A row of freshmen stand in a row, clad only in their underwear, against a brick wall in a dirty fraternity basement. They’ve already chugged several cans of beer and bottles of hot sauce, when a senior member of the fraternity -- the chapter’s de facto drill instructor -- picks one pledge out of the lineup, makes him promise not to puke, and forces a gulp of whiskey down his throat.
The freshman immediately vomits. As punishment, he is forced into a cage, where he is drenched with beer, liquor and urine. The moment comes around the halfway point of the new film Goat, a drama about hazing at a fictional university fraternity. When the scene concludes, there are still six more days to go in the fraternity’s “hell week.”
The hazing depicted in Goat is a far cry from the cheerful debauchery seen in fraternity classics like Animal House and Old School. With its big-name stars and opening to strong reviews, hazing prevention groups are hoping the film is part of a larger change in how people view the darker side of college fraternities.
“I think we are seeing a shift,” said Emily Pualwan, executive director of HazingPrevention.org. “If you think about the Animal House days, these things were happening but there was an increased tolerance of some of these activities. I think the extent of these issues is now becoming more apparent, and so you’re seeing it portrayed in films in a more realistic fashion.”
Goat stars Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer as Brett and Brad Land, two brothers who attend the fictional Brookman University. Brett is already a member of the Phi Sigma Mu fraternity when Brad arrives on campus looking for a fresh start following his having been carjacked and mugged. Brad, who has yet to come to terms with the emotional trauma of his assault, hopes to join his brother at Phi Sigma. The increasingly violent and perverse hazing rituals strain the brothers’ relationship, and Brett begins to reconsider his role in the fraternity.
The film also stars James Franco as a fraternity alumnus who, despite having graduated 15 years prior and is now married with a child, can’t help returning to the house and encouraging current members to embrace the chapter’s more violent rituals as a fundamental part of fraternity life. The film’s title refers to both what the fraternity calls its pledges and to a constant threat made by the older members: comply with their demands or be forced to have sex with a farm animal.
“Pledges gotta go through hell,” one member later says to Brett when he expresses concern for his brother. “Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?”
Goat is based on Brad Land’s 2004 memoir of the same name, which detailed his experiences with hazing as a fraternity member at Clemson University in the 1990s. At the time, Clemson’s then-president told a local newspaper that the book’s depiction of fraternity life at the university was out-dated.
In 2014, the university's fraternities came under scrutiny again when a Clemson sophomore’s body was found floating under a bridge after he went missing during what was described as an early-morning group run with his Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge brothers. The student’s parents are suing the university, saying they believe their son died after falling from the bridge during a hazing ritual.
A Clemson spokeswoman this week said that university officials had decided to “refrain from commenting” on the film.
In reference to both National Hazing Prevention Week and the new film, the North-American Interfraternity Conference, through a series of tweets this week, encouraged fraternity members to help combat hazing. In a tweet linking to HazingPrevention.org ‘s website on Friday, the NIC said it was “deeply disturbed by movie depictions of hazing.”
HazingPrevention.org organized a series of screenings of Goat on college campuses last week, including at the University of Arizona, the University of California at Berkeley, and the College of William & Mary.
“Goat offers a harrowing depiction of the devastating effects of hazing,” Lenny Sancilio, the group’s president and the dean of students at the State University of New York at Geneseo, said in an email. “Without painting anyone as ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ this well-crafted film gives us an excellent opportunity to open a discussion about the psychological and philosophical underpinnings that give rise to hazing in many areas of student life and why it is so critical to prevent it.”
Goat may soon be joined by another film that aims to depict fraternity hazing in a similar fashion. Last year, a film studio acquired the rights to adapt the 2014 memoir Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy. The book details incidents of hazing -- including members intentionally vomiting on pledges and forcing them to chug vinegar -- at Dartmouth College’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
The author of the memoir, Andrew Lohse, is a former member of the fraternity, and was featured in a Rolling Stone article in 2012 after writing a column in the student newspaper about his allegations. Lohse said Friday that there appears to be a growing market for books and films that take a more critical look at fraternity life. A BBC documentary on U.S. fraternity hazing aired earlier this year, and an independent film titled Haze, based on its director's experiences at an Indiana University fraternity, premiered last year, with several college screenings scheduled this semester.
“I think people definitely are paying more attention to, and have an appetite for learning more about, that dark side of fraternities,” Lohse said. “It’s part of a cultural shift from the idea that fraternities should be portrayed as just a fun, boys-being-boys, comedy thing. And I hope this shift is going to be seen on campuses, as well, not just in movies and in the media.”
Lohse’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon survived the firestorm over his allegations in 2012. Four years later, however, Dartmouth revoked the fraternity's recognition, and SAE's national organization suspended the chapter over separate hazing allegations.
Last year, Dartmouth also shut down the college’s Alpha Delta fraternity after its members were accused of branding the fraternity’s name onto pledges with a hot iron poker. The fraternity’s lawyer denies that the practice was mandatory or a form of hazing -- comparing the brands to piercings or tattoos -- but Dartmouth swiftly kicked Alpha Delta off campus.
The chapter was famously the inspiration behind the fraternity featured in Animal House.
“I do believe that we are seeing things change, in how fraternities are portrayed and with how campuses are dealing with them,” Pualwan, of HazingPrevention.org, said. “A light is being shone on the issue much more than in the past. But with at least one hazing death still happening on a college campus every year for the last 20 years, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.”
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