Tag Archives: pledge

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 Malibu Cave

This is another collection from a Greek friend who offered to tell me about a ritual involved in their initiation week. I asked what his favorite one was and here is what he had to say.

Informant: Every semester we initiate a new group of pledges and we have a whole bunch of traditions and shit that go on during the last week but my favorite is the Malibu Cave.  It always happens the first week of pledge semester and the morning before they finish before the sun rises.  We take the pledges out to Malibu and hike them through the hills until we come to this cave that looks out over this amazing view.  It’s like a valley sorta that goes all the way down to the ocean.  Usually when we get there the clouds are at our level and they clear as the sun comes out.  It’s really sick.  Then we sit around and listen to music and the pledges reflect on the semester.

Me: What kind of reflection do you mean?

Informant: Umm pledging isn’t exactly the easiest thing and there are lots of memories and close relationships formed throughout the process so I guess we just talk about the semester, I don’t know you’d have to be there.

Me: Why this cave? Does it mean something to your fraternity?

Informant: Fuck if I know, it’s a sick cave and someone probably just heard of it a long time ago and decided to take the pledges there.  And it does now, it like sorta symbolizes the end of pledging because that’s where they first started the semester and now they came full circle.

After hearing this recount of this fraternity tradition I realized just how much the pledge semester brings a group of guys together, who previously had not known each other.  My informant didn’t know why or how this cave became a customary tradition for initiation but it clearly became very symbolic and meaningful for the members over time.

Fraternity Initiation – Pledge Plays

My informant attended the University of Chicago during the 1940’s and early 1950’s, and was a member of the Zeta Beta Tau, or ZBT, fraternity.  While fraternity life was different than it was at other universities and certainly is different now, they had one initiation ritual in particular that my informant remembers.  After they had become fully admitted into the fraternity, the pledges had to put on a play where they got to parody the older members of the fraternity.  Each older member had to be represented at least once during this play.  Also instead of hazing rituals, the pledges had to do tasks around the house like cleaning and other chores.

Personally, I find it amazing that the USC Trojan Marching Band, or at least the alto saxophone section of the TMB, has this very same ritual.  At the end of the Weekender trip, which is the away game against either Cal or Standford depending on the year, the freshman are tasked with putting on sketches about the older members of the band.  Every older member must be represented at some point, which often means that some freshman must pull double duty and do two skits.  The fact that a tradition so similar is still being practiced 60 years later tells me that this tradition is at least somewhat universal.