The Accursed Share

Hauntings, like miracles, are situational, but a curse follows you everywhere

On eBay in February 2000, an oil painting called The Hands Resist Him was listed for auction. Its initial bid was $199 and its sellers billed it as “haunted.” In it, a child stands in front of a French door in a teal tee, denim shorts, high socks, and neatly laced shoes. His face is chiseled, preternaturally old. Next to him on the doorstep is a life-size girl doll holding a dry-cell battery, all hollowed eyes and the kind of hinged jaw that makes you want to crack your knuckles. Pressed up against the panes behind him from the dark background are so many tiny hands, a hellmouth on an inverted plane.

According to the listing, it had been found abandoned behind a Californian brewery by an unnamed “picker.” It then somehow made its way into the possession of the sellers, an East LA-based couple going by the handle mrnoreserve. Smashing the caps lock button, the listing related how their four-year-old daughter claimed that the children in the picture were fighting with each other and slipping through the frame into her room at night. Now I don’t believe in UFOs or Elvis being alive, but my husband was alarmed, the seller relates. Their husband set up a motion-triggered camera; after three nights, the seller wrote, there were blurry, ghostly pictures showing the boy exiting the painting at gunpoint. Two cropped, digitally-altered images illustrate the point. In one, only the doll gets what is presumably supposed to be a nighttime effect; the boy appears as if in daylight.

What followed was a disclaimer: Bidding was not for the faint of heart, or those susceptible to stress or unfamiliar with supernatural events. Should you take the chance, you agreed to release the owners of all liability — and anyway, there were house-cleansing rituals for the aftermath.

Here was a painting so haunted that any representation of it had somatic effects in home viewers and home printers alike. Rather than diminishing it, each copy only seemed to amplify its power

Many viewers asked whether there were any lingering odors, voices, “foodprints,” or strange fluids on the painting; the seller replied in the negative. And then, a breathy, run-on backtrack, a plea to bid on the artwork and consider those appended photos as pure entertainment: There are no ghosts in this world, no supernatural powers, this is just a painting. But it was too late: The apocrypha mill had kicked into full gear, and reports were now pouring in as the listing went viral, making its way from horror nubs to the BBC. A few write-ins said that just viewing the image made them feel sick and dizzy and experience vicarious supernatural visitations of their own. The eBay auction was won by ionia7, a.k.a. Michigan gallery owner Kim Smith. In a March, 2000 interview with Surfing the Apocalypse — a site about supernatural phenomena that is truly of its era, replete with animated text and a primary-color palette — she explained that she had bought the painting planning to flip it. The creasing of the pigment made it seem 50 years older (and thus more valuable) than it was, and the urban legend swirling around it seemed like a good marketing ploy.

Smith eventually traced the work back to its maker, Bill Stoneham, who painted it in 1972, basing it off a childhood photo of himself, taking the title from a poem his then wife wrote about Stoneham, who was adopted at an early age: “The hands resist him/ like the secret of his birth.” He had showed it in a 1974 solo at Feingarten Gallery in Beverly Hills: Within a decade, the gallery owner, the Los Angeles Times critic who’d reviewed the show favorably, and the actor who had bought it there — best remembered as the executive in The Godfather who wakes to a bloodied, severed horse head between his sateen sheets — were all dead.

In the five days that Smith had owned the painting, she received a number of emails — 13 to be exact. Most were broadly frightened or repulsed, while three offered more particular responses to the image in the eBay listing. Smith recounts letters remarkable in their sensuous physicality: The first reported encountering “an Exorcist type of voice, along with a blast of hot air, like standing in front of an oven door.” Another came from the conveniently mystical “Native American who became so ill he had to cleanse his house by burning white sage. He warned me not to put this item around small children.”

Most satisfying is the third response, in which even a machine feels revulsion, and retaliates of its own accord: “A new Epson printer that ate and mutilated page after page when the user tried to download images of this oil.” It’s delightfully of its time, when to download an image was to port it to your actual, non-skeuomorphic desktop by printing it out, to have and to hold. But it also signaled a shift in the image’s supernatural metadata. A haunted object relies on a singularity of experience, an event or series of events, each with a fixed time and place. Yet here was a painting so haunted that any representation of it, whether png or a paper copy, had somatic effects in home viewers and home printers alike. Rather than diminishing it, each copy only seemed to amplify its power.

We call The Hands Resist Him “haunted” because of its provenance as an oil-on-canvas and its introduction online, but its digital afterlife implores a reconsidered paranormal taxonomy. In its new, generative form, it became cursed. Cursedness differs from hauntedness, which is sited, framed, and announces itself through some kind of atmospheric change. Perhaps it gets colder or candles flicker, and a place or object becomes a portal where a specter hangs around. The curse instead spreads virally through contagious possession, and possession, as we know, is embodied: It’s a hacking in which the spirit or force inhabits a person or thing, moving them to uncharacteristic, incongruous behavior. Possession is, and hauntedness happens, but they are limited to a single vessel or place. Cursedness meanwhile is predicated on repetition and seriality. Twice might be a coincidence, but three times is a curse.

