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Title: For Some, Vampire Fantasy Can Be All Too Real

Source: The Orlando (Florida) Sentinel, 12/8/96

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Some of the teens suspected in the death of a Eustis couple dabbled in role-playing games.

By Lesley Clark of The Sentinel Staff

Sunday, Dec. 8, 1996
(c)The Orlando Sentinel

He was Vesago, his pale arms pricked with self-inflicted cuts, a wooden walking stick clasped in his hand. She was Zoey, her purple hair and black fishnet stockings set off by a mangled Barbie doll dangling from her backpack.

They told people they were vampires.

Mostly, people laughed.

But the arrest of Rod Ferrell and Heather Wendorf -- and three other members of their clan -- has shed light on a bizarre subculture of vampirism that has a radical fringe -- people who sleep in coffins, drink blood for sexual gratification and file their teeth into fangs.

''Satanism wore itself out in the 1980s,'' said J. Gordon Melton, a sociohistorian and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. ''Now it's vampirism.''

At least some of the five teens who face charges in the Nov. 25 bludgeoning deaths of Richard and Ruth Wendorf of rural Eustis -- including the couple's daughter, Heather, 15, and Ferrell, 16, -- played a fantasy role-playing vampire game.

The game, Vampire: The Masquerade, has sold half a million copies in seven languages worldwide since its release in 1991.

But fans of the game say it is just that -- a game, not a lifestyle, and that the teens' interest in it shouldn't be an indictment of the game.

''If we're playing baseball, and later I go and smash your windshield with a bat, is the bat bad? Is baseball bad?'' said Troy Pope, general manager of Enterprise 1701, an Orlando store that sells fantasy role-playing games. ''It's the person who's doing the act that's at fault, not the game.''

Players say the rules of the game prohibit violence and that blood-letting is beyond the pale. In the age of AIDS, players say, that would be downright stupid.

Ferrell, a former Lake County resident, played the vampire fantasy game at the Murray State University campus in Murray, Ky., after moving there a year ago, friends and family members said.

And the mother of one of Heather's friends told The Orlando Sentinel that she warned Ruth and Richard Wendorf about the game after she found out her daughter and Heather were playing.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she told her daughter to stop playing the game because it conflicted with the family's religious beliefs.

Vampire: The Masquerade talks of accruing ''blood points'' and ''siring'' new vampires. Some of the sketches in the playbook depict veins in an arm and a neck being sliced open. One shows a boy drinking from a girl's bleeding wrist.


''Like an animal I lunge,'' Book One of the game reads. ''Greedily, I suck at his skin. The hot liquor caresses my mouth. I welcome its warmth. Nerves given up for dead return to painful vitality. I try to scream. The life flow continues unabated, filling me. The pain becomes ecstasy. Such exquisite, living agony. We become one.''

Even game enthusiasts admit the language and graphics are suggestive.

''A great deal of it is obviously meant for a mature audience,'' said Michael Stackpole, a designer of other role-playing games and a science fiction novelist in Phoenix, Ariz.

''But if you saw the game in action, you'd think it was incredibly silly,'' he said.

For example, the role-playing vampires make themselves invisible by crossing their arms in front of their chests.

''So you've got a bunch of people running around in vampire garb with their arms across their chest,'' he said. ''It only becomes a sinister cause celebre because people don't understand it.''

The general public isn't familiar with the game because of its relative infancy. The daddy of all role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons, was introduced in 1974.

Georgia-based White Wolf Publishing, which created Vampire along with games like Werewolf: The Apocalypse, believes Vampire is being used as a scapegoat in the Wendorf case.

''We feel strongly that if the allegations are true, there were pre-existing problems,'' said Greg Fountain, the company's marketing director. ''The problems weren't derived from playing.''

The industry estimates that 10 million people worldwide putter with fantasy role-playing games, which include science fiction and historical genre.

Vampire is so popular that it sparked a television show, Kindred: The Embrace. But the show wasn't successful. FOX-TV canceled it after eight episodes, Stackpole said.

Players liken the fantasy games to adult versions of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians or Civil War re-enactments, Stackpole said.

''You take off the cowboy hat and you're not a cowboy anymore,'' said Bill Walton, 29, an office manager from Wilmington, Del., who has played games like Vampire for 15 years. ''There are people who probably should not play, but for most of us, it's really easy to separate yourself.''


Vampire is often played on city streets by players in full vampire regalia.

Chris Charette, a player in Montreal, said the game is about dressing up and socializing with friends. He likens it to ''improvisational theater, where players assume the role of fictional characters who are vampires.''

Charette said his group of 50 to 75 regular players is restricted to those over 18 because of the mature themes of the game -- love, loss, power and violence.

Walton, however, said he prefers the card-table version of Vampire to live action: ''It's more comfortable, and your snacks are right there.''

