But The Exorcist is far from the only piece of art/media rumored to be jinxed. Today, we’ve brought you the history and legends behind 6 cursed works of art. These stories are chock full of totally real supernatural curses and definitely not a result of coincidences and/or moral panics.
The Swansea Devil | Carving
Meet Old Nick, a woodcarving dating back to the 1890s. An ugly, ugly woodcarving of a sneering devil.
In the 1890s, the city of Swansea was booming with the Industrial Revolution. As a part of that growth, the city decided to have St. Mary’s, the church in the center of the city, rebuilt.
The project was open to design bid applications. Among the applicants was Sir Arthur Blomfield, who was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and had already built the Royal College of Music. There was another applicant, whom history only remembers as ‘a local man’. …can you guess whose designs the committee picked?
Upon the rejection, Mr. Local Man dismissed eating his slice of humble pie and took up a much colder dish—REVENGE!
You know those stories you occasionally hear about the ‘local guy’ who is pissed at the town for nonsense reasons? He spends a lot of money and years of his time on a super special revenge project? Well the good news is that unlike far more notorious cases, this did not end in a violent event. …not for a while, at least.
Mr. Local Man bought several cottages right next to the newly rebuilt St. Mary’s and tore them down. In their place, Mr. Local Man put up a brewery with a big ol’ carving of Satan himself on top. The leering Satan was positioned to directly face the church across the street.
Okay, so Mr. Local Man’s a bit of a troll.
But he took it a wee bit further with a declared curse: “When your church is destroyed and burnt to the ground, my devil will remain laughing.”
Well that’s a bit much, Mr. Local Man!
Nothing came of the curse…at first.
In World War II, however, things took a turn. Still a major center of industrial production, Swansea became a strategic target of the blitz. In February 1941, St. Mary’s Church was indeed ‘destroyed and burnt to the ground.’ And the building upon which Old Nick squatted and silently laughed with a wooden grin? It remained untouched throughout the war.
Did this passive-aggressive woodcarving ultimately win out? Well not so fast!
20 years later, that brewery was torn down and St. Mary’s was rebuilt. Old Nick was ditched in some garage—which means the town had the chance to destroy him and foolishly didn’t!
In the 1980s, a historian rediscovered the devil carving. …and he helpfully threw it off a cliff or into a bonfire, right? Nope! He brought the carving back to town and Old Nick took his place on the same site where he used to reside (now a shopping center).
Local religious folks, apparently the only people in this stupid town with any sense, were NOT cool with this . They opposed setting up this cursed (and hideous) devil across the street from the church it already destroyed once. Old Nick was put in storage…until way louder, way dumber locals demanded he be put back at his usual post.
Just last year, Old Nick was moved to a new home at the local Swansea Museum. He’s currently kept behind glass, which for some reason everyone believes is like kryptonite for evil objects. Could St. Mary’s Church finally be safe? I guess we could burn the ugly little thing to be sure, but something-something, ‘history’-something.
Man Proposes, God Disposes | Painting
If you’ve seen AMC’s The Terror (which Your Intrepid Host highly recommends), you have an idea of the bleak end that befell the crews of The 1845 Franklin Expedition. 129 men in some of the best-built, best-provisioned ships of the era set out to explore The Northwest Passage and vanished into the Arctic.
Between 1848-1857, multiple search missions were launched. The search missions alone spoke to how helpless these men were in these conditions, totally at the mercy of the elements. Several search missions had to quit early because they would get stuck in the ice. At least one rescue crew got frozen in and had to abandon their ship.
The contemporaries were able to figure out, thanks to artefacts, messages, and corpses they found, that the Franklin Expedition had abandoned their ships. The 105 survivors tried to literally walk their way hundreds of miles to the nearest Western outpost. Contemporary searchers also discovered, thanks to contacts with the local Inuits, that the stranded sailors engaged in cannibalism.
…so yeah! What better subject for a painting!
That’s what Edwin Landseer decided in 1864!
The painting exhibits the aftermath of a failed Arctic expedition. It doesn’t depict cannibalism (which would’ve been my pick), but instead features polar bears. Circa 2020, it’s hard to not sympathize more with the polar bears as they wreck the relics of invading humans with gruesome glee. We see the remains of the expedition—a destroyed ship, a tattered red sail, a discarded telescope, an abandoned gun, aaaaaand a bare human ribcage.
It’s a haunting scene, even though it technically doesn’t any violence. Between the massive ice floe surrounding the landscape and the fearsome beasts tearing into the artefacts, you get this sense of mankind being utterly laid waste to by the forces of Nature.
