Five men at Tulane University were arrested recently for attacking people with techniques and cruelty straight from the Dark Ages: They poured boiling water on the victims, then added cayenne pepper to the open wounds to increase their agony. Two victims went to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns.
What makes the story even more chilling is that the victims—at least initially—agreed to the abuse. It occurred during a "Hell Night" at a Tulane fraternity, and the burned men were pledges. And Tulane isn't the only recent case. At the University of Wisconsin’s Sigma Phi Epsilon, members were allegedly hazed, having buckets of vomit and urine dumped on their heads, according to reports this week.
Why would people do this to others? And why would victims often be reluctant to seek help?
The ritual of initiation (or "rite of passage") is both ancient and widespread. New initiates into a group may come from a wide variety of backgrounds, having little in common. The process of initiation gives all the members a common experience, something that they share only with other members of that group.
Sometimes that experience is positive, such as being told a secret password or being given a uniform. Other times, in the case of hazing, that experience is negative—very negative. Hazing is essentially a ritualized way to turn someone from an outsider into a group insider through shared traumatic experiences. The idea is that people who suffer together form stronger bonds than those who do not; it's the trial-by-fire mentality, initiation with a sadistic edge.
In the subculture of some street gangs, hazing regularly takes the form of formal beatings. After taking an oath, new members are surrounded by other gang members and punched, beaten to the ground, and kicked in the face, back, and stomach. The attacks—which can lead to broken bones, concussions, or worse—may last anywhere from fifteen seconds to several minutes. When the attackers are done, they help their victim off the ground and embrace that person as a new brother or sister.
Other instances of hazing are less overtly violent but instead involve emotional abuse or degradation. Hazing victims may be urinated on, forced into submission, emasculated (as when men are forced to wear women’s lingerie), verbally abused, and so on.
Hazing doesn't occur in all groups, of course. If your mother tells you she's joining a new book club, you probably don't need to worry about her being greeted at the door by a blindfold, boiling water, and nipple clamps. While women do haze each other—mostly in sports teams and sororities—hazing is most common in male-dominated groups such as police, sports teams, and armed forces.
The lines between initiation, hazing, and torture are sometimes fuzzy. Victims of hazing often willingly participate in the cruelty, violence, and degradation to earn their status in the in-group, whereas torture victims are of course abused without their consent. Harsh initiation is sometimes acceptable in our society: It's no accident that Army drill instructors are known for being verbally (and at times even physically) abusive, telling new recruits how stupid, inept, and worthless they are. One way the military makes a new man (or woman) out of you is to break you down, then build you back up.
What makes members willing to abuse initiates, and initiates willing to take it?
In some cases, there is simply an element of sadism, and hazing is a quasi-legitimate way to inflict pain on others while limiting personal responsibility ("I didn't really want to do it, but that's the tradition"). Other times, new members may have low self-esteem and are so desperate to be accepted that they will do whatever is asked to be in the group.
There's also a twisted element of fairness involved: Members often feel that since they had to endure the pain and pay their dues, it's only fair that new initiates have to as well.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about the media and pop culture in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.