Tag Archives: initiation ritual

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.

Gertrude the Theater Ghost

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (AH).

AH: “So when I was at Salinas High, I was very active in theater. And the first year of my theater program, the older classmen have always told the freshmen about gertrude who is our theater ghost. And I kinda thought that it was all bullshit at first, you know, I didn’t really believe in ghosts, and I didn’t think that it was anything worth paying attention to until my sophomore year. Now the story behind Gertrude, is um… Gertrude was one of the first students at Salinas High back in…..actually I don’t remember when the school opened. But the story was that she was one of the first students there, the first freshman when the school opened. And she was in love with a boy from the opposing school, and he was colored as well. So it was a big to-do. And one night she snuck out to go see him, and he got caught, and he got beaten up by some of her family members. And so he ended up dying from the beating. And she was just so overwhelmed with grief, and she was in the basement of the theater, which back then I don’t remember what it was, at one point it was a bowling alley… but yeah, she went down to the basement and took her own life. And so she has continued to haunt Salinas High for the rest of eternity.”

CB: “Why do you think that the upperclassmen would tell the underclassmen the story?”

AH: “I used to think that the upperclassmen told them to try and scare them and as a kind of hazing sort of thing. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I actually thought gertrude might be real.”

CB: “Well why do you think it’s important to share the story still?”

AH: “As a warning for one, because some scary shit goes on. Like some really unexplainable stuff has happened. And so we explain it with Gertrude, you know, it’s kinda our way of reasoning. And I think that it also passes down a certain tradition to kinda keep a connection between older and younger generations.”

CB: “And what does Gertrude mean to you?”

AH: “Gertrude will forever hold a place in my heart as my first theater ghost. She probably scared the shit out of me more than any other theater ghost I’ve ever encountered.”

Background:

My informant has spent many years actively involved in theater programs, and attended a high school with a very active program. There are tons of stories of theater ghosts, and the tradition can be seen going back to ancient times. Every theater has a different ghost, with a different personality. The story and moral associated with the ghost changes depending on the theater in order to represent the values associated with the theater.

Context:

My informant called me with stories prepared after hearing that I had been interviewing other members of our family for folklore. We had a fun and casual conversation, exchanging versions of stories that we had heard growing up.

Thoughts:

Growing up in Salinas, my informant was in a very diverse community with staggering differences in socioeconomic status. This led to a lot of racial tension. It makes sense that their ghost’s story would portray this tension, however it’s interesting that it is portrayed as tragic. By doing this, this specific theater makes it clear what sort of attitudes are and are not tolerable within their community. My informant cites that the older members of the community told the new members as a warning against the actions of the ghost, but I believe that it was also told as a code of conduct. The older members used the story as a way to acknowledge that bigoted sentiments are common in the larger community, but to remind the new member that they are not tolerable in their theater’s community. My informant also cited the ghost as a means to explain unexplained incidents. She claims the ghost is memorable because of these incidents and her belief in it. In this way, by first explaining the code of conduct, and then by introducing the new members to a shared belief, the story telling acts as an initiation ritual. Once the new member accepts the code of conduct and respects the beliefs, they are a member of the community.

Convocation

Main Piece (Direct Transcription):

A tradition at my school for all sixth graders is called convocation.  I remember my first day of sixth grade, they paired me up with a senior the first day of school and we walked up the long brick pathway at our school up to the gym.  It’s a way of initiating the entering sixth graders into the school, and kind of a way of saying farewell to the seniors since it will be their last year.   After we went to the gym, we took our seats to listen to a convocation speech.

 

Context:  The informant K, my brother, is a high school student living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He attends the same middle/high school that I attended, and we were talking about all the interesting and unique traditions that our school has while I was home for spring break.  I was reminiscing about different events that I was able to take part in while I was a student at the school, while listening to my brother’s perspective and take on these different traditions.  We both agreed that we feel like our school is very unique, and that we don’t believe a lot of schools have the traditions that ours does.  Although folklore is often considered to be something that larger groups of people can relate to, I believe that folklore and tradition surrounding schools and small local areas are sometimes some of the most interesting to hear about.  It gives insight into how the individuals in these areas live and gives valuable insight into what their values might be.  Because of this, I asked my brother to tell me more about his experience with these traditions to tell in my folklore collection.

