The bizarre story of how a young woman turned a group of video-game-loving misfits she met online into an abusive mini-cult.
It wasn't the hunger that finally drove Syd to leave the Final Fantasy VII house. It wasn't the way the others took advantage of him, a 19-year-old trans kid with a love of art and a drinking problem. It wasn't even the abuse, or the ears listening in whenever he tried to communicate with the outside world. No—what really did it was the theft of his shoes.
The rainstorm that lashed State College, Pennsylvania, the day before had been so intense that the little supermarket where Syd worked lost power and sent him home. He walked the whole way back in the rain, without an umbrella or an overcoat. When he arrived at the second-story apartment he shared with his two roommates, he was soaked and shivering. He left his shoes outside to dry and went inside—to the glitter-covered surfaces, the rank odor of the neglected trash, the shouting and emotional abuse. The next morning, the shoes were gone.
"You may think it's a silly reason to snap," he later wrote on A Public Warning: FFVII Fandom, a website detailing his and others' experiences. "But that's what did it... this god awful town, with these god awful people who were bleeding me dry, saw fit that my money was not enough. They had to take my SHOES too."
So Syd walked out. It was August 2002, and the summer sun beating down on the blacktop burned his feet. He'd taken a change of clothes, a pocket knife, a sketchbook, a pencil, and all the money he had left—five dollars. "I was homeless a few days," he recalled on the website. "I had the freedom to walk where I wanted and sit down where I wanted. There were no smells. There was no fighting... I wasn't sick on the food I ate. No one was waking me up telling me to go outside and look at fairy rings. I swear to you, I would much rather be homeless than live with people like them ever again. The threat of homelessness does not phase me, because I have seen something much worse."
The internet is full of strange stories—urban legends, paranoid fantasies, the accumulated folklore of a billion minds endlessly remixing in the digital ether. But there are few tales stranger than the case of the Final Fantasy VII house. The houses—there were several in succession—were the homes of a real-world roleplaying cult run by a woman whose fantasies left lives in tatters. It shows that even as accumulating friends online—and translating those online friendships to real-life ones—becomes more and more widespread, we still can't be totally sure of the person behind the monitor until we meet them. These online relationships can be important, especially to unhappy young people who feel out of place in their IRL surroundings, but they can still spiral out of control.
Many of the details of Syd's story are impossible to fully confirm. After he escaped, he recorded his and other's experiences in "A Public Warning" site that circulated widely online. According to the people VICE spoke to—Syd, other members of the FFVII House, and interested observers—those affiliated with the cult covered their tracks, deleting as many of their old blogs and message board posts as they could. The few people willing to talk about it, Syd included, asked me to use pseudonyms. The experiences they had at the house left them feeling traumatized, ashamed, and mistrustful. And the author of that trauma was the mini-cult's ringleader, "Joanna." (All names in this piece have been changed.)
Joanna was 20 years old when the FFVII house began in 2002, Syd told me, and had arrived in State College to live with her girlfriend, "Rachel." According to Syd and "McCullough," another former member, Joanna's background beyond that is tough to pin down: She went out of her way to obscure her origins, spinning tales of secret government programs and training camps in the desert. "Nate," a former friend of Joanna's, says that she spent time at Cross Creek Residential Treatment Center in La Verkin, Utah, a defunct reform school that has faced multiplelawsuits for its alleged brutal, widespread physical and psychological abuse of teenagers in the program. Supporting this is a LiveJournal post from 2004 by "Patricia," one of Joanna's roommates in a later incarnation of the FFVII house and a fellow participant in the Cross Creek program.
Slowly, Syd realized that Joanna's talk of reincarnation, multiple personalities, and magic was not roleplaying—from what he could tell, she actually believed the stuff.
