January 19, 1981 12:00 PM

It’s too cold for panty raids, and toga parties are yesterday’s thing. The latest college craze is Killer, a zany game that combines aggression, stealth, marksmanship and a sense of the absurd. One variety or another of the make-believe mayhem is sweeping campuses coast to coast, from UCLA to the University of Florida to the Juilliard School of Music.

Perhaps the most ambitious version of Killer is played at the University of Michigan. The fifth annual game got under way at 6 a.m. one day in late fall with 197 would-be assassins. The number was down slightly from the 1979 record 215 because, explains Killer coordinator (or “Assassinator”) Ron Gifford, 22, “Some kids think studying is more important.” Imagine!

The rules are simple. Participants pay $2.50 and receive a plastic pistol with three spring-loading, suction-tipped darts and a Victim Card that has the name, room number and a Polaroid snapshot of his or her victim. Once a player dispatches his prey, he inherits the unfortunate’s victim and so on until there are only two players hunting each other amid the ivory towers. No one knows who is stalking whom.

One important regulation is that no more than two “witnesses” may be present at a kill (to make the game tougher and to prevent classroom confrontations). As a result, some players move carefully about campus protected by a phalanx of friends. The game also provides a novel way of meeting new people. “I’m so happy,” exclaimed one early casualty. “I’m going out with the woman who killed me.”

Some students and faculty question the psychological implications of the event. This year there was a minor movement to boycott Killer. Assassinator Gifford countered with a boycott of the boycott. “Killer is nothing more than a game,” he argues, “certainly not an exercise in violence.”

University officials tolerate the campus carnage, but without enthusiasm. “I am ambivalent about it,” says Dr. Lance F. Morrow, who oversees the East Quad complex where Michigan’s Killers live. “I find the symbolism repulsive, but I have seen no evidence of a carry-over from the game. It helps release tension.”

Inevitably, tension increases among the survivors as the numbers get whittled down. “I was obsessed with it,” admits the eventual winner, freshman Jeff Wallace, 18. “Even when I was not out stalking somebody, I would spend hours thinking of ways to do it.” One of his methods involved befriending his prey. “They relax their guard,” he confides. “Then I’d reappear and blow ’em away.” Wallace, who tied the record by knocking off 15 fellow students, confesses there was a 16th victim: “My grades—they dropped a full point.”

After 26 nerve-racking days, the game was down to two players, Wallace and fellow freshman Peter Shaver. “I was as elusive as possible,” Shaver reveals. “I took a lot of 2 a.m. showers. I did my homework in other buildings. For a while I put another name on my dorm door.” In the end Shaver was exterminated in a chance encounter with Wallace on the stairs of East Quad.

Killer traces its origins back to The Seventh Victim, a 1953 short story by Robert Sheckley published in Galaxy magazine. Two years later it was made into a radio play and in 1965 into a movie, The Tenth Victim, starring Ursula Andress. The game was brought to Michigan in 1976 by Lenny Pitt, now a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Yale, who had played it at Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

One of the requirements of Killer is that victims report their deaths on the Obituary Board. “There is almost as much competition for the cleverest obit,” notes Morrow, “as there is for staying in the game.” Freshman Margot Spindelman took the prize after her untimely end: “To kill or to be killed,/ That is the question./ Whether ’tis nobler in the dorm to suffer/ The pangs and harrows of outrageous paranoia/ Or to take darts against a sea of victims/ And, by firing, end them.”

In a joint effort, Kate Arnold and Alex Slade described their demise more simply: “Gratefully dead—better dead than disco.”

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