The Fall of Animal House

For Dartmouth's infamous fraternity, the choice is change or die

Baker Memorial Library and Rauner Library face the Dartmouth College Green. Credit: ErikaMitchell/Getty

 It's Green Key weekend at Dartmouth, an annual beer-fueled spring celebration and, naturally, the biggest party of the year for the brothers of Alpha Delta, the fraternity that was immortalized in the 1978 movie Animal House. Inside AD's dilapidated shell of a mansion, guys are pissing in the "gorf," a trough that runs along the floor of the basement. A petite girl with short blond hair steps away from the wall and vomits casually into the gorf before returning to chug another beer.

Out on the lawn, kids are drinking beer, screaming and dancing to a soul band playing to the crowd from the balcony of the house.

It looks just like the time-honored frat bacchanalia Dartmouth is known for, but something is wrong. Is it that nobody is mud wrestling? Or that a couple of brothers are carding students at the front door of the fraternity? Or that the party is BYOB? A couple of years ago the brothers of Alpha Delta rolled out 40 kegs or more on Green Key Weekend. I'm beginning to wonder if this is the same school I left a little more than a year ago. Did I take a wrong turn on I-91 and somehow end up at. . .MIT?

As it turns out, these could be scenes from an Animal House sequel with a no-fun ending. Today's progressive notions of responsible partying and political correctness have hit hard at all 18 of Dartmouth's frats but especially so at Alpha Delta, which has always had the reputation of being the baddest house on campus. Dartmouth's faculty has been trying to rid the college of fraternities since 1979, after a hushed-up gang rape involving three groups of fraternity brothers and a mental-hospital patient. Things got worse in 1987, when a Phi Delt pledge barely survived alcohol poisoning during initiation. Later that year, Hanover, New Hampshire, police conducted a sting operation during Green Key Weekend. An underage woman was sent to parties at all of the frats and was served at half the houses, which then received college sanctions.

Then in 1990, the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, passed by Congress the year before, went into effect. This law withholds federal financial aid from schools that do not comply with national drug and alcohol policies. A grace period of 12 months was allowed, but after that, according to a Dartmouth spokesman, "this meant the end of common-source alcohol."

Translation: No more kegs.

The same year, Dartmouth's administration moved rush, the period when new pledges are chosen, from freshman to sophomore year. This effectively reduced the number of each frat's dues-paying members by one-fourth, crippling the houses financially and leading four other frats to go independent, breaking their formal ties with the college.

Of even greater impact on college campuses has been the changing code of social behavior, which is hitting Dartmouth (where you can still turn up banners proclaiming, "When Better Women Are Made, Dartmouth Men Will Make Them") right between the legs. Zeta Psi was the first casualty, placed on probation in 1987 for a newsletter depicting a woman as a pig; Beta Theta Pi was placed on probation in 1988 because one of its members referred to Sigma Kappa as "Sigma Crack-a" (crack is Dartmouth slang for "woman").

Dartmouth's neighbors Williams, Amherst and Colby did away with the Greek system years ago. Fraternities at Bowdoin and Middlebury have gone coed. Today, Frats Rape stickers are a common sight on campus, enrollment in frats is dropping, and Dartmouth women have turned more vigilant about reporting sexual harassment. Reports of sexual assault were up about 20 percent during the 1991-92 school year. And for the first time, four other cases were reported directly to the Hanover police.

These are dark days for the 104 brothers of Animal House. Many students feel that Dartmouth's deans have decided to make an example of AD. In 1990 the administration slapped AD with a full-year suspension, whereupon the fraternity decided to go independent. The administration countered by threatening to suspend any sorority or fraternity co-hosting a party with AD.

Throughout its 223-year history, Dartmouth College has cherished its reputation as an elite school for ruffians — the bratty sons who delight in mooning their priggish Ivy League brothers. The rural college has always appealed to rugged, beer-guzzling, old-boy types who like to ski.