Cursed objects don’t discriminate. You don’t need to have extrasensory perception to feel their force. Rather, cursedness relies on a network effect

The 1998 Japanese horror film Ring and its 2002 Hollywood remake center around a cursed videotape: Anyone who watches it dies exactly one week later, struck by a vengeful spirit. Yet the reporter protagonist investigating the phenomenon realizes that copying the tape and showing it to someone else –allowing the curse to replicate – has saved her life. Should someone disrupt its spreading, that the spirit enacts their fatal revenge. Chain Letter (2010) took up a similar plot in a more familiar guise, where an email contains malware that allows a (human) killer to identify and spy on his next victims. A length of heavy chain is his weapon of choice: Break the chain, and the chain breaks you. Like those cursed chain emails — forward this to this many people or else — that proliferated in the early days of the internet, or like any virus, or urban legend, the cursed image’s longevity is dependent on collaboration.

The first chain letters can be traced back to the 1880s; one of the oldest known examples was from a fundraiser for the Chicago Training School, a spawn point for female Methodist missionaries. Their premise of a “peripatetic contribution box” was simple: receive the letter, send them a dime, and send it on to three more people. And like the letters themselves, the phenomenon multiplied into a craze that resulted in an 1899 crackdown by the USPS, who ruled them a violation of lottery laws. Nevertheless, the form persisted: We now have crowdfunding, which swaps out the threat with an entreaty that every share, regardless of whether or not you donate, brings in a never-changing average of $37.

Cursed objects don’t discriminate. You don’t need to have extrasensory perception, or be attuned to spectral frequencies, or be validated as extraordinary in any way to feel their force. Rather, cursedness relies on a network effect. It’s designed to circulate and is perfectly tautological: Something is cursed because enough people say it is cursed. And like “the dress” — which gripped us by being both strictly white and gold, and strictly black and blue — its exponential possession of viewers begins as a suggestion with momentum. Anyone who watches the video, reads the email, disturbs the Pharaonic tomb or touches the plot point of an object is instantaneously, irrevocably hexed.

In October 2015, a new kind of “cursed image” emerged on Tumblr, soon spreading to other platforms. Its format was simple, pairing an image with a caption identifying it as cursed. Any other accompanying text was minimal and there was never any terminal punctuation: It was always less of a comment than a caption. “This image is cursed,” the first post offered below an image of an old man in navy coveralls scowling in a wooden-walled shed with a number of angled boxes filled with tomatoes. The flats are supported by a plank balanced on oil barrels but appear to hover in mid air. Other early posts include faces carved into watermelons, and all manner of masks, bad costumes and mascot suits, as well as the account’s first truism: “The shittier your camera, the higher chance you’ll encounter some rare, creepy, unidentified creature.” Below it, a man clad in black crouches, Gollum-like, in a corner between water-damaged walls. His eyes glow the same yellow shade of the image’s timestamp in the bottom right corner, where we might look for an artist’s signature and date.

Like vaporwave, cursed images are marked by nostalgia for ’90s consumer goods, but swap out the aesthetic landscape of the Windows 95 personal computer for the point-and-shoot camera: Flash, especially reflected in mirrors and lending even the darkest of skin tones a gray pallor. Human eyes emitting like red traffic lights and animals’ glowing green in the brush. Desolate outdoor settings, like an empty road at night or a playground you can hear creaking through the screen. A datedness of dress and decor that you recognize as not-of-now in the way when you’re just past it, familiar because you lived through its earlier renaissance. We might see the promoters of these photographs, like the Cursed Images Tumblr, as analogous to “pickers,” except that the resale value becomes reblogs and retweets. Instead of leftover Americana or historical paraphernalia they are mining a particular temporal aesthetic. Oak kitchen cabinets, wall-to-wall-carpeting, the odd popcorn ceiling, microwaved Tombstone pizzas in unfinished basements. Time stamps from the late 1990s, 2000s, or the Y2K technological catastrophe we were promised. They are a relic of a time when we weren’t very good at interfacing with the new technologies in our midst, when we were bad at setting the self-timer or programming the date on the digital camera or just at taking halfway decent pictures. In the ecology of cursed images, it’s always the first of January forever.

These are cursed images as a kind of immobilized, deer-in the headlights time dysmorphia. They are as mysterious as they are boring. Were they a brand they would undoubtedly sport a lowercase initial letter like eBay or iPhone, but they bear no signature: They could be made by or belong to anyone. Their standardized captions — on Twitter, these feature a randomized number, like “cursed image 938” or “cursed image 522421” — emphasize their poorly-lit normalcy, a kind of counter to the filtered, pluperfect gloss of Instagram. The pictures, though somewhat placeless, feel very American in that it seems to turn on a fulcrum of a casualness as singular as fast casual dining, smart casual clothing, and not dressing up to fly. Could any other country have invented wrinkle-free button downs and fitted sheets, or the glassy-eyed sadism of the Furby?

