Author Archives: kkussman

Frat Initiation: Fight Night

Background: The informant was born and raised in southern California. He is a sophomore at the University of Southern California and joined greek life in the spring semester of his freshman year. The following is a ritual that occurred at the end of his freshman spring semester just prior to his graduation from “pledge” to “active member.”

Context: This piece was collected in a casual setting in the informants apartment. It was a staged interview so it did not come from a completely natural recount of the ritual. We are good friends so the setting was relaxed, although the informant was adamant on retaining confidentiality surrounding his identity. 

Piece: 

The following is a summary of a conversation, including a few direct quotations, so as to protect the identity of the individual and his fraternity.  

After a semester of hazing, pledges (people who have pledged to join a certain fraternity but have not been completely initiated into the fraternity) the pledge masters (who are active members of the fraternity responsible for the hazing/initiation rituals) gather the pledges and any active members who are interested  in participating in a large room in the frat house. The pledges and active members then form a circle. One of the pledge masters then goes into the center of the circle and says, “Pledges, who do you have problems with?” 

The pledges then wait silently until one of them declares that they have a problem with another frat member (active or pledge). At that point, the member who made the declaration along with the member who they declared to have issue with enter the center of the circle along with the referee who is usually the pledgemaster. The surrounding frat members begin to cast bets on who will win while others bang on their chests and jeer. The fighting consists of “slap boxing” for three rounds regulated by the referee. Often if a pledge or active falls during the fight, the surrounding crowd will shout statements like, “Get the fuck up!” and encourage the continuation of the fight. 

While both active members and pledges make up the circle, only pledges are allowed to call upon other members to enter the circle. It is considered taboo to refuse to enter the circle after being called out.

The informant noted that the night was a time to release pent up anger against fellow frat members who had issues with each other. The event occurs in the final week, dubbed “Hell Week,” before the pledges are officially inducted into the fraternity. It is not uncommon for participants to develop broken bones or other injuries during the event.

Analysis: 

I wasn’t very surprised to hear that violence, an action that typically denotes masculinity in American culture, was so deeply intertwined in the tradition considering the heteronormative history of Greek life on university campuses. Although the ritual is violent, the informant was not bothered, often laughing as recounting the event and suggesting that the event is not perceived, at least by him, as a traumatizing event but is rather an empowering event. 

The ritual serves as a brief dismissal from the hierarchy within the fraternity and allows for retribution. By seeking vengeance for abuse (perceived or real) at the hands of other pledges and active members, the pledges are able to gain equal status and regain respect and dignity by evening the score. The taboo on refusing to enter the circle further ensures that pledges are put on the same stage as other members of the fraternity who may have brutalized them. It allows pledges (who are to be inducted very soon) an opportunity to exert power over other members for the first time.

Dead Baby Joke

Piece:

Informant: What is worse than ten dead babies stapled to one tree?

Collector: I don’t know. What?

Informant: One dead baby stapled to ten trees. 

Context: The piece was collected during a casual interview. I grew up hearing the informant telling dead baby jokes so I asked her to participate in an interview to collect one. 

Background: The informant is my twenty-two year old sister. She learned this piece from friends in high school who shared her self-proclaimed “dark humor.” She both attended high school and currently lives in San Diego, California. She is an avid metal and alternative music fan with a love of body modifications including tattoos and piercings.

Analysis: Dead baby jokes are most common among teenagers and people in their early twenties, coinciding with my sister’s age both when she learned the joke and when it was performed for this collection. I believe my sister particularly enjoys this genre of joke because it is very grim and graphic. She participates in numerous unconventional subcultures that involve bold displays of self expression (including seven face piercings and visible neck and hand tattoos) that may be considered tabooistic. The joke finds humor in infant death, a subject usually not discussed openly or with humor if discussed at all. In doing so, the joke is at odds with social convention in the same way that my sister’s displays of self expression may be.

For more information on dead baby jokes, see:

Dundes, Alan. “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle.” Western folklore 38, no. 3 (January 1, 1979): 145–157. http://search.proquest.com/docview/75040401/.


Lifting Your Legs Over Train Tracks for Good Luck

Context: The informant and I were driving in the car when we passed over train tracks and she told me the piece. The piece was collected in its natural performance setting.

Background: The informant is my mother, who is a third generation Irish immigrant. She learned the piece as a child from her parents who would say it when passing over train tracks.  

Piece:

“Lift your legs for good luck!” 