Dartmouth hasn't shown much love of changing with the times. In 1987, legal scholar James Freedman took over as president, and the college's transformation lurched forward. In his inaugural speech, Freedman set out his goals for the intellectualization of Dartmouth, envisioning a school that reaches out to "those singular students whose greatest pleasures may come not from the camaraderie of classmates but from the lonely acts of writing poetry, or mastering the cello, or solving mathematical riddles, or translating Catullus." Critics accused him of trying to turn the school into Darvard.

The school's most influential alumni were none too happy with Freedman's progressive tendencies. After all, here was a guy who hadn't even gone to Dartmouth, and he was presiding over the altering of the school's alma mater (from "Men of Dartmouth" to "We of Dartmouth"), letting the environmentalists ruin the homecoming bonfire (they insisted that the traditional creosote-soaked planks be traded for nontreated wood to curb pollution; it didn't even burn) and trying to populate the school with geeks like himself. So the battle over Dartmouth's Greek system shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.

AD, which was founded in 1843, has always been too smart not to get around a few new rules and too smug even to care. Why shouldn't today's Adelphians live the Dartmouth life their fathers had? This is, after all, the house that created such inspired fun as Magic Monday, an all-day drunkathon with hourly themes, from Lonely Guy Hour (everyone drinks Mad Dog, served in a brown paper bag) to Naked in the Tube Room (the boys watch porno tapes and drink beer in cans that correspond to dick size); the house that holds a pledge ritual known as the Rack of Gnarl, which entails the chugging of up to a dozen 12-ounce cups of various cocktails (blue-cheese dressing mixed with diet Coke and Listerine is a favorite) designed to make an already drunk pledge boot (Dartmouth slang for "vomit"); the house that serenades the first or last girl in the basement with a rendition of "Iowa," during which the brothers drop trou and hail the state "where the tall corn grows."

Despite its reputation, AD hands out its bids more often to prototypically sloppy preppies than the fictional brutes like D-Day and Bluto who populated the movie. In fact, by the time Animal House was released in 1978, many at Dartmouth viewed it as a historical documentary of the clean-cut deviance of the early Sixties. Nevertheless, the movie, which is still popular with college audiences, revitalized fraternities and toga parties. Fraternity membership nationwide went from 230,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1986.

The Green Pages, an unofficial student guide to Dartmouth, asked of AD: "Why would a bunch of New England prep-school types wear cowboy boots and listen to Dwight Yoakam?" Chris Miller, the co-writer of Animal House, knew the answer 30 years ago (see "If I Only Had a Brain," page 76). Up to revisit AD for Green Key in 1989, he told the Dartmouth he had cherished his fraternity experience, "this very small window of opportunity for people to really go wild at some time in your life." Indeed. After all, at what other juncture in your life could you get away with slathering mustard on your drunk and passed-out brother's dick and leading one of the house dogs over to slurp it off? Probably not at Deerfield Academy and certainly not at Morgan Stanley, but at the Adelphian Lodge, this was normal behavior.

That year Miller wrote in Playboy about his reunion, marveling at how little fraternity life had changed since the early Sixties, and he had every reason to believe he was right. AD still gave off a kind of insouciance that Miller so loved. And the house still made its own rules. If a couple are caught smooching in the basement, the girl has to leave. On this weekend in May, I notice another list of house rules scrawled on a basement wall:

"No Running
No Dancing (unless you're naked)
No Horseplay
No Swimming Unattended
No Magic Mondays on Saturdays"

On a door in the back corner, in larger letters, is spray-painted Turco Dead 11/29/90.

In late 1990 an audiocassette of AD's 1988 Hell Night initiation made its way to the deans. On the tape, it is acknowledged by those who've heard it, is a recording made in the Sex Room, in which pledges are interrogated about their first and most unusual sexual experiences. Pledges were allegedly asked: "Who have you fucked at Dartmouth, and how was she?" (I haven't heard the tape myself.) Various acts, such as dropping one's pants and fellating vegetables, are commanded and evaluated. It was Mary Turco, dean of residential life, who says the tape came from a disaffected brother. And it was Turco who suspended AD — no parties, no rushing — for one year.

