Tag Archives: fraternity

Pledge Secrets

Main Description:

AB: “What other frat traditions can you tell me about?”

RD: “Ugh, it’s hard… there’s like, so many things I could talk about but I can’t tell you. Oh my god, I think I know one… Maybe I’ll tell you, but let me think about it for a second… Oh I know what to tell you, this is safe.”

“So, on the first night of pledging, it’s a really long night, and most of it’s just learning the fundamentals, like chants, and stuff. That’s the part I can’t tell you about, and there’s so much there. That’s like, the stuff that’s written down in the official Chi Delt* handbook. But what I’m about to tell you about is something that just our frat does. Anyway, like I was saying, after the pledges do all the chants and other things I can’t tell you about we do something called “shut-in.”* Everybody in the frat has to be there, and we all share really personal stories. It’s really late at that point, usually like four A.M., so were all tired as hell and like, just already really drained. You don’t have to tell a story, but like, you have to. I was never ready, so I don’t remember telling any good stories, but guys will talk about really dark and really personal stuff. They’ll talk about like drug addiction and abusive family members… God, people have shared some tragic things. Sometimes people share funny ones to lighten up the mood though. Anyways, it’s a pretty big deal. People will save bad things that happened to them just to share them at shut-in. Part of the shut-in thing is also being supportive. You cheer people on when they get upset or start crying.”

Informant’s interpretation:

AB: “So, why is this tradition so important to your frat, and to you?”

RD: “I mean, I think it’s the first time you get depth out of some people. Guys don’t usually talk about super heavy stuff, so a lot of people seem just like, kinda empty until they open up. It’s a moment of connection, which is pretty much why I joined a frat in the first place. I’ve always been anxious around straight men and not super close with them, so this was really, like, probably the first time in my life I ever felt a deep connection with a straight guy.”

Personal interpretation:

The informant emphasizes the importance of connecting with fraternity brothers in this tradition. As he notes, American men are typically not open about personal difficulties, so moments like this are crucial to establishing the bonds of trust needed between fraternity members. The name, “shut-in,” suggests the security of the stories shared that night, alluding to the importance of trust.


*names invented to respect informant’s wishes

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. 


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.


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.

The Brown Helmet


Informant (R): Yeah the KA’s had a tradition, we called the Brown Helmet, um, we had a travelling trophy that was awarded to the last person that got dumped by a date or a girlfriend. Uh and it was a brown army helmet. The reason it was brown or was called the Brown Helmet, or why it was appropriate was because you had been shat on by your girlfriend or your date who dumped you. So you know if you were unlucky enough to have the brown helmet, you were just waiting for someone to get dumped so you could give it back to them. Yeah, so we had that.

Collector (J): Was that something you learned during pledging (initiation)?

R: No, it was even before, because we lived in the house and we hadn’t gone through hell week or any of those things yet and you know I got, shit, I probably got the Brown Helmet before I was an active actually.

Context: The informant was recalling his experience as a fraternity brother in college. He is remembering his time there and the traditions celebrated as his child goes through the pledging process.

Analysis: The Brown Helmet is a way of expressing the recent loss of a relationship in a humorous way, encouraging brothers to be open about their experiences. The fact that every individual has the potential to wear the helmet also allows for a sense of solidarity for those who currently have the helmet, as they can seek advice from previous recipients. At the same time, it shows other brothers to be more sympathetic to the wearers of the hat. However, this could also make the wearers more likely to be teased for being “dumped.” Regardless, the sentiment behind the color brown certainly shows the negative attitude and stigma around being broken up with. In a way, the brown army helmet shows that regardless of their relationship status, the brothers are able to fight through it and reclaim their identity as a bachelor.

Fraternity origin story

Main Piece:

Informant: Yeah I can tell you that. Does it matter if it actually happened or no ‘cause I’m not sure.

