In 1818, author Mary Shelley told the story of Victor Frankenstein and his “creature” – a tale that explored mankind’s fascination with animate the inanimate. This Halloween, an AI-powered séance is doing much the same thing: Shelley and others are being “revived” from beyond the grave.
It’s just one of many ways to explore horror across disciplines and give a new twist to the genre’s traditionally grotesque, unnatural, and psychological elements.
Ahead of Halloween, Grid spoke to three artists – known for their spooky creations in artificial intelligence, dance and photography – about how horror is explored in the media they work in.
AI Art: Voices from Beyond
Resurrection – and the idea of the “undead” – is a hallmark of Halloween. Embracing the uncanny, MIT Media Lab uses AI technology to bring well-known authors from the gothic and horror genres back to life.
The project aims to write a spooky story with an AI-powered “séance” – using the literary voice and style of authors such as Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker.
The séance works via chatbots coded to write and converse in the manner and tone of a deceased person. It’s just one of many projects – collectively called AI Alchemy – exploring new artworks co-created by humans and AI technology.
This man-machine relationship can seem dystopian to some, and the prospect of communicating with the dead is 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 engage with their fears and engage with technologies they may be unfamiliar with or suspicious of.
Halloween is about exploring the uncanny, Epstein said, “People are dressing up and appearing in new costumes and are ready to explore ideas, concepts, worlds and aesthetics that they aren’t used to.”
This isn’t Epstein’s first attempt at blending horror with AI. In 2018 he helped develop AI Spirits. Using neural networks – a set of algorithms modeled on how brain cells communicate and function – he and his team “created phantasms”. They trained the model to place colorful, amorphous figures in photos and videos that were otherwise unpopulated, creating a paranormal effect reminiscent of found footage—often seen in horror movies like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project. is used.
The lab is also launching AI Medium, an AI image generator. Like other image generators that have grown in popularity this summer, the medium converts text (e.g., “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 deals with spirits in some way,” Epstein said. “It gives us a chance to see how humans interact with and imagine other spooky AI-generated worlds.”
What sets AI Medium apart is its accessibility – unlike other popular AI imaging tools like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney – the project lives fully on Twitter.
Projects like AI Alchemy also have a larger purpose: to provide information about how machines interpret a person’s text or idea. Even when algorithms are developed by humans, one never knows exactly how the computer will interpret input from a person. Unexpected results have “uncovered biases or cultural behaviors seeping into the system in ways we didn’t expect,” Epstein said.
One of Epstein’s favorite examples is the AI converting the text “salmon swimming in a river” into an image of cooked fillets in the wild – “the system doesn’t capture what’s meaningful to humans,” he said.
In another project, an AI tool scoured the internet for images of different animals and assembled them into animal hybrids. The animals transitioned seamlessly for the most part, and the hybrids were aesthetically pleasing—except when it came to barracuda. The terrifying appearance of these hybrids has been dubbed the “barracuda effect.”
Most of the “barracuda” pictures online showed people holding up the prized fish. What gave these hybrid creatures such a terrifying appearance, Epstein said, was that the AI also factored in people’s faces.
Understanding these troubling findings is key to improving AI systems across disciplines like healthcare and security, Epstein said, “I don’t know if this is a happy accident or a horrible accident.”
Dancing: Use rhythmic music and postures to unsettle
Physical disharmony—postures that appear vaguely inhuman, facial movements that contradict body language, movements that are out of sync with the music—define the horror genre within the medium of dance.
Defying expectations is a key element of Zoï Tatopoulos, whose choreography – including work with pop stars FKA Twigs and Poppy – is considered some of the spookiest styles in the industry.
Tatopoulos deliberately chooses rhythmless music for her pieces. Since there is no built-in counting pulse, the dancers move “in time”. I like it when the mover is stronger than the music,” she said, creating a dissonance between what is seen and what is heard.
Playing with the uncanny is what really scares Tatopoulos. Exorcist-style backbends and crawling upside down, she said, while frightening to some, are “trying too hard” to be scary. She hints at the upcoming horror movie M3GAN, which stars an android doll whose dance moves have gone viral, with choreography that shatters expectations.
“I like the abnormal,” said Tatopoulos. “Tweaking the basics a bit to look otherworldly.”
Tatopoulos’ dancers, she said, that she likes to “manipulate” most are those who come from highly technical, ballet-based backgrounds. Their mastery of body control, breathing and posture makes it more interesting, she said, to break the rules by which they were trained, even slightly.
“I always have them put their heads down a bit and look up at the audience as a look,” Tatopoulos said. “I like it when they look around, disjointed, like a panther dropped in the middle of a city — with a bit of violence.”
Photography: bringing beauty and horror into focus
In the late 2000s, a series of disturbing photographs circulated on the internet: images of a baby surrounded by a squirming snake, dismembered arms sticking out from under beds, a toddler encountering an amorphous clown. The series established the subgenre of horror photography – a style that explores the psychology of fear.
“It’s that magic trick of taking what I know is a deplorable concept but making it pretty enough that it’s palatable, something you’d almost perversely enjoy,” said Joshua Hoffine, who served as modern dad of horror photography after his childhood phobias series went viral.
Infusing beauty into horror makes an image all the more powerful.
The idea for horror photography came to Hoffene while he was working as a photo assistant with Hallmark cards. Combining the company’s “aesthetically beautiful” photography with the genre, he forged his own style: well-lit, focused, symmetrical scenes that conveyed terrible ideas.
“I realized that if I made the pictures more beautiful, people would look at them longer,” Hoffine said. “I was able to hold her attention in a weird way if it wasn’t immediately off-putting. But if you keep watching, the scary factor overwhelms you.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for editing this article.