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A student flat (Image: supplied)
A student flat (Image: supplied)

SocietyFebruary 19, 2024

The painful history of student flat hazing

A student flat (Image: supplied)
A student flat (Image: supplied)

In the first instalment of a three-part series on student hazing rituals, former Critic Te Ārohi editor Fox Meyer looks back on where flat initiations came from and where they might be headed.

Jack was smiling when he told me he could’ve died. He was a first-year, and had just been through a flat initiation: a hazing ritual that celebrates the handover of a second-year Dunedin student flat. His buzz cut was fresh and his legs still razor-smooth from being shaved. He had been pelted with eggs, filled with booze and made to drink vomit – all in the name of “tradition”.

The comment sort of slipped out of his mouth halfway through an interview about hazing rituals, when he told me “you do wonder if you’re gonna make it out, y’know, alive.” He cracked a big grin and looked to see my reaction. Clout is everything.

When second year starts at Otago University, students typically move into a flat with a group of friends from their hall. Jack was nearing the end of his first year on campus, and was entering the period of flat handovers known as initiation season. He spoke to me while I was editing the student magazine in 2023. 

These initiations are so popular amongst their niche group, and carry so much social sway, that Jack was keen to take part even though he wasn’t even living in the flat he was being hazed into. His friend couldn’t make the event, so he took his place for three reasons: to spare the rest of the group a punishment, to earn the right of running the event next year, and – most of all –  because he just wanted to “get absolutely wrecked with the boys”.

There is culture in Dunedin, beyond the bacterial kind, and people desperately want to be a part of it. The most prestigious flats are often the dingiest, squished together in the 4-square-block Studentville area, through which Castle Street cuts an arterial path. Flats here have names, histories and reputations. Deathstar. Big Red. Adventure Time. Down the road are the Beaver Lodge, Hoe-tel, 8-Man and, of course, 660.

If you want the clout that comes with one of the named flats, it’ll likely cost you over $200 a week. This will buy you a mouldy, dingy single room in a flat with 4-6 of your second-year mates. But rent isn’t the only cost; if you want one of the “famous” ones, there may be some non-traditional hoops to jump through in the form of flat initiations. Simply put: hazing rituals.

Some of those hoops are real. One alumni told me about witnessing an initiation in 2016. He’d gone to a house party at “some big mansion-type place” in his first year, bleary-eyed on the thrill of beginning uni, when he noticed a commotion on the roof of the building. 

While a live band played, the next year’s tenants were jumping off the roof, through “a literal ring of fire”, and onto the concrete below. Two full stories down. If the tenants didn’t want to jump, “they were pushed… I can’t believe nobody got hurt,” said the alumni. “Crowd loved it, though. I didn’t even know what an initiation was at the time, or what I was looking at. I was just like ‘what the fuck? Is this what it’s like all the time?”

The short answer is no. Initiations are only held for a select few flats in North Dunedin, and even among those flats, it’s usually not this intense. Most are more tame, and actually fun: dressing up in silly costumes, doing songs and dances and drinking some unholy concoction of booze. A bit embarrassing, and you’ll definitely feel it the next morning, but such is life on your average Castle Street Tuesday. Besides, this is “tradition”. 

Two students partake in an initiation task (Image: Supplied)

But it’s not tradition. At least, not in this form. Hazing rituals go far back in Dunedin, but their presence inside private homes is barely older than the people facilitating them. Nearly all of Dunedin’s traditional hazing took place in a hall of residence: a building run either by a church or the university. 

Knox College long held a reputation for being host to some pretty gnarly rituals. In the mid-’40s, first-years reportedly had to literally dig their own graves and lie in them. Booze was then poured into their open mouths by a second-year standing above the grave, and it sometimes continued until the kid passed out or vomited. More recently, a Knox alumni admitted that (some years ago) he and two dozen other first-years had to take a full bite out of an eel in Knox’s infamous bath, neither the first nor the last time that eels and baths would be involved in hazing rituals. 

It’s not just Knox. Over the years, rituals took many forms at Selwyn, Carrington, St. Margaret’s and Arana Colleges, to name a few. Girls were stripped and face-painted and paraded through the Octagon with their hands bound; young men were beaten with knotted towels.

In 1951, in a hazing ritual, a student in Adelaide was thrown into a river despite pleas that he couldn’t swim. He drowned. Four others were charged with manslaughter. At the same time, in Dunedin, news was unfolding that a student’s recent concussion had not been due to a clumsy drunken tumble but a deliberate push: his hands had been tied behind his back during hazing and an older student had tripped him on purpose. For the first time, initiations were in the headlines in a big way. Scrutiny continued to build into the 1980s.

In 1981, while former prime minister Bill English was at Selwyn, half of his floor vomited in a bucket and a first-year had to drink it. It’s unknown whether English was part of the half that participated. Seven years later, in 1988, scrutiny peaked again when talk of initiations finally reached the Beehive. Not the flat on Castle St named “Beehive”, but the one in Wellington. Injuries at yet another initiation prompted the Lange government to look into the matter, with the Ministry of Education lobbying the Board of Otago Halls to investigate. They did, and today initiations are completely banned by the Otago Uni Code of Conduct, section g, which now reads:

No student shall… organise or participate in an event in the nature of an initiation that requires or can be reasonably regarded as pressuring a person into:

(i) the use of alcohol or drugs, including cigarettes and vaping products; and/or

(ii) the undertaking of unlawful activities; and/or

(iii) the undertaking of activities that carry risk of harm to a person or property;

Otago’s hall hazing days were numbered. 

