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Interview with the Vampires

vampires
Photos of Third Street vampires by Janet Orsi.

Role-playing bloodsuckers invade Sonoma County

By David Templeton

NIGHT HAS FALLEN completely over Third Street in downtown Santa Rosa. The sky is black and moonless. The streetlights glow dully, casting cottony shadows upon the walk, as four chattering moviegoers bound from the neon innards of the nearby theater. Nodding cordially to a threesome of diners who have just exited the restaurant next door, they are now joined noiselessly by a uniformed, homeward-bound cashier from an ice cream store down the street.

Without ceremony, barely aware of one another's presence, this unofficial group all proceed together toward a common destination: the cavernous parking garage only a few short yards behind the theater. Stepping into the narrow corridor that leads to the Comstock Mall courtyard, the pedestrians begin to move across the alley and into the garage. Suddenly, they freeze in their tracks.

"What the hell is that?" mutters one of the theatergoers, as a tall, black-caped phantom, pale of face and graceful in movement, steps out in front of them, bowing formally.

"Good evening," he whispers, and with flurry of his cape, folds himself around a corner, disappearing once more into the darkness. In the shadows beyond, similar figures are visible now, moving about mysteriously in the gloom.

"Vampires," coughs the cashier.

"Vampires?" laughs one young woman. "Jesus!"

"They come downtown on Sunday night," explains the cashier with a weary nod. "You kind of get used to it."

VAMPIRES. In Sonoma County. Hundreds of them. It's true. The cultural progeny of novelist Anne Rice, their numbers have been growing steadily for over a decade. They have kin in San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Pleasant Hill, Los Angeles, San Diego, and across the world. Many of these vampires are unrecognizable as such, they look like you or me, while others are more, shall we say, conspicuous.

A varied lot, they are enthusiastic slaves to the peculiar tenets of un-dead culture and gothic kitsch. Most of them are in their teens or early 20s. The serious ones observe a dress code: black tights, black cape, frilly collar, white-face optional, half-inch fangs a definite plus. Some are mere dabblers, "weekend vampires," as it were. Among these are the fangy exhibitionists described earlier, a group of 80-plus young people that gathers each week in various locations around the county, participating in a complex, internationally popular vampire-themed role-playing game. It has become so popular, in fact, that the imposing bunch was politely asked by the city of Santa Rosa to relocate from their long-held Courthouse Square location. Eager to please, they relocated to the Comstock Mall, one street over, where they are now free to role-play in relative obscurity.

Falling between these two poles of Dracula-like existence are myriad murky gradations of otherworldly behavior, including certain artists and musicians, vampires of the mind who, in a spirit of whimsical social displacement, are the authors of some remarkably creative works of art. There is vampire poetry, vampire fiction, and vampire true confession. There is vampire dancing, vampire painting, vampire performance art, and vampire rock and roll. There are vampire rituals, vampire support groups, vampire dentists, and vampire shopping networks. Even the Internet has been invaded, with upwards of a thousand websites and chat groups devoted to all things vampiric.

It must give one pause. Though the myth of vampires is nothing new--the immortal little bloodsuckers have been a part of humankind's folklore for centuries--it is only recently that vampires have become bona fide role models.

Has the world really become this weird?

The only appropriate answer is, well, yes, it has.

vampires

SMITTY WAS ALREADY dead," smolders Cisco McKeever, dressed in rags and hungry for blood. "He never asked to be brought back from the dead, only to be killed again. He never asked to be chased down the street and then have his heart ripped out!" McKeever, enthusiastically consumed with revenge, is playing the part of an influential member of the vampire clan Malkavian, one of seven major clans described in the guidebooks for the role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf Publishing).

McKeever is petitioning a group of fellow vampires to join her in an attack on poor Smitty's destroyer, a fellow who, we are told, is part werewolf and who clearly does not want to die. Surrounded by Malkavians, Brujahs, Ventrues, Nosferatus, Tremeres, and Toreadors, the werewolf battles fiercely for his life against a small army of attackers, a battle that takes the elegant form of . . . rock, paper, scissors. (He loses, but after a formal protest, is resurrected, no doubt to rip more hearts from the chests of unsuspecting un-dead people.)

The one-eyed Vampire Prince, played with dashing flair by Daniel Franco, glides up to find out what the fuss is about. "Well," he says, observing the virtual carnage before us, "carry on then."

