Secrets and lies

EVER SINCE the University was founded nearly 200 years ago its storied traditions have prospered with each new generation, and one particular urban legend about secret societies merits attention. Of course, being "secret" means that people aren't supposed to know anything about them. The aura of mystery surrounding the urban legend of secret societies has always provided a potent story for students, but what if it's all much ado about nothing? The smoke and mirrors game of immature students in recent years needs to be exposed.

College students love gossip, and "secrets" are the best form of gossip. Many secret societies have become somewhat public through their charitable contributions and on-Grounds events. But there is still the continued belief in ultra-extravagant and exclusive secret societies like the kind depicted in that bad movie, "The Skulls." But students need to wise up and realize that they are being fooled. In addition, people playing juvenile pranks or leaving fake clues to perpetuate the myths of secret societies should desist and allow such societies to fade into the shadows of history where they belong.

Many of the societies could be a perfectly orchestrated prank devised to confuse the public and obfuscate the truth merely for a laugh. There has been research (the University Guide Service has a decent Web site on it), but it is unknown whether some of them still exist or if the formal societies died out long ago.

For the industrious student, it would be the greatest in-joke ever to continue the societies' existence in the University consciousness. Leave things around Grounds, make anonymous statements and claim responsibility for a group that can't deny it because it doesn't exist. It's perfect.

Secret societies date back to ancient Greece and Pythagoras' bizarre "math is life" cult. In the modern age, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Skull and Bones and numerous other groups have formed as a social means of attaining some ideal or end. Many outsiders imagine pagan rituals and something like the scene in "Animal House," with fraternity initiation of new members involving black-robed elders paddling pledges who respond, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?" According to the Internet, freemasons run NASA and cover up the truth about aliens while the Skull and Bones fund this country's wars. At the University, secret societies hold less influence, yet our fascination remains. Fascination is healthy, but not when it is focused on fantasy.

At the University, there are the IMPs, the Seven Society, the Six Column Society, the Purple Shadows, the 21 Society, the Z Society and a dozen or more others. The secret society has become the holy grail among college urban legends as it is one of the few stories which a rational person can neither confirm nor deny as remaining in existence today.

Very little reliable information confirms their practices, history and, most remarkably, their actual presence. After all these years, the lack of information available about several of them may mean that most are gone -- or that some of them never existed beyond fantasy.

Some of the most information available is on the Six Column Society. Formed as one of the first societies, it is one of the only ones to remain secret mostly because of its lack of social activism in the community. The title of the society comes from the architecture around Grounds; and, like the "IMP," "7" and "Z" symbols, the location of six columns around Grounds supposedly forms a pattern that leads to the society's main meeting place or information about it.

However, this information gleaned from other students could easily have been manufactured by a few wannabes, disseminated to friends and transformed into public information. Similarly, the ads, e-mails and obituaries that occasionally appear in University publications concerning other secret societies may be the work of pranksters who want to keep the myth alive. Students should not be proud of being a part of a concerted campaign of public misinformation, but they are because secrets are fun.

The Six Column Society is one of several still shrouded in mystery, hence there is more fascination about it. It appears to have no purpose nor outreach beyond socializing. However, weird pranks throughout the years have been attributed to society members by a trademark six lines etched near the locations of incidents. Anybody could have pulled off the pranks and made it look like the society still exists. It could have been the society members and it could have been anyone else around Grounds. Nonetheless, playing pranks and leaving cryptic notes are juvenile traditions and secret societies should just fade from students' consciousness.

After all, there was the Tau Epsilon Zeta group which mysteriously gave a letter to University President John T. Casteen III during Convocation a few years ago announcing its ideals -- nothing has been heard of them since then. It is all too easy for a couple of mischievous friends to paint cryptic symbols around Grounds and pass out anonymous notes, then watch as the community draws conclusions. Students just buy into it like naive first years and make the rest of the University's traditions look stupid.

The existence of a secret society, by definition, cannot be confirmed or denied. And so a few smarter than average students have you fooled, but students love secrets and there's no turning away a good secret. Urban legends are fun, but usually they are fallacious exaggerations of the truth. Traditions can be fun, but this one has died out and is not in need of resuscitation. Students need to reevaluate their acceptance of the myth and realize that the lack of information about societies such as the Six Column Society is not confirmation of surreptitious behavior; rather, it is proof for their lack of existence. Nor is it proof that such societies hold any kind of special organizational structure that distinguishes them from a high school Spanish Club.

(Brad Cohen's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

related stories