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Trigger Happy: The Hallucinogenic Horror of Shaye Saint John

Back up, boys and girls… this is gonna get weird.

In a way, the following story fits into the pantheon of creepypasta without necessarily being labeled as one; that’s mainly because the mythos which has grown up around the utterly bizarre, surreal and morbidly fascinating character named Shaye Saint John has long since overshadowed the online collection of fuzzy, low-resolution videos, disjointed journals and nightmarish images starring this cult personality, who entered the psychedelic spotlight in the dawn of the 21st century.

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If you’ve kept track of internet trends over the past couple of decades, you’ve probably seen or read about Shaye — a self-professed celebrity with a backstory just as deranged and horrifying as her doll-like appearance. But you may not be familiar with the allegedly true story behind this baffling but unforgettable creation of outsider performance art.

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So let’s rewind to November 2006, when the first in a series of bizarre and mind-melting videos was uploaded to the official Shaye Saint John YouTube channel, which originally bore the name “Elastic Spastic Plastic Fantastic.”

Short entries like “Stumpwater Salad” and “Skin Tape” revealed Shaye as a hideously masked figure in a sparkly house dress and a cheap wig, spouting surreal, high-speed monologues in a digitally pitched-up voice. In addition to the grotesque, hinged doll-face mask (obviously influenced by the 1979 slasher film TOURIST TRAP), Shaye appeared to have mannequin arms and legs in place of flesh-and-blood limbs.

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While the videos themselves (over 50 in all), known as “triggers,” are horrifying and baffling enough on their own, I’m sure I’m not the only one who found himself even more confused and unnerved by consulting Shaye’s official website for more information about this elusive persona.

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Not only is the site’s design hilariously outdated, it’s also a nearly bottomless rabbit-hole of link after link, with every click bringing more nervous giggles (and more than a few shivers) as it reveals layer after layer of images, videos and rambling, incoherent text.

But if you can navigate your way through Shaye’s “journals,” you’ll eventually be able to piece together something resembling a biography of the character. “I am an entertainer, I am a model, I am a singer, I am a magician, I am an actor… I am so many things,” Shaye’s bio flashes on the crude front page. “I am also the world’s record holder for having the most problems!”

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Shaye claims to be a former supermodel, whose Hollywood career was on the fast track (so to speak) before a horrific train accident in which she was disfigured beyond recognition. Determined to continue her career, Shaye literally “rebuilt” herself by hiding her shocking features behind a plastic mask and wig… and rather than using medical prosthetics, she instead chose mannequin arms and legs to complete her new look.

Strangely, while she’s often seen confined to a wheelchair, it seems Shaye’s also acquired telekinetic abilities — thanks, she claims, to extensive mind-control experiments conducted on her by the CIA — and many of the videos involve her going out for “walks” during which her artificial feet seldom touch the ground. Beginning with the video “Turkey Day,” she is also frequently seen conversing at length with Kiki, her half-melted doll companion who seems to be both a source of comfort and irritation.

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If there’s a consistent element to these “triggers” beyond the strobing lights, unnatural colors, rapid-fire editing, repeated dialogue and warped sound effects, it’s Shaye’s delusional obsession with her own perceived celebrity. Even in the infancy of social media (remember MySpace and LiveJournal?), Shaye interacted regularly with fans, trolls and curiosity-seekers with equal parts enthusiasm and madness.

This phenomenon eerily foreshadows today’s era of flash-fame culture and viral superstardom, where unknowns can become YouTube mini-celebs and Twitter gods overnight — just by doing something consistently interesting (or tremendously stupid) in front of a camera. The videos were also far ahead of the postmodern wave of pitch-black surrealist comedy, even preceding the unhinged brain-dumps of TIM AND ERIC, WONDER SHOWZEN and Adult Swim’s nightmare-inducing late night lineup.

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Knowing this spooky sense of foresight, it’s even more chilling when you learn the true story of the man behind the mask: punk-rocker-turned-performance-artist Eric Fournier, who created Shaye Saint John nearly two decades ago… and died in 2010 at the age of 42.

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Image Credit: Carl Crew

In the late 1990s, Fournier first showed some of his experimental videos to Carl Crew, founder of the L.A. club and gallery known as California Institute of Abnormalarts (CIA), and the two soon began working together on the Shaye Saint John “trigger” series, most of which were directed and edited by Fournier.

Crew acted as producer, and worked closely with Fournier on the basic concept for each episode — but beyond that, Shaye’s bizarre misadventures are mostly spontaneous and unrehearsed. Fournier the person would essentially disappear, and Shaye the persona would step in front of the camera, reacting to her surroundings in her own awkwardly terrifying way.

“We just set up these little scenarios, props or something for her to play with, and we’d come up with a line and she would just go off on these pre-programmed words and things and sounds that would alter her memory,” Crew told Vice in one of the best in-depth articles regarding Fournier’s creation. “It was almost like an artistic minefield. No one’s gonna get killed, you know, but you never know what’s going to explode.”

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I imagine Fournier would have been delighted to see that Shaye Saint John has made quite a mark on the world — confusing and creeping out legions of new viewers over a decade since her YouTube channel first surfaced.

Trigger videos are still insanely popular today (“Hand Thing,” featured above, is currently the most popular, having racked up nearly five million hits as of this writing), and frequently make “Top 10 Creepiest YouTube Channels” lists, especially near Halloween; speaking of which, I’m actually surprised there isn’t more Shaye cosplay lately. Shaye’s clunky old website is still running as well… and looks exactly like it did when it was launched in 2001.

There are others who have stepped up to keep Shaye’s legacy alive — including Crew, who dedicated his mini-documentary TRIGGER HAPPY to his good friend’s memory; Larry Wessel, who produced and directed the upcoming documentary ERIC AND SHAYE; and Fournier’s earliest “triggers” are compiled in the feature-length 2004 anthology SHAYE & KIKI — which is currently out of print, but still easy to find on DVD.

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