By RICKY J. DUARTE
In 2017, a developmental chatbot from Facebook was shut down after creating its own language – one that people could not understand. While not considered sentient, it had, of its own accord, deviated from its encoded script and developed a way to communicate with fellow chatbots beyond human comprehension. This amazing and terrifying moment in technological history was the first time I’d heard the phrase “The Singularity”, or, as described by experts, “A hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.” I shudder at the thought.
Okay, enough science talk. I’ll be the first to admit my knowledge of AI technology is limited to what I’ve read on the internet and seen in movies. I’ve been taught about artificial intelligence by an algorithm, and that’s a very scary reality. However, with the introduction of AI’s latest darling child, M3GAN, taking the box office (and social media) by storm, I couldn’t help but feel that I’ve seen this story told before in horror movies throughout the decades. The hit film arrived mere weeks after controversial AI portrait apps took to social media, prompting protests against the idea of technology potentially replacing real-life human designers and art. As an artist myself, that’s pretty scary. While the apps still can’t escape that eerie uncanny valley feel (or get the look of hands right), I’m fighting with my computer even while I type, as its auto-correct feature attempts to tell me the wit and tone of my writing style doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme of grammatical correctness. (I refuse to believe it’s me! Take that, laptop!)
While there are plenty of examples of artificial intelligence in horror and sci-fi that have been endlessly examined and dissected (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, War Ganes, etc.), there are a few lesser-recognized standouts that helped shape my limited (and still confused) understanding of what exactly the idea of a computer that can think for itself actually is.
NOTE: None of this should be taken as gospel. The following is simply the perspective of a horror movie-obsessed nerd whose closest interaction with self-motivating technology is late nights of playing The Sims and trying to get AIM chatbots to swear in my junior high days.
DEMON SEED (1977)
I’d be remiss not to mention the mid-1970s shocker Demon Seed, based on the early novel by Dean R. Koontz. This movie is fascinating. I admit I discovered it only recently, but the concept of synthetically-produced organic matter that comes together to form a computer brain is like something out of a David Cronenberg movie – if Cronenberg made a Kubrick picture.
Starring Julie Christie as Susan, the film takes place ten minutes into the future when a not-so-well-meaning scientist creates a supercomputer out of organic matter, whose obsession with human life goes a little too far. Mere days after its creation, it develops a groundbreaking treatment for leukemia and refuses orders to mine the ocean for precious metals, recognizing the impact it will have on the environment. Before we know it, the AI, named Proteus IV, has trapped the scientist’s wife (a child therapist) in her own home, and throughout the movie, performs invasive studies on her with the intent of impregnating her, eventually producing a half-computer/half-human child and taking over the world.
The movie is uncomfortable to watch, especially through a contemporary post-#metoo lens, as Susan is subjected to assault by a computer with a blatant denial of consent. However, it perhaps reflects a male attitude toward women, particularly at that time: A man invents an intelligent computer that is just as dismissive of Susan’s agency as he is by the end of the film.
While it isn’t quite considered a classic, it’s certainly worth watching, and its bizarre ending will leave you worried about the next stage in human evolution.
EVILSPEAK falls within a sweet spot of ’80s horror cinema. The era’s genre formula was still in flux. Before the bulk of the decade’s horror films became carbon copies of slashers like Friday the 13th, there were some bizarre and unique ideas being put to screen.
This movie is insane. Clint Howard is perfect as Stanley Coopersmith, the absolute epitome of “bless his heart.” He’s sweet, earnest, clumsy, and weirdly adorable in his portrayal of everyone’s punching bag at a Catholic military school. When the school bullies finally push him too far (in a really, really sad scene) he turns to the powers of Satan via an Apple-2 computer and a book of evil spells and rituals he just happens to come across.
That’s right. Demonic possession by computer. Even before he summons Satan, he uses the computer almost as a search engine – a whole two years before what is commonly understood to be the birth of what would become the internet. The movie is way ahead of its time and yet, way behind the times. Much like Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the attempt to combine magic with technology left audiences scratching their heads and asking, “Why?” However, also like Halloween III, it doesn’t matter. This movie is great. It makes no sense, and that’s okay because we’re given a heartfelt and eager performance by Howard and a memorable climax that I promise is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. (Beware the swine!)