 

 

My Thoughts:

I have an interesting perspective on this tradition because I was both the sixth grader and the senior.  Although it is one event that the whole school takes part of, there are several different perspectives individuals can have on the event.  Since my brother is only a junior in high school right now, he has not yet gotten to walk a 6th grader up the path and has only been the 6th grader walked by a senior.  I was both the 6th grader, feeling nervous and excited on the first day of school, and the senior, feeling sentimental on the last first day at the school.  I was also able to be the spectator from grade 7 to 11, and still felt excited watching the seniors and new sixth graders walk into the gym after their walk up the path.  This traditional ceremony at the school is something that a lot of people look forward to every year, and I believe it serves as an excellent first entrance to the school for 6th graders.  The school has so many unique and powerful traditions and ceremonies that happen year after year, and the new students are able to get a small taste of what is in store for them throughout their time at this school.

Touching the Fire

Main Piece
I don’t know how it started, but every year during homecoming, the freshman are in charge of building a big bonfire in the center of the green at Dartmouth, and you run around it for as many years of your graduation year, plus 100 now because it started in the 1900’s, so for example for my 2018, we were supposed to run around 118 times, but usually we just ran around 18 times. The upperclassmen would stand on the outside and like, jeer and stuff. So every year, something they want the freshman to do is to touch the fire, it is like a sign of being cool, like if you touch the fire, because its dangerous or whatever, and even now the police surround it, because they really don’t want people to do it, so it is really hard to do. So like, every year, all the upperclassmen scream “touch the fire! Touch the fire!”, and at least one person will do it every year. So this year, they even put a chainlink fence around the fire, but people still hopped it and touched it. And you are known for the rest of your Dartmouth experience for it.

Background
The informant attended Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she learned this story. She learned of this through experience and action, although she never personally touched the fire. She heard of the change this year through her college friends.

Context
The informant is a 23-year-old women, born and raised in Southern California. She attended Dartmouth up until last year, having graduated in 2018. She provided this information while sitting outside her family home in Palm Springs, California on April 20th, 2019.

Analysis
I love this tradition, but really am saddened to see institutions destroying traditions in the name of social progress or “safety”. I mean, it makes sense that the university wouldn’t want students touching a bonfire, for their own safety, but also that the university doesn’t wanted to leave itself open to a lawsuit. I just think they should not endorse the tradition, but not forcefully try to stop it! I love how enduring traditions are when they are held by a large group of people – even though the school is trying to stop the students, they have not been able to. With a university as old as Dartmouth, it makes complete sense that they have a lot of long-term, enduring traditions. I also love how legendary you become after taking part of the tradition – if I attended Dartmouth University, I would be sure to try my best to touch it! The continuation of this tradition in verbal form allows the informant to interact back with her own experience in the tradition, keeping it alive in her mind, but also in the world by passing it on.

Fraternity Fountain Sticker Tradition

“Every semester, the pledges always have the job of making sure a sticker with our fraternitys letters are stuck onto the side of the Finger Fountain. Its almost a game, and if actives see the stickers theyre supposed to take them off the fountain,  and then a pledge is supposed to immediately replace it. If no stickers are found on the fountain then the pledges get in trouble.” 

When talking with my friend about whether his fraternity hazes or not, the informant told me about this tradition first, which I found rather humorous. Helearned about it in his pledge semester and older brothers in the house say that it’s been done since the finger fountain was first built. The informant didn’t really understand the purpose of constantly applying stickers but I came to the conclusion that it’s a way of the house making its mark on the school and identifying with it. Furthermore, it could be seen as a way of having the pledge make his mark on the fraternity. It’s a task meant to test those who are dedicated and really want to join, as those who don’t replace the stickers display a less serious and caring attitude about pledging the fraternity chapter.

The Circle

Context:

I had asked one of my friends, who was an actor and writer, if she had any sort of acting or theater folklore.