Two years after Lange got serious about the problem, a young man named Andrew Geddis stepped foot on the Otago campus at a crucial junction: hall initiations were on the way out, and all the pent up energy and “tradition” had to go somewhere.  

Now a professor in the law department, Geddis studied at Otago from 1990-95. When Critic interviewed him in 2023, he was quick to point out that he was “by no means a wowzer”. He indulged plenty himself, and he chuckled as he remembered a party that ended up with him in the ER to get a needle removed from his hand.

But that was a marked difference from the injuries emerging now, like the one that cost Geddis’ coworker’s son an eye. As part of a flat initiation, this student’s group of boys were being egged. These are very public events, and crowd participation is encouraged. Some random attendee, with no connection to the flat, threw an egg that left one boy partially blind. 

Geddis spent his second year flatting on Castle Street, meaning that he would’ve been in the hotbed of flat initiation culture – had it been around. Instead, he told Critic that when he was an Otago student, “those things did not exist.” 

Hall initiations “weren’t stopped because… you shouldn’t have fun,” he said. “They were stopped because they caused a demonstrable harm to the people involved. The idea that we should try to resurrect that and bring it back when it’s been shown to be a negative, bad thing for the people involved seems ridiculous.” 

Hall initiations were never resurrected. A more appropriate term may be reincarnated, taking a new form as pressures pushed them out of their old home.

But “it’s our culture!”, say the dozens of Castle Street initiates, heads freshly shaved and stomachs freshly pumped, “and who are you to deny us that?” For this, too, Geddis had a response: “It’s like saying, ‘oh, ha ha, back in the day we used to make fun of the gays, therefore let’s keep making fun of the gays, or let’s try to do it again.’ Ridiculous, right? That was a terrible part of our culture. It was a bad thing that we got rid of for good reason.”

Or, at least, we tried to. As history has shown, initiations are a tenacious weed; you can trim back the branches and thin the most brutal buds – but if the seed remains intact, the rest will regrow. 

Pruned from the halls of Otago University, hazing would take root in second-year flats.

Severity and media attention increase hand-in-hand. Each year, students would try to up the ante, sticking to “tradition” while also adding their own twist. There was a peak in the ‘50s when the Adelaide student died, there was a peak in the ‘80s with the Lange government, and there was a peak in 2017 with the vomit bucket. 

In 2022 things seemed to be at a fever pitch once more, when a Critic reporter attended an initiation on Cumberland Street. While the event was “a very, very mild one”, the boys running the wine bag race told the reporter – completely unprompted – that the whole ordeal reminded them of the Stanford Prison Experiment: “like, are we the guards with all the power, abusing it? Going crazy? Ha!” Only at a university hazing event could you spend all night engaged in a display of pathological ritual abuse, and then go to class the next day to learn the terms to describe it.

Later, at the same event, during a shotgun race, the reporter asked if the whole thing “ran on vengeance”, to which a boy there replied “fuck yeah [it does], you wanna do what they did to you but worse!” His mate chimed in: “It gets worse and worse every year until it gets to ‘oooosh’, and then you tone it all the way down. It’s like an ecosystem, a self-limiting ecosystem.”

These boys were very self-aware, and their event was very mild (by Dunedin standards). Like the vast majority of students, they were able to recognise that their community’s overall hazing culture had seen ostensibly “positive” group bonding activities turn into bona fide torture over, and over, and over again. They’d get bad, something would go wrong, media would scrutinise, and things would calm down again. But nothing will go wrong at our initiation – right?

Multiple times now, Dunedin’s initiation culture has had a chance to be stamped out. And multiple times, efforts have failed. When they’ve been cut back at one junction, they’ve taken root somewhere else; when they’ve been blasted in the media, they’ve shifted into private spaces.

Left to incubate in private rooms for a decade, in 2017, flat-based initiations finally emerged from its chrysalis. The culture reared its head as students poured wheelie bins of vomit on each other in full view of passersby on State Highway 1. What followed was the rinse-and-repeat cycle of media attention, administrative crackdown and reduced severity that occurred with hall hazing. Things calmed down. Then, from a more relaxed state, it was time to start ratcheting up the heat and wait for the next boiling point. 

A few years later, out of nowhere, came Covid. The pandemic posed an unusual challenge: instead of legal threats, the lockdown period threatened flatters’ ability to congregate. Many in the Proctor’s office and in uni administration hoped that this would be the final blow. Without students in Dunedin, how would initiations even take place? Without the ability to hand down tradition, even for one year, the “culture” would be vulnerable. It may even be lost. 

It wasn’t. In 2023, as part of a flat initiation, students paid what looked like an homage to Knox: standing in a foetid bath, in full public view, they cornered and clasped a struggling eel. Gathered in their underwear with the wriggling, desperate creature above their heads, a video shows the boys looking more like podium-placed athletes than people committing animal abuse in broad daylight. 

Girls on the balcony above said they’d cried as they watched, but felt they couldn’t leave. They were scared of some shirtless, piss-drunk boys downstairs (who “didn’t even live there”) and who, minutes earlier, had apparently been physically punishing one of the first-year boys for not complying with the ritual’s rules. 

Initiations had survived. In the wake of the pandemic, they would mix with a cohort of pent-up students that were salivating for a chance to socialise, taunted by the legendary stories of the Before Times. Finally: a chance to prove that they could go just as hard.

In tomorrow’s instalment: What happens when a student initiation ends up on the news?

Keep going!