From "Pickman's Model" on Rod Serling's Night Gallery

There was a story by H. P. Lovecraft written in 1926 called “Pickman's Model" about a painter who creates images so disturbing that they cause him to be banned from the galleries. At one point the protagonist visits the painter’s abandoned studio and sees a nausea-inducing painting of a dog. Lovecraft wrote,

“It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn't even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic- not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn't the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet- none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.

It was the technique, Eliot- the cursed, the impious, the unnatural technique! As I am a living being, I never elsewhere saw the actual breath of life so fused into a canvas. The monster was there- it glared and gnawed and gnawed and glared- and I knew that only a suspension of Nature's laws could ever let a man paint a thing like that without a model- without some glimpse of the nether world which no mortal unsold to the Fiend has ever had.”

The protagonist later finds a reference photograph that the artist used, writing, “Well - that paper wasn't a photograph of any background, after all. What it showed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using- and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life!”

Lovecraft claimed the story was fiction, but I have been struck by the curious recent explosion of similar images on the Internet, often referred to as “smile_dog” or simply “smile” (the name probably doesn't matter), that evoke a frightful response from the viewer (and are even rumored to drive some insane) and that can haunt its subject until they "spread the word" of the image around. What would cause such a phenomenon? I think the answer lies in the nature of images.

There was a study performed a few years ago by Roger Tootell where a monkey was injected with dye, subjected to images, and sacrificed so that we could view what was occurring in its brain. Sure enough, what the monkey had been looking at could actually be seen using the dye in distorted form upon the brain’s visual cortex in grids, showing that images do not simply imprint themselves upon the mind: through neuronal activity, they can become part of the brain itself.

Of course, certain images impress themselves longer and more deeply upon the brain than others. We might say that they are better able to ‘haunt’ us. If I were to show you a simple picture of a bumblebee, it probably would not remain upon your brain for long. Other images, perhaps especially certain more disturbing ones, are going to remain there longer, maybe even indefinitely.

And this is where my crucial point is. Your brain is constantly updating itself through neuronal plasticity to keep yourself grounded in your environment. But it is now clear that certain images are able to update themselves as well in our brains. They are seen, impress themselves upon the brain, and haunt the brain so intensely (sometimes through dreams and even sleep paralysis) as to create a new, more powerful version. With the advent of the Internet, these pictures are able to update and transfer themselves from one person to another through imagery and imagination to reach new, more powerful heights of haunting.

But for what purpose do these images spread their infection, and what happens when all of these images are assembled in one place? I believe that at one point there was an original image, perhaps even known by Lovecraft himself, that somehow got lost to time. This original image was so terrible that echoes of it carry forward to today, ricocheting from person to person in new and more terrible forms. Some have experienced the fear that even the lowliest of these images can evoke and the resulting nightly hauntings that follow. I pray that we never reach the collective remembrance of the lost, original image itself and I pity any person who allows too many of these pictures to become a part of their brain.

But my story is not helpful in this regard. In my foolish boredom and procrastination, I have seen the images myself, and I am finally giving in to my own nightly experiences (I am too weary and shaken to repeat them now) for the hope that I can reclaim at least some of my previously ignorant peace. Look at the images, heed the visions, assemble them all in one place, and let the progress continue. Like Lovecraft, I am no artist, so I can only spread the word.

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