Theatre des Vampires
By Marc Savlov
NOVEMBER 2, 1998: In the summer of 1996, in New York City, a 36-year-old exotic dancer and aspiring journalist by the name of Susan Walsh vanished while investigating the city's myriad vampire groups. Although in the weeks before her disappearance Walsh had been particularly vocal in regards to her belief that "they" were after her, friends and family were initially skeptical regarding her disappearance. Some thought she had fallen in with a rough crowd at the topless bar she performed in, others that she had simply gone into a paranoid hiding spot. The NYPD was quick to check out reports regarding St. Marks and Village vampires and goths, but turned up empty. It's still an open case. No trace of Susan Walsh has ever been found.
Around that time, Princeton, New Jersey-based psychologist Katherine Ramsland became involved in the search when she was contacted by members of the media soliciting her opinions on what might have happened. Ramsland had previously written several nonfiction books and essays on the subject of vampires and pop culture (Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice, The Vampire Companion: An Official Guide to Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles), and maintained an interest in the growing field of vampirism in America.
Intrigued by Walsh's disappearance, Ramsland embarked on a two-year journey through the vampiric underground, traveling across the U.S. and then on to Paris in a search not only to find out what had happened to Walsh, but also to document the exploding vampiric subculture. The end product of her research is Piercing the Darkness: Undercover With Vampires in America Today, which chronicles her travels and plumbs the depths of all things vampiric, from the wildly popular White Wolf role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade to vampire crimes and the rationale behind this ongoing spate of pre-millennial bloodlust.
Although Ramsland didn't make it to Texas during her travels, she did pass through on a recent book tour and was unsurprised to find that Austin had its own -- if somewhat smallish -- vampiric community. That should be no surprise to Austinites, either, who encounter the black-clad deathers on a weekly basis on their Guadalupe and Sixth Street haunts. Although most of the PIBs [People in Black] roaming about these fall days are more readily labeled Gothics (and I'm using the labels only for clarity here), there remains a core group of vamps, and a much larger group of vampire roleplayers [RPers] in town. Some of them share blood, but the vast majority spend their days holding down mundane computer-tech jobs, endlessly rescreening The Crow, and working on the personas of their Vampire: The Masquerade roles. There's a geek quotient here, to be sure, but the real question, and the one Ramsland goes to great lengths to answer, is where this sudden upswing in vampirism came from. And why? Who are these people, and why do they want to bite you?
Currently, Vampire: The Masquerade is the largest and most profitable role-playing game [RPG] in the world, weaving an intricate fiction out of current and past events and realities that allows players to adapt vampiric personas and play in groups in either tabletop or live-action settings, and occasionally online.
Jim Adcock, manager of Dragon's Lair Comics, says that the Austin contingent of V:TM is more sizable than that of any other RPG his store sells.
Like its spiritual and technical predecessor -- TSR's (now Wizards of the Coast) Dungeons & Dragons [D&D] and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D] -- has taken hits from the media for encouraging borderline teen psychonauts to take that final step into the abyss. The 1996 case of 16-year-old Kentuckian Rod Ferrell gave the game some lasting bad publicity, when Ferrell and a group of V:TM gamers were arrested in the beating deaths of a middle-age couple in rural Florida. Crime scene records, including the letter "V" burned into one of the bodies, pointed to a possible V:TM link, although it eventually became clear that Ferrell was and had been genuinely disturbed long before his initial contact with the game.
(Similarly, Austin's notorious "Yogurt Shop Murders" had the APD corralling to the police station goths, vampires, and anyone who wore black for questioning during the frantic post-murder investigation six years ago. Many outré Austinites had their lives severely twisted during that time frame, not the least of which was local artist Clare LaVey, whose West Campus duplex was stormed on national television for ABC's 20/20. Little more than some fringy decor was found.)
Still, like Dungeons & Dragons before it, V:TM, by its very nature, had (and continues to have) some parents worried.
"It's one of the most heavily shoplifted areas in the store," adds Adcock. "One of the things that Vampire: The Masquerade does better than Dungeons & Dragons in this respect is that they call it 'the storytelling system.' Essentially you're a group of people sitting around a table and telling a story with each person taking a turn to add to the tale by writing the dialogue for a specific character. In that way it's a lot like improvisational theatre. Vampire has done a very good job of making that distinction: This isn't immersing yourself in somebody else's life, this is sitting around a table and doing this kind of improv storytelling."
