It's a miserable, rainy Saturday night, but the vampires on the University of Washington's campus are out in force. The dimly lit outdoor atrium of a UW lecture hall looks like a cross between a casting call for the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the line for a Marilyn Manson concert as 50 pale, black-leather-clad Nosferatu skulk about. Human slaves are dragged across the concrete floor while their not-so-undead masters wander between groups discussing the imminent arrival of their new vampire prince. Every Saturday night, with fake European accents and fangs, these creatures swarm UW's Red Square to battle for imaginary territory and act out their deepest, darkest vampire fantasies. Players with monikers like "Razor" and "Nobody" are so dedicated to their personas that they spread out to chat about the politics of their imaginary world. Others throw down in player-versus-player combat, with games of rock, paper, scissors that can last up to an hour. Words for weapons, scrawled on dog-eared index cards, stand in for swords and guns to avoid confrontations with campus security.
Since 1995, UW's neo-gothic archways and dark corridors have been the feeding ground for members of the Emerald City Chronicles (ECC). Even among longtime players, there is debate over who started ECC, but its members have met consistently on Saturday nights, well after sunset, for more than a decade. They've had crushed garlic and water balloons thrown at them by obnoxious gawkers, but most of the time, they're left alone. Tonight's game is just another episode in the long-running role-playing saga. Players slowly advance their class and stature in vampire society, earning trinkets, weapons, human slaves, and, um, the tomes of the elders.
Standing in a dark stairwell, overlooking a group of a dozen ghost-hunting vampires, Janet Stiver, one of ECC's "assistant storytellers"—those who create and direct the flow of ECC's 12-year-old storyline, a battle between vampire clans for control of the "world of darkness"—addresses the perception that ECCers are all lifestyle-vampire weirdos. "It's hard to explain to someone who's like, 'Why do you do that?' Some people are [just] drawn to the romantic notion of vampires. We're fang dorks. It's like a huge stage with a bunch of characters," Stiver says. "It's a fight over food, standing, and control over the mortals. It's a release. We're just acting. You can come out here and be somebody else for a couple of hours."
As Stiver gushes about the benefits of pretending to be a vampire, a middle-aged man with leather gloves and a graying ponytail begins a "duel" with a leather-cuffed man in his mid 20s. "I'm gonna try an uppercut," he says before they begin rock, paper, scissoring and spouting incomprehensible mathematical combat formulas. The winner claims the prestige of being an indomitable vampire warrior, and will hopefully walk away from the battle with a reward or two.
"Drake," a beefy 26-year-old with a long black ponytail and a long black trench coat, walks around the main game room—an angular, open-air, brick-lined hall—where 20 other vampires stand around talking, politicking, and speculating about the heir to the throne. Drake, who walks with a cane and speaks in a faux-British accent, has been part of ECC for the last five years. "It's something to do on a Saturday night, other than getting drunk and waking up with a hangover," he says. Behind Drake, a young man wearing a black mask, a top hat, clunky leather boots, and Spock ears dances alone. There's no music playing. "There are a lot of weird people, but it's a community," Drake shrugs.
Indeed, ECC doubles as a tightly knit social club. According to Ross Skilling, another longtime player, "People have gotten jobs, relationships, and children out of this. I met my girlfriend here," he says. Skilling—an unassuming, clean-cut 29-year-old—is candid about ECC's appeal. "I completely admit this is geeky," he laughs. "There're several people who come here because they have social-interaction issues; you aren't going to be ridiculed for dressing or acting weird [here]."
Stiver has been a part of ECC for seven and a half years. She was introduced to the game when she moved to Seattle after leaving the military. "This is a great outlet for learning to socialize," she says. "I spent the first 22 years of my life without any friends."
As the rain drives on, Stiver walks out into the night. She turns back to quote from one of her favorite films, The Lost Boys: "You know what I hate about Santa Carla? All the damn vampires." Stiver turns and walks into the crowd of "fang dorks" as they prepare to crown their new prince of darkness.