I was browsing through I ♥ E-Poetry.com, and I came across what is described by the author, Donna Leishman, as an “animated interactive graphic” (Leishman). It is titled “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw,” and it is based on the historical account of the demon possession of an 11-year-old girl named Christian Shaw in 1696 during the witch trials. The landscape of this piece of “literature” is presented almost entirely in a non-textual way, although there is one instance of text at the very end which tries to explain the historical background underlying the graphic. The user “reads” this graphic by clicking and hovering over certain graphics which open up separate screens and tell part of Christian’s story. Although the real story takes place in 1696, the graphics are modernized. Many of the images or videos are quite disturbing — appropriate for the subject of demon possession. Many of the graphics are various plants that seem to serve no purpose to the story but change as your mouse hovers over them. I got to go through the story four times, and each time I found new things to click on which revealed more parts to the story. There’s no way of knowing if you’ve ever explored all of the possibilities!
After clicking this image, a scene of the town of “Balgarran” appears and a sad melody plays in the background. The windows of the skyscrapers emit eerie tones that harmonize with the melody when your mouse hovers over them. Among the things you can click on are the cross steeple of the church and a ladder that seems to be emerging from a tree (there may be more that I am not aware of). Here’s what the opening page looks like:
I first clicked on the cross steeple on the church and a window popped up with a repeating video of a preacher sleeping at his desk. If you click on one of the drawers of his desk, a Bible appears. The first page of the book contains some of the only text in the program which says, “I am the right Reverend James Brisbane minister to Kilmacoim. I am new to Balgarran.” Upon further clicks, the “Bible” turns out to be a secret case that holds a voodoo doll of who you expect to be Christian Shaw:There are various other paths that can be taken from this screen, but the first time I “read” this graphic, I clicked on the alarm clock which presumably wakes up the reverend and sends you back to the graphic of the town. Now there are several items to click on, and the story of Christian Shaw begins. There is an image of two fires burning in barrels over which Christian warms her hands. To click to different pages within the pop-up box, there are little X’s that are easy to miss. Upon clicking the X, Christian turns into a scary old hag:
Not many questions are answered about why certain things happen to Christian. One video shows the reverend taking her into a room of scientists. She inexplicably spits out a burning coal. Another video, presumably after she has been “possessed” shows her with red eyes and bending over backwards at an impossible angle:
One of the final “episodes” in the graphic includes Christian standing before a panel of what look to be religious figures and scientists. As she is standing there, you can click on people that pop up on the bottom of the screen. As you click on them, they are thrown in a jail cell. When all six people are collected, a scene of a burning building appears. As your mouse wanders over the building, windows appear and you realize that the people you captured are now burning alive in the building.
This disturbing video concludes the graphic, and a page pops up with text that explains the history of the 1696 possession of Christian Shaw and how this graphic tries to tell her story.
The text explains that Christian’s case was one of the most well-remembered cases of “demonic possession,” and that 6 people, 3 men and 3 women, were put to death as a result of being accused of causing the possession. The account recorded many of the strange happenings that are depicted in this graphic. The doctor examining Christian supposedly saw her spit out a burning coal that was too hot for anyone to touch. There were also documented accounts of Christian contorting her body into impossible positions and retrieving her glove from the ground just using her mind — both of which are shown in the graphic. Christian’s case was found to be written by anonymous author and very much in the style of many of the accounts of Salem witch trial cases just four years prior. Recent historians speculate that the author of the case may have been influenced by the witch trial accounts and may have been fabricating Christian Shaw’s case in order to “prove” the existence of the Devil and God. While it is still very much a mystery as to what actually happened to Christian, it has been confirmed that 6 men and women were killed in the little town of Belgerran on June 10, 1697 (Leishman).
Leishman concludes her graphic with this explanation:
“My personal response on hearing this tale, was one of curiosity, something rang untrue about this 11-year-old, daughter of a Laird, who mischievously conned all these erudite adults. Then the visual aspects of the story – the eyes retracting into her head, her body bending double… seemed horrifically ridiculous and impossible, but my overall intuition led me to feel that Christian, our cultural memory of her had been unjustly distorted, ‘Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw’ is my sentinel to who I think Christian might have been, a re-imagining of her world.” (Leishman)
Because our image of Christian Shaw is so distorted by the unreliable account of her life, Leishman felt the need to reconstruct Christian with this interactive graphic story. While it is only an account of who Leishman imagines her to be, it gives us an alternative and somewhat sympathetic view towards Christian Shaw and those who were killed — a strikingly different point of view from the anonymous author, who tried to incriminate Christian and the 6 men and women as evil and demonic. Leishman’s work also retains the aura of mystery that still surrounds Christian’s case by not fully explaining the strange graphics throughout the story. The “reader” is still left wondering what is actually happening to Christian. Is she actually possessed? Do the 6 people have something to do with what is happening to her? What are the strange creatures that periodically pop up throughout the graphic? Just like we will never know the accurate historical account of Christian’s “possession,” we will never know the significance of many of Leishman’s graphics.
It has been difficult for me to view this graphic as a piece of literature, much less some form of poetry. I can see that it has narrative elements, but it acts more like an interactive movie than a piece of literature. I didn’t feel that I was “reading” so much as I was “watching” what has happening to Christian. However, the many pathways that reveal different parts of the story reminded me of the choose-your-own-story narratives or the Garden of Forking Paths that we read at the beginning of the semester — both of which I would consider works of literature. On the other hand, we never looked at “literature” in this class that was purely graphics, so I hesitate to say that “Deviant” counts as literature.
It’s been fun to play with the graphic multiple times. Each time I have discovered a new piece of Christian’s story, but unfortunately each new piece seems to be weirder than the ones before it. I think this graphic is definitely worth exploring, and I’d love to hear others’ opinions on whether or not this would count as literature.
Leishman, Donna. “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw.”
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