The Reign of Terror That Was: A Look into Hell Week’s past and present

in Bryn Mawr/Features by

By Rachel Ohrenschall


As the last of the Hell Week signs are put away, the posters on the senior trees are removed, and people cease to wear crazy outfits around campus, Bryn Mawr seems to have returned to normal. The ritual that all new Bryn Mawr students go through – if they so choose – which includes Erdman and Goodhart performances, bedtime stories, and dorm trials, among others, in addition to their individual tasks, has come to a close.

Stephanie Ulloa BMC ‘14 during her freshman Hell Week had to write a ransom note saying she had taken President Jane McAuliffe’s cat, and President McAuliffe, “had to give me $100 worth of Hope’s cookies to have her back.” She took the note to President McAuliffe door, only to check her phone after Erdman performances and see there were 10 missed calls from her Heller telling her to come to Pembroke arch, because President McAuliffe had showed up with a box full of Hope’s cookies, which she gave, laughing the entire time, to Stephanie in exchange for a picture of a cartoon cat on pink paper that she had drawn. Stephanie acknowledges that she was really shy and nervous initially, but Hell Week opened her up, and she felt confident seeing everyone else participate.

This, according to this year’s traditions mistresses, Julia Stuart BMC ‘13 and Devanshi Vaid BMC ‘13 is the power of Hell Week. Stuart says it is “a welcoming and a symbolic acceptance for the freshman.” Vaid thinks that Hell Week unites the community, and that “as soon as you hear Taylor bell ring, sundown on Wednesday the campus changes. No experience compares to your freshman year hell experience, especially through the interconnectedness of the hell family tree.”

“Once you go through Hell Week,” Vaid explains, “you are instantly connected to everyone in the school.” Ironically, during this interview I found out that Vaid was the customs person of my heller, just to illustrate the interconnectedness of our Bryn Mawr community.

While it makes sense that Bryn Mawr, and schools in general, should work to welcome new members of their community into the fold, Bryn Mawr goes above and beyond with these traditions by involving the larger community. At some school’s Deans, and other administrators, would not be invited to participate in these traditions with the students. Dean Rasmussen, however, was invited to participate in Hell Week, as well as lantern night, something powerful for her because she was replacing a long standing Dean, Karen Tidmarsh.

“What struck me about my first year at Bryn Mawr was that I was involved in these types of events and I was invited so it was a little like being accepted into the community.” During her Hell Week last year, she had to dress as Kurt Cobain and make a speech in Erdman proclaiming that “lemurs should be Bryn Mawr’s mascot.” She enjoyed Hell Week so much that for her it was “truly an amazing experience, the first time I felt I was a member of the community.”

Hell week has not always had such a positive reputation; it is the tradition that has changed the most throughout the years. It has morphed to the welcoming rite of passage we know it as today from a mandatory classic hazing exercise. According to a dissertation written by Virginia Wolf Briscoe in 1981 on Bryn Mawr’s traditions, Hell Week was originally just the freshman performing their class play, the aspect of Hell Week that has morphed into Goodhart and Erdman performances. The early reports of the freshman show in the 1920s and 1930s do not mention hazing to the freshman though it indeed existed because “M. Carey Thomas’s dislike of the hazing and her encouragement for its elimination” was well known during her administration of Bryn Mawr. By the early 1940s Hell Week had morphed into something much bigger.

In her dissertation Briscoe refers to several articles published in Bryn Mawr’s newspaper which describe that by 1943 a “four day reign of terror” was a dorm tradition in Rhoads in which oysters and onions were placed in freshman’s shoes and freshmen were locked out of their room’s. In the early 1940s president McBride threatened to discontinue the freshman show because “infringement of personal and college property and feelings were not acceptable,” only “clever but harmless fun was permitted.” This was not Hell Week’s only foray with trouble.

An article from March 5th 1965 details changes made to Hell week because of complaints, and there are references to the enlargement of a new Hell Week committee, founded in 1964, suggesting that prior to 1964 Hell Week existed, but not as a school sanctioned or condoned exercise due to its lack of formal governance.

Surprisingly, after these regulations Hell Week became no less controversial. In 1977 a set of firm Hell Week rules were established, according to the college newspaper from Feb. 18, 1977, “as a result of controversy over the harshness of last year’s Hell Week, a group of students from the class of ’79 wrote a list of Hell Week rules to be followed this year.”

Survey’s given out in 1983 by the Hell Week coordinator echo the same idea. Showing her frustration at the nature of Hell Week, one student wrote on her survey, “Why do freshwomen/transfers have to be “helled” to be welcomed into the Bryn Mawr community? I would tone down the Hell Week build up so that no one gets too upset, but not eliminate the tradition all together because the end is worthwhile.”

An article written on Feb. 17, 1994 in part by the SGA president, claimed that Hell Week was against the honor code and called for the absolution of Hell Week. One reason they listed for their petition to end Hell Week was that, “Hell Week includes many elements of sorority hazing (eg sleep deprivation and secret keeping) incompatible with the Bryn Mawr ideas of individuality, plurality, and basic freedom of speech.” More surprisingly they outline that non participants in Hell Week will, “suffer the repercussions of being harassed and ostracized.”

Though these negative opinions of Hell Week existed in its older days, throughout its history one still finds students who reiterated how Hell Week made them feel welcomed into the community, just like students today. Today, however, Hell Week today can be seen as an experience just as welcoming but less “hellish.” According to Vaid, Hell Week now is different now from hazing in many ways, because “hazing is mandatory, Hell Week is not.” Today, Bryn Mawr bends over backwards to emphasize this fact and to provide support for freshman: HAs, customs people, the Hell Week committee, the administration and any upperclasswoman are all resources for freshman needing a “Hell Free” zone. The “reign of terror” is over at Bryn Mawr this year, and forever.

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