Netflix viewers are gearing up to watch art world horror, Velvet Buzzsaw, which features a wonderfully pretentious Jake Gyllenhaal and some very, very creepy paintings.
The focus on an artist and a psychological darkness is of course nothing new. After all, what haunted house movie is complete without a gloomy oil painting of the former aristocratic owner who perished under ‘mysterious circumstances’?
From The Picture of Dorian Grey to that scene in The Witches, there has long been a link between the supernatural and art in popular culture. And sometimes our anxieties over macabre pieces of art bleed over to the non-cinematic world, with terrifying consequences.
In the 1950s, a series of over 60 portraits were painted by Italian artist Giovanni Bragolin, each depicting a teary eyed – and often impoverished looking – child. Confusingly, Bragolin’s real name was Bruno Amadio, and he also went by the name Franchot Seville.
The rather sad collection of paintings had been inspired by the devastating events of World War II, with each portrayed child wearing a gloomy, even haunted, expression.
Despite the upsetting subject matter, these disquieting paintings proved popular in Italy and beyond, with over 50,000 print copies sold in the UK. No doubt the downcast faces of the children resonated with those still recovering from the horrors of World War II.
Right up until the early eighties, such paintings were still being widely reproduced and bought, however this changed once people began to perceive evil behind those traumatised, innocent eyes.
Despite their generic, mass produced nature, these paintings have since gained notoriety as the ‘Crying Boy Paintings’, linked by some to a series of creepy occurrences in the 1980s, and still capable of causing a shiver to this day.
As reported by Dr David Clarke in his article The Curse of the Crying Boy, Crying Boy mania began in 1985.
It was in this year that The Sun ran a piece entitled Blazing Curse of the Crying Boy, which told the story of a chip pan fire with supposedly supernatural connotations alongside the bold caption ‘Tears for fears… the portrait that firemen claim is cursed’.
Ron and May Hall, from Rotherham, had lived in their home for 27 years and believed the fire was caused by the ‘cursed’ painting rather than the chip pan. The painting reportedly remained intact and un-blackened, untouched by the flames which had ripped through the home.
People were especially freaked out after The Sun quoted a fireman as saying no firefighters would dare bring a copy of the ‘cursed’ painting into their own homes.
This turned out to be not entirely accurate. According to Dr Clarke, the firemen had never specifically used the word ‘cursed’. However this was strongly insinuated within the caption, ‘Tears for fears… the portrait that firemen claim is cursed’.
The reported fear of these hardened fireman appeared to legitimise the darkness of these pictures, and much like the fire of the Hall home, the story spread rapidly. And no amount of scepticism or reasonable explanations could quell the public terror.
Oxford University’s Professor Diane Purkiss, who has conducted research on folklore, spoke with UNILAD about what drives us to turn towards an uncanny, rather than a rational, explanation when faced when faced with a life altering blow such as a house fire.
Professor Purkiss told UNILAD:
People aren’t very rational, especially when unexpected disaster strikes. It’s actually far more comforting to believe that your house burned down because of a cursed picture than to believe it was simply a random act of chance, or to blame yourself for not turning the stove off under the chip pan.
If the cursed picture caused the fire, not only are you not responsible, but you are also significantly more interesting than if you simply left some fat on the stove.
Following the Hall fire, others came forward with their own experiences of the Crying Boy Paintings, which ranged from suffering feelings of depression to untimely deaths. One woman from the Isle-of-Wight claimed she had tried to burn the painting, only to find it couldn’t be destroyed.
Another woman suggested her painting had been responsible for the deaths of her husband and three sons, while another warned how her 11-year-old son had ‘caught his private parts on a hook’ after the family bought one of the paintings.
The mythology surrounding the Crying Boy Paintings intensified, and a multitude of backstories were even formed which ‘explained’ the malevolent presence’s motivations.
One of the most popular backstories revolved around a little boy nicknamed ‘Diablo’ – which translates as devil – who had supposedly set fire to the artist’s studio before meeting a fiery demise of his own later in life.
Professor Purkiss explained how certain ‘unlucky’ objects gain their sinister reputations:
We are constantly probing everything we encounter for omens and possibilities.
Usually, things that are lucky partake of the luck of the larger creature from which they come – rabbits’ feet, or the unusual four leaf clover. A crying boy is an uncomfortable reminder of somebody who has clearly been unlucky.
Life imitates art 1: Publication week. Went to the op-shop that features in Lanterns. By the door was a Crying Boy painting. In Lanterns it's a girl. Though I'd researched these paintings I'd never seen one, let alone in the very shop that provided the setting for that scene. pic.twitter.com/gJQYSLC3lj
— EmilyGale (@EmilyGale) January 24, 2019
In 1985, The Sun even went as far as to invite people to send them their offending paintings, burning them in a dramatic Halloween bonfire, as reported by Dr Clarke. The paper then announced the curse had been lifted.
Still, the tabloid exorcised ghoul lived on well into the digital age, with internet fan clubs for the Crying Boy still going strong.
Meanwhile, forum threads where people recall the Crying Boy paintings at their parents or grandparents house with with absolute terror are still active and rife with panic.
On one Netmums chat from 2018, one woman remembered:
My gran had similar ones, girl playing a violin, I used to hate sleeping over.
Another commenter said:
All I know is my mum hated the picture and wouldn’t have it up when we stayed. I wouldn’t put it in my house as he had special demon powers.
Crying boy painting you ask? Please don't play dumb my people, yall know which one I'm taking about pic.twitter.com/233LxZm3io
— Ryan Cummings (@Pol_Sec_Analyst) May 21, 2018
Of course, much of the Crying Boy hysteria can be attributed to the power of tabloid culture, and the drive to sell papers.
However, this fear also tapped into something much older, as Professor Purkiss has explained:
Traditionally witches use puppets or dolls representing a living person as a means of adversely affecting them. So, for example, stabbing a pin through the doll is supposed to make the person unwell.
The idea that a copy of us is uncomfortably imbued with our essence is normal for most preindustrial societies, and the same logic also applies to for example statues of deities.
Crying religious pictures, for example are representations that have taken on the qualities of the being represented.
Conversely, an image can also become a way for the individual represented in it to act on those who see that image. In the case of the crying boy, the boy is somehow an agent or vessel through which angry and vengeful feelings act.
We could also think of The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the picture effectively takes on the signs of guilt in an almost malevolent fashion.
In addition, it’s normally a part of mourning a death to conflate pictures of the deceased with the person themselves; even temporary absence can lead us wilfully to mistake images for the real thing. This is not something that the modern world does much to discourage.
Saw this Crying Boy painting for sale. Legends tell of the houses of people who buy Crying Boys burning down – but the painting survives the flames unscathed. I don’t believe in it, but… I’m not buying this painting. pic.twitter.com/WHgDrGK534
— Naomi Barton (@shutter_j) July 18, 2018
Do I believe a painting can possess malevolent, demonic powers? Nope. Would I have a creepy Crying Boy painting in my house? Absolutely not a chance…
You can stream Velvet Buzzsaw on Netflix from February 1 onwards.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]