Florida State University’s Chi Omega house looks exactly as a sorority house should: large and stately, with a conservative symmetry in its manicured lawn and beige portico that transmits the values of the sisters who live there. With large Greek letters on its exterior and hand-painted banners hung from its balconies, the house could belong on any large Southern college campus. It’s pretty and charming, yet decidedly unremarkable. I neither thought nor knew much about the sisters or their house when I first arrived at Florida State a decade ago, but during my first week on campus, a fellow graduate student pointed to the house and said, “That’s where Ted Bundy killed those two girls.”
Those two girls: Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy. Women, really, but sorority sisters are always girls. They were both in their early twenties when Bundy broke into the house on an unusually cold January morning in 1978. He killed Bowman and Levy while they slept in their beds and critically injured two more before walking out the front door.
Bowman and Levy joined a long line of dead girls, dead women, whose faces flicker across television screens and smile out from somber news stories. They are of a specific type, white and pretty, whose destruction is both feared and fetishized: Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, and JonBenet Ramsey. They are the bread and butter of both the tabloids and our tabloid imaginations, so obsessive over the eradication of beautiful innocence. More recently, Yeardley Love, a Theta at the University of Virginia who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, captured the media’s attention for months on end.
Our interest in dead women is one of the most enduring themes of Western culture, and within this, the death of a sorority girl occupies a potent place. The Chi Omega murders happened long before I was on campus, before I had even been born. Yet despite nearly 40 years intervening, Chi Omega is still the stuff of campus mythos. The lore of that night—a mixture of partial truths and consequential embellishment—finds its way into casual conversations and undergraduate papers. On every anniversary, the local news repackages the tragedy for its nightly audience.
The story always includes the same elements. The faulty lock on the sorority house’s door. The chaos and panic. The lack of an immediate suspect. The eerie reminder: no one suspected that Bundy was the murderer; no one knew that Bundy, recently escaped from Colorado, was even in Florida. The assumption was that someone was purposefully targeting the sorority. The police ordered the sisters to scratch Chi Omega stickers off their cars, to stop wearing clothes advertising their affiliation with the sorority, and to stop traveling together. Thirty uneasy days later, Bundy was arrested almost 200 miles away, in Pensacola.
This narrative of what happened at Chi Omega is fundamentally true, but through its ritual reconstitution, it becomes a conjured spectacle, a morality play, a grotesque fantasy played out on the bodies of women. Bundy attacked one more Florida State coed before fleeing Tallahassee and, as with all college campuses, there has been plenty of violence there since. But it’s the sorority girls who continue haunting. They came ready-made with meaning, as did their house. Bundy’s murders carried significance far beyond the actual crime: He did not simply murder two Chi Omega sisters, he violated the concept of the sorority itself, a consecrated space in which a certain kind of femininity is safeguarded and reproduced.
Two unidentified students leave the Florida State University Chi Omega sorority house in Tallahassee, Fla., Jan. 16, 1978. Photo via AP.
Violence rendered against a single woman is familiar—easily forgotten, unless that woman fits some sort of ideal. Sorority sisters embody the broad implication that that ideal is worth living for. Within a sorority, individual identities have been willingly given up in exchange for the physical and emotional safety of the collective; individual actions are circumscribed by the Greek’s system reliance on and sanctification of traditional gender roles. To attack sorority sisters is to violate the ideologies their institution represents, to render them meaningless. It’s both the real and symbolic destruction that cements these crimes—the pretty, privileged, idealized dead women—in our collective consciousness.
The sorority was born an ideological product, bound by its history to a very specific conception of womanhood. The earliest version of sororities took root in the middle of the nineteenth century, largely at women’s colleges. Phi Mu and Alpha Delta Pi were founded at Wesleyan College—not the leafy New England institution but the small women’s college in Georgia. Others were formed at the “sister schools” of all-male state universities, like Delta Gamma at the now defunct Lewis School for Girls in Oxford, Mississippi. In their earliest iteration, they were a direct response to the male fraternity system, formed some hundred years prior, and they adapted their rites and rituals accordingly.
But as universities began to accept women, the sorority became a rejoinder to a growing demand made of women—that they could build and heed ways of succeeding without sacrificing their femininity. The sorority served that purpose. Once an organization that mimicked the fraternity’s mixture of social and intellectual club, by the end of the century, the sorority was taxed with being a repository of ideal womanhood, a public assurance that women could compete academically with the men but remain marriageable despite their education.
