The Possession of Christian Shaw

After it was mentioned in class, I decided to play (or watch, or otherwise experience) “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw.” It’s a work by  Donna Leishman, the creator of “RedRidinghood,” and there are several similarities between the two, but “Deviant” is longer and more involved – and, in my opinion, much more compelling.

The author’s description, presented at the beginning, states that the story is based on a historical incident and “set in 1696 amongst the witch trials.” After the player begins by clicking a bundle of fruits or leaves, though, the image that fills the screen is a grassy expanse with some modern apartment buildings. Clicking or hovering over specific areas or objects causes changes in the environment.

While the end is always the same (as far as I could figure out), the narrative does have a kind of branching structure: when you click on some spots, you lose your ability to interact with certain other spots. The introductory blurb addresses this by saying that “the piece’s effect arises from how it cuts off possibilities, putting the reader at the mercy of her exploration history.” I did notice points in the story where I wanted to go back and see something again, and I ended up navigating through the piece from the beginning several times, but this was not the most striking structural feature to me; I was more intrigued by the way the choices the player can make “may or may not carry the story forward.” Sometimes I felt lost, like Christian herself, a young girl wandering around in the grass.

The mostly-textless narrative is surreal and deals with the supernatural, and although the art and sound are fairly minimal, I found it genuinely creepy. I’m putting the details of the story under a cut to prevent spoiling it for anyone who would like to play it themselves, but I will warn for discussion of sexual abuse.

As Christian wanders around Balgarran, she sees strange, grotesque creatures, some of which tug at her skin and clothes. Her body contorts itself, she vomits foreign objects, and blisters appear on her skin. The landscape shifts in bizarre ways, many of which evoke images of sex and birth: leaves grow, seed pods flower, wriggling sperm-like creatures swim up a pipeline, pink fleshy humanoids jump out of pink ruptures. Christian shows very little reaction to any of this, which was disturbing to me, since it implied to me that she was frozen with fear and didn’t know what to do, but there are other interpretations, which Leishman points out at the end of the work.

Even more upsetting was the way that I as the player caused some events to happen. I hovered over Christian’s arm, making the welts appear. I hovered over the priest’s hand, making Christian extend hers to him, and I clicked on the priest’s doorknob, making him take Christian into his home, where I felt it was implied he molested her. I clicked on the fire and took it into the jail, where it burned the accused to death. When I realized that these things did not happen if I merely watched, that I had to cause them myself, I felt a viscerally unpleasant jolt. Leishman’s artist statement says that this work “pluck[s] the participant’s sense of social responsibility;” what this suggests to me is that the player’s direct responsibility for these events symbolizes the way a person in Balgarran, who saw all of this happening and said nothing, could also be considered partially responsible.

Like “RedRidinghood,” “Deviant” has a lot of narrative ambiguity. At the end, there is a longer statement by Leishman in which she discusses the historical events on which she based this story, and she points out that there are a number of different explanations for what really happened. Who was the victim and who was at fault? Who had agency? As I said, I got the distinct impression that the priest was sexually abusing Christian (shown by the voodoo doll in his desk, the way he led her into his apartment, the sexual imagery in the demonic visions), but there are other possibilities. Leishman does seem to lean towards the view that Christian was not a conniving schemer, though. She says in her closing statement that she believes “our cultural memory of [Christian] had been unjustly distorted,” and that this work is her attempt at reconstructing the narrative with room for alternate interpretations.

Personally, while I did find it confusing, I liked this twisting, unresolved narrative, and found myself getting absorbed in its surreal world. I think electronic literature is a very appropriate medium for stories with this kind of ambiguity.

  1 comment for “The Possession of Christian Shaw

  1. February 19, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Thoughtful discussion. Sometimes it’s easy to see something like Christian Shaw and just laugh off the weirdness — I’ll confess taking that approach sometimes — but you remind us how a more reasoned engagement can yield the rich readings that the format allows and that the artist is drawing us toward.

    Have you seen anything else by Leishmann? Looks like she has a variety of things on her website.

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