Wisps of steam hang in the air in front of Holden Chapel. It's a cold winter night, especially for the 12-odd students shaking and seeing their breath as they wait naked for the strike of midnight, at which point they’ll launch into a mad-dash lap of Harvard Yard. Though the students don’t know it, this late-night run in 1995, one of the first few Primal Screams, will become part of something that will last years after they graduate, a small legacy of sorts.
Katina W. Lee ’97, one of the first streaking Primal Screamers, remembers this winter night vividly. “I don’t know how you prepare for Primal Scream now, but I prepared by being in my dorm room and having one of my teammates writing the number seven on my back,” says Lee, who played varsity softball at Harvard as number seven.
As Lee waited outside of the church, she spotted a student on a bicycle preparing to ride the lap naked. “Make sure you put things in the right place,” she remembers thinking.
Once the clock struck midnight, the run began. “The one thing I remember very vividly is running from the little church building past Matthews and then making a left turn because we went counterclockwise around the Yard,“ says Lee. “I just remember running past Grays and feeling piercing ice-cold water all over me.” Lee pauses for dramatic effect. “And, like I told you, it was the wintertime.”
Today, it is said that there are three things every Harvard student must do before graduating: pee on the John Harvard statue, run in Primal Scream, and have sex in the Widener stacks. While, according to The Crimson’s Senior Survey, only 6.6 percent of men and 2.9 percent of women in the Class of 2013 completed the trifecta, campus dialogue frames these actions as central to Harvard lore. Though each challenge could be punishable by law outside the University, the Three seem exempt from severe consequences on campus. They are, instead, a group of feel-good, watered-down rebellions that give students today the illusion of connecting with generations past.
The lore of Harvard’s “Three Things” has, however, developed quite recently. In fact, just 20 years ago, nude Primal Scream was unheard of and the other two traditions were only hazy challenges, far from the trifecta they are today.
LET THERE BE NUDITY
Standing waist high in the waters he began to take off his dress suit calling upon the men in the adjoining dormitories to join him in his midnight bath. Naked forms darted from the darkened doorways and raced over the green grass in the moonlight.
- Richard Arnout Stout '29, “The Yard”
An inebriated senior returning from Boston late on Class Day in 1909 spots a fountain in Harvard Yard. Moved by the May heat and the heat of his liquor, he jumps in and disrobes. A call moves others to do the same, and, just like that, a now-lost tradition is born. According to Stout’s essay, which was published in “The History and Traditions of Harvard College” in 1928, “The two temporary fountains [were] calculated to bathe over a hundred men on Class Day every year as soon as the last guest has departed.”
These days, Harvard leaves the fountain jumping to our Cardinal colleagues on the West Coast, but the Yard has maintained its role as the site for organized exhibitionist behavior. Primal Scream is the most commonly completed of the three challenges—32 percent of the class of 2013 did it at some point in their college careers, according to The Crimson’s senior survey—and the only one that occurs in a communal setting at consistent times.
Before the early 1990s, Primal Scream aligned more closely with its name. The night before finals started, students in the Yard would open their windows and scream for 10 minutes to release stress. (An older term for the tradition was the Yard Howl.) As they do today, the Harvard Band would accompany the proceedings, which traditionally did not involve naked runners. By 1992, however, nudity had begun to play a role in the event. That year, many students, including Corey O’Hara ’96, witnessed several streakers amidst the screamers in the Yard.
“I remember my freshman year, I was in Hurlbut, and I remember Hilary from Hurlbut, who had, well, there were several folks in Hurlbut who just liked to get naked,” says O’Hara. In Primal Scream winter 1992, these freshmen would find the perfect outlet for their affinity to the nude.
“I was playing in the band at Primal Scream,” he continues, “and we were all screaming, and all of a sudden I see naked Hilary running by.” Although O’Hara recalls that a student named Hilary was one of the first midnight runners, The Crimson was not able to confirm the student’s identity.
While O’Hara recalls only a couple other streakers besides ‘Hurlbut Hilary’ that winter, the behavior quickly grew in popularity. In a reversal of the current trend—more students today run nude in December than in May—more participated in spring 1993, solidifying the role of nudity in Primal Scream. “I remember the crew team was running,” recalls O’Hara. “There was a team that ran naked, and it was suddenly much more of a thing.”
Despite the participation of an athletic group, Primal Scream in the ’90s never featured the current number of frost-chapped appendages flying through the air. It’s humorous, even quaint, to hear students from O’Hara’s time recall the scope of the event.
