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SocietyFebruary 21, 2024

For the richest of boys, squalor and abuse is the fun part


For many, living in a damp, broken home is a sad reality. For wealthy young men, it’s what draws them to Castle Street flatting.

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on student hazing. Read part one here and part two here.

The Deathstar complex is a concrete box, more Soviet-era bunker than student flat. Fresh asphalt has been pooled in the front lawn, forever entombing what used to be Castle Street’s filthiest mud pit. The interior of the flat isn’t much better; in 2022 there was a hole punched between the two toilet blocks “so the boys can chat to each other” and a tupperware on the kitchen sink that boasted a solid half inch of mould. The backyard featured a dilapidated mattress, stained green with something sordid, languishing in a mud bath of glass shards, empty cans and Macca’s bags. For the privilege of living here, residents pay $185 a week and endure one of the street’s gnarliest hazing rituals. 

The building houses Deathstar and another flat called Methstar. Neither is especially livable, and apparently the managers have actually struggled to find new tenants. Despite attempts by  the property managers to tidy it up, the residents are always determined to wreak havoc.

In 2020, the tenants of Deathstar were taken to the Tenancy Tribunal for accruing over $30,000 in damages. Nineteen separate walls of the flat had holes in them, which apparently were used to catch vomit. Deathstar made headlines again in 2023, when there was so much rubbish left outside the flat that a property manager had to use a digger to clear it

It’s gotten so bad that, according to a recent Tenancy Tribunal report, “the landlord is unable to obtain insurance for the premises.” 2023’s tenants agreed that the name carried an assumption of damages: “fuck yeah [the reputation] of Deathstar makes people more prone to damaging it… people think ‘oh its Deathstar, who cares?’” 

The mountains of stinking garbage, the pools of ghastly fluids, the glorification of depravity. You may be wondering: who would live like this?

Castle Street is Dunedin’s most famous student street. The home of the biggest parties, and the filthiest flats. It is also, typically, home to the most privileged tenants

In 2023, when Critic spoke to four of the six boys at Deathstar, they were, by all accounts, cooperative, understanding, well-mannered and well-spoken. They were all in their second year at university, all studying commerce, and all from the same year group at King’s College. While they talked about living in filth, a golfing video game idled on the TV.

Like so many other residents of the top-name flats, they’d come down the pipeline of private school to Castle Street squalor.

The high school connection is important to note: certain friend groups gravitate towards Otago, so year 13s often have their eye on some of the coolest flats before they ever take their first paper. But first, they’ll have to spend a year in the halls.

Knox and Selwyn have a reputation on campus for housing many of these “private school kids” in their first year. In this context, “private school kids” are those who attended private schools as well as wealthy students from prestigious state schools. Both halls have undergone recent and genuinely transformative efforts to address a pervasive Old Boy’s Club mentality that dogged their residents for generations. Just this year, Knox disbanded KCSC, the student governance committee, which had historically run many of the initiation rituals. Ask any Knox alumni and they’ll tell you exactly how significant this decision was.

By no small effort, change has been made. But the pipeline from boarding and private schools, through Knox and Selwyn and on to Castle Street remains strong. Some of Otago University’s most famous graduates went through initiation rituals – including its only prime minister. 

If this reminds you of American fraternity culture, you’re not alone. Just remember that in America, all the competition and assimilation and outright abuse within frats and sororities does come with a tangible payoff: you will be inducted into a national organisation, one that very well might pave the road for a future career. You’ll be living in a huge house, probably with a cleaner, and instantly earn a spot in a powerful network to leverage after graduation. 

In Dunedin, you get a year with the boys. 

Young men take part in a student flat hazing (images: supplied)

Not everyone who goes to private school ends up running hazing rituals, and not everyone running hazing rituals went to private school, or Knox, or Selwyn. But there is certainly a general trend: the students that can afford a private education tend to be the ones who can afford steep rents, Tenancy Tribunal arrears and thousands of dollars of booze. 

The names of tenants involved in tenancy tribunal disputes involving Castle Street are public information. By cross-referencing the names with social media, the picture becomes clear: the tenants are overwhelmingly (almost unanimously) male, and went to well-known boys schools like Kings College, Auckland Grammar, Wellington College, Otago Boys. The same schools appear over and over again. Even Kings College alum and current MP Sam Uffindell lived in squalor for a while.