Awkwardly: when the painting was put on exhibit, the widow of the expedition’s lead, Captain Sir John Franklin, was in attendance.
So we have an unsettling painting, based on a historic horror, that was then put in the face of a woman widowed by that horror. That sounds ripe for a curse.
The painting eventually wound up on the walls of the Royal Holloway campus of the University of London. Because college isn’t scary enough without that image looming over you during lecture.
Going back to the 1960s, students have claimed that the painting is 1000% cursed. There’s a rumor (aka total myth) that back in the 1930s, a student was studying for his exams underneath the painting and ultimately stabbed a pencil into his eye. He left a short note: “The polar bears made me do it.”
That’s such a better excuse than “my dog ate my homework.”
So it’s no wonder that students claim anyone taking exams near the painting will fail. I’m sure sitting there just thinking about a guy stabbing himself in the eye is very distracting.
The belief in the curse is so powerful, that in the 1970s a student refused to take her exam within eyesight of the painting. Now, normally, I assume that the proctor’s response would be something like “stiff upper lip”, “keep calm, carry on”, or “what’s all this higgledy-piggledy harum-scarum whats-its?” Or something equally British.
But instead, the proctor wanted to avoid a scene and threw a Union Jack over the painting to cover it. In the decades since, it has become staunch tradition for a Union Jack to cover the painting during exam season.
Again, because innocuous stuff like a piece of cloth is apparently an effective barrier against preternatural curses, the Union Jack seems to be holding the polar bears at bay so far…
Gloomy Sunday | Song
I’m a big fan of the “brown note” trope in fiction, specifically cursed music. Probably the best modern example of this is the Unsound in The Black Tapes fiction podcast—noise that will cause your death within a year of hearing it.
In real life, the song Gloomy Sunday or Vége a világnak is rumored to be a fatal brown note song.
The song was originally written in 1932 by Rezső Seress and later lyrics were adjusted by László Jávor. The lyrics were inspired by the ongoing Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, and lost love. So, we’re already dealing with very heavy themes.
The lyrics Jávor wrote for the final product were less political than the original ones Seress. Although intended to make the song less serious (because politics! Boo!), it may have deepened the despair of the song. While Seress’s song was about calling out to God for mercy on the modern world, Jávor’s song was about pledging to meet a deceased lover in the afterlife.
The end result was a tune put to words that together were an audible cloud of immense melancholy. When it was first being sent around for publishing, the song was frequently rejected due to its “terrible compelling despair.” So that’s a great sign…
Based on the English translation, you can see how the lyrics have the makings of “Depression & Suicidal Ideation: The Musical”:
Sunday is gloomy, My hours are slumberless
Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless
Would they be angry If I thought of joining you?
My heart and I, Have decided to end it all
Let them not weep, Let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream, For in death I’m caressing you
Soon after its release, the myth began: Gloomy Sunday is a deadly song—it induces suicides.
Disclaimer: In reality, there is no one cause of suicide. If you are in crisis, seek help (call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255).
There were a flurry of press reports in the 1930s that Gloomy Sunday was directly linked to dozens of suicides in Hungary and the US. Supposedly people were found dead after hearing the song on the radio or live; listing lyrics from the song in suicide notes; with the sheet music clutched in their hands or with a record of it playing on a gramophone.
However: this was the 1930s. People could just make shit up, no one would bother to verify it, and a moral panic or urban legend would be born as if it were fact.
In reality, Gloomy Sunday was hitting the airways in Hungary when suicides were increasing due to Great Depression-fueled famine and poverty, plus the rise of Nazi-influenced fascism.
And in the US? Gloomy Sunday became a very convenient excuse for racist-fueled prejudice against jazz after Billie Holiday released a version of the tune.
During World War II, the BBC did ban the Billie Holiday recording because it was considered harmful to wartime morale. This of course lead to the wartime slogan: “Keep Calm, Carry On, Sundays Are Great.” This ban actually lasted all the way up until 2002. When you have a song banned from airwaves for 60 years, people are going to get suspicious and superstitious.
Now it is true that the composer, Rezső Seress, died by suicide in 1968. This, of course, further boosted the urban legend. Seress is a tragic figure—not the least of which because he survived a Nazi labor camp only to later die this way.
Weirdly, Gloomy Sunday was like Seress’s own personal curse. The rumor about this song arguably tarnished his legacy while ironically making him better known. The song was his biggest hit, which means that for over 3 decades, Seress was primarily known for writing a song that had supposedly driven dozens of people to kill themselves. Even Seress’s obituary about his suicide started with a repeat of the urban legend.