I asked Adcock about the live-action role-playing version [LARP]:
"It's not as popular as the tabletop, but there is a lot of crossover there. I still don't know what to make of that, though. Part of the essence of the game is that the players are playing characters that are supposed to be in hiding -- they're not supposed to be obviously vampires. And yet what these people do when they go out and live-action play is dress up exactly like vampires. You look at them and you immediately think they're a bunch of goth wannabes who think they're vampires. What kind of masquerade is going on here?"
Nineteen-year-old University of Texas student Steve Sramek, a longtime V:TM player and recent Corpus Christi transplant, says people are attracted to the game because of its intense escapist values.
"People get into role-playing because it's a great way to escape your own reality for a little while. You can leave behind the day-to-day troubles of your life, work, home, school, whatever. You're in a different world where you don't have to worry about any of those things. The other half of the fun is making a character, building them up, giving them depth and personality. It's not quite like AD&D was, where everything was just hack 'n' slash.
"It gives people the opportunity to let out some of their darker side, their darker impulses, the monster that's in all of us. Like I said, people like to be able to escape reality and go indulge in their own fantasies. And the vampire is the greatest romance figure ever. The desires and passion of, say, Dracula, are strong stuff, and to be able to be -- to play -- something like that for six hours is pretty fun."
As for the gothified LARP version of V:TM, Sramek, who accurately describes himself as "one of the grungy, male-types," dismisses them out of hand. "To each their own, you know?"
On the one hand then, there are the legions of RPers, gaming on weekends and spending their free time frequenting Internet chat rooms on the game and related environs. On the other, according to the slight, blonde Ramsland, there are those who actually believe themselves to be possessed of arcane powers. It's hard for the mainstream to grasp the appeal of the vampiric subculture that's currently sweeping the nation, and more difficult still to pinpoint exactly why.
I spoke with Ramsland while she was in Austin. After a night on the town with some of the local vamp community, she was dismayed to think she'd left Texas completely out of her travels, but promised to return for updates in the future.
Katherine Ramsland: I think the coming millennium has a subconscious effect on it, because the turning of centuries has always brought out dark literature and arts and things along those lines. I think there is this kind of feeling of a decline going on in society, a sense of going over the edge and being pulled into mystery. We don't really know if this is going to be the end of us or is there going to be some sort of transformation or if there's going to be nothing at all, and that creates a definite psychological aspect to it.
But I also think that the resurgence of it has a lot to do with the gaming community, what with White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade and so on. And I think that's because they really gave people the opportunity to create their own vampire persona rather than take over a persona from someone else's imagination. They can create their own persona, act it out, dress it up, be linked with people in other cities and in other countries, be on the Internet, and I think that all of this has given people a sense of virtual reality in the vampire domain. Certainly it's been very responsible for the increased popularity of vampires in general.
KR: I think it's indicative of a sense of malaise, of not being satisfied with what society at large seems to think. At least with the vampires they have a transcendent moment that you just don't get in the daily world. They look around and they see their parents or people in professions and whatnot, and they don't see these people getting much out of life. They don't see a sense of values that are going to get them anywhere or give them a feeling of satisfaction or direction or identity. That's part of it.
In the book I have a couple of theologians and psychologists addressing the issue of Generation X malaise, or whatever you want to call it, and my feeling is that society at large -- mainstream culture -- is really a very self-deceived entity in the sense that we really promote vampiric values. We worship people in power and fall on our knees before people who take from us. We give in to co-dependent relationship and want to stay with someone who has power even if they're defeating us. And yet we pretend that what we're really all about is family values and good and charity. I don't know. I think we really want to be vampires, in that sense. I mean, look at managed care, or the politicians that we've got. They take and take and take. Is it any wonder, then, that so many people have been seduced by this vampiric lifestyle?
I think kids see all of this, and whether they're doing it consciously or subconsciously, they are mirroring this self-deception back to us. Whether we'll see it and take it for what it is is another question. Probably we'll just shove them onto the talk shows and say what deviants they are.
KR: My feeling is that it is more often than not a phase that very bright kids pass through because vampire culture is a place where they are free to exercise their imagination, where they can feel unique, where they can be empowered in their differences from other people, and I think for the most part it's not something that parents should be worried about. Now, if you see them trying to sacrifice the family pet or taking vampirism and kind of linking it to Satanism, or if you see an aggressiveness or maybe suicidal types of actions, then, yeah, there's cause for concern, but that's not really about vampires, that's about something else and the vampire is just a symptom.