Interviewer: No

Informant: Okay, so the story is about this guy, Billy Bags. William Bagnard was his full name. When he was like around twenty he was drafted into World War II. He goes to Japan and eventually gets taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) by the army. When he’s there he goes through absolute hell. But Billy Bags is a tough guy so he eventually makes it through and comes back to the US after the war. The story goes…and I’m not positive…but the story goes that after the war he enrolled at USC. When he’s there he tries to join a fraternity, cause, like, he wanted to recapture the brotherhood or whatnot he found in the war. But when he joins he is disgusted by the act of hazing. Billy Bags had been through hell in Japan and like, for him he had seen how bad his experience as a POW was and didn’t want to ever put other people through anything similar. Billy Bags says, “screw this, brotherhood isn’t supposed to make you want to put your brothers through pain, I’m gonna start my own fraternity where we don’t haze.” Pretty much that’s the story we all tell each other, although we have no idea if it’s true or not.


            The informant is a friend of mine from high school who know goes to school here at USC. He is a sophomore, majoring in Business Administration and from Denver, Colorado. I asked him if he could re-tell me the story of how his fraternity was founded. The fraternity in question carries a strict ant-hazing policy that the members are incredibly proud of. This interview was conducted in person and recorded for transcription.


            The informant learned of this story through other members in his fraternity one night during his new member semester. He said, however, that no one formally “taught” him the story. Rather, the story is passed down through informal interaction. I have personally heard the informant talk fondly of this story previous to collecting this piece.


            As best I can observe, the story of Billy Bags is an identifier for the members of the fraternity and provides commonality through a shared legacy. The informant was even doubtful of the validity of this legend, yet he still considers it a part of his own community’s history, regardless of the truth. In this way, the story of Billy Bags is a legend for the informant and his peers. Legends often provide causal reasoning for the laws of a given society/community. In this case, the legend of Billy Bags provides the fraternity with a tangible reason for its anti-hazing policy. The story of Billy Bags could be considered a myth in some cases. It is a creation tale that simultaneously establishes reasoning behind the fraternity’s belief system and traditions.

Fraternity Pinning


*In order to anonymize the fraternity and keep its secrets, it will be referred to as Zeta.


Abstract: Fraternity brothers in Zeta are given two separate pins at different times. The first they receive while pledging and wear for the whole semester until they ceremoniously throw it off of a cliff. The second they receive as initiated brothers and wear at their leisure.


Background: ZB is a collegiate student and brother in the Zeta fraternity. He grew up in Chicago, but goes to school in California. He joined his fraternity his freshman fall semester and is currently finishing up his sophomore year. He does not know when pinning started, but knows the tradition of wearing it and its significance. The topic came up after fraternal folklore was discussed in class, and I was curious about it, so I asked one of my friends in a fraternity if he could give me any insight.


ZB: At one point early on in pledging, we were given this pin that we had to wear. Like all the time. We could not be seen without it on. It had like three little stars and signified we were pledges of Zeta. Not only to other brothers, but also the campus. So like we wear it all semester then um, I don’t know if I should go into detail. We get driven to this cliff where we basically learn a lot of the lore of the house and things we were wondering all semester, then we throw all of our pins off the cliff into the ocean. It is a tradition for this ceremony. Houses across the nation bury their pins, but since we are in California, we used the ocean. It was really cool because the pin brings the national fraternity together, but we had our own little way of getting rid of it at the same cliff since our chapter started. But after initiation we got this new pin with a diamond and three stars on it. And our names on it. So it was pretty cool. Like an upgrade.


Interpretation: The pin was a method of identification. It was, for the entire semester, identifying the pledges of Zeta. They were not brothers, but pledges. The pin itself makes those who wear it proud to do so because they really have no other choice. If they want to be in the fraternity, they must demonstrate that they will wear this pin proudly. It seems like a test of loyalty early on to ensure that those who want to enter the house are willing to identify with and stick with it through thick and thin.

The ceremony holds a lot of meaning. Due to the location of the university, the fraternity was able to put their own spin on the nationwide tradition. This personalization gives brothers something to differentiate themselves with the national fraternities. While being part of a nationwide brotherhood can bond people across borders together, having individuality gives reason for the brothers in that specific chapter to bond to each other.

The symbolism of burying the pin, or in this case, throwing it into the ocean, signifies that the pledges are now done with pledge process and ready to move on. However, they must always remember that the pin never disappears, nor should the values or lessons they learn throughout pledging.