As the prince wanders off again, one onlooking vampire comments, "This isn't a democracy, you know. This is Roman fucking darkness."

Without warning, a magic-using vampire, known as a Tremere, appears before us. Played by Pete Magnetti, the founder and organizer of the Sonoma County Vampyre group, he commands immediate respect from the players nearby, all of whom bow their heads before him. "Thunderstorm!" Magnetti shouts at one vampire. "If I don't make it I lose 10 mental traits, but if I do I've got one kick-ass storm."

He holds out a fist, as does the other. One, two, three. Magnetti's paper beats his opponent's rock. "Why did that Tremere just make a storm?" wonders Chris Piazzo, as Magnetti disappears.

Piazzo is the club's official bookkeeper and, along with McKeever, is one of its earliest members. A full-time physics major at SRJC, he volunteers five to 10 hours per week to keep track of all the players' successes and defeats, a job that cannot be simple.

As the evening develops, there are more battles and backstabbings as the Kindred jockey for more powerful social positions. At one point, it is announced that someone caused an explosion that has attracted the attention of federal agents, the leader of whom is played by Magnetti. While the agents argue with various people pretending to be vampires pretending to be people, dozens of players wander about with one finger pressed to their temple, a sign that they have made themselves invisible. Appropriately, everyone ignores them.

When a fellow with an outrageous Russian accent begins to murmur conspiratorially to a band of punkish-looking thugs, this reporter (apparently mistaken for a vampire who is pretending to be a reporter) is accosted by one of the thugs. When the vampire is told that the reporter is only observing, he points to the far side of the performance area. "Well," he snarls, "you can observe better from over there!"

"He's a Brujah," McKeever explains later. "They're supposed to act like that."

Vampire: The Masquerade is the cornerstone of White Wolf Publishing's immensely popular World of Darkness line of role-playing games. Launched in the fall of 1991 as a standard Dungeons and Dragons­type tabletop game, Vampire has quickly developed into the full-scale improvisational theater game that has made it one of the most successful gaming products ever, with dozens of books and related items. It even spawned a Fox TV series, the short-lived Kindred: The Embraced.

"Vampire, as soon as it came out, struck some kind of nerve," says Kris Nelson of Fantasy Books and Games in Santa Rosa. Among the first merchants in the county to offer the Vampire line, Nelson now counts them among his better-selling products.

"I saw this as being something that could become very popular with the Anne Rice crowd," he nods. "But I had no idea how big it would get. I mean, who would have guessed that this many people would want to be vampires?"

"The vampire is a very romantic figure," explains Magnetti, a professional dental technician (he designs dentures, and yes, he will custom-design a set of removable fangs) when he's not refereeing his complicated multicharacter storylines. "The vampire is a figure that is at once both monstrous and tragic. They are victims, set upon by the one who embraced them and made them vampires. Though you are a predator, at the top of the food chain, and though you commit acts that are barbaric and hellish, you remember your humanity still. You remember what it was like to have human values."

Though Magnetti does not deny that playing a vampire is a major part of the thrill of the game, he points out another reason that Vampire is so popular. "Its a very social game," he suggests. "Face it, we live in a vastly impersonal society. We do not hold up the same values of civility and respect for one another that we once did. Strangely enough, while pretending to be vampires, we are also learning to deal with one another through specific rules of social conduct. Respect for our elders, for instance, and your basic, all-important politeness. Vampires, if nothing else, are very polite. What develops then, is a specific social interaction in which real friendships can begin."

This is borne out in the stories of over a dozen players, who describe friendships, job referrals, even true love that have blossomed amid all the ghoulish pageantry and convoluted mythology. Magnetti has repeatedly stressed the word pretend, making it clear that he does not encourage acting out of the less socially acceptable aspects of vampirism. "Sometimes," he laughs gently, "I'll see someone who has begun obsessing on the game, trying to take it into the real world, and I'll have to take them aside and say, 'Hey, man! What are you doing? Get a grip. There is no such thing as vampires!'"