Within hours of its suspension, AD bounced back. The thing to do was break away from the college. Let's go unaffiliated — GDI, as in "goddamned independent." In Animal House, when the guys are put on "double secret probation," what do they do? Toga! Remember the ads for that movie? "It was the Deltas against the rules. The rules lost." Of course, the movie ends happily half an hour later with a tank charge down Main Street that dispatches all of AD's enemies. Real life, however, is more complicated. "[AD will] need to change its ethos dramatically in order to survive," Turco says. She is still upset by what she heard on the tape and what she heard from the students who spoke about it. "We believed their testimony, that many of them were willing victims, that it wouldn't happen again," she says. "The material was so shocking, no one could believe it was real."

We have this joke in the house," says Doug Jamison, a thin, dark-haired member of the diving team. "'Old AD' and 'New AD.' Old AD is hard core. When no one's drinking one night or if someone's being really sensitive, you'll go, 'Now whatever happened to Old AD?'" New AD also means that sexual exploits are less likely to be discussed in official company, largely because of a frenzy that ensued last year when a woman started a sorority-system-wide petition to curb this sort of boy talk. "In '89 it was awful the way women's names came up in meetings," says Jamison. "It happens less now, but I mean, if somebody said, 'I don't think that's appropriate,' it'd just be laughed at." And what sort of a brother, other than a New AD, would even think of such treason as turning in a tape of Hell Night?

Let's don't forget that this is the Dartmouth of belches piercing the silent New Hampshire woods. The 1991-92 school year, the first under Dartmouth's no-keg policy, served as a test of resourcefulness for most of the campus. Kids had to go to the University of Vermont to borrow kegs for the keg toss during Green Key's Greek games. Other matters were trickier. Though 850 undergrads showed up to boo when the new rules were discussed (compared with the 120 who rallied when a homosexual student was harassed or the 300 present at a Take Back the Night antirape protest), their ranting fell on deaf ears. So an elaborate network of lookout points and alarms was worked out to protect the affiliated houses from campus-police raids. Most fraternities are now rigged so that if a brother standing watch in the entryway sees campus cops, he can flip a switch that sets off sirens or flashing lights in the basement, signaling students to drop their beers.

Fraternities still have kegs, though, hidden under the bar or inside specially made cabinets. One house even paid a plumber to install taps beneath a sink so that the faucet runs with beer. For AD and the three other independent houses, which fall into the jurisdiction of the Hanover police, raids are not just fun and games — arrests and lawsuits could follow. Two frats have already met with the misfortune everyone expected for AD. Earlier this year, SAE was indicted for serving minors; a sympathetic judge let them settle for a fine of $1600. In August, the frat was indicted again on the same charge. And Sigma Nu, indicted last April on six charges of serving minors, could be fined $300,000. Though Hanover police cannot even enter AD without first talking to a house officer, the risks are greater than a slap on the wrist from campus police. "We're more conscious of what we do now," says AD member Eric Goldfarb. "Watching to see if people are too fucked up, and if you see a girl leaving alone, guys'll walk or drive her home." He's sitting on the front porch of an off-campus house on School Street shared by a bunch of ADs. They wear cutoff Duckheads and grimy baseball caps and feed their hangovers Gatorade.

"We've been lucky," says Todd Young. "The security of the college was amazing — you were completely protected." Still, even the houses playing by the rules are frustrated — one fraternity, in some kind of solidarity statement, recently spent much of one term's budget on beer one night, and the brothers locked themselves in the basement, preventing the fire department from coming in when their sprinkler system somehow went off. "Even for us, there's this mentality that you're going to have to lock your doors to have a normally fun time," says Angus King, class of '93 AD. "You know, boys are boys, but now we have to be responsible. It's a big change."

