Back Alley Internet is a recurring column in which we explore some of the weirder corners of the Internet and see what we can drudge up for your amusement and education. This week: Max plumbs the deeper mysteries of Shaye Saint John, and attempts to reveal what’s behind the horrifying mask.
It’s extremely hard to find things on the Internet that still manage to be surprising and shocking, but the bizzarre low-fi avante-garde videos of Shaye Saint John manage to be both horrific and hilarious. If you’ve never experienced Shaye, hold on to your hats. Hello again!
It’s hard to describe what makes up a typical Shaye Saint John video, or even who or what Shaye is. The character’s fictional backstory, as described by the box copy of the official Shaye Saint John DVD, recounts how Shaye was once a supermodel until a horrific car accident grotesquely disfigured her. In distress, she created a new body for herself made out of old mannequin parts. With her occasionally malevolent and telekinetic burned doll Kiki, Shaye has a number of remarkable experiences which could almost be called adventures.
For his part, the creator of Shaye prefers to let the character do the talking. Played by an unseen actor using a two-piece mask in various states of disrepair, any number of ragged wigs, threadbare dresses, and wooden hands on sticks. This unnerving appearance is backed by a high-pitched, fast-talking voice that he affected to perform Shaye.
Honestly, it’s easier if you just watch one.
If you’ve never seen a Shaye video before, that was probably a little shocking. The unsettling music, the strange editing, the disfigured masks, the…voices.
Hand Thing is, in many respects, quintessential Shaye. Much of the comedy is based on repetition, either of scenes or phrases. In Hand Thing, we hear “hand thing” and “what is it” numerous times, beating out a rhythm to the video. Shaye’s droning “I hurd I hurd I hurd” the only response. One of the more straightforward Shaye films, Hand Thing also takes the trademark repetition to its logical limit by actually ending where it begins.
Another aspect of Shaye, though one that only becomes clear through further viewing, are the numerous catchphrases the character uses in her videos. Other media, notably Achewood and Adventure Time have made use of their own slang, but no one quite does it like Shaye. “Oh my Gawd!,” “I hurd,” and “Hello Again” punctuate her speech without any real meaning. But the distinctive voice just makes it comes alive.
Some of these phrases crop up in just about every Shaye video, while others enter the canon through specific videos. “Skin Tape,” for instance, is a phrase that quickly became a part of the Shaye universe after this video.
Though it’s difficult to find an exact starting point for Shaye, the character’s LiveJournal began in May of 2003. Though many of Shaye’s YouTube videos date from 2005 and later, the character was posting videos long before then. Most of these earlier creations were collected together on the Shaye Saint John Triggers Collection DVD. Unlike later videos, these early films are very complex, using low quality video, distorted sound, and cheesy 3D effects.
They are, in short, fantastic.
Fans of Tim and Eric will likely feel right at home with Shaye’s low-fi video asthetic, and will probably also be unphased by the breakneck wordplay combined with a continuous sense of menace. Indeed, Shaye seemed really ahead of the curve with these videos, embracing a style of humor that has seen more and more acceptance in recent years.
That strange mix of low-fi production and complete absurdism did win Shaye some fans. There was, at one time, an online store with merchandise and presumably fans to buy it. Some of Shaye’s YouTube videos have been watched over a hundred thousand times — not quite a viral sensation, but nothing to sneeze at. The project even led to Shaye being written up in an issue of Bizarre magazine.
At the height of Shaye’s output, she was keeping the world abreast of her activities on YouTube, MySpace, and LiveJournal. That’s all in addition to a fantastic homepage with a splash page devoted to how mad Shaye is at Maureen.
It’s easy to write these off as just another set of Internet shock videos, and to be honest that might not be too far off the mark. Shaye works because it is uncomfortable and willfully strange. But there are some interesting themes throughout the videos. For instance, celebrity obsessed Shaye is as fake and artificial as her personality suggests. With a mask for a face, wooden hands, and decaying mannequin legs, she’s all artifice with no real humanity.
What’s more, the fact that this character is transparently a character — the actor’s masculine jawline and stubble are frequently visible — only adds to the sense of unreality. Not only is Shaye the character shallow and fake, but she is also literally fake.
The cheesy graphics and low-end production values also contrast greatly with Shaye’s opinion of herself and the career she allegedly held at one point. Instead of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood that Shaye believes she is a part of, the viewer sees a grubby house filled with garbage. Were this presented as a real story, of an insane woman trying to recapture her glory years by covering herself in wrapping paper and calling it a dress, it would be tragic.
In reality, Shaye was the brainchild of Eric Fournier, a Los Angeles resident associated with the California Institute of Abnormalarts. With the low-tech, DIY approach of the Shaye Saint John project, it’s probably not too surprising that Fournier was part of the punk and metal scene in the 1980s. In his younger days around Bloomington, Indiana, Fournier was involved with bands with names liked The Blood Farmers and Skelegore. His sense of humor, clearly, was always a major part of his endeavors.
If the past tense of these references hasn’t already tipped you off, Fournier died on February 25, 2010. He was 42 years old.
Though Shaye Saint John did reach some level of notoriety, Fournier seems to have preferred to stay in the background. On the DVD of the original Triggers collection, Fournier is listed as a director and producer, and shares a writing credit with Shaye. Across Shaye’s Internet presence, Fournier is never mentioned. And yet the artifice that he created seems to be his most lasting legacy.
In what his friends believed as a fitting tribute, Shaye made a prerecorded appearance at Fournier’s memorial service.
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