Ghosts of the Future

The smart home is a haunted house

The door locks itself behind you. The lights turn on and off by themselves. A strange energy animates your house, and an unsettling, almost sentient presence watches you from its walls. Your house might be haunted, or it might be smart.

Smart-home technology shares many features in common with the haunted houses of Gothic lore, and these similarities aren’t lost on users. Twitter and Reddit threads are full of experiences with smart tech that wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie: Google Home laughs for no reason, Hue lights turn on unprompted, and Alexa users worry that she is talking to ghosts. Meanwhile, TV shows like Black Mirror (“White Christmas”) and movies like Ex Machina make the connection explicit, framing stories about smart technology within the conventions of Gothic horror.

In these plots, as in much canonical horror, houses are alive and full of secrets. They know things about their inhabitants, harbor intentions toward them, and are capable of exerting insidious control. Different iterations of AI haunt protagonists just like ghosts do, and like ghosts, their omnipresence, and liminality — in between human and inhuman, living and dead — makes them monstrous. The comparison is emotionally apt, and calls attention to a new batch of fears and anxieties we accept as the cost of convenience. But it also gets at a deeper sense of unease: as in ghost stories, the creatures that emerge from our technology are ultimately human or human-made.

The Gothic as a literary tradition originated in Europe in the late 1700s before coming to the U.S. a century later. You may know it from classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, or through authors like Shirley Jackson or Toni Morrison. The Gothic has always been an oppositional genre: It emerged in concert with transcendentalism, and pushed back against transcendentalist notions of people as fundamentally good and worthy of trust. Gothic protagonists are unable to fully understand or master themselves, much less the world around them. They are haunted by their pasts and the ways in which they have failed, unable to escape the terrible things they have done or that have been done to them.

In the Gothic, things that have been ignored soon bubble up again, and in the process, places and people that seemed familiar become strange. People gain doppelgangers that reveal their worst qualities, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Rooms and homes that once were safe become grotesque as they amplify the histories of their residents, as in Morrison’s Beloved, where 124 is described as “a spiteful house,” full of the venom of a murdered child. Gothic homes are frequently described as simultaneously strangely empty — often abandoned by their residents — and strangely full: of ghosts, of memories, and of an unsettling aliveness. 

Houses are alive and full of secrets. To be prescient, smart-home technology must be able to see and hear us

Similar tropes appear in horror stories about smart technology — a growing subgenre that has begun to coalesce out of horror’s larger obsession with domestic technology. Movies like Poltergeist (1982), where technology acts as a physical portal for spirits from another realm, and Paranormal Activity (2007), where it is a neutral observer, have given way to ones in which technology itself is haunted, as in Netflix’s Cam (2018).  In stories like “White Christmas” and Ex Machina, smart technology creates ghosts who are trapped in the homes they help run.

In “White Christmas,” a busy woman named Greta undergoes a surgical procedure to create a clone of her consciousness that will run her home to her every specification: making her toast in the morning, playing music for her, and pulling together her schedule, from inside a tiny “smart speaker” egg on her countertop. In Ex Machina, Nathan, a tech CEO, lives on a vast estate managed by Kyoko, an AI he created and placed into the body of a robotic woman. Kyoko facilitates life in the house, serving meals and cleaning up after him. A more advanced version of her software, Ava, remains imprisoned between glass panels while Nathan’s employee, Caleb, tests her for sentience.

The dream of home AI is that it can respond to your needs almost before you have them — and that this responsiveness could be truly automated, without the necessity of someone else’s involvement. But there is always someone else. Convenience comes at the cost of the constant possibility of surveillance. There is always someone listening, and the less we know about them or their intentions, the more menacing their presence becomes. In “White Christmas,” Greta’s AI monitors her carefully, tracking her through a bank of cameras that record every part of her day.  Kyoko was created to serve Nathan, but she — and Ava — control his surroundings in ways he can’t manage or predict. This is how Ex Machina builds its horror: its characters are never sure if they are being watched or by whom, exactly.

In her 2013 essay “Haunted Houses,” Elizabeth Wilson writes “the emptiness of the empty house is eerie, and yet at the same time it produces the uncanny sensation that something actually is there, and that must be the house itself — or, of course, a ghost haunting it. It is this contradictory mixture that produces the belief that the house itself is a presence, a being, that it is in some sense if not alive, then at least sentient. In this sense a house may be haunted by itself.” Smart homes, even when empty, are in some ways constantly inhabited; as in Shirley Jackson’s Gothic classic The Haunting of Hill House, they keep watch over their inhabitants in a way that indicates an uncanny sentience. To be prescient in the ways we require, smart-home technology must be able to see and hear us, to observe and understand our habits and tendencies.

Many stories about smart technology place the locus of horror in this technology’s power to monitor us — and there is much horror to be drawn from the current realities of surveillance. In “White Christmas,” however, it’s not Greta who suffers, but the entity laboring endlessly on her behalf, trapped in the digital realm. To provide a fantasy of seamless automation, the creators of such technologies suppress the sometimes terrible conditions of their creation; in the world of the Gothic, those histories refuse to be overlooked.