 

Interview:

Informant: In my theater group that I participated in when I was in high school. Before every show, we had something called the “Circle” where we would all circle up and we would all hold hands. It was very, very ritualized. In the center of the circle we would have like a little table and it would have a candle on it. We changed candle-holders a couple of times, and the last one was this really cool dragon-style candle-holder. And we would have a copy of the script and a coin. It would be any coin that the director literally pulled out of his pocket. And he would tell us that every time – it was just an average coin that he would pull from his pocket every time. And while we were in this circle what we would first do is hold hands and he would have us breathe together. And he would go, “breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. As we breathe together as one, we are as one.” And that’s how we would start it every time. And he would go – It would change slightly every time, but the speech that he would give would be pretty much “we walked in each other’s footsteps, we’re a great team, we’re going to make this a great show.” And then at the end of this little spiel, he would pull out the coin. And he would talk about how the coin is a circle and the circle is a symbol of all of us together, so put yourself into this coin. And the coin would be passed around the circle and usually what people would do is people would hold it over their hearts. Some people would just hold it in their hands, but most people would hold it over their hearts and then would pass it on to the next one. Then he would talk about how excited he was for this. And then at the very end we would all, instead of holding each others’ hands we would put our hands over each others’ shoulders and we would get in really close, as close as we could. And the candle was lit the whole time, and at this point he would blow it out. We would get down really close and we would all kneel down and we would start really, really quietly and we would be like, “It’s showtime. It’s showtime.” And we would build, build, build, until we screamed it. And then that was the end of our circle, and that is how we would start every show.

Me: So a little pep rally type thing?

Informant: Yeah, so even, even when it wasn’t a big show, even if it was a little charity show and it was only like five of us, we would still do the circle.

Me: Nice. Nice.

Informant: Yeah. And that was our opening circle. And we would have the closing circle at the end wihich wasn’t as elaborate. IT was just we get in a circle and we all kind of cried about missing it and then we would do the showtime thing again.

Me: Uh huh.

Informant: I do remember one time we were doing this, we had a live band who had never been in a theater show before, like they had no idea what we were doing. And it was perfect because none of this was planned. But one of these guys, the guitarist was joking around as was like, “what is this, is this some kind of cult thing?” ‘Cause we were like literally all standing in a circle around a candle in the dark.

[Laughter]

Informant: And is this some sort of cult thing, and my director goes no it’s not, guys tell them. And so every single person – about twenty people – answer in like a low monotone chant, “this is not a cult.”

Me: [Laughter] That is absolutely hilarious. And entirely spontaneous?

Informant: Yes, entirely spontaneous and we really freaked out the band members, it was great. We got them to get in the circle, but it was funny.

Me: That is really funny.

Informant: So that’s the circle that we had for our theater.

 

Analysis:

Most performance groups, like a theater troupe or a sports team, have their own little ritualistic warm-up routines. This ritual that my friend’s theater group performed was used to psych themselves up for their performances. It got their blood running, and the adrenaline pumping. It was, essentially, a highly ritualized pep rally that was catered towards a close-knit group of people who did what they loved and loved what they did. Also, this shows just how weird such pre-game, pre-performance rituals can be, but also how effective they can be for preparing a member of the group, for getting the group into the right state of mind to go out there and do whatever it is that they are doing. Furthermore, it can be seen as a way to initiate new members into the group, as evidenced with the live band members who were invited to join, and join they did. Such rituals help also to create a strong bond of friendship and camaraderie among the members of the group, which is incredibly important for such groups as a theater troupe or a sports team, as such groups rely heavily on teamwork.

Confirmation of Faith

Context:

I aksed one of my catholic friends if she had any traditions that her Church did.

 

Interview:

Me: Really, just whatever you have.

Informant: All right. I was just considering talking about Confirmation. Cause, I’m Catholic, well sort of-ish. I haven’t gone to church in a while, or done anything real religious in a while. But, maybe then I can talk about…Do you want an overview of what it is?

Me: I know more or less what it is, as I did go to a Catholic school for several years.

Informant: Then do you want a specific part, maybe what the actual ceremony is like?

Me: Yeah, maybe.

Informant: Okay. ‘Cause it is a two-year thing, well at least in my church. It might vary from church to church. And some places, the times at which you do confirmation vary some. Like some Catholics would do it younger. But I didn’t go to Catholic school, I just went to the church nearby.