It's been quite a change. The house that had 78 windows broken during Green Key four years ago had only three broken this year. Sink Night and Hell Night were held on weeknights this year, rather than Saturdays, to keep festivities from going on all night. "The whole time, people kept asking all the pledges, 'Are you all right?' " says Trey Laird, the blond, stocky house vice-president. Not that AD is a completely safe house. Hazing is against the law in 35 states, but New Hampshire is not one of them, and since the college can't touch AD. . . A few pledges were reportedly branded against their will this year, and brothers don't deny this. Oh, and after a one-year absence, the Sex Room was back at Hell Night.

Still, there are rumors that Magic Monday was canceled this year or at least held on a different day to throw authorities off.

"We're not supposed to talk about Magic Monday," Goldfarb says. "It was one of the best days of my life," says Ted Kovas, chuckling.

Lee Pelton, Dartmouth's dean of students, says, "By the end of this spring, the college will have governance over AD again." Pelton wants the control and legal safety of having AD and the other independent fraternities back in the fold. When I ask some ADs about Pelton's proclamation, they all groan or roll their eyes.

"He's a really smooth character," Mitch Jacobs says of Pelton. "We've got to watch him."

Laird, who has spoken to Pelton about the matter, says that unless the school changes the alcohol rules and lifts the impending suspension it has on AD, the house will remain independent. "It's a real hassle," says Goldfarb, "but we're definitely holding the cards."

"We don't need it," Laird says. "We got 37 pledges this year."

Laird says that he expects the other unaffiliated fraternities to return to mother Dartmouth in order to stay alive. Jacobs and Kovas giggle when I mention Sigma Nu's problems with the law. "SAE and Sigma Nu, they just weren't very smart," Angus King says. "I was like 'You guys are breaking the law, you should at least be subtle.'"

Todd Young slumps in his chair wearily, trying to gauge AD's place in Dartmouth's new order. "It's harder to have fun than four or five years ago," he says. "There's only two or three guys now — Old AD '92s — who'll still do 'Iowa.' Nudity used to happen a lot more."

On AD's front lawn, a dozen motorcycles are lined up. Brothers carry planks of plywood into the house for a new "beer-pong" table, replacing the one that was destroyed this weekend. Inside the first-floor study, fraternity composite photos grace the walls. In the 1989 edition, most of the boys wear blazers and smirk at the camera. At the bottom left-hand corner a big black X has been drawn in Magic Marker over the face of a pledge by the name of Scott Straus, who depledged the house a couple of years ago and has since spent much of his college career trying to get Dartmouth's Greek system thrown out.

From the beginning of his freshman year, Straus had been on the wagon, fearing his heavy drinking at Andover had made him an alcoholic. So he had little interest in rushing a fraternity. But at the last minute, a friend, Nick Billings, whom Straus knew from the squash team, persuaded him to consider AD. The night of rush, Straus walked down to AD to tell Billings he wasn't interested. Billings wasn't there, but Straus stuck around. He was surprised to be offered membership the next day. He says he joined with the intention of reforming the house and the Greek system from within. Knowing that he didn't drink, the brothers were hands-off with him throughout the pledge period. At Hell Night, as pledges were forced to do things like march around the dank basement (remember the gorf) in the Circle of Death, chugging beer at each end of the room and booting in the middle of the floor, Straus drank prune juice. By morning he was a brother.

Straus struggled at AD. At his first house meeting, a brother announced that the dean's office had decided to make all fraternities go coed. "We didn't want to ruin your pledge period by telling you this, so we waited until it was over," he said. One by one, brothers old and new voiced their discontent. "What about Old AD?" one yelled. "We've got to keep AD the way it is!" "We don't want cracks in the house!" said another. Straus finally stood up. "I think it's a good idea," he said softly. The rest of the house stared at him, open mouthed, until a senior explained that the coed threat was a joke, just to test the pledges.