Macbeth | Play
Ah yes, The Play Which Must Not Be Named. There is a strong theatrical superstition that Macbeth is a cursed play—even saying the name can bring down disaster on a theater. You must call it “the Scottish play” (because the Scottish accent can only be legally unleashed on audiences via this play). You can also call it “Mackers” or “MacB”. How has McDonalds not slapped a trademark on those names yet?
The source of the play’s curse is said to be the inclusion of witchery in the play. King James VI of 16th century Scotland was said to be obsessed with witchcraft. He even wrote a treatise on witches, Daemonologie (or Demonology for us modern folk) and helped to fuel increased witchhunts in Scotland. That King James became King James I of England in 1603. He brought his love of hating women—I mean, witches—with him.
This moral panic of witches and witchcraft—which remember, got an awful lot of people tortured and killed—was rising when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth. The play even directly references a horrible storm that King James survived and blamed on witchcraft. Could Shakespeare’s propagation of King James’s obsession with witchcraft in Scotland have crossed over the metaphysical karmic line, establishing a curse on the play?
Supposedly, even the first performance of Macbeth way back in 1606 was plagued with problems. The actor playing Lady Macbeth suddenly died, real knives were used in King Duncan’s murder scene and injured people, etc.
Now, we can’t even agree historically if Shakespeare existed or who wrote which plays, but I guess somehow we’ve preserved rock solid evidence of these minor incidents at this one performance.
But there are plenty of actual documented disasters directly related to Macbeth performances. Not the least of which being when Ethan Hawke played the titular character in a style best described as “mumblecore”.
In 1849, two rival actors were playing Macbeth in productions across the street from each other. Naturally, this resulted in a riot that claimed 20 lives and resulted in 100+ injuries. Check out the podcast The Dollop’s episode on that crazy journey.
In 1937, Laurence Olivier was nearly crushed by a falling stage weight during a performance at the Old Vic in London. In 1948, actress Diana Wynyard fell 15 feet while playing Lady Macbeth. Even “from my cold dead hands” asshole Charlton Heston couldn’t escape the curse—he was burned in a 1953 show that used actual flames for a battle scene.
In 1964, the D Maria II National Theater in Lisbon was showing Macbeth—but not for long, because the theater was soon gutted by a fire.
In 1980, Peter O’Toole did not learn his lesson from Olivier’s experience and starred as Macbeth at the Old Vic. The good news was, the play didn’t suffer a violent incident. The bad news was that the play got such bad reviews, it closed soon after opening.
Even an opera based on the play by Giuseppe Verdi doesn’t offer enough degrees of separation to deter the curse. In 1988, a Bulgarian singer named Bantcho Bantchevsky threw himself off a fucking balcony in the middle of Lincoln Square’s Metropolitan Opera House while the Macbeth opera was being performed.
It is said that the association between Macbeth and tragedy is actually an association between the play and money troubles. Supposedly, Macbeth requires particularly high production costs and thus can ruin a theater. Relatedly, a theater down on its luck might stretch its pennies even more to put on Macbeth, as it’s a popular show. And theaters short on money are likely to be short on proper safety measures or good actors.
Theater companies around the world have strong traditions of cleansing if someone names The Play That Must Not Be Named. You can spit over someone’s shoulder, you can swear, you can spin the offender around and brush them off, or you can even kick the offender out of the building. I dunno, that all sounds like theater culture hazing to me….
What, will this play ne’er be clean?
Mandy | Doll
By the 1990s, you would think people would know better than to hang on to creepy-looking dolls they happen upon. Chucky already had 2 movies out, we knew Cabbage Patch Dolls were the devil, etc. But alas, not everyone was on the up-and-up in the town of Quesnel, Canada circa 1991.
An unnamed woman found a creepy antique baby doll in her recently-deceased grandmother’s house. The doll’s clothing was dirty, her body damaged, her porcelain face cracked. It was sent off to the Island of Misfit Toys forever, right?
No, the unnamed woman didn’t get rid of it, like a smart person. Instead, she brought that doll home. Worse, she named the doll after her infant daughter, Mandy. Thanks, Mom. Thanks bunches.
It wasn’t until the woman started being awoken in the middle of the night by a phantom baby crying that she realized this might have been a poor decision. Did she smash it with a hammer and then set it on fire to make sure it was dead? Nope! She donated it to a museum.