Me: Yeah. At my school, we had the preparation for Confirmation, the class that would prepare us for Confirmation in eighth grade.

Informant: Today is the 26th, right?

Me: 25th, I believe. Okay. So just start talking then. So I went through something similar. I’m not Catholic but I am Protestant, but we went through a “Confirmation of Faith.” I remember that what we did was we wrote up a statement, like a one-page paper essentially confirming our faith.

Informant: Yeah. We did something like that, but it was more to choose your “saint name” – you had to research he saints, find one you liked and then do a little report on them and why you picked them.

Me: Interesting, ’cause I remember that my statement of faith was not what everyone else’s was like, what people were expecting. ‘Cause I did my confirmation of faith in my ninth grade, and we were studying the scriptures in our religion class in school. And so my statement was completely different from most people. ‘Cause most people were like writing about how the church has changed them, how they have so many fond memories of the church. I wrote about, I can’t even remember what exactly I wrote about, but it was completely more academic. It was like entirely academic or something.

Informant: Well the point of confirmation that they told us was that they wanted you to, it was when you become an adult in the eyes of the church. So you could go up and do readings for the church, you can serve the church in ways that you couldn’t before, when you weren’t confirmed. I mean, I can’t remember precisely what you were allowed to do after you were confirmed besides read in front of the church during the masses, it was probably organizing fundraisers or something like that. Anyway, that’s what they told us, and that’s why, instead of baptizing us in front of the church, which doesn’t count, because it is not performed with you’re consent, as you’re like only a baby, you have no idea what’s going on.

Me: Yeah, I know that that is one of the reasons why some religions wait until their children are old enough to be able to give their consent to baptize them.

Informant: I guess the thought was that you were baptized, but weren’t really thought of as a member until you were confirmed. So that was the point. Basically the way Confirmation worked was that you went to class on every other Sunday after church. You would all go to ten o’clock mass, you would all have to go to mass together, and when you were at mass, the people who were in confirmation were the ones who did the ushering, passed the collection plates around, brought the bread and wine up to the altar. So we would all have to go and show up for ten o’clock mass. And at my church ten o’clock was like the mass where you dress nice. Normally my family would go to eight o’clock because all you had to do was go there for an hour, hour and a half, get communion, and leave. But for ten o’clock mass you had to dress nice and you had to stay the whole time, cause you were in confirmation class, you couldn’t just leave early. And after that you had a class. The class was…it was about…they had this little Christian magazine thingy that they gave to you that you had to read through it. It had different aspects of the faith, different moral values, that kind of stuff. But mostly you had to do a lot of service – a lot of community service.

Me: Not surprising, yeah.

Informant: Yeah. It’s, actually during a lot of the time that we were talking about the magazine thingy we would do some kind of service thing. You had to do a certain amount of hours and there were all kinds of events that you could go to. Like, there was the winter sweet shop thing where you would help to bake cookies and would then help to sell them at the bake sale later that week. And the Easter thing where you would help plan the Easter egg hunt for the little kids who went to the church, and have a little Easter baskets and set up the place and stuff Easter eggs. Those are the two that I remember the most but there were other ones. There was one on Thanksgiving where we made lunches for the homeless, and another one where we made cards for Christmas or something. I can’t remember exactly.

Me: Yeah. I remember that we did community service in our youth group at church.

Informant: Yeah. That was more or less it. It’s  been a while after all. I do remember that one of the other important things was that you had to go up and read in front of the church, ’cause our church, and I’m not sure if it is structured differently with other Catholic churches, but there are three readings, the first two are from the first part of the Bible and the third one is the Gospel.

Me: Oh yeah. That’s pretty standard.

Informant: Yeah. So you had to go up and read one of those two readings and you had to do it at least once or once per year. And the first one that I had to do was the Palm Sunday reading, which was this really long reading right before the Gospel, and it was also the narrator which was the longest part. That was terrible. Thankfully, the people at church are forgiving, and said that I did fine. And one of the things that we had to do was we had to pick a saint name. We were told to go on the internet, to look up the different Catholic saints, choose which one you liked and have a one-page paper about who that saint is, what the represent, and why you picked them.

