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Ulster University recreates 18th century story of bewitchment and demonic possession

Ireland’s own version of the Salem witch trials took place in Islandmagee in 1711, when eight women and one man were accused of demonically possessing and magically tormenting a young girl. Now, this significant historical event is being brought to life by Ulster University in graphic novel format, with an accompanying interactive website, video game, original score and VR experience.

An interdisciplinary team of academics and students from Ulster University, led by Dr Andrew Sneddon and Dr Victoria McCollum, have joined together to tell the story of the Islandmagee witches using modern technology.

Historical events unearthed through years of Dr Sneddon’s research into witchcraft will be told in a graphic novel authored by Dr McCollum and Dr Sneddon, and illustrated by local artist David Campbell. Supported by a digital toolkit (website), video game, original score, and virtual reality experience, the project brings an important part of Ireland’s cultural heritage to life while also commemorating the eight women and one man accused of witchcraft.

The events of 1711 were to be Ireland’s last witch trial, a significant social, political and religious moment in history. While film and TV has popularised the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, which took place 19 years earlier, the story of the Islandmagee witches is less well-known. This project aims to bring historical events to a wider local, national and international audience, using techniques spanning Ulster University’s expertise in history, game design, cinematic arts, music, drama and interactive media.

The project includes an interactive website where people can learn about the trials and access original, digitised documents from the period. The website acts as a gateway to an online game, where the user takes the role of a witch-finder and explores the moral choices involved in accusing someone of witchcraft in 1711; the graphic novel; a virtual reality application, where the user experiences what it is to be bewitched or be accused of witchcraft; and a specially commissioned musical score by Adam Melvin, which uses soundscapes to explore various aspects of the trial.

Dr Andrew Sneddon of Ulster University, a leading authority in the history of witchcraft and magic, said:

We have a timeless fascination with witches and witchcraft – you only need to look at the popularity of witchcraft today, whether that’s #WitchTok, the new BBC series The Witchfinder or TG4’s An Diabhal Inti (The Devil's in Her). It’s easy to forget that it was a crime in most places in Europe until the 18th century, when an accusation of witchcraft could have terrible consequences.

People are more likely to accuse people of witchcraft in times of political, economic and religious crisis. There’s a need to find an explanation in the supernatural when crisis looms and old certainties disappear, and that’s as true today as it was in 18th century Ireland.”

Dr Sneddon, author of Possessed By the Devil: The Real History Of The Islandmagee Witches And Ireland's Only Mass Witchcraft Trial adds an additional detail to the story of the Islandmagee witches:

“There are many reasons why Mary Dunbar accused the Islandmagee witches of bewitching and demonically possessing her: medical, psychological or fabrication. Our project brings her accusations – and their impact on the accused graphically to life, reminding us of the original origin of the term ‘witch hunt’.”

Dr Victoria McCollum of Ulster University, a leading authority on the use of creative arts and modern media to bring difficult stories and histories to life commented:

It is a real honour to work with Dr Sneddon to tell the story and share the history of the Islandmagee witch trails through the innovative use of the creative arts. The graphic novel developed by staff and students in the School of Arts and Humanities and illustrated by a local artist showcases the importance of visual arts and how it complements the understanding, commemorating and recording of historical events. We decided that a visual verbal format could enrich the public’s understanding of individuals weighed down and destroyed by the past: the graphic novel is well placed to open our eyes to erased chapters from our past.”

The interdisciplinary project acts as a form of digital commemoration of the nine Islandmagee witches and the team has plans to work towards a physical commemoration.

The Islandmagee witches website can be accessed via