The next year, Straus dropped out of AD. The year after that, he completed an independent project for a women's-studies course and titled his term paper "Men of Dartmouth: Fraternity Culture, Initiation and Social Dominance." He wandered alone to a few AD parties that term, observing people's activity. He got a lot of weird looks. Straus has tried to get the college to release the contents of the Hell Night tape. It was he who publicized the 1978 gang rape, most effectively perhaps in an article in a new on-campus newspaper called Bug. On his own, Straus managed to obtain a copy of the Alpha Chi Alpha Sink Night videotape, which showed pledges vomiting and fondling a brother dressed as a bleeding, post-mastectomy woman. He recently showed segments of the video for students — off campus of course — in the town library. Though Straus is more angered by what he found researching his study than by anything he endured in AD, he recalls his moment in the Sex Room with disgust. "I made up a story — 'I fucked a girl with no pubic hair,' " he scoffs. "Then they played the tape back to us during the next house meeting."

Straus's adviser, Tom Luxon, is impressed by his student's courage. "Because of people speaking out, it's more acceptable now not to join," Luxon says. "Since Scott's come forward, a lot of people are willing to tell their stories."

Though they are institutional foes, Straus and King are still friendly. The two had played lacrosse against each other in prep school, Straus scoring three goals to give Andover a win over St. Paul's.

"Scott still says hi," King says. "He knows I'm in AD. It's interesting to be friends with someone who's so opposed to an institution that I'm a part of." Despite his anti-Greek activities, Straus still passes easily for a preppie frat rat. And King, like the rest of AD's ruling group, is a far cry from the Neanderthals and spoiled brats typical of many other houses at Dartmouth. The house does, in fact, seem to draw guys who aren't as image conscious as those in the other frats.

"You look at AD's heroes, who were just the grossest people around but also really clever," says Billings. "It was very depraved, but it was all in fun." Billings recalls an illustrious brother — the former editor of his boarding-school newspaper and a prize-winning poet at Dartmouth — who, in order to prove that Harry, a house golden retriever, was skilled at cunnilingus, lay on his stomach during a house meeting and let Harry eat raw hamburger meat off his butt. This same guy once came gliding downstairs during a party wearing nothing but shaving cream over his genitals, got himself a beer and went back upstairs. "But we took the big, dumb, hard-ass types also," Billings says, "guys you know will spend a lot of time in the house — just to laugh at them. You've gotta have a Bluto."

Demian Schane proudly quotes the man who served as Dartmouth's president from 1945 until 1970: "John Sloan Dickey said, 'Young men learn responsibility by being permitted to be irresponsible.'"

"He said it in '57," Trey Laird adds.

A bunch of seniors are sitting in Schane's third-floor room in the lodge. The place is littered with beer signs, Grateful Dead posters, pizza boxes, Skoal tins and soda cans. Schane, a cool and wiry senior, explains that when Chris Miller's Playboy piece revealed the meaning of SIHBITDIS, the house motto ("Sickness Is Health. Blackness Is Truth. Drinking Is Strength"), the brothers were livid.

"Now it's a question in the Kappa Kappa Gamma pledge book," Jimmy Young says and laughs. As president of New AD, Schane has bigger things to worry about. He'll meet once a term with the Hanover Police Department.

Gone are the days when the biggest fear of AD's president was that the pledges might lock the brothers out of the house for 24 hours and get themselves out of Hell Night. A few years ago, the freshmen came pretty close, occupying the house for 12 hours, until a resourceful brother thought to wrap a dog up in a carpet and send him crashing through a window, thus ending the takeover, since, according to house law, dogs count as brothers.

But New AD even has to be careful with its dogs. One of them, a mutt named Max, bit a girl on the butt, and the house had to move him across the river to Vermont. Then there's Rosie, a golden retriever who got in trouble with the locals for chasing cars. Last year the town issued AD a restraining order requiring that dogs be kept on leashes. In compliance with local laws, Alpha Delta is now listed as a registered kennel.