“Animal House” came out 24 years ago this summer. We were not then so far removed from Nixon and Watergate that the parallels between Nixon and Dean Vernon Wormer weren’t obvious, although I suspect that most other 18-year-olds watching it probably didn’t care. It had a profound effect on movies, too: Imagine trying to make a movie like “Police Academy,” “Porky’s” or “American Pie” without “Animal House” as a reference.
Its timing was particularly fortuitous in my life because that was the summer before I started college. In the fall of 1978, then, toga parties were de rigeur even at relatively staid institutions such as Davidson, where most fraternities were located in on-campus houses and allowed members to self-select, rather than requiring potential members to “rush” and pledge. Two exceptions were the off-campus houses, Phi Gamma Delta (“Fiji”) and Sigma Phi Epsilon (“Sig Ep” or “SPE,” usually pronounced, derisively, as “SPEEEEEEEE!!”).
The Sig Eps were housed in a 100-year-old columned house on North Main Street in the town of Davidson. There, the liquor flowed freely, the Coke machine had beer in it (not the horror it seems; keep in mind that in North Carolina in 1978 it was legal for 18-year-olds to drink beer and wine), the music played loudly and the attitude was defiant.
Now, this is not to say that Sig Ep, then or now, at Davidson or anywhere else, was anything close to “Animal House” (except for the part where IT TOTALLY WAS, but more on that some other time — today the national organization is a leader in encouraging and requiring respectable, responsible behavior from its undergrads). But at a campus where conformity was damn near demanded, the Sig Eps were outrageously heterogenous. ROTC studs partied with stoner hippies, New York preppies with Georgia rednecks, disco freaks with rock ‘n’ rollers, 4-0 pre-meds (including one who today is my personal physician) with guys who were hanging on by the skin of their academic teeth.
Like a lot of things, my fraternity experience was a mixed bag, and I suspect I remember more of the good today than I do the bad. But I also suspect that that experience wouldn’t have happened — I probably wouldn’t have been so attracted to Sig Ep, nor the chapter to me — without “Animal House” as a backdrop. And if it hadn’t happened, I suspect I’d've transferred out of Davidson, with whose culture I remained at odds throughout my undergrad career, by the end of my sophomore year.
So here’s to “Animal House,” which National Public Radio revisited this morning as part of its “Present at the Creation” series. I owe at least my degree to it, and possibly a good part of my outlook and world view. That’s a helluva thing to pin on a cheap teen movie, I admit, but there it is.