IT IS APPROACHING midnight. A slight chill has just begun to infiltrate the midsummer warmth of the evening. Within the "sacred grove" located behind the eerie Sonoma ranch house of artist/musician Stephen Buchanan, a small bonfire is crackling, sending spirals of smoke into a star-filled sky. Around the edges of the circular grove, two dozen or so people have gathered to participate in Buchanan's monthly full-moon ritual and potluck dinner. Their garb and basic appearance are familiar, with the requisite capes, tights, and pale, powdered faces. With but one or two exceptions, all of those gathered here tonight are vampires.

Unlike their role-playing brethren, whom Buchanan and friends deride as "wannabes," these individuals regard the title "vampire" with the utmost seriousness. One look at Buchanan's permanently capped and pointed fangs, the result of his dentist's specialized artistry, and you will know that he is not just playing a game. "I'm the real thing," he smiles. "I am a vampire."

Buchanan is the founder/director of NeoDanze Performance Company, a highly regarded experimental theater group that is exclusively devoted to vampire-themed works. Last year, Buchanan staged his sensation-causing play Nosferatu before unsuspecting audiences in several countries. His next production, titled When Madness Is Salvation, is being readied for its October debut at the Valley of the Moon Winery, a recurrent spot for NeoDanze performances.

A painter, poet, and sculptor, as well as an actor and musician, Buchanan has reflected a vampire's sensibility in his work since he was "converted" to vampirism about six years ago. His house is deliriously gothic, decorated with gargoyles and candles, huge shackles and chains adorning the walls, a terrarium with a pair of black widows. Then there is his artwork, giant paintings of draped and brooding men and women, all fanged and full of fun.

"I wanted a central theme that would tie all my art together," he says, now gazing affectionately across the grove at his assembled companions. "When I found the vampire thing, it just sort of fit. It's completely international, it's completely ageless. It's erotic and sensuous and very appealing."

What is it, exactly, that Buchanan finds erotic about being a vampire? Is it the darkness of it, the danger of it? The promise of immortality?

"Yeah, it's the darkness and the danger," he nods. "And it's also about biting somebody. Tasting their blood. There's a powerful feeling in that. As for immortality, if you are an artist you already have that."

He grins agreeably, the sharp points of those fangs just visible in his smile. Speaking of those fangs, Buchanan points out that the man who gave him his special bite is also his partner in an entirely different artistic venture.

"Every Wednesday I go to Alameda," he explains. "And we do a cable access television show. My dentist is the producer. I'm the director. It's called Canvas Cavity. It's a combination of professional wrestling, dentistry, and vampirism."

That's must-see TV for darn sure. "Its the weirdest show you ever saw in your life," he laughs, adding that the wrestling aspect has made it so popular that it is seen in 26 markets and five countries.

The moment of the full-moon ritual draws closer. Resembling a performance art piece with music, the ritual will consist primarily of the reading, in English and German, of a variation on an old druidic text, preceded by the clashing of swords and culminating in a loud, joyous yelp at the moon. But first, a casual mingling among the guests, many of whom are resting on prop coffins from Nosferatu, reveals several others who share Buchanan's vascular notions of eroticism.

"The only people I drink from are willing participants, with similar interests," explains one tall and slender fellow dressed in black, wearing a prominent crucifix around his neck. "People hear that and kind of freak out," he shrugs. "But it's not like I drain them dry or anything. Just a few ounces."

At moments like this, one wonders if it is best to change the subject or to go ahead and ask the questions that are leaping to mind. Questions like, "Are you pulling my leg?" and "Aren't you worried about blood-transmitted diseases?," or even short ineloquent questions like "Why?"

"Why do I drink blood?" the tall man repeats as if the answer should be obvious. "Probably because we are not supposed to. Its a sin, right? And there is tremendous erotic power in the breaking of taboos. The taking of blood can also be a very sensuous, very loving thing."

"Something else that is very important," Buchanan interjects, "is the whole concept of light and dark. The balance between the two. We all hold them both within us. I am the darkness, as a vampire, but I am also the light, as a vampire. We hold the beast at bay."

It's true then. Undeniably so. The world has grown stranger.

And perhaps that is just the point, unconscious or not, that these unconventional souls are attempting to make. By meeting on lonely hillsides beneath the luminant moon, by flashing an occasional sharp-toothed grin, or by parading downtown in full view, they are saying, in effect, "Look up. Look around. The world is stranger than you think."

Then again, any vampire worth his or her salt will quickly add that the world has always been weird, weird to the core. Weirder, wilder, and more beguiling than most poor mortals will ever know.

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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