|Paul Keane, circa January, 1986, holding a brick from the then recently demolished Animal House|
Pandering to "Prankdemonium"
When Animal House was torn down by a wrecking crew two blocks from the University of Oregon campus at Eugene this month, far more than a structure was turned into twenty loads of scrap for the closest Department of Environmental Quality dump, for many of the myths which had made the 1978 film Animal House so popular over the years had begun to pollute the environment and seemed headed for the scrap -heap too.
Consider the cultural context into which the 1978 box office smash-to-be was released. Americans had begun the decade of the 70's by watching on the calm of their dinner-time TV's the bloodiest moment in college and university history: The murder of four undergraduate students (two girls and two boys) at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen firing combat rifles. The Guardsmen had apparently lost their patience with student protesters May 4th, 1970. That day, the American Dream factory ("college") turned into a nightmare which would haunt mothers and fathers sending their kids off to college in America for years to come.
By 1978, Americans, shell-shocked by the Kent State-decade, were ready for anything that would make them believe colleges were no more harmful to their sons and daughters than attending a beer-sloppy panty-raid.
Parents weren't the only ones who yearned for this return-to-innocence on college campuses. Greeks did too. The image problems of drugs and activism had conspired to make fraternity life seem out of fashion, stuffy, ultra conservative, old boy networks; hence, a dramatic decline in Greek enrollments across the country in the 60's and '70's and the outright abolition of fraternity systems on some major U.S. campuses.
John Belushi's Animal House reversed that image problem and the decline in the Greek census according to the exhaustive and outrageous guide to American Greekdom, From Here to Fraternity by Robert Egan. No deeper than two pages into that book do we find this assessment of the movie: "Image conscious Greeks might recall that in the years after the release of Animal House, with its not-so-pristine portrayal of Greeks, membership in Greek organizations grew faster than it had in the previous 25 years." (Egan, 2)
That 'not-so-pristine-portrayal of Greeks' was perfume to college and university administrators whose play-lands had been stained by the blood of Kent State. And it is not insignificant in this regard that permission to film Animal House on the University of Oregon at Eugene campus, was granted after its administration had read and approved the bawdy script.
But that was 1977-78.
The eight years intervening between then and now has seen the Kent State decade melt away into the decade of the '80's, and its self-directed activism. John Belushi's reputation as a Saturday Night Live satirist and everyday-hedonist has soured with the advent of his involuntary suicide at the hands of a free-basing aide-de-camp . And what seemed like the panty-raid mentality in Animal House has now come under the scrutiny of a Greek system called into particular account by feminists who challenge the seduction-by-booze scenes of the movie as little more than "date rape," and by others who see its pranksterism as "campus theft", and what From Here to Fraternity calls "prankdemonium and the eternal quest for nookie" (Egan,1) as little more than male chauvinism wrapped in a fraternity banner.
Yes, much more than a building's walls came tumbling down this month when Animal House met wrecking ball and bulldozer. Many of the totems which undergird 1980's Greekdom have begun to totter too, portending perhaps the evolution of a new Greek consciousness based less on booze and more on brains than John Belushi's souring legacy has left us to imagine.
Paul D. Keane
Written while stranded for five months in Eugene, Oregon 3000 miles from my New Haven home, during which time I researched and interviewed everyone still living in Eugene who had been associated with the filming there of Animal House in 1977/8, after which research I witnessed the demolition of the actual building in which Animal House had been filmed, to make way for a dentist's office. Progress.