In theory, the tradition of hazing has vanished from the college campuses of America. National fraternal organizations have banned it. At least 38 states have outlawed it. From coast to coast, university officials smugly assure worried parents that their campus is free of hazing.
But shielded by vows of secrecy, many chapters carry on this lethal tradition. Over 50 deaths have been linked to hazing over the past 20 years, with many more injured or maimed. Seldom have so many died so stupidly.
The quaint practices in Animal House pale next to the real thing. Hazing climaxes in the week prior to initiation, aptly dubbed “Hell Week.” The pledges spend the week being tormented, humiliated, and driven to the brink of sanity. Here a pledge gets hit in the mouth with a chair while eating pie off the floor, there blindfolded students vomit repeatedly while being forced to eat “worms” (cold spaghetti). Being slathered with molasses, honey, peanut butter, and/or raw eggs is par for the course. Some pledges have spent the entire week with a rotting fish dangling from their necks. Rumors of bestiality and branding are common. During Hell Week, the sight of dazed, sleep-deprived nude and semi-nude pledges are not unusual. At least two fraternities in the last decade have found themselves in serious trouble for using cattle prods.
Hazing rituals often incorporate the use of bodily fluids in unusual and imaginative ways. Fed stomach-churning mixtures of food heavy on raw eggs, sauerkraut juice, and cayenne pepper, pledges frequently wind up covered in their own and each other’s vomit. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine published photos of students at an unidentified prestigious university covered with molasses; they were reputedly about to be urinated upon. This is the price one must pay to join a fraternity that boasts Bob Dole and Robert Redford among its alumnus.
Given the uninhibited nature of the proceedings, gruesome mishaps are far from uncommon. A Texas frat boy was indicted several years ago for giving a pledge a overly-vigorous “wedgie”—the charming schoolboy prank of hoisting someone by the waistband of their undershorts. His victim lost a testicle. Another student in Florida smothered when the sandy, full-sized grave he’d been forced to dig collapsed. And in 1982, after having been denied sleep for several days, a pledge dressed in a Playboy Bunny costume on God-knows what errand flipped his car and was killed.
Paddling is common among all fraternities. But it’s not just paddles anymore; belts, chairs, boards and the dreaded Kappa Alpha Psi cane also come into play. Pledges are almost routinely beaten to the point of hospitalization. And every so often, one gets hammered straight into the morgue. An Omega Psi Phi member was sentenced to two years in jail in 1987 for hitting pledges over the head with a 2x4 piece of lumber. A Southern University pledge was blinded after being hit on the head with a frying pan in 1992. In 1993, five new Omega Psi Phi members at the University of Maryland wound up in the hospital with a laundry list of injuries: ruptured spleens and ear drums, a collapsed lung, cracked ribs, and a fractured ankle, all courtesy of their prospective frat brothers’ paddles, brushes, and belts. The following year, seven Kappa Alpha Psi members at Southeast Missouri State were convicted of manslaughter. They’d repeatedly slapped, hit, kicked, and bodyslammed their victim until he’d lost consciousness and (whoops!) died.
Not that there’s any shortage of fatalities in the nation’s other 60-odd fraternities. Probably the number one killer of pledges is alcohol. Commands like “Finish this pitcher of beer in one shot” are routine, and the results aren’t always just brutish hangovers. In one notorious case, an Alfred University student’s alcohol-fueled initiation culminated in a drinking game called “races,” where apparently the object was to fill a trash can with vomit. He passed out and died of respiratory failure, his blood alcohol content at .46%. Nor is this “party till you puke and then party some more” philosophy unusual. The newly initiated 1988 pledge class of the Rutgers chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha was presented with a bar covered with 200 kamikazes and invited to drink until they vomited. One pledge managed to down some 15 of the potent concoctions which were perhaps a little stranger than the brothers intended. He passed out and died of acute alcohol poisoning.
Another great fraternity tradition is the “one-way ride.” Pledges are driven to remote locations, stripped of their money (if not their clothes!) and left to find their own way back. For some rural residents, the sight of dazed would-be fraternity members wandering through the fields is as much a part of autumn as changing leaves. Of course, sometimes the one-way ride is just that. Several pledges have never come back, including a MIT student in 1956. He was dropped off at one in the morning in a field 14 miles from campus and ordered to be back by 8am. He never showed. He apparently mistook a reservoir covered with snow and ice for a meadow. As he walked across it, the ice broke under his weight. He fell in, and froze to death.
But perhaps the most famous hazing death occurred at the University of Southern California in 1959. The brothers of Kappa Sigma provided a scrumptious buffet for their pledges: a pig’s head (named “Charlie”) flanked by platters of fresh brains and large pieces of raw, oil-soaked liver. One by one, the pledges downed the sandwich-sized liver chunks. But the sixth to try, Richard Swanson, had problems. Twice he tried to get it down. Each time, he coughed it back up. For his third attempt, he gave it his all for dear old Kappa Sig and crammed it down. He collapsed almost immediately, frantically choking and gagging as the enormous wad of liver lodged in his throat. His would-be brothers frantically beat him on his back (this was many years before the Heimlich Maneuver) for naught. He was DOA at the hospital. Astonishingly, no criminal charges were filed, although the fraternity was thrown off campus.
And the prize awaiting the survivors? A “secret oath,” a pin, and full membership in what is essentially a glorified drinking club. It’s no wonder hazing veterans are so reluctant to talk—they’re probably embarrassed about doing to much for so little.
Top image by GM