The Cinephile: Analyzing Animal House — An Introduction to Delta, or: Why We Frequent Frats

By Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff | 2/20/13 9:00am

We all remember our First Time at Dartmouth, our introduction to the subterranean world for which our campus is so (in)famous. Maybe you first experienced it with a big group from your floor during Orientation, or perhaps when a friend told you to meet him or her at some unfamiliar Greek letter or other and you plunged into the deep of the frat basement alone (quel horreur!).

In contrast to its beginning scenes, the film does little with camerawork to make its point about the eponymous Animal House. Instead, true to the display we all experience on those first tentative steps into the frat basement, it capitalizes on the sheer spectacle of the College’s underground. I won’t delve too deeply into plot because this part of the film is so well known and endlessly quotable. But in promulgating an ideal of anti-establishment inclusivity, a few salient points from the scene reveal why we keep going to frats. Delta’s initial depiction, though grimy — do those filled trashcans out front look familiar? — works to show you how, in stark contrast to the previous Omega scene, Delta welcomes and collects.

While Kent prattles on about legacies before he and Larry enter, Delta greeter Bluto (John Belushi, the movie’s finest contribution, in this writer’s opinion) quite literally pisses on those notions of exclusive structure and hierarchy. We first glimpse Bluto from the back. When Kent addresses him as “sir,” he turns counterclockwise without first finishing up what he was doing, a distasteful departure from the classy greeting Omega offered PNMs.

At the same time, the peeing scene (and the character of Bluto himself) brings a dimension of the elemental to the campus that could be interpreted as animal, but also fundamentally inclusive. Without taste, everything and everyone is allowed. Accordingly, once Bluto’s finished marking his territory, if you will, he opens the door for Kent and Larry. This shot is a notable opposition to the previous shot of Omega’s front door opening: Bluto enters the house with the PNMs from the outside instead of merely allowing them to enter.

Of course, this democratic social scene has a lot to do with beer. When the two PNMs enter the house, Bluto famously says, “Grab a brew. Don’t cost nothin’,” and I lost count of how many times Larry was offered (and accepted) a beer. The central role of beer comes with its consequences: in one moment, a beer bottle is flung right at Bluto, who expertly catches it. We get a shot of Larry grinning appreciatively. But when another beer bottle flies out of nowhere and smashes against the wall behind him, he just looks plain alarmed, exhibiting Animal House’s stripped-down comedy at its finest.

While Kent waffles around upstairs with a faux nice-guy attitude, Larry flourishes in this unaffected setting and heads straight for the basement, which is in many ways the heart of the fraternity. Downstairs, a girl in a flannel shirt (a perfectly-cast Karen Allen of Indiana Jones fame as Katie) works the bar — and therefore holds a lot of power. Unfazed by the crude female anatomy of the fish tank and calling her boyfriend Boone and his friend Otter “well-known homosexuals” (seemingly delighted by the idea), Katie shows that Delta House is where social categories combust.

In this inclusive spirit, Animal House frankly incorporates the sexual undertones of fraternity homosocial bonds. In the scene in which Otter and Boone talk about getting it on with various girls as Otter prepares to “go out” (same significance as today), for instance, Boone undresses. Ironically, as Otter describes what he wants to do with women, he is the bodily spectacle — his backside practically intrudes upon the conversation as a third character. The best friend-bonding moment doesn’t hide its possibility of homosexual attraction, but flaunts it: just when the phallic almost seems to be subtext, Otter pulls out an enormous dildo out of his backpack. Boone, suggestively, wonders whether it can “speak.”

As a result, the pretension to legitimated social structure is the only social faux pas of this deeply inclusive atmosphere. Sexuality of all forms abounds: note later how Otter, apparently turned on by Boone arguing with Katie, literally sweeps a random girl off her feet. The tie, however, is the phallic symbol that is discouraged and suppressed. Most apparently, Boone and Otter make great fun of Kent’s (90% rayon!). Next, they crush Kent’s blind devotion to his brother Fred, a former Delta.

When Kent says he heard legacies usually get asked to pledge automatically, Otter replies, “Oh, well, usually, unless the pledge in question turns out to be a real closet case.” And then, in unison with Boone, he says, “Like Fred.” “My brother,” Kent whispers mournfully in reply. Delta takes down all father and role model figures, which seem to necessarily denote establishment.

If the movie industry is a factory of dreams, then Delta House captures a bit of the ideal of the Dartmouth fraternity — utterly accepting and welcoming. Think back to your first time visiting a frat you now frequent. After the sensory spectacle faded, did you return because you felt a little bit like Larry?

Katie Kilkenny, The Dartmouth Staff