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Behind the sacred walls of Yale's secret societies

BY MOLLY BALL AND EMILY BELL

While the past three presidents hold Yale degrees, two of them are members of one of Yale's more infamous secret societies: President George W. Bush, DC '68; and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, DC '48. Recent exposure in the big-budget thriller Skulls and a more intellectual Atlantic Monthly article has only added to the mystique and notoriety (or infamy) of Yale's exclusive societies.
PATRICK MCGARVEY/YH
The windowless tomb of Skull and Bones, Yale's oldest secret society, looms over High Street.

Although associations such as Skull and Bones, Book and Snake, and Scroll and Key are inextricably linked to the Yale name, these societies play a small part in the lives of most undergrads, since they consist solely of a few seniors. Nonetheless, the looming presence of their respective "tombs" and the awe they inspire make secret societies an intriguing part of Yale environment.

There are reportedly about a dozen senior-only societies, only a few of which have tombs. The oldest, Skull and Bones, was founded in 1832. Not all secret societies date back that far; some formed in response to the entrenched elitism of their better-known counterparts. Most choose juniors and conduct interviews at the end of each year, though some do accept applications.

You might not even realize the societies exist until Tap Night, the April evening when societies invite select juniors to join their ranks. Cloaked and hooded seniors lead the blindfolded "taps" around campus in obscure initiation ceremoniesthat often involve screaming and bizarre behavior. This year, one tap had to hump a pole while munching Nilla Wafers and shouting, "Scooby snacks!"

The dark, ancient "tombs" where the societies meet add to their air of bizarre mystery. Hardly noticeable to the casual passer-by, the tombs have few or no windows and are enclosed by locked gates. You rarely see anyone go in or out, and the details of what transpires inside are kept as secret as possible. Rumor has it that Skull and Bones has the highest water bill in all of New Haven—enough to fill several swimming pools every month. Rumpus, Yale's campus tabloid, routinely reports on societies' alleged naked parties and debauched rituals.

Most societies meet Thursdays and Sundays for dinner. Sometimes a guest from the community, such as a professor or local businessman, is invited to speak. Often, societies have members present their "autobiographies," revealing personal details—from childhood scars to sexual exploits—using props or slides. "Normally you become friends with people and then get to know them; here you get to know people and then you become friends with them," one tapped junior said.

All the elitism that surrounds traditional secret societies, however, is missing in the Pundits. A mock secret society, the Pundits ridicule the stuffy atmosphere that their serious counterparts cherish. A traditional Pundit prank is the once-a-semester streak through Cross Campus and Sterling Memorial Libraries during finals week. The group also once nearly succeeded in impersonating the all-senior Whiffenpoofs a capella group on The Today Show.

The purpose of secret societies is not simply clandestine fun and games—many members join for the promise of getting to know people they ordinarily would never meet. "There's just 15 or 16 people depending on each other," one society member said. "Everyone starts on level ground." The all-male, Old Blue mold is no longer dominant, and most societies strive to represent the diverse Yale community.

No matter how hard secret societies try to project a politically correct image, they are undeniably exclusive. Tapped juniors have been known to turn down bids from even the most prestigious societies. One tapped junior who did accept was nonetheless hesitant; he said, "I was worried that I might feel it was too elitist, that it would mean I wouldn't be able to spend as much time with my current group of friends."

However, for some of the "chosen" ones, it is exactly this exclusivity that makes secret societies so appealing. According to one senior society member, "The exclusive element of it makes you have a closer relationship more quickly."

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