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Behind the Scenes with the JASP Murder Mystery Team

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

Every year since its inception, the Jane Austen Summer Program has held a Regency ball, complete with dancing, costumes, theatricals, and a life-sized card board cut-out of Colin Firth.

With our 2021 JASP going digital, the JASP team wanted to create an event with the same prestige, theatricality, and social elements as a ball. The answer was an unconventional one--to create a digital murder mystery experience that incorporated elements from Austen's novels, Regency literature, and the world of eighteenth-century England.

Our committee--composed of three graduate volunteers and an undergraduate intern--set out at once to find how best to create a Jane Austen mystery. Fortunately, we found plenty of inspiration in her own life, incorporating elements such as the Austen family charade book, real Regency ciphers and puzzles, and references to some of Austen's characters.

Meet our team. From left, Anne Fertig, Jared Powell, Anna Merz, and Emma Dieterle

The team wanted to incorporate as much of Austen's own love of puzzles as possible. Austen herself was quite the fan of games such as spillikins, charades, and card games. It was common for families to collect charades and riddles in a commonplace book, and the Austen family was no different. In Emma, Austen depicts Emma and Harriet puzzling over a charade sent by Mr. Elton. Austen also composed the riddle that reveals the mystery of the murder weapon in our game as well as several other charades in the Austen family charade book.

Our day at Alton was very pleasant, venison quite right, children well behaved, and Mr. and Mrs. Digweed taking kindly to our charades and other games.
Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra, Sept. 8, 1816

The team also pulled inspiration from other parts of Austen's history and literature. All of the books in the library were published between 1750 and 1830. Some of them were even featured in Austen's novels! Four of the five literary trivia questions featured in Act I come from novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey:

“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
--Northanger Abbey

Our ciphers from Act II were inspired by puzzles popular in the Regency period. The caesar cipher, for example, is one of the oldest ciphers in the Western World, its namesake being Julius Caesar himself. Meanwhile, the rebus (or picture cipher) found in Act II was based off a real cipher found inside of an eighteenth century commonplace book held in the collections of UNC's Wilson Library.

Filming lasted two days with equipment generously loaned by UNC Chapel Hill's Department of English and Comparative Literature's Digitial Literacy and Communications Lab. All of our actors were fully vaccinated before filming began.

With COVID-19 limiting our access to the historic locations in our area, we chose instead to creatively redesign spaces for our filming. Filming took place in one apartment and a garden. Different scenes were accomplished via prop work.

All of our volunteers pitched in to provide props for our modular scene sets. Many of the old books featured in the bedroom scenes--such as the Blackwood's Magazine, the copy of Whitaker's Mary, Queens of Scots Vindicated, and Rose Douglas-- are original from the period. Other props, such as the watch or the mortar and pestle, required a little suspension of disbelief.

And if you were worried about all of the glasses of wine on set--never fear! The wine and whiskey were merely food coloring and water.

All of the props for the bedrooms scene

This website was built by Anne Fertig on Wix, using the interactive platform, Qualtrics, and Canva. Jared Powell filmed and edited all of our videos. Anna Merz created the clue documents and Zoom backgrounds. Emma Dieterle devised our hints!

We hope to see everyone in person next year, dancing and laughing and posing with Colin Firth. Until then, we hoped you enjoyed our little mystery.

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