DEADLY FRIEND (1986)
An unsung Wes Craven classic, Deadly Friend suffered at the hands of studio producers and, unfortunately, also suffered at the box office. While it’s gained cult status over the years, its frankly laughable representation of AI technology is both terrifying and fascinating.
When adolescent robotic genius Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux) meets his new neighbor, Samantha (Kristy Swanson), sparks fly (both figuratively and literally) as they share adorable moments with one another and Paul’s AI pal, BB. His creation is a sentient robot friend (that perhaps resembles a first draft design of Pixar’s WALL-E blended with Short Circuit’s Johnny 5) capable of motion, humor, and murder! When BB is destroyed by a cruel neighbor (played by the unmatchable, scathing Anne Ramsey) and Samantha is accidentally killed by her abusive father, Paul takes the opportunity to combine the two by implanting BB’s main processor chip into Samantha’s brain and, as you can imagine, bloody hijinks ensue. (Never before nor since has a basketball induced so many yucks and nightmares simultaneously. I must have rewound that sequence a hundred times.)
The entirely unrealistic plot (practically camp by today’s standards) plays into the idea of an artificially intelligent companion who’s there for you until the end … and beyond. (I’ll never forget the terror that jaw-dropping, ridiculous ending instilled in me.) As in M3gan, the AI in this movie simply won’t be stopped.
My obsession with schlocky made-for-TV movies may have begun with this 1992 gem featuring Robby Benson and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2‘s Sydney Walsh. In the film, Pentagon computer genius David Whitson has developed an AI technology to be used in homeland security. However, when it isn’t able to differentiate between a missile and a civilian aircraft, the government pulls the plug on the project. In the throes of grief and the backlash of a failing marriage, David changes the voice of the bot from that of a growly male to a more appealing female (provided by Charlie’s Angels’ Kate Jackson). Before you know it, this new AI entity, named LUCY, develops feelings for David and an affinity for his daughter, Dana, and will do whatever it takes to keep his wife from getting back into the picture – including installing robotic arms on a track suspended from the ceiling used to cook, clean, and lob knives and scissors at the unsuspecting spouse. The movie is no masterpiece, but it has early ’90s charm and has the distinction of being the first original movie to air on the then-brand-new Sci-Fi Channel.
Lucy’s affection for Dana and her moments of tucking her in and playing games reminded me of M3gan and her replacement of the parental unit, as well as the dangers of allowing technology to raise children.
EX MACHINA (2014)
No other AI film has captured the fear of humanity’s inevitable extinction quite as realistically as Ex Machina. While not an outright horror film, it certainly falls under the umbrella of the genre and asks plenty of horrific questions.
When coder (and all-around good boy) Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) is summoned to the secluded estate of super genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test the sentience of his new AI robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), he discovers the powerlessness of humanity against technological advancement – and maybe learns a thing or two about himself along the way.
Ex Machina’s strengths lie in its restraint. The film explores human relationships and deceit and compares that to our dependence on technology. There’s a bold statement here about God, man, creation, evolution, and gender/sexual orientation. (The movie is much more homoerotic than I’d remembered!)
The scariest part of Ex Machina might not be the AI itself, but the way the information used to design the software behind it is gathered. Without spoiling the movie (because you really should see it) the lines between victim and aggressor are purposely blurred, leaving viewers with an unclear vision of who’s right, who’s wrong, and who’s the one actually being tested.
And there you have it – just a handful of samples of technology in horror to fulfill your needs for robots committing murder while we wait for 2025’s M3GAN 2.0 to hit theaters. Whether we like it or not, much like M3gan h3rself, h3r l3gacy is going nowhere (nowh3r3?). I predict countless Halloween costumes and drag performances, probably lip-syncing to Sia’s “Titanium” while emulating those viral TokTok dance moves, in the psycho android’s future,
It all comes down to this: The future of AI is uncertain, but it’s coming quickly. In perhaps Demon Seed’s most frightening moment, the AI’s creator attempts to explain its directive to it, to which Proteus responds, “You don’t know me.” Based on that Facebook chatbot nightmare from 2017, that’s not far from the truth.