in Los Angeles and I don’t see what’s what.”
But since 2000, the painting has become a more perennial feature of Stoneham’s life. He regularly gets emails and messages, and interview requests from journalists like me. “How much can we beat this horse?” he asks jovially. “I can go on [radio or television], and make up stories. I said, ‘What do you want, the truth?’”
Stoneham cackles at the memory of convincing one young boy that “anyone who looks at the painting will die”. “Over the years I’ve had some fun with this whole thing,” he says.
He’s had commissions, too. While people sometimes ask Stoneham to recreate the The Hands Resist Him, he refuses –not because of any haunting hunches, but purely because he considers it a cheat. So now there’s a sequence of images, suggesting what may happen next. In 2004 came Resistance at the Threshold, with Stoneham depicted as a middle-aged man, and the doll partially disembodied.
By 2012, Stoneham had depicted himself as far older – near 100, he says – and the doll has transformed into a real girl. The painting is called The Threshold of Revelation. It carries great significance for him: six years ago, he was reunited with a biological sister he never knew he had.
“In that third painting, the doll was no longer a doll but a living child,” he said, “it was while I was working on that painting and its title that I found her. It was a very powerful feeling to realise it, that this was my sister, and that there was this whole space of memories that had always been there, but I just had to find the right window to get to it.” Stoneham’s sister died earlier this year, five years after they had found one another. “We were sad we didn’t have a childhood together,” he says, softly.
A final painting in the series appeared in 2017: The Hands Invent Him. This time, we get to see beyond the window, and out at the silhouette of the child Stoneham and the doll. It’s this painting that he’s most convinced has something spooky about it – although when pressed, Stoneham says he believes in memory rather than ghosts.
Commissioned by Zak Bagans, known as the presenter of American paranormal documentary series Ghost Adventures, the painting shows a the artist surrounded by the kind of detritus you’d find on a horror movie set: overgrown, lifeless trees and strangely animated toys.”
I never asked him about the elements I put in the painting, Stoneham says of Bagans, “but when I showed it to him, he had some of them in his collection of haunted things. There’s a communication going on.”
Strange things happened during the painting’s creation too – Stoneham’s studio was invaded by rats, odd substances emerged from the floor as he was painting the tiles in the image. The Hands Invent Him is now one of the exhibits at Bagans’ Haunted Museum in Las Vegas.
As for the original, the appeal hasn’t waned. Successful eBay victor Smith still owns it, and has, Stoneham said, encountered some “pilgrims” who are keen to see the work. The eBay story has even proved enough to inspire filmmakers. One Gregg Gibbs set upon making a documentary about the painting.
But it’s the Twickenham-based Darren O’Neill who was so moved by The Hands Resist Him that he bought the rights to the painting, wrote a novel inspired by its history and is working to get a film made. “When I came across the image, it captivated me,” he said. “When I found that nobody had made a film or written about it, and its being cursed, I got all excited, bulldozed in and bought the copyright. It has everything going for it, this infamous legacy.”
O’Neill’s book elaborates on the events outlined in the eBay listing while combining them with a plotline about a detective investigating a serial killer known as “The Lifeswapper”. While he’s unconvinced that the painting caused the deaths of the men in Los Angeles, O’Neill has spoken to the man who originally listed it on eBay.
“He was absolutely convinced those kids came out of the painting and he was a really level-headed person,” he says. There was also an incident with his apartment in Dubai, where he was living when he came across the painting in 2009.
The air conditioner had broken during his month-long absence, causing the entire place to be covered in a green mould upon his return. But one thing remained untouched: a print-out of The Hands Resist Him. “That sent a shiver down my spine,” he says.
For Stoneham, the situation mostly means that he enjoys a renewed interest every year around Halloween. He no longer has the original photograph, though.
“I’ve moved so many times and that box with those photographs got picked up and dumped,” he explains. “It’s buried in a landfill in Northern California somewhere”. Now there’s the beginning of a horror film sequel.