Exploring With K&B: Yale Secret Societies
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
References in Pop-culture
Secret societies have been around for centuries at Yale, but they still remain a mystery to the public eye. For years, rumors have circulated about what these societies do and how they continue to induct members. These organizations have also caught the attention of the TV and film industry. Many shows, such as Gilmore Girls, American Psycho and The Skulls, include references to Yale’s secret societies.
The Skulls is based on conspiracy theories about the Skull and Bones secret society, and it introduces the audience to a lifestyle that members are imagined to live. In Gilmore Girls, the main character, Rory, is introduced to a secret society through her boyfriend. She decides to write an article about them, joining the group on one of their adventures. In one scene, Rory goes through an initiation which alludes to “Tap Night” when Yale Juniors get tapped on the shoulder by a member of a society. The countless pop culture references to secret societies at Yale left us intrigued as to the reality of these organizations.
Yale’s first secret society was the university’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, founded in 1780. However, Phi Beta Kappa dropped its secrecy in the 1820s, leaving behind a growing fascination with the concept of secret societies. Skull and Bones, perhaps the most infamous of Yale’s secret societies, was founded in 1832. Other notable societies like Scroll and Key and Wolf’s Head were founded in the following years.
Originally, secret societies were open about their members but kept their meetings and practices confidential. In the 1970s, induction became increasingly covert, and members were not permitted to openly share which society they belonged to. Although this development only aided in increasing the mystique of these organizations, it was likely an attempt to dissuade negative attention generated from growing anti-elitist sentiments on campus.
Many of the secret societies took their inspiration from ancient cultures, particularly Egyptian and Greek civilizations. Members often organized debates about a single topic and discussed them during each meeting.
The exclusivity of secret societies at Yale was both a source of allure and disdain. Many wondered if such conglomerates were merely emblematic of the same institutions that haunt the United States, a microcosm for power-distribution in the country today hiding behind the veil of clandestine meetings and extravagant rituals. Numerous influential figures, like Presidents William Taft and George W. Bush, were members of Skull and Bones. In recent years, secret societies have been perceived as anachronistic, promoting false ideas of meritocracy and providing members undeserved opportunities once they graduate.
Every year, fifteen Yale juniors get “tapped” or chosen by secret societies. Historically, these associations were composed of white men, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that societies began to accept women.
Visiting the Tombs
The clubhouses for Yale’s secret societies are referred to as “tombs'', a fitting term considering the appearance of the grounds. When we visited the tombs, we were met by towering sandstone walls uninterrupted by windows. A gate surrounded each tomb, and only a single door appeared at the front. The thick, windowless walls leave the buildings soundproof and hide the interior of the structures entirely. As we went from tomb to tomb, a glaring irony seemed instantly apparent: despite the so-called secrecy of these organizations, their grand tombs only served to encourage curiosity, practically inviting attention.
Aside from the building's architecture, some clubhouses also created symbols which are included in various places surrounding the clubhouse. The Book and Snake tomb was enclosed in a black gate that featured snakes wrapped around a post. Many other club houses also included hidden easter eggs and details.
Before researching and visiting the tombs, we were drawn to the imposing architecture and intrigued by the extensive theories regarding the secret societies, but we were skeptical about the validity of said lore. Many of the members became wealthy famous people, but this can be attributed to the opportunities exclusive organizations provide rather than a vast scheme. It seems that secret societies are simply glorified fraternities where the alumni provide the members with steep benefits.
Whether secret societies ever orchestrated sinister plots is hard to say, but it is unlikely that any still engage in exceptionally unusual activity. Although we never thought we would uncover a conspiracy, it would be dishonest to say we weren’t captivated by the mystique of these hidden institutions.
Up next: Kamini and Bhavana visit Wooster Square when the Cherry Blossoms bloom