Look, I love Indiana Jones as much as the next person, but these creepy bewitched objects do not, in fact, belong in a museum. I don’t care if they are being looked after by “top men.”
Mandy sits behind a locked glass case, but that hasn’t held her back. For those keeping score, that makes Mandy more powerful that the notorious Annabelle. Only the most cursed of dolls could overcome a box of glass!
Museum staff and visitors have been subjected to many a strange happening. Things go missing and turn up in weird places, phantom footsteps are heard. If you try to videotape or photograph Mandy, she might misbehave by making your camera turn off or throwing things from nearby shelves. A child even fainted in front of Mandy’s case once—because when you tell a little kid “hey how about you lock eyes with this creepy haunted doll,” that’s an expected result.
Mandy even made a special appearance on The Montel Williams Show once to be read by “psychic” Sylvia Browne. Browne said that the doll originally belonged to a pair of twins that died from polio, and that their mother’s grief had been infused into the doll. It’s a cool backstory to add to the myth—even if Sylvia Browne was an “alleged” liar-liar-pants-on-fire.
Poltergeist | Film
For decades, 1982’s Poltergeist has been a classic of the ‘let’s watch this scary movie’ tradition at sleepovers. It has some of pop culture’s most memorable horror moments, from the scary clown doll to the little girl whispering “They’re here.”
The movie remains a massive success, yet the entire series is rumored to be cursed. Did the filmmakers mess with forces they ought not have?
Well they might have been so epically stupid as to use real human skeletons as props. And that’s not the myth part of this story.
In one of the biggest ironies in film history, it turns out that the original Poltergeist did not heed the warnings within its own script. Remember: the moral of the story is “don’t build a subdivision on top of dead bodies.” But during shooting, actual skeletons were used in the climactic scene where the mom is dragged into the home’s swimming pool and surrounded by the angry corpses exploited by the greedy contractors who built over their graves.
Why? Because real skeletons were reportedly cheaper and looked better on camera.
At least, that’s the story told by actress Jo Beth Williams over the years. She’s been backed up by the movie’s assistant prop master, Bruce Kasson, who could even identify the medical and science supply company that sold them the skeletons. Craig Reardon, a special effects makeup artist has said under oath that the skeletons were real.
The film’s production company, MGM, never denied those claims. And I feel like if you don’t firmly deny allegations that you used human remains in your movie…you might have used human remains in your movie.
So yeah, some bad karmic debt was going to incur with that…plus interest.
Perhaps trying to replace the desecrated bodies with fresh ones, the Poltergeist film series is associated with an awful lot of deaths.
The two most tragic deaths tied to the legend are those of young actresses Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke, who played sisters in the first movie.
In 1982, Dominique Dunne was murdered at age 22 by her abusive ex-boyfriend. Disgustingly, the ex-boyfriend was only convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to 6 years, and released after 3 ½ years served.
In 1988, Heather O’Rourke died at age 12 from septic shock as a result of complications via her recently-diagnosed Crohn’s Disease.
The remaining cast deaths tied to the curse were not so unexpected. But they did happen very closely to when Poltergeist films were released. Julian Beck played the evil Kane in Poltergeist II. He died in September 1985 of stomach cancer, just 7 months before the movie premiered. Will Sampson, who played the good spirit Taylor in Poltergeist II, died of kidney failure and an infection following a heart-lung transplant a year after the film’s release.
Both of these actors had been fighting their respective illnesses well before working on Poltergeist II. I guess maybe the curse expediated their demises?
Other cast members have also eventually passed away because that’s how time and mortality work, but deaths like than of Zelda Rubinstein (the psychic from all three films) have all contributed to further fueling the legend of the Poltergeist curse.
And those are our cursed works of art! What would you rather face: Mandy the Doll or the Swansea Devil? Would you rather take an exam under Man Proposes, God Disposes or listen to Gloomy Sunday on a day you have the blues? Obviously, you want to watch both Macbeth and Poltergeist, because they’re great even with their respective body counts.
So what can we learn from these cursed works of art? There seems to be an overarching theme, that cursed things are vessels of anxiety leftover from big tragic events—World War II, the Franklin Expedition disaster, witch hunts, financial ruin, or unexpected and violent deaths
…except for Mandy. That doll is only a vessel of evil.
In light of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, an important postscript: Dominique Dunne went into a coma and later died after being choked by her abuser for 4-6 minutes. Choking a partner is a significant warning sign for escalating domestic violence. If you or someone you know needs help, especially under current conditions where leaving an abuser has gotten much harder, call 800-799-7233.
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