Virtual Reality brings Islandmagee Witches to Life

  • One of Northern Ireland’s most infamous witch stories is being brought to life in a new virtual reality experience to be launched in September.

    Local people will have a chance to step into the shoes of one of the notorious Islandmagee witches for a supernatural experience in Demonised: Possessed and Bewitched.

    The cutting-edge virtual reality tool has been developed by leading Belfast tech firm Sentireal on behalf of Ulster University following research across its North West campuses.

    Using the magic of modern technology to shine artistic light on a centuries’ old story was the aim of academics Dr Helen Jackson, senior lecturer in Interactive Media, Dr Victoria McCollum, senior lecturer in Cinematic Arts and Dr Andrew Sneddon, a senior lecturer in International History and co-author of the book “The Witches of Islandmagee”.

    The VR experience takes the user back to Carrickfergus in 1711 during what was to be the last witch trial in Ireland.

    Eight women and a man from Islandmagee were among 12 people found guilty of performing witchcraft against a young woman, Mary Dunbar.

    The 18-year-old had been exhibiting signs of demonic possession and claimed that the nine accused had bewitched and tormented her.

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    Known as the Islandmagee witches, they were all sentenced to a year in jail and forced to do time in the public stocks, a narrow escape from the death sentence.

    However there were strong suspicions that Dunbar was faking her possession and had made the story up.

    Now using revolutionary Sentireal VR technology, people can step into the shoes of Mary Dunbar and discover what it feels like to be possessed.

    Dr Helen Jackson explains: “I believe that when academics and industry get together the outcomes become so much more enhanced and working with Sentireal has proved this as it has allowed us to bring this important piece of our history to life in a way that will engage people in the 21st century.

    “What evidence there is shows that the people accused of being witches existed on the very margins of society, they were mostly women who drank and smoked pipes or had facial deformities.

    “They were people who didn’t reflect what society wanted to think it looked like so it was easy to believe they were guilty.

    “We wanted people to get a sense of what it means to be persecuted and that feeling of being disorientated, confused and alienated and even nervous when you know everyone is against you.

    “The first part is a training room which you go into and hear the story of the Islandmagee witches and then you are transported to Islandmagee and the Standing Stone where you find yourself in the shoes of either Mary Dunbar, or the accused ‘witches’.

    “There are objects connected to the story that you can interact with which can cause you to spin and levitate and get the sense of what it’s like to be a witch.

    “When you put the VR headset on it really is amazing and it is everything I wanted it to be. It is physically unsettling and the quality is fantastic. It creates a really intuitive experience but at the same time is really challenging for the user. “

    Dr Andrew Sneddon adds: ”This VR is designed to take the hidden history of Ireland’s last witch trial to new audiences using new technologies and approaches. It taps into an essential part of Ireland’s cultural heritage and allows people to navigate, in an interactive way, the moral choices and dilemmas in accusing someone of witchcraft in the early modern world.”

    As well giving new life to this part of our history, the University hopes the existence of the new VR experience will help draw tourism to the Carrick area.

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    Another spin off will be the knowledge which Dr Jackson hopes to bring into the classroom, she adds: “Working with technology companies like Sentireal, who are pushing the boundaries of what VR could be, is at the core of my teaching in the interactive media programme at Ulster University and will be useful for PHD students who are doing projects in VR.”

    Sentireal is at the forefront of the latest developments in VR technology, developing a platform that makes it accessible and easy to use by people who have no technical expertise.

    Company CEO Tom Houston says: “There really are no limits to what can be achieved with VR, even to allow someone to experience what it is like to be possessed by a demon!

    “Working with Dr Jackson and her team on such an important resource was a pleasure for us and the end product is something which we are confident will surprise and delight the user.

    “We hope it helps in the education of the next generation of VR specialists as well as in boosting tourism in the Antrim area.”

    The Demonised: Possessed and Bewitched experience will be launched at Carrickfergus Museum on September 9 as part of a new exhibition on the Islandmagee Witches which runs until mid-November.

    Source: Written from press release

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