Trying to emphasize the presence of a significant number of participants, Lee remembers, “there were definitely not just two or three people. There had to have been at least a dozen of us. At least.”
Lee, who ran Primal Scream in 1995, claims she would never have participated with just a couple others à la Hurlbut Hilary, but what constitutes a significant group or event for her is bizarrely different from the tradition’s manifestation today. In Lee’s time, tourists were nonexistent, and she describes the run as “under the radar” and “very, very hush-hush.
THE RINEHART YELL
Uttered in repetition, like this, it’s exhausting enough, but chorused by a hundred male voices on a summer’s evening, with Harvard Yard for an echo chamber? well ... on the Tibetan prayer-wheel principle, repeat it enough and at some point something unspecified but miraculous will come to pass. Harvard in a nutshell, if you really want to know.
-Thomas Pynchon, “Against the Day”
A bored undergrad opens his window in Weld on a mild spring night. “Oh, R-i-i-n-e-HART!” he begins to chant. He hesitates, uncertain if anyone has heard him. A moment of silence, and then it comes, loud and echoing throughout the Yard. “Oh, R-i-i-n-e-HART! Oh, R-i-i-n-e-HART!” swells as hundreds of students join the chorus.
Though the timing of this event has little to do with Primal Scream—mild spring or summer nights instead of sub-freezing winters—the Rinehart Yell traces a peculiar pattern of hollering back through the 20th century. According to a 1952 Time article, John Rinehart, who graduated in 1900, was such a gifted student that desperate undergrads would throw their pride aside and yell in the open air for his help. When Rinehart left Harvard, the tradition only grew in popularity, becoming an institutionalized chant that lasted for years.
Known as Harvard’s unofficial rebel call, it is said that the Rinehart yell could be heard from Cambridge to Cuba. It was a way for alumni to recognize each other, to feel connected to a common history even if they had attended Harvard a decade apart.
Though voiced in times of merriment far from its origin, the call remained firmly grounded in the physical and cultural features of the Yard. There, the echoes and repetition could achieve the “prayer-wheel principle” that has earned the call a place in locations as diverse as Pynchon’s novel and the John Barrymore film “The Great Man Votes.”
Primal Scream and its close relatives may be surprisingly new developments, but that does not mean they were created out of nothing, that they do not connect to any sort of cultural precedent. Traces like the Rinehart yell and Stout’s fountain tradition have a certain resonance with Primal Scream today. Our modern practices, in many ways, reach back far more than their clear-cut beginnings imply.
THE THIRD COMING
In 1776, as Congress formally detached from the English crown, Harvard students were in the midst of a revolution as well, but theirs focused on butter. The university had shifted its supply of the dairy staple, opting for Irish imports that were cheaper in mid-winter than local producers. Incised that now-rancid butter was still being used in the spring, undergrads decided they’d had enough and went on strike. Stout’s essay “The Yard” cites one disgruntled rebel who claimed the butter was “so bad that a farmer would not take it to grease his car-wheels with.”
Two hundred years later, butter antics would re-emerge as integral to the student dining experience, offering a strange prologue for the development of the modern Three Things. Around the 1980s, but before Primal Scream had evolved into its modern form, a loose version of the trifecta began to coalesce. It featured two of the classics—statue urination and stacks intercourse—but the third took place fully clothed and had a one year expiration limit: flipping a pat of butter in the freshman dining hall.
“The challenge when I was a freshman was getting a butter pat on the ceiling of the Freshman Union,” notes O’Hara. “The Freshman Union, which is now the Barker Center, had these huge, high wood-panel copper ceilings, and there were a lot of attempts to get butter up there.” Often this feat would involve complex feats of engineering, as students would use belts or other tools to generate the necessary lift.
Then, in 1996, Annenberg reclaimed its old dining services role, this time for freshmen, and the challenge became preposterous. Annenberg’s ceiling was inaccessible, even to the best-designed catapult, and the butter tradition faded into obscurity, though not before The Crimson had time to express its concern. A 1998 Crimson article panics at the disappearance of the tradition and wonders what would rise to occupy its place in the holy trinity.
What’s intriguing about this article aside from the outlandish substitutes its interviewees offer for the butter challenge—like taking a final drunk or slathering a lover in chocolate yogurt in Annenberg—is that it is the earliest mention in The Crimson of the Three Things Harvard students must do before graduating.
