Scary Stories to Tell on the Web

Dyson Professor Jillian Mcdonald tells her own story about what happens when art meets Internet and how collaborative research with Seidenberg student Julie Gill ’12 helped bring her Horror Stories to life.

Jillian Mcdonald and Julie Gill '12

“When we first completed horror stories in 2009, it was working, but neither of us was excited about it,” says Jillian Mcdonald, an associate professor of fine arts and co-director of the Pace Digital Gallery, discussing a new venture to put her work online. This lack of excitement is what prompted Mcdonald and her undergraduate partner Seidenberg student Julie Gill ’12 to continue their work as part of the first undergraduate student/faculty research initiative.

“We initially made the project in a design environment using Adobe Flash, but by the time we finished, Flash appeared to be on the verge of obsolescence,” says Mcdonald. “We saw this research opportunity as a chance to redo the project in a way that was more viable online and especially on mobile platforms. It was a way to release the project in a more current fashion.”

The project Mcdonald and Gill were collaborating on was a web-based artwork entitled Horror Stories, which Mcdonald describes as “not a film per se, but a contemporary update and visual equivalent to ghost stories told around a campfire.” It is an online space where visitors can consume and produce their own chilling tales―using Mcdonald’s footage or uploading their own.

As Mcdonald designed the visual and aural elements of horror stories, Gill went about figuring out how best to translate the artwork to the web. In her blog chronicling her work, Gill writes “I researched many new web technologies and languages with the features in mind. We know that video upload and play is the most important thing so the main criterion when researching languages is the video support offered by the language.  I found that Ruby on Rails, a new and cutting edge web programming language, has the best support for video uploading and YouTube support.”

After deciding that Ruby on Rails would be the best language choice for horror stories, Gill began learning the language and programming around Mcdonald’s artistic imaginings. Using Mcdonald’s vision as a guide, Gill was able to code a veritable palette of images, sounds, and video clips that visitors to the site could use to compose their own horror story. Visitors could then view and share their own or user-contributed creations on different social networking platforms.

“The aspect of collaboration can potentially make artwork more rich, exciting, and participatory,” says Mcdonald, who is known for her video and performance art that typically feature macabre zombie marches or the artist’s insertion of herself into movie scenes with well-known actors. “More and more I find myself working with actors, musicians, sound designers, and programmers, among others. Over the last three or four years, I’ve worked on large scale videos and performances involving many actors. These have required a lot of collaboration.”

Want to tell your own scary story? Visit Horror Stories online at