Me: Uh huh.

Informant: Yeah. So the one that I picked was Lucia, the patron saint of eyes, writing, light, and in her story, she was betrothed to this pagan person and she refused to get married to him so he had her eyes cut out, but she could still see without them, thus why she is the patron saint of eyes. Although, personally, I question, I guess, what’s so brave, still, there are braver things than being mutilated and dying. But maybe that’s just me. Also, it’s kind of funny that I have terrible eyesight and I chose the patron saint of eyes as my patron saint.

Me: Yeah.

Informant: So for the actual ceremony, which was at the end of the second year. It would be at a different church entirely and you would go with other churches who were in the same dioces. What I remember is that you had to dress nicely, but not fancy ballroom nicely, just church clothes nicely. You got a robe and you went in there for service with the bishop of the dices, and you stayed there and you would all go in a line. At least our class in particular had to do readings. After that, you come down, you are blessed as your saint name, you are a member of the church, shake hands with the bishop and then you leave to celebrate with your own families. And that was Confirmation.

 

Analysis:

The practice of confirmation became a tradition most likely around the time that people began baptizing children when they were infants, rather than when they were adults. There are three important milestones in a Catholic’s life, at least in terms of the church – baptism, which is performed soon after birth, first communion – which happens at about 7-8 years old, the “Age of Reason,” and confirmation – which happens around 14-16 years old. Confirmation became a tradition because it was the ceremony, the sacrament that made a person an official member of the church. Confirmation is a ceremony in which a person simply states their faith for the entire congregation to hear. It is a right of initiation, and those who go through it are then seen as adults in the eyes of the church, and anyone who is not confirmed will forever be seen as an outsider to the church, never a full member. It is a right of passage into adulthood, at least in the eyes of the church.

Gang Initiation

“There’s an urban legend in Detroit, Michigan. To join a gang you have to drive around with your lights off and then the first person who flashes their lights at you to turn your lights on, you have to follow them and kill them.”

The informant told me about this initiation ritual at the very end of our interview. He said that he heard it from his brother, who is also from Detroit. The informant grew up in a suburb outside of Detroit. He likes to think of Detroit as tough and dirty. This legend of a gang initiation ritual reinforces this image of the city. The informant said that he finds the idea of randomly killing a stranger terrifying. However, he still likes to tell the tale of the ritual.

I think this process for initiating gang members is extremely harsh. I don’t know why anyone would participate in such an inhumane practice. However, it is a little romantically horrible; it could take place in a serial killer tv show or a scary novel. I have heard of similar gang initiation practices. In fact, another informant informed me that there is the exact same ritual here in Los Angeles. It makes me more wary of flashing my lights at people if they don’t have their lights on, which I do regularly when I drive. Therefore, the informant’s use of this tale to characterize Detroit as harsh is a little off target, because it isn’t unique to Detroit. Culture is defined by its folklore, from both within and outside of it. The informant used the folklore to define Detroit culture, even though it isn’t all of the culture of Detroit and it doesn’t belong only to Detroit. The ritual is terrifying and reflects how harsh and scary gangs can be.

“You guys have it easy”

According to my source, in the marine core, whenever the senior group is about to graduate, they tell the new recruits who’ve just come in that they are having a much easier time than the ones graduating. Depending on who’s in charge and the current politics, it actually does fluctuate in difficulty, but the graduating class always tells the newer recruits this even if it’s slightly untrue. Regardless, there’s no such thing as easy marine core boot camp. According to my source, it’s so difficult that half the guys don’t make it to graduation.

My source heard this when he was beginning his training when he was in his 20s, and says that the men who do it do so to make themselves feel better and make the new group feel like they’re not as tough as older ones are. He claims that it’s human nature to want to think that you’re better and stronger than the next guy coming through. It may also be that intimidating the new trainees into wanting to be better and stronger than the group before them is both a sort of initiation ritual and a way to sort of inspire the new recruits.

I’ve personally seen this sort of thing in junior high and high school regarding certain classes and P.E., so it’s definitely seen outside of this setting and can apply towards different situations.