Cursedness flourishes thanks to a certain technological artifice, an immaculate reproducibility, and this is reflected in the soft furnishings and accessories that make up their backdrops. It depicts an age of post-oil plastics and artificial fabrics basted by techno-militaristic might, inhabiting a space between rayon and Raytheon. It is filled with materials that might be derived from carbon-based life forms but are several degrees removed from organic life. This is decidedly not the bleached Scandi-aspirational interiors of what Kyle Chayka has called “AirSpace” or the constructed natural of Kinfolk, and these materials seem to work so much harder to assert themselves as a result. They scream in the background of these images like a Science 101 diagram of liquid atoms vibrating furiously as they try to escape as gas, like all those hands straining against glass in the haunted eBay painting.

I think often about these lines from a Nicholas Rombes essay about Julia Kristeva’s Power of Horror. He writes,

The Kristeva book was like a hot coal. It burned through desks and tables and the seats of chairs. It singed the carpeting. It glowed at night in a regurgitated blood orange. It misplaced itself. It flipped itself over in the dark like a fish. I had to put a brick on it to keep it still. But the book’s words kept coming at me like muffled barks. Even to this day the book, when held, gently falls open to the same chapter, always the same chapter, “Something To Be Scared Of.”

Cursed images are like this. Once seen, they cannot be unseen, and demand the catharsis, the lactic acid release of sharing: Must pass on, must retweet. I can’t stop thinking about this image and now you have to too. They are insatiable. And to paraphrase American Movie, we are aesthetically not ready.

Although the words paranormal and supernatural are often used interchangeably, we might understand the former as something that is currently inexplicable by science or outside our current worldview, but only just. The paranormal is a placeholder to be later filled in or debunked. Rocks falling from the sky or trees that sprouted birds in addition to flowers and fruit, for example, later became comprehensible as meteorites and seasonal migrations. The supernatural, however, encompasses any and everything beyond that. In their aggressive banality and tension produced by being ever-so-slightly “off,” like an unfocused image, cursed images would seem to be a subcategory of the paranormal.

The pictures, though somewhat placeless, feel very American. Could any other country have invented wrinkle-free button downs and fitted sheets, or the glassy-eyed sadism of the Furby?

In the present, however, they function in a similar way to what horror philosopher Eugene Thacker describes in In the Dust of This Planet as “a way of thinking of the world as unthinkable.” Writing about the horror genre, Thacker points to the ubiquity of media objects becoming somehow suffused with the supernatural or paranormal. He describes these objects as entering “a liminal space, where such objects suddenly reveal the ambivalent boundary separating the natural from the supernatural, the uncanny from the marvelous,” noting that the fact that these stories unfurl in books or on film make the this space doubly mediated. He adds,

In the Ring film, there are scenes in which the object of the videotape is itself imbued with vitalistic and supernatural properties, contagiously passing from one person to another. But there is also a key scene in the film where a mysterious figure in the video crosses the threshold of the screen, actually emerging from the TV into the room in which the TV is being watched by a horrified viewer/character. In such moments, it is less the media object that is the source of horror, and more the fact of mediation itself that is horrific, a mediation that strangely seems to work all too well.

Seen in this way the cursed media, whether image or email, combines the bodiedness of possession with the framed potential — what if something were to step first through the digital image, then your computer screen? — of hauntedness. And perhaps it is this horror of mediation, an insistent abjection, that lies at the heart of cursedness: Like the murderer’s chain letters, it breeds both visceral unease and eventual release.

Stoneham, the painter, would go on to create a successful franchise of his own. He was commissioned by private collectors to paint two sequels, Resistance at the Threshold (2004) and Threshold of Revelation (2012). On his website he explains that they “depict the boy and the doll as having progressed: the doll into a real girl, the boy into an old man.” A prequel titled His Hands Invent Him followed in 2017; here, we see Stoneham as a young artist on the other side of that French door, holding a paintbrush in a derelict hallway as the gnarled branches of a tree curl through a high window. His website explains his original choice of imagery too, citing Carl Jung’s collective unconscious and his belief that visual artists are “barometers for the currents that run through this collective … maybe it’s what’s called channeling.”

Continuing on his forever Jung tip, Stoneham emphasizes the sitedness of his work, writing that “my own experience is a sensitivity to place – physical, geographical place. There are memories, echoes of all the life within a place.” Though those grasping hands, he says, were intended to symbolize those other possible lives, and the glass door the veil between waking and dreaming, the apartment was in Chicago, and he was five years old. And that’s the thing about haunting: It is tethered to a set of coordinates or GPS location. As the robust industry of ghost tourism illustrates, you have to visit the specific haunted house or abandoned theme park or overgrown graveyard to feel the presence and know that you are not alone.

On the face of it, then, it seems that the inherent placelessness and portability of digital images means that can’t be haunted, only cursed. And as such, cursed images are the perfect artifact of the current capitalism’s transnational gig economy, in which hypermediation is something to be scared of. And maybe we feel a little superstitious about breaking any chains. Instead of ghostly translucence and dust particles and inexplicable smudges, we have cursed images’ ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) guts-but-no-gore body humor instead of horror. After all, we don’t believe in ghosts anymore.

Rahel Aima is a writer based between Brooklyn and Dubai. She runs NIGHTLIFE, a newsletter about staying in, and is currently working on a book about oil, water, and digital culture in the Arabian Gulf.