Author Archives: D R

A fraternity family trick

Background on informant: Informant is a senior at USC, studying international relations. He is from the Bay Area and lived and studied in Russia for a year.

Informant: Whenever a new member of our family gets initiated, we’ll tell them that there’s a really special handed-down object that only people in the family know about and have seen. And we’ll basically bring some kind of bag or container and be like, alright we need to do this practically. And now that you are officially initiated you can see it. And we’ll open it up and it will be an ICE.

Analysis: The interesting thing about this initiation is that it asks the participant to engage with the initiation — the participant knows that the initiation is taking place — but then it turns out to be a trick, and a good trick, of course, if the participant happens to like Smirnoff ICE. Moreover, the initiation has a clear frame but seems to change every time it is performed — with a different bag or container, as informant says “some” bag or container. It also has all the other aspects of an initiation; it serves as a rite of passage for the participant, who once he has done the initiation has passed through the liminal space, is in on the trick, and is thus a full member.


Background on informant: Informant is a sophomore at Harvard, from Los Angeles, and studying psychology. He is also involved in an outdoor club and intramural crew.

Informant: This is a story that’s been told and retold within my outdoors community. So, on a trip for freshmen, the two leaders decided to play a prolonged prank on the participants. They had a “sleeper cell” in the participants, that is, one of the participants was really an upperclassman in on the prank. Anyway, the trip was going well until one night, one of the leaders when off to set up the prank. OK, now the prank was set up. Again, the trip was going well. Now it’s nighttime, and everyone was sitting around the campfire. And suddenly, everyone realized one of the participants was missing — this of course was the sleeper cell guy. And then everyone went looking for this missing participant, obviously concerned about the “where the hell is Joe?” issue. So they all arrive at this clearing, a really creepy looking clearing with like 10 or so trees all in a circle around the clearing and just like pine needles strewn all about the forest floor. And, oh, there was a tree in the center of the circle. Now tied to this tree with a fake stake through his chest, hung a very bloody, very seemingly dead participant. There was some iron-reddish fake blood oozing from his mouth and some fake intestines around his chest where the stake was driven in. So everyone stared, freaked the hell out, at their dead freshman friend as he slowly raised his head.

He uttered one word: “RUN.”

Taking the advice of their dead freshman friend, everybody started running like it was the end of the world and he leaders who organized this poorly thought out prank apparently had to get help from a rescue squad to ultimately find everyone. One participant was a cross country runner who apparently ran some 15 miles straight before being found. The leaders were apparently expelled and everyone freaked out with good reason.

Analysis: This story is a great legend because the truth value is questionable to say the least but the story itself is more than plausible. One could definitely see it happening. Moreover, the informant said the specific story did not occur at his school, which only further contributes to the legendary quality that it assumes. Furthermore, there is clearly a purpose to telling this story. The narrative has a clear message, actually several. 1) Don’t wander off from the group 2) Hiking is serious; don’t play stupid pranks 3) Make sure to fully evaluate a given situation before reacting.


Four challenges

Background on informant: Informant is a sophomore at Harvard, from Los Angeles, and studying psychology. He is also involved in an outdoor club and intramural crew.

Informant: There are four challenges you’re supposed to do at Harvard. I don’t know the origin of these challenges but I know they are important, from a sort of personal pride perspective and maybe a bit of peer-pressure. The first is to urinate on the foot of the John Harvard statues, a popular tourist destination–it is a tradition for tourists to rub the foot for good luck. It’s not good luck; it’s just unsanitary. The next is to have sex in the stacks of the library. This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but you don’t want to get caught obviously, so there’s some strategy required. Next up is jumping off the John Week’s Bridge which connects Cambridge and Boston over the Charles River. The Charles is notoriously nasty and until quite recently, it was too unclean to be safe to even swim in. But given the 25 foot drop off the bridge, this one is a good one for adrenaline seekers. The next and last is to participate in the Primal Scream, a biannual event in which a huge cohort of naked students sprint a lap around the yard.

Analysis:  The informant’s phrasing of “four challenges you’re supposed to do at Harvard” is interesting because it suggests that these initiation practices are integral to claiming an identity to the institution. In this way, they operate in a liminal space, serving as a rite of passage. Interestingly, as well, all of the challenges require that the participant take a risk or give something of himself or herself. In order to be a part of the community, in might suggest, the participant must make a sacrifice that is tangible and could potentially have real consequences.

Initiation for a Final Club

Background on informant: Informant is a sophomore at Harvard, from Los Angeles, and studying psychology. He is also involved in an outdoor club and intramural crew.

Informant: My friend at Harvard was telling me about initiation for an exclusive male “final club.” For initiation, the newly minted members were told to chug beer–the nasty, watered-down college type of beer. However, the beer these members chugged contained goldfish. Not the “snack that smiles back” cheese-flavored Peppridge Farm kind, but the living, gill-containing, fish-flavored animal goldfish. Through a beer bong, these members apparently chugged live animals, often multiple at a time. Apparently one kid got 12 in one go. There are a lot of stories at Harvard, about it’s history, about it’s students, about it’s weird institutional traditions, and I think most of them aren’t true.

Analysis: This initiation story, as the informant tells it, assumes a sort of fantastic quality. There is a shock value to it, and it’s rather hard to believe. In this way, it could also perhaps be classified as a legend. It also operates in the liminal space. In order to be a member of the fraternity, you must do something thought of by the society in which you live as repulsive. It’s, in fact, one of the things that makes you different, distinguishes you and therefore perhaps makes you a member, in a strange way, of the particular group. I found this story to be outlandish, at first. “There’s no way this happened,” I said to myself. But then later in the day, I was talking to about it with a friend at USC who is active in Greek life. He said it was hardly outlandish and that he too had heard of something similar once. Therefore, this folklore not only distinguishes people within the subgroup but also students involved in social clubs and students not involved in social clubs.

Flick your neck when you’re drunk

Background on informant: Informant is a senior at USC, studying international relations. He is from the Bay Area and lived and studied in Russia for a year.

Informant: You flick your neck when you’re drunk because some carpenter solved some big problem for Peter the Great. The carpenter was an alcoholic. He asked to be able to drink at a bar in the Russian Empire and Peter give him a certificate to do so.  However, since he was an alcoholic, he lost the certificate several times and then Peter tattooed the certificate onto his neck so that when he went into a bar you just flick his neck to say that he could drink.

Analysis: This, in some ways, is a creation legend answering the perhaps rather trivial question: What is the origin of flicking your neck when you drink? It’s truth value is unlikely but it’s plausible. It’s fitting too that my friend said he heard this story when he was in fact not sober. This myth appears in other places, including on the website: “Hayward, Mose. ‘The Outstanding Russian Gestures That Should Be Adopted by Everyone.’ Tipsy Pilgrim.  31 Mar. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.” The additional source adds that the carpenter might have been a shipbuilder, throwing further question on the truth value, and says flicking the neck can apply in many situations: “And so to this day Russians —and those who drink with Russians — tap our necks to indicate that we’re drunk, or someone else is drunk, or that drinking is about to happen.”