Back in the 1990s, every college campus across America had groups of young men and women meeting in public locations while dressed like vampires. This wasn’t for cosplay conventions or Halloween parties, though. No, these people engaged in live action roleplaying (LARP). Mind’s Eye Theatre, the live action version of the roleplaying game Vampire: the Masquerade, had been released, and young people were getting together for social intrigues and clan conflicts. For many, the 90s was a time when vampires became real. For some, they became a bit too real.
On November 25, 1996, a married couple were bludgeoned to death in their home in Eustis, Florida. Four teenagers were charged for the crime—one of them being the couple’s fifteen-year-old daughter. The mastermind behind this atrocious act was a young man named Rod Ferrell—and what he had done would turn everyone’s attention towards this game of storytelling and imagination. Rod Ferrell was the leader of a vampire clan, but his followers had stopped playing a game—the blood they were after was real.
What the factors were that had caused these kids to murder was a question for psychiatrists, but the public created their own answer. Roleplaying had been associated with satanism since Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1973, and these murders caused by self-proclaimed vampires only added fuel to that fire. But is there something about roleplaying—or Vampire: the Masquerade—that attracts people towards evil? The answer is no—duh!—but let’s explore that question anyway. What is it about a horror game that makes people want to play it? What is it about vampires that people are attracted to? And is there something about roleplaying that can do more harm than good?
The Pleasure of Fear
Let’s start by talking about fear—the strongest of emotions. From fear comes horror, a genre that is traditionally associated with negative emotions, such as anxiety and disgust. This has created a paradox: if horror is so awful, why are people into it? (Bantinaki, 2012)
American philosopher Nöell Carroll suggested that the pleasure of horror does not derive from the induced fear, but from a curiosity guided by the pleasure of disclosure. In other words, it isn’t the fear that is pleasurable, but the act of learning the truth behind the danger—the mystery behind the monster. Many are critical of Carroll’s idea, instead arguing that people do in fact draw enjoyment from the negative emotional responses, and that these emotions can be enjoyed in situations when we retain control; when we can at any time choose to stop the experience to avoid having the negative emotions pass a certain threshold. When embracing horror, we control how we approach that experience—we can decide to stop watching the movie, stop reading the book, or stop playing the game. When we have the agency to decide how to approach the experience, pain can become pleasure. (Bantinaki, 2012)
People can be contradicting in how they experience certain situations and emotions; it’s possible that an experience can be both unpleasant and desirable at the same time. It’s also important to point out that not all physical reactions from horror are painful; the adrenaline rush and increased heartbeat aren’t necessarily pains. In certain contexts, they’re excitement. When you expose yourself to certain anxieties from a place of safety, you learn to control your fear and display mastery over your reactions to frightening stimuli. The exposure to what’s unpleasant eases the negative hold the unpleasant things have over you. (Bantinaki, 2012)
Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud suggested that both creative and destructive passions are contained in order to maintain social order. Art can be used to reflect repressed sides of human nature—to find ways to express the inner self without breaking the social order (Bowman, 2003). Horror can be manifestations of things society suppresses by cultural conventions. By embracing horror, a person could be expressing disagreement with political and social situations. Others could be drawn to horror as a way of testing their own bravery; some could be drawn to it because they feel abandoned, angry, and seek excitement and meaning by identifying with a character’s powerlessness. There are countless theories as to what drives us to the horror genre; some theories are contradictive, but so are people. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to immerse themselves in the genre—there is always a reason, but that reason could be hidden even to ourselves (Prohászková, 2012).
The Evolution of a Vampire
One staple of horror is the vampire, a mythological creature dating back to ancient times. The vampire can be found as blood-consuming ghosts in The Odyssey, Lilith of Hebrew legend, and the Roman Lamia. The modern vampire is often characterized by either the aristocratic or the brutal and has its origins in Eastern European folklore, though it grew to fame by being featured heavily in 19th and 20th century literature. One of the most obvious adaptations of the vampire was its sexual evolution. The traditional vampire tended to be plump and poor, as contrasted by the more known slender and aristocratic depiction. One reason for this change was because the chubbiness wasn’t seen as sinister, but also to make it more aesthetically pleasing to an audience (A. Asbjørn, 2001). Another reason was due to how society was rapidly changing due to industrialization. Prostitution was common in the new capitalist climate, and the female sex worker became a symbol for disease and disorder. Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist artists were known for using the female form to represent sexuality and the esoteric, but women’s sexuality overall had been turned into a metaphor for infection, contamination, predatory behavior, and death (Dawmer, 2003).
Fictional vampires, like Dracula and Clarimonde, were reminders of humanity’s darker selves and tested the limits of Victorian morality. They represented threats to and longing for things like gender-crossing, sexuality, and class fluidity; Dracula’s masculinity became a source of envy, and Clarimonde’s sexuality was the creation of starved imagination and suppressed emotions. These vampires were born out of extreme repression caused by the Victorian sexual morality (Icoz, 2003). In the case of Dracula, he represented perversion, and his destruction stood for the triumph of normative heterosexual masculinity (Williamson, 2003).