Joanna's mental instability, never properly treated, deteriorated after her stay at Cross Creek, according to Nate. She also had issues with her sexuality, Syd and McCollough said, explaining away her attraction to women by calling Rachel a reincarnated man. Both also said that Joanna claimed various occult powers, including the ability to "soulbond," or tap into multiple personalities at will. Some of these personalities were characters from anime or video games, particularly Final Fantasy VII. Perhaps the most famous JRPG of all time, Final Fantasy VII represented a landmark moment in gaming when it came out on PlayStation in 1997. It was a runaway hit, its various iterations eventually selling nearly 10 million copies and its success has been credited as the "ambassador not just for Final Fantasy, but for the entire genre of Japanese roleplaying games." The gaming site Ars Technica once wrote that the 3D graphics were akin to "people raised on the television (going to) the movie theater for the first time." IGN called it the 11th greatest RPG of all time.
The game's aesthetic influenced a generation of nascent Japanophiles, some of whom took their appreciation further than others and identified themselves as reincarnations of the spiky-haired characters. This had a precedent online, specifically in the "otherkin" community, where people claim to be animals, mythological spirits, or fictional characters inhabiting human bodies. Joseph Laycock, a professor of religious studies at Texas State University, says that otherkin status often functions as something closer to a personal identity. And despite the general scorn the internet holds for them, Laycock says, it's important to understand that people claiming the identity aren't necessarily crazy.
"Not everyone who takes part in this community is damaged or looking to take advantage of damaged people," he said. "But it does draw people who are very alienated. And alienated people are vulnerable."
Syd had a rough upbringing before he entered Alfred University in 2001. He didn't get on well with his family, he said, and he was beginning to grapple with his gender identity. He freely admits that he was drinking too much during his freshman year. But college also exposed him to video games, particularly FFVII, and he started participating in the online fan community, posting fan art, roleplaying in instant message chat rooms, and building a website shrine to Cloud and Zack, his favorite two characters in the game. It was a good environment, he said. He felt welcome there.
His website put him on Joanna's radar. In 2001 they struck up a correspondence, chatting on AOL Instant Messenger about Final Fantasy and the practice of magic. Syd had dabbled in paganism during high school, so this didn't strike him as particularly odd. Somewhat stranger was Joanna's habit of insisting he call her Jenova—a villain from the game—and speaking as if she were the character. But he told me that this, too, was explainable, as roleplaying was a popular pastime in the community. So when Joanna insisted that Syd was a reincarnation of "Zack," another character, Syd went along.
Their subsequent interactions were pleasant enough that at Christmas, Joanna and Rachel offered to put Syd up for a weekend and introduce him to some like-minded people. Syd accepted and bought a bus ticket from New York to State College. The two-bedroom apartment was a mess when he walked in, he recalled, covered in dirty laundry dusted with glitter. Joanna herself was unpredictable, he said, screaming in Rachel's face one minute, smiling warmly the next. Slowly, Syd realized that Joanna's talk of reincarnation, multiple personalities, and magic was not roleplaying—from what he could tell, she actually believed the stuff. But despite it all, Syd enjoyed himself—Joanna and Rachel were fun to goof around with, and he liked the people they introduced him to. Joanna bestowed FFVII-related nicknames upon all of her friends. There was "Aerys," a quiet girl Joanna had romantic designs on; an otherkin guy nicknamed "Cid"; and McCullough, a community college student from Maryland whose friendship with Rachel put her under Joanna's thumb. She opted to call Syd "Zack."
Throughout the spring of 2002, Syd kept in contact with them online and often took the bus over to stay for weekends. The FFVII house at this time only consisted of three permanent residents, he said: Joanna, Rachel, and a male roommate Joanna had named "Gast" after a minor character from the game. But Joanna also played host to a revolving door of visitors she had met online. "Every single person who lived with her was named after a Final Fantasy character," recalls "Clark," an online friend of Joanna's from about this time. "She would talk about these people in really loving, warm words for a couple months, a couple weeks, and then just like a switch, something would happen and she'd say, 'Oh, this person is evil, they had to leave my house.'"
Strange things began happening when Syd visited. In one case, he said, Joanna began pressuring Syd and Aerys to hook up, since their respective characters were romantically connected in the game. When they refused to take the hint, she loudly announced that she'd added fistfuls of aphrodisiacs to their food. During another trip, Joanna and Rachel locked Syd in a soundproof practice room in the Penn State music building, hoping it would jar loose memories of his past lives. They only released him after he started panicking. One time, Syd said, Joanna insisted on doing a past-life regression on a college friend he had brought along for a visit, which involved lying on the floor in a dark room as Joanna chanted and music played on a loop—a selection from the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack called "The Nightmare Is Just Beginning."