Analysis: I grew up hearing this piece from my mom every time we drove over train tracks. Neither one of us knows why it is good luck, but I believe it is an exercise in controlling something tangible to control the intangible. Train tracks can be dangerous places. By lifting our legs, perhaps we are attempting to subvert this danger. Some variants of this practice involve lifting one’s legs in order to prevent them from being chopped off by the train tracks while other variants threaten that if one does not lift their legs, they will die young.

For another variant of this practice visit:

Edelen, John. “Lifting Feet Over Train Tracks.” USC Digital Folklore Archives. University of Southern California, May 13, 2019. http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=47643.

Haunted House on Clinton Street in Brooklyn

Piece:

Informant: “See that house right there?”

Collector: “Yeah.”

Informant: “Some guy killed his wife there and now it’s haunted. There have been like six people who have lived there since and they all sold the house within like three months of living there.” 

Collector: “Do you know for sure that the guy killed his wife?”

Informant: “No but that’s what they told me.” 

Context: Me and the informant were leaving a party at the informant’s friend’s apartment on Clinton Street in Brooklyn, NY. We passed a house with a For Sale sign a few doors down when the informant turned to me and told me the piece. 

Background: The informant is a student in New York City. The legend was originally told to him the first time he passed the house while visiting a friend who lives a few doors down from the house. He views the story as making a street that would otherwise be forgotten or insignificant into one that is memorable and interesting. 

Analysis: I enjoyed hearing the piece because it made the walk home much more interesting. It is common for people to invent stories when they notice police cars/commotion but are given no information as a way to trick themselves into feeling informed. I find this story to be an example of this. It is not conventional for many people to move in and out of a house in such an abbreviated period of time, leaving people searching for answers even more. This endows the house as a liminal space, one in which people are never fully settled, making it the perfect breeding ground for ghost stories and folklore more generally. It seems to function as a point of conversation and excitement for the informant and his friend group, coloring their everyday life without necessarily being considered dangerous or fear-inspiring.

British Bus Driver Joke

Piece:

Informant: 

*Speaking in an artificial British accent*

Bus driver pulls up to a bus stop, opens the door, looks out and there’s a guy standing there. This guy has one leg, three eyes, no arms. 

So the bus driver looks at him and says, “Aye aye aye, you look ‘armless.” 

Background: The informant was born in Canada and spent most of his life in America. The joke was originally told to him by his Welsh father who has a natural British accent. The joke reminds the informant of his childhood, a time when he didn’t understand the joke but still enjoyed his father saying it to him. 

Context: The piece was collected while I stayed with the informant and his family during a state mandated stay-at-home order. We are very good friends and have known each other for a long time, making the performance very casual. He and I were about to sit down for dinner with both of his parents when he turned to me and posed the joke before saying it to his dad and asking if he remembered it. The piece was collected in its natural performance setting. 

Analysis: The humor of the joke relies on an understanding of the phrase “Aye aye aye” being a homonym of “eye eye eye”. This is comical due to the potential interpretation of the phrase as both a British greeting and a reference to the man’s three eyes. The second part of the joke relies on the usage of the British accent to omit the /h/ phoneme in “harmless” so that it sounds identical to the word “armless,” referencing the man’s lack of arms. While the joke isn’t considered overwhelmingly humorous to the informant and audience, conjuring a smile rather than a laugh, the informant retells it as a memory of his father and British heritage. For me, hearing the joke was joyful because it symbolized family and quintessential “dad humor.”

Psychiatrist Light Bulb Joke

Piece: 

Informant: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Collector: I don’t know, how many?

Informant: One, but the light has to want to change. 

Context: The informant was sitting next to me while I was doing homework in his living room. He turned over to me and posed the joke. The collection occurred in the piece’s natural performance setting.

Background: The informant is Canadian born, but has lived the majority of his life in the United States. He is the son of a psychologist and has frequently interacted with psychiatrists. To the informant, the joke is incredibly humorous based on the common principle in therapy and mental health treatment that a patient has to want to change for the treatment to be effective. He is unsure of where he learned the joke, but guessed that he may have heard it in a television show. 

Analysis: The joke is a variation on “How many ___ does it take to change a lightbulb?” jokes that often build upon existing stereotypes. This particular joke  relies on the common principle of mental health treatment that a patient has to want to change for the treatment to be effective. It also plays on two interpretations of the word change. On one hand, it relies on change as literal replacement as in the case of the lightbulb. On the other, it relies on change being understood as a mental transformation. Ultimately, the joke plays upon an understanding of Western psychiatry and the idea that a psychiatrist would approach everyday tasks the same way as he/she/they would approach his/her/their work. 