If they're in the role-playing culture, if they're reading Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite, if they're dressing in black, I think that that's just them trying to get a sense of a world that's larger than life and erotic and mysterious and seductive. They just want to feel this very edgy world, and the games allow a framework to explore this edge safely.
KR: I was married and he didn't like any of this. They worry about me, my friends. Now, my friends who are in the gay culture think it's great because they're already into edgy stuff themselves. They're always interested and want to know what I'm up to. My more straight and conventional friends are worried. They kind of find it amusing, they invite me to parties to tell the stories, but they really look at it askance. My colleagues -- I used to teach philosophy at Rutgers -- they find it interesting but they tend to feel as though I'm wasting my talents and my brain and this and that. I don't find a lot of people who are really accepting of it. And my husband really hated it.
KR: Back in 1989 I wrote an article for Psychology Today about our interest in vampires. At the time there were a lot of vampire movies and goths and whatever, but there was very little of the people acting as vampires in their daily life. There were a few, but not many. So I've been kind of observing the phenomenon for the past nine years. When I was working on the Anne Rice biography or the Vampire Companion, people would approach me with their dark secrets because they thought that I was somebody they could talk to, someone who had psychological training but wouldn't just dismiss them as deviants. I would get letters here and there, but it was really since White Wolf came out with the game that I've seen a real burst of enthusiasm and popularity for the vampires. We had a lot of it in the late Eighties and then it kind of went away in the early Nineties and now it's far, far beyond what it was 10 years ago. People taking on a vampire's persona -- that's really a Nineties thing.
Part of that can be attributed to the Internet. They can get on the Net and be anything they want, they can create a persona, talk to each other in vampire chat rooms, e-mail each other, it's all over the place. Between White Wolf and the Internet, you really have people being able to indulge in this culture with others in unprecedented numbers.
KR: Well, it depends on what you mean when you say "blood-drinking." I find some people who have tried it, or some people who just do it on occasion, or only with their lover, or only within a vampire family, or maybe only on Halloween. Would you call that a blood-drinker if they only do it once a year? I do, because that's part of their vampiric ritual, even if they only do it once a year. So if you included all of those, then the percentage is a little bit higher than if you only include those who use it as part of their sexual way or whatever. I'd put it at maybe about 20 percent. But if you talk about the really serious people who are doing it at least once a week, then that would be maybe 10 percent.
KR: There's no doubt that the image of the vampire is a dangerous image, whether it be dangerous sex, or predatory activities, or sociopathic bloodlust, or whatever -- it is an image of danger. There are people who are attracted to it for that reason. It's an admittedly small percentage, but they are there nonetheless. For some, the vampire is the father of the predatory sociopath. There's a vampire I encountered during the course of my research, his name was Wraith, and he claimed to have killed a number of people as part of being a vampire. He and others have been able to feel that they are above the law, that they are beyond good and evil because they are vampires, that they won't get caught or if they do get caught then nobody will be able to do anything because they have vampiric powers.
So there are people like that, the vampire does offer that framework, even though by and large it offers much more positive frameworks for, say, the role-players. There is that dangerous image and aspect to the vampire that must be acknowledged, too. It's a very, very small percentage, but it is there.
KR: Personally, I've been really pressured by the media -- and you're probably the first not to do it -- to declare them all pathological. And that's just absurd.
As a psychologist, I can understand why somebody might want to feel this way, to feel as though they were a vampire. And why shouldn't that be okay? Who's to say that these people who believe that they are real vampires haven't inherited some sort of transformative gene or something? I tend to think not, but that's only because I live in a culture that values science so much. There are many different ways you can look at this. Certainly the only person in my book that I could define as pathological was the murderer, okay, but he was also extremely seductive and unique and his arguments -- pathological though they may be -- were almost convincing.
KR: Vampires are in almost all world cultures going back to recorded history. There are a lot of genuine events and experiences that the mythology is based in, some say going back to illnesses like proferia. There's lately been a theory that the vampire myth arose from rabies. There are some bases in fact, but culturally speaking, our culture has tended to respond most to Hollywood. Bela Lugosi's Dracula is nothing like Bram Stoker's at all, but that original depiction is the one that has persisted. It's not all fiction, though.
I'm a philosopher as well as psychologist, and I really believe that there are more things than we can dream of out there. I tend not to dismiss things out of hand and say things can't be true just because science hasn't proven them. I've encountered some very paradoxical people during my research, but then, you know, this is a very paradoxical society we live in.
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