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A Deep Dive into AI, Surveillance, and Horror Media

Have you ever considered the power of surveillance media, artificial intelligence, and horror films?

Craiyon AI, "Crungus," Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of AI and surveillance media, exploring how they intersect with the horror genre and create powerful images. We’ll look at how authors like Catherine Zimmer have explored surveillance cinema in her work “Surveillance Cinema,” as well as how Giorgio Agamben has put forward his ideas on “Bare Life,” discussed previously in our blog. Further, we will break down how these themes play out in contemporary horror films and the output of Artificial Intelligence.

By diving deeper into AI, surveillance and horror media can help us to understand the implications that they have on our lives. Through exploring their commonalities we can illustrate their collective power in creating imagery that has shaped our cultural landscape and perceptions of violence.

TikTok user, @neural.max, created this video with Stable Diffusion, allowing its algorithm to build on each frame freely. The results are, well, creepy.


Are surveillance and horror media inextricably linked? This is the question posed by Catherine Zimmer’s “Surveillance Cinema: Video Surveillance, Torture Porn, and Zones of Indistinction”. Zimmer explores the relationship between surveillance technology and horror media through the concept of what she calls “the zone of indistinction”. This is a space where boundaries between surveillance and horror blur – creating a new kind of fear where the viewer is not only terrified by what they are seeing, but also by the thought that they themselves may be watched by an unknown entity.

At the center of Zimmer’s exploration is a comparison between torture porn films, such as ‘The Human Centipede’ and ‘Hostel’, to reality TV shows like ‘Big Brother’. Both genres involve elements of surveillance and control, yet the ways in which they present these themes are vastly different. While torture porn films display explicit scenes of violence and torture for entertainment purposes, reality television formats encourage viewers to hold contestants and their actions up for public judgment and scrutiny. This comparison creates an interesting bridge between two seemingly different genres – one highlighting extreme violence while the other focusing on social control – that forces us to consider how our fascination with both can leave us vulnerable to manipulation.

Ultimately, Zimmer argues that our current fascination with both surveillance media and horror media presents us with difficult ethical dilemmas to consider; dilemmas she believes are further complicated by Giorgio Agamben's concept of the "state of exception" - or when individuals are left vulnerable to being treated as objects rather than people. By exploring these ideas together, Zimmer reveals a new perspective on media.


AI has been used to depict the surveillance state in popular culture, particularly in the "torture porn" genre associated with films like Saw and Hostel. These films represent a contemporary trend in popular culture that is inherently linked to law and order, state attempts to control and punish criminals, as well as notions of human and organic annihilation.

The blurred boundaries between surveillance and torture are particularly relevant for this discussion. In the "torture porn" genre, the spectator is often presented with a space of simultaneous murder and viewing. This serves to emphasize the idea of "bare life," as defined by Giorgio Agamben: that human life can be reduced to its most bare essential elements without any sense of autonomy or moral responsibility on behalf of those observing or participating in acts of violence. Such a space of nothingness can be seen in many horror films today – one where victims are simultaneously observed and violated by onlookers, creating a zone of indistinction where those engaging in or viewing acts of torture are indistinguishable from one another.

Furthermore, these visualizations are compounded by the use of counterterrorist artificial intelligence (CTAI). In popular culture, AI is used to identify potential threats that require monitoring or intervention – often through surveillance technologies such as cameras or drones. This blurring between human judgment and robotic systems reinforces the notion that anyone subjected to AI-based surveillance could become an objectified body part or an expendable widget at any given moment – elevating notions of “bare life” into mainstream discourse.

Victor Radivinovski: High-level UN Conference on Countering Terrorism and the Use of New Technologies, Minsk, Belarus. (3 September 2019)


Today, surveillance is an ever-present reality, with artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology becoming ever more advanced. As chilling as this new reality is, horror media has long been warning us about the normalization of violence engendered by this technology.

From Giorgio Agamben's concept of 'state of exception' to Catherine Zimmer's analysis of surveillance cinema and torture porn, we can see how horror images of torture and violence are used to manipulate and control. But, as Zimmer argues,

“the images and sounds of horror in surveillance cinema must be made sense of alongside historical and political processes, as well as our own viewing experiences and reactions.”

By taking a deep dive into the horror of AI, surveillance, and horror media, we can see how our current reality is represented in these images of horror and gain a better understanding of our own role in the perpetuation of state power.


Thanks for looking.


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