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A Columbus County family has armed itself with handguns and rifles after a series of strange phone calls that may be connected to a house fire and death threats.

Police are investigating whether the incidents are the work of a satanic cult or simply a high school prank that went too far.``This is going to be a learning experience for a lot of us if the satanism is as prevalent as people have said it is,' said Detective Alexander Singletary of the county sheriff's department who is investigating the case along with a sheriff's deputy and an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation.

``We don't have much experience with this kind of thing,' Singletary said. ``We don't know what we're dealing with.'

The sheriff's department began seriously investigating the case Wednesday after someone set fire to the bedroom of Shannon Worrell, 16, a student at Hallsboro High School.

Worrell and his parents, Betty and Charles Worrell, said the fire Wednesday was the culmination of a monthlong series of mysterious incidents, including strange phone calls, threatening notes and the words ``die now' scratched on the side of Worrell's 1990 white Camaro.

The family has been living in a beauty parlor adjacent to the home since the fire destroyed Shannon Worrell's bedroom and caused thousands of dollars of damage.

Shannon Worrell, a junior who plays on the high school football team, said the incidents began about a month ago when he started receiving strange phone calls. Some calls came in the middle of the night and others were placed to the grocery store in Whiteville where he works part time. The callers usually said nothing and then hung up, he said.

Things became more serious Tuesday when he was leaving home to go to school and found that someone had scratched ``die now' onto the side of his car, Worrell said. A mailbox had also been knocked over.

While he was driving to school, someone coming in the opposite direction forced him off the road, he said. Worrell was injured slightly and treated at the Columbus County Hospital. The incidents were reported to the sheriff's department.

The next day, Worrell said, he was again on his way to school when he stopped at a nearby gas station to buy a drink. When he came back outside, he said, he found a note that read: ``You survived yesterday. We are watching now. If you want to live, then follow our black Trans Am. You will be followed.'

Worrell pulled out in the road and a black Trans Am pulled out in front of him and an old brown Chevy Nova came up behind him, he said. Worrell said the cars drove down several rural roads before ending up at the Lowe's store in Whiteville, where he got away and called his mother.

They went to the sheriff's department to report the incident, and when they returned home several hours later, they walked in the house and found that the clothes in Shannon's bedroom closet had been set on fire, Worrell and his mother said.

Worrell said he has received three threatening notes this week, including one he found Friday that had been stuck in his school books. All of the notes had been written on notebook paper in the same handwriting as the scratches on the car and were signed ``666,' which is considered a symbol of the devil.

One of the notes also threatened four of Worrell's friends at Hallsboro High School, but Principal J.D. Gore said Friday that none of the other students had been threatened or harassed in any way.

Worrell said Friday that he had no idea who might want to harm him. ``I get along with everybody,' he said.

Singletary said Friday that he had no suspects in the case, which has provoked numerous calls from residents worried about the talk of satanism. ``It's causing people to panic because it's not something they're accustomed to,' Singletary said. ``It's like a cancer in the community.'

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