In 1818, author Mary Shelley told the story of Victor Frankenstein and his “creature” — a tale that explored humanity’s fascination with animating the unliving. This Halloween, an AI-powered séance is doing much of the same: “resurrecting” Shelley, and others, from beyond the grave.
It is just one of many ways horror is being explored in different disciplines, putting a new spin on the genre’s traditionally grotesque, unnatural and psychological elements.
Ahead of Halloween, Grid spoke with three artists — known for their creepy creations in artificial intelligence, dance and photography — about how horror is explored in the media they work in.
AI art: Voices from beyond the grave
Resurrection — and the idea of the “undead” — is a Halloween hallmark. The MIT Media Lab is embracing the uncanny, using AI technology to bring well-known gothic and horror genre authors back to life.
The project will aim to write a scary story with an AI-powered “séance” — using the literary voice and style of authors including Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker.
The séance works via chatbots, which are coded to write and converse in a deceased person’s manner and tone. It’s just one of many projects — together called AI Alchemy — exploring new artworks cocreated by people and AI technology.
This human-machine relationship can seem dystopian to some, and the prospect of communicating with the dead downright unnerving. But Halloween, said Ziv Epstein, a Ph.D. candidate in the lab’s human dynamics group, is the perfect time to ask the public to lean into their fears and engage with technology they may be unfamiliar with or wary of.
Halloween, at its foundation, is about exploring the uncanny, said Epstein: “People dress up and perform in new costumes, and are willing to engage with ideas, concepts, worlds and aesthetics that they’re not used to.”
This isn’t Epstein’s first run at blending horror with AI. In 2018, he helped develop AI Spirits. Using neural networks — a series of algorithms modeled on how brain cells communicate and operate — he and his team “conjured phantasms into being.” They trained the model to place colorful, amorphic figures into photographs and videos that were otherwise unpopulated, creating a paranormal effect reminiscent of found footage — like that often used in horror films including “Paranormal Activity” and “The Blair Witch Project.”
The lab is also launching AI Medium, an AI-image generator. Like other image generators, which grew in popularity this summer, the medium transforms text (ex: “a ghost floating in a futuristic haunted house, painted in a gothic style”) into images using a technique called stable diffusion.
“A medium is someone who kind of engages with spirits,” Epstein said. “It gives us this opportunity to see how people interact with and envision other spooky AI-generated worlds.”
What differentiates AI Medium is its accessibility — unlike other popular AI-image generating tools, such as DALL-E 2 and Midjourney — the project lives fully on Twitter.
Projects like AI Alchemy also have a greater purpose: providing information about how machines interpret a person’s text or idea. Even though algorithms are designed by humans, you never quite know how the computer will interpret a person’s input. Unexpected outcomes have exposed “biases or cultural behaviors that trickle into the system in ways we didn’t expect,” Epstein said.
One of Epstein’s favorite examples is AI turning text of “salmon swimming in a river” into an image of cooked filets in the wild — “the system failing to capture what has meaningfulness to humans,” he said.
In another project, an AI tool searched the internet for pictures of different animals and merged them to create animal hybrids. The animals mostly morphed seamlessly, and the hybrids were aesthetically pleasing — except when it came to barracudas. The horrifying look of these hybrids was coined “the barracuda effect.”
Most “barracuda” images online included people who were holding up the prized fish. What gave these hybrid creatures such a terrifying look, Epstein said, was that the AI incorporated the humans’ faces as well.
Understanding these unnerving results is key to improving AI systems across all disciplines, such as healthcare and security, said Epstein: “I don’t know if that’s a happy or a horrifying accident.”
Dance: Using rhythmless music and postures to unsettle
Physical discordance — postures that appear vaguely inhuman, facial emotions that contradict body language, movements that fail to synchronize with music — defines the horror genre within the medium of dance.
Subverting expectations is a central element for Zoï Tatopoulos, whose choreography — including work with pop stars FKA Twigs and Poppy — is regarded as one of the creepier styles in the industry.
Tatopoulos intentionally chooses rhythmless music for her pieces. With no built-in count to follow, dancers move “on top of the beat. I like the mover to be stronger than the music,” she said, which creates a dissonance between what is seen and heard.
Toying with the uncanny, for Tatopoulos, is what is truly scary. Exorcist-style backbends and upside-down crawling, she said, while terrifying to some, are “trying too hard” to be scary. She points to the upcoming horror film “M3GAN,” which features an android doll whose dance moves have gone viral, as having choreography where expectations are shattered.
“I like the abnormal,” Tatopoulos said. “Tweaking the fundamentals, just a little bit, to come off as otherworldly.”
Tatopoulos’ favorite dancers to “manipulate,” she said, are those who come from a heavily technical, ballet-based background. Their mastery of body control, breathing and posture make it more interesting, she said, to break, just slightly, the rules they were trained with.
“I always have them drop their head a little bit, and look upwards towards the audience, as a gaze,” Tatopoulos said. “I like them looking around, disconnected, like a panther that’s been dropped into the middle of a city — with a little bit of violence.”
Photography: Placing beauty and terror in focus
In the late 2000s, a series of unsettling photographs circulated the internet: images of a baby surrounded by a coiling snake, dismembered arms extending out from under beds, a toddler encountering an amorphous clown. The series established the horror photography subgenre — a style that explores the psychology of fear.
“It’s this magic trick of taking something that I know is a deplorable concept, but making it pretty enough that it’s palatable, something you would almost perversely enjoy looking at,” said Joshua Hoffine, who has been regarded as the modern father of horror photography after his childhood phobias series went viral.
By infusing beauty into horror, he said, an image becomes all the more powerful.
Hoffine got the idea for horror photography while working with Hallmark cards as a photo assistant. Combining the company’s “aesthetically pretty” photography with the genre, he forged his own style: well-lit, focused, symmetrical scenes that conveyed horrific ideas.
“I realized that if I made the images prettier, people would look at them longer,” Hoffine said. “I was able to hold their attention, in a weird way, if it wasn’t immediately repulsive. But if you keep looking, the creep factor washes over you.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.