Animal House is a 1978 film about a misfit pack of fraternity brothers living the life of Ivy League college students. Their hilarious antics resulted in numerous awards for the movie, despite its rather raunchy approach to college life; many people in the film’s target market identified with the episodes or remembered similar scenarios in their own college days. In 2001, the Library of Congress named Animal House a culturally significant film and requested its preservation in the National Film Registry.
However well-crafted the film was (and there are subtleties in its execution not evident at first glance) it was generally understood that it was entirely fictional and not based on any real college or individuals. “Faber College” was taken to be a symbol for the upper-class college experience of the sixties, the dividing line between the “haves” and the “have nots.” However, there is strong evidence that writer Chris Miller used his experiences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, for much of the “atmosphere” of the film.
Background of Setting
Writer Chris Miller had been a member of Alpha Delta Phi at Dartmouth, while Harold Ramis, the brains behind the story, had attend the much more prosaic Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a member of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. Both men agreed that the story should revolve around the conflict between the “good” fraternity, represented in the movie by Omega Theta Pi, and the “bad” fraternity, Delta Tau Chi.
Ramis had been writing memoirs at the time of his fraternity days, drawing on his experiences at the pedestrian school, while Miller contributed the idea of the starched and pressed Ivy League group.
Conflict and Symbolism In The Film
While Animal House purports to be nothing but a romp between two disparate groups designed to give maximum comedic value, the underlying message of anti-establishment motives is fairly clear. The writers, including Ramis, Miller, and Doug Kenney, who graduated from Harvard in 1969, realized that they were telling a story of the last days prior to the political upheaval of the 1960s, and this knowledge is evident in the film’s content. Rather than approaching the civil rights movement, student unrest, the Kent State shootings, and the Vietnam War head-on, the group decided to satirize the innocence of the days leading up to these events. It is significant, for example, that the parade at the end of the movie takes place on November 21, 1963, the day prior to the Kennedy assassination.
The writers made some interesting statements in the movie about the naivety of America’s privileged youth in the days leading up to the violence of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, the Animal House primary players are all boys of privilege who have chosen the “wild side” over the more conservative lifestyle of the Omegas, who represent the established mores and goals of the time. The movie is full of subtle jabs at the establishment, most notably through the antics of the Deltas and the response of Dean Wormer, the symbolic father-figure in the film. By attacking these established norms, the writers call into question the entire fraternity and college system designed to churn out carbon copies of the dads and moms of the idyllic 1950s. At one point, Otter, the primary leader of the wild Delta House, tells a colleague, “Relax, I’m pre-law.”
“I thought you were pre-med,” the friend replies.
“Same difference,” says Otter.
It is dialogue like this that gives us a glimpse as to the true “message” of the movie, although there is no doubt that the movie is geared primarily toward fun and not instructional or political motives.
Setting and Sources
No doubt Miller, Ramis, and Kenney drew on their experiences at both Ivy League and local colleges. When the producers of Animal House approached several colleges, however, both Ivy League and local venues turned them away quickly. The script was considered far too offensive for most colleges to want anything to do with it, and for some time the film languished for lack of production space.
However, the company was in luck with William Beaty Boyd, the president of the University of Oregon at Eugene. Boyd had previously been told by senior administrators at a California university not to consider allowing the campus to be used for The Graduate, a hit film of the 1970s. After have missed that opportunity, Boyd was eager to cooperate with the filmmakers. He read the script and defended it to his staff, pointing out that it was a spoof and not to be taken seriously. Finally, it was agreed that filming could take place on the Oregon campus, and Boyd even allowed filmmakers to use his own office for Dean Wormer’s in the film.
The Delta house exterior was filmed using an abandoned residence and former house of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. Most of the interior scenes were filmed on a soundstage, although the interior of the Phi Kappa Psi and Sigma Nu fraternity houses at the University of Oregon were also used.
What School Was Animal House Really Based On?
It is impossible from the compendium of evidence to point to one specific school as the genesis of Animal House. No doubt producer Doug Kenney and writer Chris Miller drew on their experiences at Harvard and Dartmouth, respectively, for much of the flavor of an expensive northeastern college, but it is doubtful that anything like the Delta house would have been suffered to exist long in those locations. A more likely source for the actual Delta fraternity is Ramis’s Washington University in St. Louis, although there is also no direct evidence that he drew on real-life experiences from this setting. In the end, the movie appears to be a fantasy, drawn on a variety of experiences at several different types of colleges.