For another version of this joke, see:

Wikipedia. 2001. “Light-Bulb Joke.” Last Modified May 3, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lightbulb_joke&dir=prev&action=history

Eidee : Receiving Money for Nowruz

Background: The informant is a sophomore film student at USC. He learned the tradition from practicing it with his mother’s side of the family during his childhood in San Ramon, CA. His mother was born in the US to Iranian parents and moved back to Iran for a brief period of time before moving back to the US. It is worth noting that the informant prefers the term Persian rather than Iranian when discussing his cultural background.  

Context: The following is transcribed from an over-the-phone interview with the informant. The informant and I are well acquainted so the discussion was casual.

Piece: 

Informant: “The reason I’m saying Nowruz really weirdly is that I usually call it eid. So the money, the two dollar bills my grandma would give us that’s called eidee. Usually people don’t give gifts for eidee like eidee refers to a gift you’ve received because of new years but most people don’t give like a physical gift, most people give money. So like I might get like a twenty dollar or a five dollar, you know like it’s usually small. It’s very symbolic it’s sort of like I think Chinese New Year, you get like the little red envelope. So it’s like a similar thing. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a physical thing as a gift for eidee, maybe my mom just gives me chocolates, you know. It’s just a small little gesture.

Collector: “Is it usually family members who give it to you?”

Informant: “In my experience, the way my family we have the literal family but we also have like you know family friends who are essentially family who I would get eidee from. I mean it’s whoever comes to the [Nowruz/Eid] party. But like my mom would not give eidee to her sister, it’s really more of a thing for the kids. In my family it’s really just a thing for the kids. Maybe my grandma gives it to her daughters, but I doubt it.”

Analysis: Children are often seen as the future, the new/next generation. Because of this, many cultures celebrate the new year by dawning fortune upon children. I’ve heard of a very similar tradition for the Chinese New Year, as mentioned by the informant, in which children are given red envelopes filled with money. I was surprised to hear the informant refer to Nowruz as “Eid” because this is an Arabic, rather than Farsi, word for “festival, holiday.” Eidi is also a word used to refer to a gift given by elders to a child (usually money) usually for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. This practice is very similar to the one described by the informant based on what the gift is and who is giving and receiving it.The informant specified the spelling of “eidee” rather than eidi, but their similar pronunciation and practice is worth noting. In either case, the practice appears to be a way for the past generation (the elders) to invest in the future generation as liminal demarcations of time pass. 

UC Davis Haunted Lecture Hall

Background: The informant is an American UC Davis 2018 alumni who currently works as an actuary in San Diego, CA. He learned the tradition while attending university in Davis, CA, but never partook in it himself. 

Context: The following piece was collected in a brief, casual over-the-phone interview.

Piece: 

Collector: “Were there any haunted places on the UC Davis campus?”

Informant: “Yeah there was a lecture hall…People would say that it was haunted because um it was like a building made in the 1960s with a whole bunch of like narrow corridors and rooms that were really like close together. Um so pretty much like a nightmare. You would be pressed up against forty people trying to get into your classroom. 

Collector: “Why did people think it was haunted?”

Informant: “Um I think like the lights would flicker on and off. They weren’t super good. And then like the rooms on the bottom floor got really cold really fast. But like there were no rumors of people like haunting it at night just because it was such a used lecture hall building that there were always people walking around it.” 

Informant: “Do you remember the name of the lecture hall?”

Collector: “Yeah I do. I think it was called like Wellman.” 

Analysis: College campuses are often the setting of ghost stories and hauntings as they are liminal spaces in which students are often transitioning from adolescence to adulthood and are forming their own belief systems. I was surprised at how little explanation and description were offered surrounding why the building was haunted, although it is important to note that while the informant was familiar with the legend, he does not believe in ghosts nor any other supernatural entity. According to the perspective he offered, the haunting appears to not have been an intensive or detailed legend, but was merely a way to make a mundane space interesting. Coldness/chills are often associated with haunted places and was used as a sort of proof of hauntedness in this class. This association may be related to how the human body temperature lowers following death or could be associated with the sense of shock that cold temperatures procure. Ultimately, this legend doesn’t appear to have much stake in actually convincing people that the hall is haunted, but rather serves as a way to color the everyday and generate excitement.

UC Davis “Undie Run”

Background: The informant is an American UC Davis 2018 alumni who currently works as an actuary in San Diego, CA. He learned the tradition while attending university in Davis, CA, but never partook in it himself. 

Context: The following piece was collected in a brief, casual over-the-phone interview.

Piece: 

Informant: “So around finals, usually like the Wednesday of finals week every semester there was an ‘undie run.’ So everyone uh, if you were going to donate your clothes would just strip off whatever clothes you were going to donate, leave them there, and then just run around the campus in your underwear.” 

