Author Margo Orlando Littell takes us on a tour of her haunted and creepy portraits of strangers from yard sales.
The first portrait I bought was the sad hat girl. I found her at a church rummage sale, and there was just something about her: I couldn’t leave her behind. She was so desolate, so ruined. She clearly had an unfortunate, possibly unsavory, history. I hung the portrait in my attic guest room.
Same rummage sale, different day, I found the pensive ballerina. No sad history here, just quiet solitude. I moved the sad hat girl to the large empty wall of the attic stairwell, and put the ballerina beside her. My strange first find was now a collection. I called it my Gallery of Strangers.
My favorite portrait, which I found soon after I began collecting, is the schoolgirl. Prim, calm, complacent, and so very, very creepy. I gave her pride of place in my gallery, on her own wall at the top of the stairs.
Not surprisingly, innocuous as some of the portraits are, the more portraits I buy, the creepier the gallery becomes. The attic stairwell is full of eyes and faces. The schoolgirl at the top of the staircase prevents me from going into the attic when I’m home alone; when I absolutely have to go up, I avoid looking at her.
Also not surprisingly, strange things have happened in my gallery. Some of the portraits have fallen. One — a baby wrought in pastels — seemed to be actually torn from the wall. It crashed down one night when I was in the house by myself, and when I stopped screaming and crept to the attic doorway to see what had made the unholy sounds, I found the baby herself staring up at me, her metal frame in bent pieces, the glass in shards on every step, her mauve mat separated from the artwork, the nail on the wall ripped free.
(I’m not sure what to do with the baby, to be honest. Reframe and rehang it? Or was her dramatic fall a message I’m failing to understand?)
I have a few old silhouettes, which are a little creepy because who are these children, and why were they given up? And I have a few non-human portraits of deer because this is the suburbs, and clearly these hung, at some point, on the wall of a basement man-cave or game room.
I’m drawn to any portrait that’s amateurish yet effortful, any whose subjects are carefully considered and even revered. I don’t traffic in landscapes or still lifes; those aren’t haunted enough for me. Some of the portraits are regular people, unthreatening, just smiling and posed and, now, discarded. Unwanted. I don’t buy every portrait I find, and I don’t invest in these pieces. Ten dollars is about the limit of what I’m willing to pay. The value is in the way they look at me, and how much they’ll scare me when I walk up the attic stairs.