In July of 1978, film critic Roger Ebert reviewed a goofy little college comedy called National Lampoon’s Animal House. Directed by John Landis and set in 1962, it told the story of a group of students at the fictional Faber University trying to keep their fraternity from getting kicked off campus.
“Faber University is a microcosm of ... I was going to say our society, but why get serious? Let someone else discuss the symbolism of Bluto's ability to crush a beer can against his forehead,” Ebert mused. But there was, indeed, something profound about Animal House. “It assaults us,” he wrote. “When beer kegs and Hell's Angels come bursting through the windows of the Delta House, the anarchy is infectious.”
Thirty-six years later, Animal House and its “infectious anarchy” are credited with—or blamed for—the rise of the keg-standing, beer-ponging, vomit-spewing, university-plaguing fraternity as we know it.
“Animal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ’80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene,” Caitlin Flanagan writes in “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” The Atlantic’s March cover story on the murky legal status of fraternities and their curiously strong grip on the American university system.
“In this newly forming culture, the drugs and personal liberation of the ’60s would be paired with the self-serving materialism of the ’80s, all of which made partying for its own sake—and not as a philosophical adjunct to solving some complicated problem in Southeast Asia—a righteous activity for the pampered young collegian,” Flanagan writes. “Fraternity life was reborn with a vengeance.”
But a closer critical look at Animal House and Hollywood’s portrayals of Greek life before and after it reveals that the groundbreaking film didn’t necessarily bring back or reinvent fraternities. Rather, it splintered the definition of what exactly “fraternity life” was. According to Animal House, there were two kinds of fraternities: the elitist kind that willingly aligned itself with the establishment, and the kind full of kooks who refused to be tamed.
By casting the outsider oddballs of Delta House as heroes, Animal House made the radical declaration that the latter sort was the better sort. Pop culture—and real college kids all over America—followed its lead.
In pre-Animal House pop culture, fraternities were often shown to be a little bit mischievous, but ultimately harmless. In 1955’s How to Be Very, Very Popular, for example, two female burlesque performers witness a crime, flee the scene, and hide out in a college fraternity house while disguised as two of its brothers. Complete with frat boys, wacky cross-dressing romances, a hypnotized burlesque girl, a 17th-year undergrad, and a money-grubbing college president, the plot of How to Be Very, Very Popular could feasibly be repurposed into one of the latter-day American Pie college sequels. But the boys’ crisply ironed shirts and wide-eyed panic at the prospect of their house mother catching them with a girl are a pretty good giveaway: These fraternity brothers are still considerably square.
Then the 1960s brought real upheaval in America, and much of it started at college campuses. “During this period of student unrest,” Flanagan writes, “the fraternities—long the unquestioned leaders in the area of sabotaging or ignoring the patriarchal control of school administrators—became the exact opposite: representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow.”
Some films from the 1970s reflect that suspicion toward the Greek system at large. In 1977, for example, the low-budget Fraternity Row told the story of young pledge Zac Sterling, who goes to college in 1954 and finds himself increasingly disenchanted with fraternity life as older members of his chapter seize control of more and more aspects of his life. He’s appalled when his brothers suddenly, collectively shun a new pledge whose father has been accused of being a communist.
Fraternity Row, as David B. Hinton puts it in 1994’s Celluloid Ivy: Higher Education in the Movies 1960-1990, showed its protagonist trying to change a corrupt system from within, and it “reminded its mid-1970s audiences that the 1960s advances in tolerance were hard-fought gains.” (It also famously depicts one student’s gruesome hazing-related death by choking on raw liver—which was based on the true story of a pledge at USC who died in 1959.)
Though Fraternity Row was ostensibly anti-frats, it nevertheless planted the seeds of the Animal House revolution by pointing to just what was wrong with fraternities at the time: They were controlling, intolerant, cruel, and somewhat arbitrarily exclusive.
Then the summer of 1978 arrived, and with it came Animal House. The film pitted the slackers of Delta Tau Chi against a college dean out to kick them off campus with help from the Delta house’s prestigious, uptight neighbors Omega Theta Pi. The Deltas were rude, irresponsible, and delightful iconoclasts. They ultimately lose the battle for their place on campus, but—crucially—the film doesn’t frame this sad ending as justice being served or the frat’s luck running out. Rather, character epilogues make clear that the slacker bros of Delta Tau Chi go on to become wildly successful both romantically and financially. Meanwhile, horrible fates befall the most insufferable of the Omega brothers.
Animal House was, as Hinton writes, “a beating from which [the Greek system] has never recovered.”
“Through its portrayal of the Omegas, traditional Greek houses become the enemy,” Hinton points out. “Allied with evil Dean Wormer, the Omegas are an integral part of an academic establishment bent on suppressing fun and imposing a rigid system of conformity and dictation. The Deltas are not rebels within the system; they are total outsiders.”
Unlike the earnest protagonists in Fraternity Row, “the members of the renegade Delta fraternity … do not oppose, drop out, or seek to reform: their purpose is total subversion.” Hinton writes:
They subvert the Greek system by taking its rituals to absurd extremes, thereby rendering them meaningless. The august ritual of selecting new pledges becomes a simple matter of sitting down with a slide projector and throwing beer cans at the projected faces of potential candidates. The dour Omega’s medieval initiation ceremony, complete with paddling bent-over pledges, is crosscut with the Delta pledges getting drunk while listening to “Louie Louie.”
The heroes of Animal House were technically fraternity members, in other words—but they carried on the counterculture’s tradition of hating the exclusivity and elitism commonly associated with fraternities. The Deltas didn’t endorse fraternities as the world knew them at the time so much as they mocked them. So the game-changing message of Animal House wasn’t that fraternities were awesome. It was that fraternities were evil—but people who subverted what they stood for, and cheekily called themselves a fraternity while doing it, were awesome.