Vienna Vampires

Vampires are Not Always Evil; They Might Even Be Able to Teach Us a Lesson or Two

We were sitting in a dark corner of the cellar pub “Zwicker’s Ghost” on Romanogasse in the 20th district when a shifty, gaunt man with a haunted look in his eye approached our table. My companion caught my eye: We sat up, faced him and decisively crossed our arms across our chests. Miraculously he vanished as quickly as he had come. At the Viennese Vampire Society, it is no longer the crossed boards of the sacred crucifix but the crossed arms of the “Camarillas” of Live Action Role Play (LARP) that ward off these would-be souls of the living dead.

Live Action Role Playing: A creative that allows you, through role-play, to discover something new within yourself | Photo: The Vampire Syndicate

In modern day Vienna more and more young people are involved in the phenomenon of LARP. The club “profil lvr” (Profil Liverollenspielverein) sponsors vampire, fantasy or science fiction live action all over Austria. The goal is to “embody a pre-imagined character and interact with other characters in the game,” according to the club’s website, which compares LARP to “improvisational theatre without an audience – experimental and playful at the same time!”

“It’s an incredibly creative and exciting hobby,” said Jacob Tankard on an evening in September, a university student and passionate LARP player.  Tankard is actually his “in character” name, and he readily confirmed the “profil lvr” claims.

“In LARP we experience gripping adventurous live!” he gushed. In fact, the energy level in the pub was very high, reflecting the growing interest in LARP.

Most club members are between the ages of twenty to thirty, Tankard said, although there are members both older and younger. Live Action Roll Play does not have a single point of origin but evolved from several sources in the late 1970’s in the United States. One clear source was the table-fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, inspired by the popularity of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Another may have been the tradition of “Living Museums” like the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown New York, or Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia.

Parallel to this in Europe was a surge of interest in live reenactments at historic sites that had begun in France with the “Son et Lumière” (Sound and Light) dramatisations at famous chateaux in the 1960s. By the 1970s it added live costumed characters and scripts. Cathedrals on both sides of the Atlantic again became the sites for full scale Medieval Fairs, complete with troubadours, jugglers, jousting and historic battlefields the scenes of staged warfare in full regalia with dramatic speeches and banners flying.

What these new groups had in common was the experience with tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and the yearning for live action. But they are often quiet about their passion outside the group.

“People who have never heard of Vampire or Fantasy LARPs either think it’s a ridiculous waste of time or they lump it together with cults,” Tankard the Vampire said.

The criticism is often harsh, describing LARP players as, according to one website, “dangerous, psychopathic aggressive people who have lost touch with reality along the way.”

But criticism has done nothing to slow the trend. Within the last ten years a lot of new LARP groups have sprung up, which both psychologists and drama teachers see as a platform for role experimentation, training young people of today in flexibility, adaptability and creativity – skills all highly praised in our rapidly changing society shaped by the dizzying effects of the globalization.

“To young people today it is not relevant to ask- who am I? – but rather who can I become today?“ wrote Janek Szatkowski, drama teacher at Aarhus University in Denmark, in his work  The Role of Drama Pedagogy in a Quickly Changing Society. “It is no longer enough to know yourself, but to know yourself in all possible situations.”

“A really cool thing about LARP is the possibility to explore other sides within yourself,” vampire Tankard said. “In this atmosphere you can simply ‘try on’ different styles of behaviour and see what happens.”

Players reach for metaphors in trying to describe the experience. “Being here is like being under a cheese cover,” said Lucrezia another vampire/medical student in her early twenties. “This is a safe space where you feel total freedom…” she said, at which point she suddenly got up, and for approximately thirty seconds, burst into a song. And then sat down, continuing her sentence, “…to experiment with behaviours that you always wanted to try out!”

In reality, extreme behaviour like random singing, shouting, staring at somebody, or even ‘showing’ one’s (vampire) teeth may have consequences. Rather than dismissing LARP clubs as ridiculous and obscure, psychologists and drama teachers see it fulfilling the need of young people to simulate a reality they can try out different roles without facing consequences.

“Because thoughts, feelings and actions at a LARP do not need to coincide with the player’s real self concept,” Szatkowski explained: “You can try out thoughts and ideas that otherwise only cause disgust.”
Back in the vampire world, Jacob Tankard suddenly stared angrily at a blond vampire passing by our table, who responded by shaking his fists – creating an aura of tension that lingered in the air for a few seconds.

“In the vampire game world, there are different clans that hate each other and show their dislike for the ‘enemy clan’ very openly,” Tankard explained. “It’s just part of the game plot, and I would never act like this in reality because it would go against my morals.”

However Tankard felt that because of the way the enemy clans in the game deal with each other, he had learnt a lot about what goes on inside very racist people and what may have driven their actions.
“I think you first need to understand something in order to do something against it or to handle it in the right way,” Jacob concluded.

Drama teachers believe that the role experimentations during LARPs possibly also enlarge the players’ ability for empathy when faced with issues such as aggression, violence or group pressure back in the real world.

“Of course, LARP, players could get emotionally stuck in the fantasy world and might not be 100% able to separate the game from reality,” Jacob and Lucrezia admitted. However, neither had ever personally seen this happen.  Besides “in our game group, the golden rule is: Reality comes first,” Lucrezia insisted. “We look out for each other both as vampires and as mortals.”

So is LARP a form of therapy? “That would be an exaggeration,” said Lucrezia, “but it is definitely an incredibly creative hobby that – if you are lucky – allows you to discover something new within yourself.”

Be ready to cross your arms.

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