Every year, it’s the same pattern. Young men from high-profile schools come together on Castle Street to raise hell, and pay an absurd premium for the chance to live in a self-imposed squalor, probably for the one and only time in their lives. Do the most privileged among us feel a need to prove that they, too, can withstand hardship? Do they see this as an opportunity to shed the heavy cloak of privilege for a few years, and blend in to the squalor? Maybe they just feel left out; as one blue-blooded Castlite put it, they’re here to “experience different aspects of life”.

It’s this impression of struggle that many seem to be chasing, as if their ability to tolerate the unlivable somehow tests their mettle. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that Auckland Grammar’s motto is “Per Angusta, ad Augusta” – Through difficulties, to greatness. This tendency towards self-imposed difficulty manifests most clearly as hazing rituals, and their presence in the lives of privileged young men goes back before they ever get to Dunedin. 

Hazing traditions at elite boys schools exist in a way that is simply unrecognisable to anyone who went to a regular, suburban, co-ed school. It’s not garden variety bullying. It’s cricket teams forcing 14-year olds to drink until they throw up, or run naked across a public road. 

Our most privileged youths are raised in an environment where self-imposed trauma is worn as a badge of honour, where they’re quietly encouraged to equate suffering with success. Then they come to Otago, and the rest of us get caught up in their wake.

One Otago alumni I spoke to described an initiation ritual at his private school, where young boys were tasked with “running the gauntlet”. In the name of “tradition”, someone was made to perform fellatio. Someone broke a boy’s arm with a cricket bat.

It’s more accurately described as physical and sexual abuse. 

Living in a flat where mould grows on your shoes if you don’t wear them enough is, undeniably, a difficulty. Whatever greatness it inspires is harder to identify. This isn’t too different to the attitude towards hazing: in both cases, unspeakable conditions are tolerated in the name of securing clout and “experience”. 

In one case, the hazards are stretched over the course of a year: inhaling black mould, little to no sunlight, near-constant drinking and fast food, and a predilection for broken glass. In the other, the hazards are condensed into a few hours of binge-drinking and vomit play. 

But in both instances, the harm is entirely inflicted between friends. For the vast majority of students (and a bleak number of people of all ages), living in a warm, dry, safe home is a dream. Those who choose to live in squalor and suffer publicly are some of the few who can afford not to.

The driveway of a student flat (image: supplied)

Astudent once sat on Critic’s office couch and said that initiations were “like our own fucked-up version of Lord of the Flies”. This analogy came up over and over again.

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, is the story of a group of well-to-do British schoolboys who, after being shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, descend into their own hierarchical madness. “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, and the darkness of man’s heart,” says the story. It suggests that humans, left to their own devices, will inevitably resort to some sort of violent, tribalistic anarchy – or whatever most scared British readers in 1954.

But it’s a piece of fiction. It isn’t real. Lord of the Flies was a story written by the elite, for the elite, and about the elite. The history and culture of Castle Street was written by, for and about essentially the same group of people. Not everyone who lives on Castle comes from money, but the ones who do definitely tend to set the trends. Similarly, not everyone in Britain in 1954 would assume that there’s an evil in man’s heart, but apparently the people poised to pen a bestseller did.

Dunedin’s hazing problem has persisted for nearly 100 years, handed down as “part of the culture” from one generation to the next. And Castle depravity, the same depravity explored in Lord of the Flies, is a cultural trap that ensnares a particular type of student: the one preconditioned to believe that, left to their own devices, a descent into savagery is inevitable. It is a distinctly privileged theme. 

The most privileged students tend to be the ones who uphold these cultural standards, and are most enthusiastic about these violent indulgences. And, putting yourself in their shoes, the long-standing glorification of hazing makes sense: it’s a culture that’s been here since before you were born, and to recognise the horror of it all would make you a pariah. How dare you suggest that this trauma we all subjected ourselves to was for nothing? 

Even worse: by refusing to partake in the ritual, you are effectively saying that the values and clout of all those around you and all those who ran the gauntlet before you are worthless, misguided and unnecessary. You would be suggesting that they suffered for nothing. You aren’t just going against the flow, you’re actively undermining the hard-earned sense of identity that defines your entire social sphere. To stand up to these forces, at the cusp of adulthood, would be nothing short of titanic.

Keep going!