In the late 1900s, postmodern cultural turns gave birth to a more human vampire. Vampire: the Masquerade moved away from the traditional gothic vampires and modernized them. The game inspired films like Underworld and Blade to the point that White Wolf, the makers of the game, brought Sony Pictures to court for 17 counts of copyright infringement. There are ideas that have originated in the roleplaying game that have now become key concepts when it comes to vampires (Garrad, 2018). Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spin-off series Angel, all helped to establish empathetic vampires who had an intimacy with humans. The new vampires were communal and permitted to love, regret, doubt, and question themselves. Their acts became expressions of individual personality and condition rather than cosmic conflict; a vampire could suffer the pains of everyday life (Williamson, 2003).
Vampire: the Masquerade’s grander storyline is about the relations between clan bloodlines—which define a character’s ancestry and magical disciplines (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). The game is dominated by elements such as political structure, status economy, clan infrastructure, and conspiracy. Together, these elements inspire plotlines and direct the main storyline. When playing the game, whether in tabletop form or as live action, the game structure is largely tailored around social interaction. Through the roleplay, players get to engage in the invention, development, and practice of the social role relations that constitute society: superior/subordinate, parent/child, grandparent/grandchild, employer/employee, husband/wife, clergy/worshiper, and jailer/prisoner (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). There are also similarities in the vampire/ghoul relationship to a sexually charged master/slave relationship. The vampire is presented as a being that is very sexually dominant (A. Asbjørn, 2001).
White Wolf has never sanctioned games that allow actual weapons, drugs, alcohol, violence, sex, or bloodsucking. Instead, LARP games are supposed to be safe places to interact socially and express oneself through characterization. However, LARPs are still highly political, and has a hierarchy based on experience, maturity, and skill. More experienced players become guides for newer ones. This hasn’t always worked out well. There have been LARPs where people have had a hard time separating in-game events from real life, and where Storytellers have accepted money or sexual favors in exchange for in-game gains (Bowman, 2003). There are countless stories of situations when the social hierarchy of a LARP has become the hunting ground for actual predators.
Real Life Murders
It’s known that the flexibility of play in a roleplaying group can be dangerous if not properly regulated. Today, much emphasis is placed on safety tools in order to measure the participants’ mental states, but safety tools weren’t a consideration back in the 80s and 90s. There were cases of teen suicides that raised public concern, and the media questioned if players could distinguish between make-believe and reality. People were afraid of roleplaying games, and this taboo surely attracted predators to the hobby.
Then, we had the incident I mentioned at the beginning of this article, about the couple who were murdered by a vampire leader. Rod Ferrell and his followers were members of an alleged vampire clan (Lawrence Myhre, 1998) that consisted of thirty to forty members. They called themselves VAMPS, for “Victorian Age Masquerade Performance Society.” The group was initially harmless, but once Ferrell joined, they started incorporating sex, drugs, and violence into their activities—all under the pretense of roleplay. Ferrell had a history of neglect, sexual abuse, and a dysfunctional family life. After the murders, he became the youngest person on death row in the United States; though the death sentence was later overturned to life in prison where he remains today (White & Omar, 2010). Ferrell blamed the murders on a rival vampire clan leader who had allegedly sent people to incriminate his friends because he opposed a marriage which Ferrell wanted to set up between a girl named Heather and another member of the cult. Because Heather’s parents had objected to this marriage, Ferrell entered their home and killed them with a crowbar (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).
This group had turned their vampire game into a cultural lifestyle. Ferrell wasn’t really playing Vampire, though. He was using the game’s political structure to create a cultural style for his gang. These kids allegedly cut each other and sucked up the blood in ritualistic fashion. They were known to kill small animals and drink their blood. It’s believed that Ferrell was inspired by the LARP in the creation of his cult, but that the members themselves truly didn’t believe they were actual vampires. These murders show how play can be twisted, though, without proper care. In the case of these kids, the game stopped being a game and became their reality (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). Of course, the case of Rod Ferrell and his cult is extreme, and while it struck fear in people in the 90s, it’s a far step removed from actual roleplay.
Roleplaying as an Expression of the Inner Self
But what is it that attracts people to roleplaying games like Vampire: the Masquerade anyway? It’s possible that roleplayers had become bored with the cookie-cutter characterizations of fantasy archetypes, and the black-and-white representation of good-versus-evil. In Vampire: the Masquerade, players operate under a much more complicated system of ethics. They undoubtedly engage in “villainy,” but villainous behavior is nuanced. Vampire: the Masquerade doesn’t care about a hero’s fight against an external enemy. Instead, the enemy is one’s own internal demons. Vampire: the Masquerade is “a game of personal horror,” and it depicts one’s internal struggle as infinitely more terrifying than that of a dangerous enemy (Bowman, 2003).
By roleplaying as a vampire—and using narrative as a framework to suspend aspects of morality—players can arguably reach deeper levels of representation and introspection than they would in a game of black-and-white morality. However, even though roleplaying triggers a mental transformation, the resulting character remains a reflection of you! When things happen to your imaginary character, they also happen—to some level—to you! At the same time, when your imaginary character acts out motivations, fears, lusts, ambitions, and even love, these activities—also to some level—reflect you! You could argue that roleplaying causes a psychological imprint on your real self, where in game experiences affect you out-of-game (Bowman, 2003).
