Naked, I stood shivering among my frostbitten pledge brothers on a February night.
"Drink! Drink! Drink!" the fraternity brothers chanted, warm in winter coats, forcing me to consume my 15th beer.
The entire fraternity cheered me on to run in bare, bloodied feet on snow and ice and then climb into a trash can filled with vomit and other bodily fluids.
Some call this hazing. We called it fun.
Each year, when another pledge is killed in a hazing incident, everyone asks: "How could this happen?" The question is coming up again after a Pennsylvania district attorney charged eight fraternity brothers with involuntary manslaughter in the hazing death of Timothy Piazza, 19, at Pennsylvania State University on Feb. 2. The fraternity he was pledging, Beta Theta Pi, is also being criminally charged.
Having been through my own torturous hazing, I think that is the wrong question. I'd ask why it doesn’t happen more often. As a pledge, I endured grizzly, military-style lineups, dangerous levels of starvation, sleep deprivation and physical endurance tests. We were forced to consume such massive amounts of alcohol that it’s a wonder anyone survived.
Deaths we regularly read about in the news merely scratch the surface of what is actually going on behind some fraternity and, yes, sorority house walls. For every hazing-related death, scores more are psychologically and physically damaged.
Evidence prosecutors released Friday eerily reads like the screenplay to my feature film, HAZE: A Greek Tragedy, a fictional story inspired by my own profound pledging experience. It sickens me how predictable these deaths have become.
In an attempt to educate Greek Life students about the risks of hazing, the producers of HAZE are taking the film, accompanied by a workshop, to college campuses nationwide. Many screenings have led to productive conversations. But at some, after the film ends, many members, particularly male, walk out in protest claiming they don't do the things depicted in the film. To me, this smacks of denial.
I can certainly understand. We don’t want to get caught. We know hazing is against every value our organizations openly espouse. But I think there is a deeper reason for this denial: We like it. We like hazing, and harder to imagine, those being hazed like it, too.
Take death out of the equation, and being hazed feels like a profoundly important, memorable, exciting time in my life. Why?
Because its roots are primal.
As humans, we are hardwired to require the fight-or-flight mechanism to engage when needed. In a modern society of luxury and comfort, we rarely feel that sensation. College students — among the most privileged of us all — manufacture it.
Just as we require the adrenaline rush of fight-or-flight, we also need to shrink our world, to feel a part of a tribe. We are social animals. We need the pack.
So we created fraternities and sororities. We invented rituals and secrets, and symbols and chants and cheers. It’s a way to say, "This is my village, and I belong.” We've always done it with religions. Now we do it with sports teams and colleges, law firms, country clubs, private schools and fraternities.
Just joining a group isn't enough. We need hazing to make it feel like we are achieving something real (even if it isn't). We have to feel that we earned it, that we went through a trial. It's in every story: The hero must face trials and tribulations to grow in strength and knowledge to become all that he or she can be. It has to be hard. But how hard is hard enough?
In HAZE, rather than answering the question, I decided to lead the audience through a realistic, brutal pledge process and let them decide how hard is hard enough.
We can decry hazing. We can sanction fraternities. We can give lectures and use scare tactics. But the fact of the matter is fraternity hazing is not going away. To avoid its darkest outcomes, we must first understand that hazing serves a need, and then find better ways to fulfill that need.
Without some meaningful alternative, if put back in the same position as a teenager away from home for the first time, trying to find a place in the world, I would do it all again.
David Burkman wrote and directed HAZE, an award-winning movie that will come out in theaters, Blu-ray, iTunes and Video on Demand this fall.