Walton is a member of the Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games, formed in 1988 to counter accusations that the games encourage macabre acts.

The committee has been busy as of late.

In September, a Virginia man was convicted of 30 sex crimes against eight underage girls he molested as an initiation rite into his vampire family.

According to court testimony, the man had sex with the girls by recruiting them to play Vampire: The Masquerade. Although the game was played in public -- sometimes at malls -- the man convinced the girls to keep the sexual activity a secret.

There also is a movement in Italy to ban the games following the suicide of a boy who was a player.

Stackpole said there have been about 80 cases nationwide since 1979 in which police or parents have tried to link games ''to some kind of strangeness.'' Thirteen murder defendants have tried to use a games-made-me-do-it defense, Stackpole said. Each was convicted, he said.

Not all coverage of ''vampires'' has been negative.

SWING, a Manhattan-based magazine for Generation X, put vampirism on its April 1995 cover, promoting its story on ''Playing Undead'' with the line, ''Necking in the '90s. The new 20-something social scene.''

In the story, author Douglas Rushkoff says vampirism is ''one of the fastest-growing alternative social scenes'' in more than 100 U.S. cities. He attended a live-action game in San Francisco.

In a telephone interview from his New York home, Rushkoff said teenagers and young adults have long been attracted to things that are dark, ''things that seem a little scary.''

There is evidence of vamp culture elsewhere: Anne Rice, whose erotic tales of vampire lust sell by the millions; Internet discussion groups for vampires who trade character profiles and post personals; and bookstores, which are swamped with vamp requests.

And Steve Savedow, owner of an Orange City occult book mail-order shop, said he can't keep vampire books in stock.


Vamp culture is intertwined with the Gothic community -- mostly young adults and teenagers who are into wearing black clothes, black fingernails and black lip liner.  Melton said vamps and ''Goths'' enjoy a sense of community. That's not always an easy thing to develop in today's society, he said.

''It's an inside community,'' he said. ''They're talking your language, and no one else does.''

Goths say it is ludicrous to blame a fashion choice for violence. Several say their parents have been questioning them closely about their friends in the wake of the slaying.

''But maybe we should be looking at other things besides music, clothes, hobbies, etc.,'' wrote Darlene Copeland of Atlanta, a self-styled Goth, on a message posted on the Internet. ''Was there something else wrong somewhere?  At home perhaps?''

Another woman posted this message on the Internet:

''It's difficult enough to have to constantly answer why my nails are dark colors and why I wear black -- and it's so toned down now that I'm working in a MALL -- without having all the dimwits of the world now filter this new information to mean that we are all a bunch of mommy killing, blood drinking animal sacrificing VAMPIRES.''

The vampire has long been a powerful lure. When Bela Lugosi appeared onscreen as Dracula in 1931, he was flooded with letters from swooning women, said Melton, a vamp-a-holic who also heads the American Transylvanian Society of Dracula, an international organization of scholars who study vampirism.

The vampire is a romantic, authority-flouting figure who speaks to teens, some of whom feel hopeless about the future and think life lacks meaning.

''It's an escape,'' said Elizabeth Miller, a Canadian literature professor who winters in St. Petersburg. ''It's a romantic rebellion. Being a vampire in the '90s is like what it was to be a hippie in the '60s.''

Horror master Stephen King himself attributed the ''long love affair with the Vampire'' to the creature's sex appeal.

''The vampire myth has always been so popular with adolescents still trying to come to grips with their own sexuality,'' King wrote in Danse Macabre, his analysis of horror. ''The vampire appears to have found a short-cut through all the tribal mores of sex ... and he lives forever, to boot.''

Vamp culture attracts a wide range of people, from fans of Anne Rice and vampire movies to the true believers.

But even the believers are only ''wannabes,'' Melton said. They adopt a vampire lifestyle by wearing capes and sleeping in coffins.

''I guess they are hoping they can kind of slide into being a vampire,'' Melton said. Some have been known to have fangs implanted or had their incisors filed; others stick with the plastic variety.

Melton and others said reports of blood drinking seem to be confined to a small group of people who are sexually aroused by the experience.

Members of the vampire community clearly worried about links between what they see as a harmless hobby and the slaying.

All week, visitors to Internet discussion groups posted suggestions on how to spin the story.

''NEVER, EVER GIVE THE MEDIA WHAT THEY WANT,'' one person wrote. ''Ninety-eight percent of the reporters want to find someone who will admit to believing in vampires, believe they ARE a Vampire, or engage in bloodletting and consumption. If you fill ANY of the above categories, DON'T ADMIT IT! You don't have to lie. Just don't say ANYTHING. Evade if you have to.''

Melton said the vampire, which according to legend can be killed only by a stake through the heart, is immortal. Rice's books still top the bestsellers list, and the scholarly community will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1997.

''It's going to be a big vampire year,'' Melton predicted.

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