Alumni from earlier decades are similarly unaware of the trifecta. Stephen P. Seligman ’71 noted in an email, “As for sex in the stacks: there were only 1200 women [...] vs. 4800 men, and I never heard of this as a tradition. For all I know, they didn't even let undergraduate women in the stacks.
A 1979 graduate knew of the Widener exploit but had no recollection of the other two challenges, writing “back then it was defined as making it with a Cliffie in the stacks, clearly an antiquated view.” He was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he did not want to be associated with this topic.
Alums who graduated 20 years later consistently recall the butter challenge but similarly consider instances of sex in the stacks to be random behaviors rather than firm traditions. Peeing on John Harvard is even more scantily remembered. In fact, the practice of rubbing the statue’s foot only dates back to the 1990s. Tourists began rubbing the foot for good luck after being told Harvard students did so before important tests or events. Accounts vary as to the origin of this rumor. In a 1999 Harvard Magazine article, then Dean of Students Archie C. Epps took credit for initiating the tale in 1997, while others blamed tour guides for artificially crafting Harvard lore. Humorously, the Harvard Magazine article argues this practice posed a greater danger than peeing, noting that “the Reverend Mr. Harvard can survive the occasional youthful indiscretion of a male undergraduate.”
Only at the end of the ’90s would these three casual acts become an established triad. Just as nude Primal Scream was rising in popularity, the butter challenge became an impossibility. Space then opened for discussions on what would replace it, allowing for the modern conception of the Three Things.
THE MOST DIFFICULT
Though students may feel that they’re outsmarting tourists when they pee on the John Harvard Statue’s foot, visitors have their chance at revenge come Primal Scream. Every year, spectating tourists capture hundreds of Harvard butts on-camera by photographing passing runners.
The Harvard Band, which attends every Primal Scream to provide music and atmosphere in front of the John Harvard statue, has a laugh of their own at the tourists, though. “We sometimes bring cameras and take pictures of the tourists, which we say will be on the front page of The Crimson tomorrow,” says band member Eloise M. Wheeler ’16. “And that makes them feel pretty uncomfortable, which I think is an okay thing.”
While the band is usually seen in the stands behind the fully-clothed football team, once a semester they alter their routine and repertoire to perform for a different sort of audience. “We usually play themed music like ‘The Stripper’ or ‘Centerfold,’ just pieces related to nudity and running in general. It’s pretty funny,” says Wheeler.
Wheeler also points out a part of the tradition that runners never experience: “After Primal Scream, we go to Lamont Library and play Ten Thousand Men of Harvard really, really loud, which is actually my favorite part because everyone comes out of their slumber of studying and is happy for a while, which is good.”
But are Bandies, as the players call themselves, missing out on the “full monty” of the Primal Scream experience by performing? Wheeler clarifies that “A lot of band people are, in fact, runners themselves. Not my year but the year before, once the runners went by, the entire percussion section dropped their instruments, dropped their pants, and ran.”
Though the band isn’t daunted or made uncomfortable by their task, Harvard’s Three Things are intended to be challenges. Each component of the Three contains uncomfortable or mildly rebellious elements that some students would prefer not to undertake, and many students choose which challenges to attempt based on which they feel most capable of completing.
While many students find Primal Scream daunting or unthinkable, for some students, like O’Hara, streaking isn’t considered a challenge. “I mean, come on,” he says, “just pick up your clothes and don’t get caught.” Streakers are, after all, somewhat cloaked by the large pack of fellow students they run with.
For many, the John Harvard statue challenge seems more difficult than Primal Scream, not only because it entails the risk of getting caught, but also due to the sheer logistical difficulty it presents for girls—Johnny is seated on an engraved marble cube that is at or above eye level for most people. There appears to be a vast disparity between the number of men and women who complete this challenge. The most-completed task for men is peeing on the statue, achieved by 41.3 percent of the Class of 2013, according to The Crimson’s senior survey. However, a mere 9.9 percent of women from the same year peed on the statue. For reference, that’s fewer women than have had sex in the stacks: 11.0 percent of 2013 grads.
Though she completed Primal Scream, Lee opted not to tackle the Widener Stacks challenge. “The obscure parts of Widener are a little bit freaky,” she says. “I don’t know if that was my reason, but I would hate to have been caught with my pants down, or so to speak, if anything crazy ever did happen.”
However, the existence of the Stacks challenge as part of the trifecta means that many people do pull it off without getting caught…well, mostly.