Collector: “Wait so there’s like a clothing drive?”

Informant: “Uh, there was at some portions er like at some of them like as I was going there it seemed like it was becoming less and less popular.”

Collector: “But people still took off their clothes and ran around in their underwear?”

Informant: “Yeah in like a big group, a big mob. They’d run through all the dorms, all the like cafeterias so you’d be like out getting cookies and there’d be a bunch of people just acting like drunk idiots.”

Collector: “Would they be drunk?”

Informant: “I’m sure some people were drunk but not most of them.”

Collector: “Was it during the day or at night?”

Informant “Mostly at night. Anyone who wants to go can it’s like a Facebook event.” 

Analysis: I have heard of a similar tradition at USC in which seniors run across campus half-naked and swim in each of the fountains before graduation. This tradition differs in that it is open to all UC Davis students and occurs more than once in an academic year. Finals week is a transitory period in which the results from a semester’s worth of classes is still largely undetermined. It is usually a very stressful time for students, so the undie run provides a brief liberation from traditional social expectations. It’s important that it happens in a group so that the act becomes more publicly acceptable. If it were just one individual, it is possible that they would get arrested for public nudity, whereas a larger group performance assures the unlikelihood that law enforcement would be able to punish every individual. It would be interesting to examine more colleges across the country to see how many have an underwear run tradition.

PLUR Handshake and the Exchanging of Kandi – Rave Culture

Background: The informant is my twenty-two year old sister. She learned this piece from attending multiple raves and EDM music festivals in the southern California region. She is an avid metal and alternative music fan with a love of body modifications including tattoos and piercings as well as horror films. 

Context: The following was collected in a casual in-person interview in the informant’s home. 

Piece: 

The following is a transcription of a conversation about the exchanging of Kandi (which are homemade bracelets often with colorful plastic beads) in EDM culture through the handshake dubbed “P.L.U.R.” 

Collector: What does PLUR mean?

Informant: “Peace, love, unity, respect. So basically to anybody it means coming together and sharing something with like another person. My favorite part about it is like if you’re really connecting with someone at like party or you know like a rave um I’ll look at somebody and I’ll be like okay you look like you’re a hella stoner so we’ll like talk about be like ‘Hey like what’s your name oh my god you’re so cool’ and maybe dance a little bit and then we’ll do like this thing. So it goes peace, love, unity, and respect. And I would bring it over and then you would look at what it says. And it says ‘Smoke weed everyday.’ 

Collector: Do all of the bracelets have words on them? 

Informant: “Um not all of them have words. So like some people will be like ‘Oh it’s my first rave blah blah blah’ and you could just give them whatever. But like, for me like why I enjoy it is like I’ve been lucky enough to have people who have given me stuff with words. And I like to spread ones with words because its like way more personal and shows that like you really connect with somebody.”

Collector: So you wouldn’t do it with someone you don’t really vibe with.

Informant: “No but um I mean I feel like you vibe with everybody at those events. Usually though like if I’m giving you one, you’re giving me one back. So like you would have one and we would both look at our things and be like oh this relates to you or this is cute or you’ll like this or I hate this one so. For people I don’t really vibe with I’ll give them my ugliest one.”

Images of the process are included here: 

Peace is represented by the two participants touching their index and pointer fingers to each other, making peace signs. 
Love is represented by the two participants joining curved hands to form a heart. 
Unity is represented with two flat hands with the palms touching each other and thumbs wrapped around the opposite hand. 
Respect is represented with the interlacing of the two individuals’ fingers and the bracelet being drawn from the wrist of one individual to another. 

Analysis: The PLUR handshake is a fun and fast way of building a community and making friends at raves, parties, and even the beach. Kandi is a way to visibly identify those who participate in EDM culture and serves as a sort of invitation to others who participate in this culture to engage in conversation and even friendship. Historically, raves have been dangerous places with illicit drugs and little supervision. Woodstock 99, a 1999 music festival, ended in destructive riots and other festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival have had numerous deaths. Although raves and festivals are much safer today, with medical staff readily standing by, the PLUR and Kandi traditions began in 1990s underground rave culture when this wasn’t the case. I believe the ritual functions to reassure rave goers and build a network of accountability and trust. Since drugs like ecstasy and LSD are often consumed at these events, the handshake may also serve as a positive affirmation in order to assure that participants are having a “good trip.” Furthermore, EDM culture has historically been inclusive toward minority groups and LGBTQ. I believe this handshake is an extension of the welcoming and respectful undertones of EDM culture.