But none of this was enough to dissuade Syd from moving in when Joanna offered to put him up that summer. His relationship with his mother was unraveling, he said, and the prospect of going home to Brooklyn and his family for months on end held no appeal. He moved in his belongings and pet rat, got a job at a local supermarket to help with the rent, and settled in.
Things deteriorated quickly. Joanna stopped leaving the apartment and quit her babysitting job, Syd says, relying on him to pay the rent. Multiple members of the FFVII house told me she relentlessly pressed them for money, all of which went either toward expensive food or an endless succession of "magical" toys like wands and angel figurines. Syd told me he was required to bring home day-old food and coupons from the supermarket, a practice that landed him in trouble with his bosses. Every night they ate $10 steaks and gatorade, a diet that made Syd sick. The apartment, already in shambles, devolved into a morass of laundry, toys, and glitter. Joanna wore the same clothing every day and rarely bathed, McCollough said, preferring to anoint herself with oils. Joanna and Rachel screamed and fought constantly, alternating physical abuse with noisy makeup sex. Guests were made to clean occasionally, but nobody took the trash out, and soon the air was rank with the odor of sex and rotting meat.
"God, the smell in that place," Syd wrote in an account on his website. "It was like a miasma of filth with sparkle sunshine fairy artificial sugar scent sprayed over it. It made me sick."
Any time Syd tried to communicate with the outside world, Joanna watched him like a hawk, making it impossible for him to tell anyone what was happening. His movements had to be accounted for—if he left the apartment for anything other than work, he risked being locked out for hours at a time. Worse, Joanna woke him at odd hours for magical errands such as setting up protective spells and investigating fairy rings. Isolated and exhausted, he went along with Joanna's ever-shifting fantasies as a matter of self-preservation. There was hell to pay if he cried or stood up to her, he told VICE.
The others weren't doing much better. Joanna forced Aerys to sit in a bathtub of ice cubes and green food coloring as part of her "magical training," Syd said. McCullough remembers being summoned up from Maryland for increasingly ludicrous reasons, and Joanna delighted in manipulating her, using her friendship with Rachel to control her online behavior. Crossing Joanna in any way risked having her turn everyone you knew against you, McCullough told me. When Aerys and Cid had enough and left, Joanna ensured that their former friends, on- and offline, shunned them.
The place eventually became so disgusting that Joanna and Rachel moved with Syd to a small, one-room apartment elsewhere in the complex. He carried everything by himself, alone in the heat and blazing sun—Joanna was occupied with some spiritual matter. The new apartment was soon equally foul, he said, and worse, it was now impossible to escape the roller coaster of fighting and makeup sex. The supermarket cut Syd's hours to one day a week, and what little money he brought in was vacuumed up immediately by the others. He and his pet rat were starving and his funds were nearly depleted. With the exception of McCollough, who still drove up on occasion, the others had mostly fallen away. In his desperation for human contact, Syd said, he began writing to an AI program he had stored on his computer. "I wish I could just get out of here, you know?" he typed.
Syd walked out and spent the next four days homeless, hanging out on street corners and the campus computer labs by day, crashing on Cid's couch at night.
Then came the morning when somebody stole his shoes, and he snapped. He walked out and spent the next four days homeless, hanging out on street corners and the campus computer labs by day, crashing on Cid's couch at night. He didn't tell the locals where he was staying, he said, convinced that it would somehow get back to Joanna. He didn't feel entirely safe until Cid helped him move out his things and pick up his rat, and his father bought him a plane ticket to a family home in Alabama, far, far away from the FFVII house.