Most roleplayers engage in the hobby for social activity, escapism, creativity, and problem-solving. It’s an excellent way to bond with others. Some roleplayers could have been social outcasts growing up and discovered personal strength through their characters. Others could have felt powerless in life, with the game presenting a new social sphere in which they can flourish. Roleplaying is also a great outlet for creativity or can be used as a psychological exploration. For example, some players’ characters may reflect the best parts of their personalities while for others, the characters could reflect who they might become if devoid of conscience or empathy. A character can be used as a tool to explore one’s own fears, or it can be used to overcome one’s own inhibitions and explore a “true” self—perhaps through an expression of sexuality or gender identity (Bowman, 2003).
Many players claim to have grown from playing the game, such as through increased confidence and self-awareness. Roleplaying is entertainment, but it’s also an escape from day-to-day life. Players who roleplay characters who are serial killers, drug addicts, social and mental misfits, and other social deviants explore darker aspects of themselves. Through dark play, players are enabled to roleplay deviant behavior. Some players learn to appreciate those aspects of themselves while others become disgusted with them. It’s not uncommon that players inject varying degrees of their own personalities, emotions, and motives into their characters—even the darker characters. In a sense, the players are as much like their characters as their characters are like them. Players who inject too much of themselves may reach a point where they roleplay their characters even outside of scheduled games, through their own inner thoughts and social expressions. For other players, their everyday social lives have an impact on their characters instead, and they use their characters to emphasize aspects of themselves (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).
In Vampire: the Masquerade, the player roleplays as a predator. For some, this is less about morality and more about catharsis: by playing a monster, you get to face your own fears and inner demons; you get to face things you feel are wrong with the world head-on, such as corruption. By using roleplaying to experience the greed, lust, and corruption that drives the powers of the world, perhaps you can learn to better face the darkness of the real world. By roleplaying as a monster, perhaps you can get a better appreciation of life (Bowman, 2003). Vampire: the Masquerade has mechanics that incentivize morality play, as the vampire must struggle to retain its humanity. It’s possible for vampires to do good, but their inner Beast makes that struggle difficult (Tobias, 2003).
Many players join Vampire groups in search of communal acceptance and social value. The game allows them to present themselves in a new world, limited only by mechanics and imagination. The act of roleplay provides players with an enjoyable way of doing things they couldn’t do in the real world. They are provided an escape from having to worry about bills, employment, food, and war. It’s not uncommon for players to become mentally exhausted after intensive character play. The emotions they feel are real and can affect the real world. A shy player could become outgoing, and those with low self-esteem could become increasingly more confident. A player’s in-game successes could strengthen their personal resolve and shape them to become more like their character. They can earn confidence, empowerment, and purpose (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).
It wasn’t roleplay alone that turned kids into killers; there were social and psychological factors at play, and the game was used to inspire a framework for a cult. But there’s no denying it that roleplay is an intensely psychological activity, and that immersing yourself in an alter ego does—to some degree—affect your real self. One metaphor is that imagination is the ocean and reality is the shore, and roleplaying is the act of walking along that shore, with your feet touching the water while being close enough to land. While walking, you become aware of both the water and the sand, and you can easily tell which is which. But then, all of a sudden, a large wave of water can spill onto land, soaking both you and the shore. This is called psychological bleed, and it happens when the roleplaying triggers real emotions. Without proper care, without safety tools, and without respect towards players’ sensitivities, this bleed can cause harm.
A horror game can delve into territories that trigger real anxieties—causing this bleed—and while this can become a therapeutic and rewarding experience (when done right), it can be traumatizing (when done wrong). I love playing Vampire: the Masquerade and other horror games, even though it becomes difficult at times, but just like mentioned in the foreword of V5, playing as a monster isn’t an excuse to become one yourself.
A. Asbjørn, J. (2001). From Nosferatu to Von Carstein: Shifts in the Portrayal of Vampires
Bantinaki, K. (2012). The Paradox of Horror: Fears as a Positive Emotion
Bowman, S. L. (2003). “We Only Come Out at Night”: an overview of Vampire Role-Playing
Drawmer, L. (2003). Sex, Death and Ecstasy: The Art of Transgression
Garrad, J. (2018). Bleeding Genre Dry: archetypes, stereotypes, and White Wolf’s Vampire games
Icoz, N. (2003). The Undead: To Be Feared or/and Pitied
Lawrence Myhre, B. (1998). Virtual Societies: A Journey of Powertrips & Personalities – A Dramaturgical and Ethnographic Study of Winnipeg’s Original Live-Action Vampire the Masquerade Role-Playing Game Community
Prohászková, V. (2012). The Genre of Horror
Tobias, J. (2003). The Vampire and the Cyborg Embrace: Affect Beyond Fantasy in Virtual Materialism
White, M. & Omar, H. A. (2010). Vampirism, Vampire Cults and the Teenager of Today
Williamson, M. (2003). Vampire Transformations: From Gothic Demon to Domestication?
Art is from the Vampire: the Masquerade Fifth Edition corebook