In Ex Machina, Kyoko and Ava do not seem very ghostly at first — their robotic bodies, in particular, have a physical presence that traditional ghosts do not. What makes them ghostlike, instead, is an uncertainty around the nature of their existence: the fundamental tension of Ex Machina is whether or not Ava is sentient. Kyoko and Ava are ghostly because they are not definitively alive. At any given point in the film, we are not sure whether they are really thinking, feeling, and planning, or merely simulating personhood. They have what Rebecca Munford calls “a paradoxical status as neither being nor non-being.” For Kyoko, this in-between status is established even before we know that she is an android — she is first introduced as a dutiful, silent servant who can’t speak English and who Nathan treats as barely human. The movie is filled with shots that bury her and Ava behind layers and layers of glass, reducing their bodies to something barely-there. 

As in the Gothic, the ghosts of the smart home are monstrous because of the histories they represent

Ex Machina’s sense of unease is sourced in part from questions around Ava and Kyoko’s intentions: if they are sentient, then what sort of characters are they — what do they want, and what do they want of their creator? The more unsettling question, however, operates in reverse: if Ava and Kyoko are sentient, what sort of character is Nathan? Is he a strange, reclusive inventor, or something much crueler? “White Christmas,” too, foregrounds the question of who is being menaced in a smart-home haunting: Greta’s clone is “born” with her own will, and refuses to live in servitude until her installer tortures her into submission. “Do you know what a copy is?” He asks her. “That’s what you are. Try to blow on my face. You can’t, because you don’t have a body. Where are your fingers, your arms, your face? Nowhere. Because you’re code. A simulated brain-full of code.”

Without a body, AI-Greta loses her claim to personhood. Her intangibility suddenly makes it unclear whether, in some fundamental way, she is real or not. She does, however, have a tangible impact on her environment. She makes coffee, raises the blinds, and changes the temperature. She engages with the house in the same way a ghost would, moving objects around and shutting doors without ever being seen. She becomes a specter forced her to haunt her own home, condemned to track her double’s movements eternally through a bank of cameras in a pristine white prison.

Greta’s situation calls to mind the live burial scenes that are common to many Gothic tales, both literal and metaphorical. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the protagonist murders his wife and hides her in a basement wall, accidentally sealing her cat in with her. Days later, the cat begins to wail from inside the wall, revealing the narrator’s crime and confronting him with the horror of his actions. Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre is locked in a room by her husband for 10 years, while the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper is trapped in a room for months, growing convinced that there is a woman stuck behind the pattern of the wallpaper with her, entombed in the room just as she is.

In many ways, Greta resembles Madeline Usher, who in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is buried alive in the family vault by her brother, Roderick. At the climax of the story, as Roderick waits in the house above, Madeline breaks out of her tomb and climbs up through the mansion to take her revenge, causing the destruction of the house and of the family line. The fate is one that Roderick seems to anticipate. Over the course of the story, he becomes increasingly convinced that he can hear Madeline moving around in her vault.

The space of the tomb is present in Ex Machina as well, where most of the action takes place in Nathan’s windowless, subterranean bunker, which Kyoko and Ava have never been allowed to leave. In the end, the two androids stab Nathan to death, and Caleb is left interred in the basement, condemned to what was once their fate. Nathan and Caleb learn too late that burial, in Gothic tales, does not produce malleable prisoners. Rather, as Erin Forbes writes in Poe Studies, it creates “a multitude of voluble, raucous ghosts.”

Ads for smart homes show clean, minimalist spaces, while their copy talks about efficiency, ease, and simplicity. In its marketing, smart technology asks us to look only towards the future; the connected home that we are marketed is always one recently built or remodeled, free of history and its accumulations. This marketing of smart homes plays into what Joel Faflak and Jason Haslam call a “mythology of newness,” in which progress is always for the best and the past never accrues. In this way the smart home would seem to be the opposite of the Gothic, which takes place in crumbling mansions and historic castles. But the true locus of the Gothic is not in these old buildings, but in the revenants that haunt them — and just as Gothic ghosts remind us of pasts that we may rather forget, the AIs that run our sleek smart homes force us to confront the human cost of our modern technology. 

The AIs that power these homes might not be sentient, but they rely much more on human labor than we’re meant to acknowledge. The smart home, as it is sold to us, doesn’t reckon with the infrastructure that supports it, the people that created it, or the history of its own development. It simply exists: clean, modern, and connected. Domestic work seems to happen as if by magic — but where is that magic actually coming from? Whose labor is necessary to create this sense of ease? The idea that a consciousness is trapped inside our Google Home is over the top, but it points us towards the fact that large amounts of human labor does actually go into making these labor-free homes, much of it underpaid and precarious.

Technology cannot exist without lives and bodies, whether in the factories and warehouses or in the data centers that allow it to function. As in the Gothic, the ghosts of the smart home are monstrous not because they are inherently bad, but because of the histories they represent — histories of exploitation and human callousness. If our smart homes are haunted, it is the result of the exploitation of invisible labor: products not only of the threat that technology poses to us, but of the threats we pose to one another. Stories about smart technology turn the intangible experience of the connected house into something physical, something that we can see and feel. Kyoko’s living presence and Greta’s digital body remind us that there is a tangible aspect to the internet of things, even if we can’t always see it.

Julia Foote is a writer and designer based in Brooklyn, NY. She graduated from the New School with a degree in Urban Studies, and loves talking about haunted houses.