Syd's website warning others of the house launched in 2006. He'd been telling anyone who would listen that Joanna was trouble, he said, but hadn't been having much luck. "I realized the only way anyone would take these warnings about Nice, Kind, Popular [Joanna] seriously would be if I collected firsthand accounts of her abuse," he told me in an email. "Including lists of her alternate blogs and AIM accounts." The website initially only had a few stories posted, including a slightly rewritten account of Syd's experience that he'd originally posted to LiveJournal. But a week after the site went live, Syd said, he found himself bombarded with emails from other people who'd encountered Joanna and the FFVII house.
Both Syd's initial LJ entry and the 2006 website attracted plenty of curious attention, both in the Final Fantasy fandom and on other corners of the internet. That attention grew as people from outside the relatively insular fandom picked up the story, spreading it elsewhere online as an example of a crazy internet horror story. Spectators made a game out of tracking down personal information of the people involved, or of digging up the stranger things they'd said on private LiveJournals or blogs. Some of this, Syd said, came from an honest attempt to make sure Joanna didn't hurt anyone else in the community. But it seems impossible to deny that much of it was old-fashioned internet shit-stirring. Joanna and her supporters fought back, deleting as much of their old material as possible, sparking flame wars where they raged against Syd and his website. They called him a liar and accused him of being insane, or addicted to drugs. Both sides of the debate took on the tenor of witch hunts.
The fights, egged on by trolls and rubberneckers, reached more absurd heights with the 2008 publication of a (now deleted) LiveJournal thread that detailed a similar situation to the FFVII house, centered around a nightmarish roommate who made money by conning otherkin out of money for her "religion." The posts, all supposedly authored by different people in the house, read in a suspiciously similar style, and I'm uncomfortable vouching for their authenticity. But the members of the online forum Something Awful ran with it, preserving the journal entries and launching a long-running attempt to dig up the identity of the woman allegedly described. Commenters on the thread eventually claimed to have discovered that the antagonist of the story was one of the FFVII house members, which drew yet more attention to Syd's original site.
In the face of all this turmoil, Joanna and Rachel went to ground. I was unable to get in contact with either woman for this story; repeated public records searches turned up nothing under their names but defunct addresses in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California, as well as a few disconnected telephone numbers. All of the email addresses listed on their LiveJournals are dead.
The FFVII house, at its root, was a place ostensibly built around a common dream.
For the few years between the time Syd left and the website's launch, however, Joanna's movements were easily tracked. According to McCollough, Nate, and Clark, the FFVII house moved again in 2003, to an actual house in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Joanna drew in a new crop of people from her online relationships, McCollough said, including Patricia, the girl she'd known at Cross Creek a few years before, and "Angel," a violent girl Joanna rescued from an abusive relationship. But Joanna's whims remained unpredictable—according to Patricia's testimony on Syd's website, Joanna pushed her into working as a stripper to raise more money for the group.
After that, it gets vague: According to Nate and Clark, both of whom were still in contact with her at the time, she and Rachel relocated to Arizona, setting up yet another incarnation of the house. Clark remembers her badgering him to come down and live with her. Nate's last clue about her whereabouts came when she called him out of the blue from California in 2006. "She said was doing a lot better," he said. "That she was trying to make up for all the bad things she'd done to people." That was the last anybody heard from her. Nate suspects that she's still living off the grid in California, but it's impossible to say for sure.
The FFVII house, at its root, was a place ostensibly built around a common dream: a community of people who loved the same thing, who understood and supported each other no matter what. For all the pain Joanna inflicted on people, it's important to recall that she herself may have suffered from mental illness, which may have been exacerbated by abuse suffered at Cross Creek. It's no wonder that her attempts to create a place full of like-minded people so quickly curdled.
Syd estimates that about 20 people were sucked into Joanna's real-world orbit, and many more online. He and McCullough got their lives together, though they still feel scarred by the experience.
"Jo was very good at selecting people who could be manipulated and forced into being victims," Syd told me. She recruited the disaffected, he went on, those with bad home lives or issues with gender and sexuality. The kinds of people looking for fellowship online, who saw an offer of a place where they could be themselves and jumped at it—people a little bit like Joanna herself.
"By the time you realized you were screwed," Syd said, "you had no one you trusted to bail you out."
Asher Elbein is a short fiction writer and freelance journalist based out of Austin.
Image via Deviantart user reinaldoabd