Historically black sororities came later, determined by the lack of minority access to higher education. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority, was formed in 1908. And, though women of color represent a sizable portion of sorority members, the “sorority girl,” the stereotypical imagery the phrase conjures up, is an image that purposefully excludes non-white women (even today, sororities remain deeply segregated). That the ideal representation of womanhood is bound to whiteness is unsurprising, and the racial taxonomy of the mainstream Greek system is central to all its surrounding mythologies. There are more than enough violent fantasies reserved for women of color, but the dead sorority girl, with her claims to privilege, is always imagined to be white. Her whiteness is part of what makes her destruction so terrifying; her privilege, rendered useless, is part of what compels.
Our fictional reproductions reify this fact. Slasher films love the dead sorority girl, from 1983’s House on Sorority Row to its 2009 reboot Sorority Row (tagline: Theta Pi Must Die), to Sorority House Massacre (1986), Black Christmas (1974), and Die Die Delta Pi (2014). Scream Queens in the most recent addition to the theme—relying, as with all of Ryan Murphy’s shows, on a well-established trope played for comedy. These movies and shows follow a similar plot line: sisters either accidentally or purposefully murder one of their own, the bonds of sisterhood demands their silence, and a mysterious murderer brings grisly, yet necessary justice.
Images via Wikipedia.
Discipline, some gross desire for it, is central to the way gendered power manifests itself. In the horror genre—which has a commitment to elaborate performance and then destruction of femininity—discipline is a way of enacting its central gender construct. In horror movies, “sex...proceeds from gender,” Carol Clover wrote in her seminal book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws. “A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers.” In these movies, the girls’ deaths are rarely brought by someone they know—a deceptive suggestion that also holds strong in real life. “I mean, the bogeyman is never someone you know,” one of FSU’s Chi Omegas later said. The reality, of course, is quite the opposite. The bogeyman is almost always someone you know. The line connecting the facts and the fictions about women who experience violence is jagged and inconsistent. But one fact holds for both life and film: There is something inherently punishable about being female.
And, in both life and the movies, the sorority girl defies her rules more often than not. She has transgressed the ideals that she has been asked to live up to. But she can’t help it: those ideals are impossible, and her narrative strands exist in extreme opposites. She’s an adult and a child, depending on who’s testifying. She inhabits a space that’s both innocent and deeply sexual. She’s practicing, with her girlfriends, a devotion she’s later expected to reproduce for her family. (Sororities rely on the language of lineage: big sisters, grand-big sisters, and so on.) As with any woman in a nuclear family, she’s the result of policed boundaries: the formal obligations, the informal expectations.
But paradoxically, the sorority girl is also tainted by the sexual freedom associated with campus culture. As might be true of many women in today’s campus culture, she is depicted as either cloistered, endangered, or both. As a site of cultural formation, she’s a living, breathing iteration of a devil and an angel arguing on a shoulder. To be a vacant slut, or to be a woman dedicated to service, to family—these are the sorority girl’s options. Either way, she’s doomed to be destroyed, to be possessed.
In May of last year, Elliot Rodger drove to the UCSB’s Alpha Phi house and pounded on the door. When the women refused to open, he walked next door to the Delta Delta Delta house and killed Katie Cooper and Veronika Weiss (Rodger’s four other victims were not members of the sorority). The lives of Cooper and Weiss would have to suffice for the “beautiful blonde girls” of Alpha Phi, “the kind of girls I’ve always desired but was never able to have because they all look down on me,” he wrote in his violently misguided manifesto. Within it, Rodger laid out a vision of masculinity, one propped up by the ownership of fast cars, lethal weapons, and hot sorority girls. For Rodger, the sorority girl was just another pretty thing that he had been denied. Unable to own one, he destroyed them instead.
“I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts,” Rodger ranted. “I will attack the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender: The hottest sorority of UCSB.” His murder of individual sorority girls wasn’t about actual women—their flesh and blood realities—but about the destruction of a fictional idea, the idea of a woman who owed him everything, her beauty, her body, her innocence, her love: a mythos vainly repeated until it seems like gospel truth.
Slasher films might have perfected the murdered sorority girl, writing on her body the fetish of destruction. But they didn’t invent the fantasy, they just used it to suit their own purposes. Bundy and Rodger might have said the same.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.