Slayer's Spell

Bad demons and the women who love them.

Cassie Latshaw has a secret identity. To the untrained eye, Latshaw, 31, is a pleasant, energetic woman who works in the credit department of a Tucson-based division of the ALCOA company.

She's a cat lover, a Civil War buff and follows a strict Sunday ritual of grocery shopping and laundry detail.

Yet, Latshaw has another side to her life, one that even her family back in Ohio doesn't know about.

At work, when business is slow and she's sure no one's looking, Cassie Latshaw turns on her computer and logs on as "PWAC," superfan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For those who've never seen Buffy, which just wrapped its sixth season, the UPN series' title is largely self-explanatory. It centers around a young woman who battles vampires and various other demons residing in the fictional town of Sunnydale: Southern California's very own portal to Hell.

Each week, Buffy and her friends, a mix-and-match band of humans, witches, and 1,000-year-old ex-demons dubbed "The Scooby Gang," must save their world from a new "big bad" while simultaneously dealing with the equally scary task of growing up and making adult choices.

Since its debut on the WB network in May of 1997, Buffy has spawned a following of Star Trek proportions. The show's popularity has been helped by the recent syndication of the first five seasons on cable station FX, which shows old episodes five days a week.

Along with Buffy magazines, action figures, comic books and even underwear bearing the Slayer insignia, there's a massive online community. An initial search of the show's title on any search engine produces in excess of 500 web sites, not counting the message boards, chat rooms and private fan clubs which come attached to nearly every link.

In addition to watching the show for the past two years, Latshaw is a cyber-scooby. She frequents three message boards, has her own online file of photos featuring the Buffy cast, and even writes and edits series-based original fiction.

"Mutant Enemy (the production company which owns Buffy) is changing the way TV tells a story," she says. "Vampires and demons in the context of real life ... stories that make you think. [For instance] Spike (the show's vampire heartthrob) is mostly good. The question is, why is Spike good? Was it a choice? Everybody has done bad things, and the thought of somebody who physically can't (Spike is equipped with a computer chip implant which prevents him from harming humans) is interesting to relate to. I like philosophical discussions like that and the message boards provide them."

Latshaw met friend Tanya Houghton over the message boards, and now they get together in person on a regular basis.

"You're my 'Scooby Gang'" Latshaw says to Houghton one night over double chocolate cheesecake. They burst into laughter.

Like Latshaw, Houghton, a microbiology grad student at the UA, keeps her involvement in the on-line Buffy-verse very much to herself.

"I'm very secretive about my hobbies," she says. "At work, I surf the web in my down time, and about 70 percent of what I look at is Buffy-related. I giggle all the time at the stuff and my co-workers are always teasing me saying, 'no enjoyment allowed.'"

Why the secrecy surrounding the Buffy fandom?

Apparently, it has to do with the stereotype fans of TV shows have faced since the coining of the tern "Trekkie."

Nobody, least of all Latshaw and Houghton, wants to be considered one of those people.

You know the type, the ones who live their lives in chat rooms, talking electronically to people they've never met about things that don't really exist.

They're the guys you avoid at the water cooler at work, for fear of being sucked into a 20-minute oration on Klingon mating rituals or the battle capabilities of the Millennium Falcon.

This portrait of a fan is a misconception, says Kelly Frieders, a 34-year-old mother of triplets who discovered Buffy four years ago.

When it comes to being a fan, "people either get it or they don't ... these are balanced women professionals who have a life. [The message boards] are just something I do with the two to three hours a day that my kids are asleep."

Frieders, a UA grad, who worked at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind before her children were born four years ago, is also an avid Star Wars fan. She was, in fact, introduced to Buffy through her on-line friendships with other Star Wars enthusiasts.

Unlike Latshaw and Houghton, Frieders wears her superfan status on her sleeve.

"I think that the Internet [fandom] is probably the thing that makes it possible for me to be a stay-home mom ... I get a few hours a day of adult conversation on subjects that interest me without leaving my house so I can be here for the kids without feeling like I'm spending time with four-year-olds all day."

Frieders' family is aware of her interest in Buffy, and to some extent, shares in it.

"The first recognizable picture my daughter drew was of Spike," she says, holding up the crayoned masterpiece.