These Horror Stories Created by Artificial Intelligence Are the Stuff of Nightmares

An artificial intelligence is creating worlds where possessed dolls and other creatures chase after frightened, helpless humans.

Sound scary? That would be the point.

Joining the ranks of other fiction-writing computer programs, Shelley, named after Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, is a program made by the MIT Media Lab that uses human input to write short horror stories. Developed by the creators of the MIT Nightmare Machine, which generates purposefully gruesome images (click at your own peril), Shelley is trained on data from the subreddit r/nosleep, where users post short horror stories of their own.

Shelley went live on Twitter this week to solicit people’s help in writing her stories. 'She' tweets out one or two sentences as the start of a new horror story, then calls for users to respond with their own lines. Shelley then picks up where the user left off and keeps the story going. 

RTR1QFJU A humanoid robot named Kansei making a fearful facial expression. Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

The results are short vignettes like this one from her website:

"I noticed a shadow of someone standing in the corner of my room, just staring. I thought that my roommate was already in bed and was going to close my door. I got up and walked to the door. “Hello?” I mumbled under my breath. I got no reply. My door was closed, and my heart was pounding against my chest. The door opened. The shadow from the living room was right in front of my face. She was staring at me. I couldn’t move. I started to scream and cry, and I couldn’t wake up."

Or another, with lines generated by Shelley herself in bold:

“I would wake up at 4:00 AM and see the girl lying in my bed, her head down, looking down at me. I knew I was being held by her.  Her hands on my throat. Grabbing harder and harder, with fury. I could barely breathe … As I was about to pass out, I thought her face was familiar ANNABELLE, is that you? Are you my sister’s doll? Oh god I should never have thrown her away. That horrible doll, she had a soul after all. She was back for revenge What possessed her to do this to herself? I - I was asking her if she knew what the hell was going on.

There are also examples highlighted on her website in which two different stories emerge from the same starting prompt depending on how users respond.

For now, Shelley’s not writing much on her own. She’s a lot more like the game “exquisite corpse,” in which each player draws a section of a monster on a folded piece of paper, having only seen their own section. When the paper unfolds, the parts cohere, hopefully, into a whole.

There are stories that clearly show Shelley is still learning—diverging completely from the story a human user is developing, or continuing with sentences that are hard for humans to parse. As an experiment, I responded to one of Shelley’s Twitter prompts with a line lifted from Frankenstein. While my response might not have been the easiest to go off of, this wasn’t Shelley’s best work.

Other stories show collaboration with different users, and build toward something closer to a real horror story.

And that seems to be Shelley’s charm.

While she’s no Margaret Atwood or Stephen King, her dependence on humans has created an intriguing game in and of itself in which she weaves the thread of an open-ended story, inviting users to fill in the blanks.

 

And who knows, maybe one day she’ll really scare us.