CAUGHT WITH YOUR PANTS DOWN
In a library frequented by students, staff, and faculty alike, it’s inevitable that Stacks challengers will occasionally be spotted, though the results aren’t always disastrous. Kevin, a graduate of the Class of 2012 who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he didn’t want others to know he had engaged in a risqué tradition, said he and his girlfriend had attempted to take on all three challenges within 24 hours. But, due to a series of conflicts, they hadn’t completed the Stacks challenge by Class Day.
He recalls the experience, saying, “My girlfriend and I decided to have sex in the stacks as soon as Class Day was over, but there were two speakers, Barney Frank and Andy Samberg, so it ran a lot longer than it was supposed to. There were 30 minutes left until Widener was supposed to close, so we ran into the stacks, found a very random place, and took a cubicle.”
Since a cubicle only provides limited coverage, the two constructed a makeshift blockade: “It must have been raining that day because I had an umbrella that we put up as a sort of block, or at least to warn people that we were there,” he says.
The couple started and the lights turned off, but quickly flickered back on, signaling that someone must be approaching. “I leaned over and peeked my head out the side of the umbrella,” Kevin recalls. “A security guard was walking towards us.”
Kevin and his girlfriend panicked and started getting dressed, trying to finish before the guard reached their cubicle. “He must have heard all the clothing rustling and our belt buckles, but as he passed he just acknowledged us briefly,” he says. “I’m positive he knew what was happening, but he just said, ‘The library is closing.’ We left right as it closed.”
He and his girlfriend left Widener (and Harvard) with a funny story rather than one that could have jeopardized their diplomas. The Three Things maintain their status as challenges due to the rebellious natures of each activity: public sex, streaking, and urination are all punishable by law. However, there was no accessible evidence of students suffering expulsion, or even severe punishment, after getting caught during a challenge.
Secretary of the Administrative Board John “Jay” L. Ellison declined to comment on the Ad Board’s disciplinary policy when dealing with the Three Things, though he wrote in an email that “The Board takes seriously its responsibility to the community to uphold the community’s standards in a thoughtful and educational way.”
THREE FICKLE FRIENDS
For Harvard’s most conspicuous habit, it seems to me, is the habit of inconspicuousness; its chief custom is to have no customs, its manners are studiously free from any significant mannerisms.
- William Ichabod Nichols, “Habits, Customs, and Manners at Harvard”
If regulation of the Three Things challenges comes off as relaxed, this passive acceptance might simply reflect the knowledge that these customs will soon pass. The University may be appear steeped in legacy, and in many ways it is, but its culture is controlled by a constantly changing undergraduate community. Every four years one student body entirely replaces another, and old habits pass into hearsay, their continuation left at the discretion of a new populace.
Current Harvard students might expect the traditions to be historically entrenched, but they spring from a specific context of habits and events. Sometimes it might take a small group like the Hurlbut streakers to turn a new page in Harvard tradition. Other times it hinges on factors like a relocated dining venue, or even trends that reach far beyond Harvard.
“By the time I was a sophomore in 1968-69, counterculture and political Radicalism was in the ascendancy as the Civil Rights movement, Black activism and most of all, the antiwar movement was alive as can be,” Seligman writes. “In that context, my friends and I would have seen these last two traditions [peeing on the statue and sex in the stacks] as silly and really Harvard bullshit. Why pee on John Harvard when you can take over University Hall (which we did, in April 1969) and end up achieving our goals?”
Perhaps The Three are the 21st century’s Rinehart Yell: a Yard-based tradition that will unify student experience for the next few decades. Maybe they’ll last far longer, maybe for only one more cycle of undergraduates. When Nichols refers to Harvard’s only habit as that of “inconspicuousness,” he doesn’t seem to mean that it is bland or covert—enter Primal Scream—but rather variable and shifting in a way that prevents longstanding typification.
Being hundreds of years old grants Harvard no special privileges when it comes to change. Its customs, like those of all other institutions, are flimsy and circumstantial, small interludes not unlike that of this week’s freezing, photographed spectacle in an expanse of exam preparation.
Despite their temporary nature, however, these blips remain worth savoring. “I would definitely say that was one of my proud moments as a Harvard student,” Lee says, “It’s a little corny, but I like to say that I did the Primal Scream.” Just make sure you watch out for the ice water.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTION: December 13, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the location in Harvard Yard where the Primal Scream run began in 1995. In fact, it was Holden Chapel, not Memorial Church.
CORRECTION: December 23, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the decade in which the tradition of fliging butter pats to the ceiling of the Freshman Union began. In fact, the tradition, which was for a time one of the "Three Things," began in the 1980s.