An Overview of Secret Societies
Secret societies, whether real or imagined, have been around for hundreds of years. Some of the most popular and long-lasting of these societies (such as the Free Masons and Skull & Bones Society of Yale) have found a great deal of acceptance and respect within the United States. However, the most active, mysterious, and tight knit societies remain largely unknown to the general public.
This is the archetype you should be going after. Secret societies built for fun and deceit may last for a few months. But, those built upon friendship, trust, and a common belief in a greater good can and will last for years and potentially generations. Your closest bonds, greatest conversations, and most trusted confidants may appear from your society so long as you strive for these things. The society must come first, never an individual.
One society in particular would serve you well as you seek to strike a balance between secrecy and impact--arguably the most important question a secret society can ask itself. This group is known as the Society of Purple Shadows from the University of Virginia.
Though not reaching the level of notoriety of many of their contemporaries, the SPS has retained the four most important tenants of any thriving society:
1. Secrecy and deception
2. Established beliefs
4. Proper community perception
The Society of the Purple Shadows
Though the moral fortitude and legality of the actions and principles of the SPS can be argued, one things is for sure: the Purple Shadows provide an excellent example of everything a secret society can be. From their uniforms to their traditions, the SPS has a solid infrastructure and recruitment system that has stood the test of time. They have never broken their secrecy under pressure from the university while still accomplishing their goal of taking stands against major issues on campus--in new, ambitious, and ingenious ways.
From tying a purple chord to the door of their new dean's office and locking her inside to leaving a dagger and letter protesting a change in school policy, the Society of the Purple Shadows has consistently brought discussion, outrage, and support to their community at large through a series of daring, mysterious actions.
It should go without saying that Secrecy is the key to any secret society. Without secrecy, you will just have...well...a society? And nobody wants a society. We already have plenty of those.
Secrecy begins with two things: size and trust. Too often, a young SS expands its founding member base too quickly hoping to become the "Sixteen horsemen" or the "33 Red Feathers". Forget about it. Most people struggle finding one person in their life to trust with their life. How likely is it that your campus is home to many dozens of these kinds of people?
Using significant, SMALL numbers to begin with (like 4 or 6) may not seem glamorous, but a dedicated group of four far outclasses a disorganized collection of twelve or fifteen.
Trust is also key. Your founding members do not have to be your roommate and dinner buddies. Do not be afraid to branch out. Secret societies thrive off of personality and internal vigor, not flash and numbers. Do not select the obvious choices for your club (i.e. the most outgoing, the funniest, the loudest). Instead, keep an eye out for the quiet confidence that your society will soon exude from every pore. Those with little to gain from joining a society will not be interested. However, those whose minds can expand to see a greater picture with ease, are exactly the men and women who compose the greatest societies.
Name Your Secret Society
This portion is key. A great backstory and vision will only go so far if your name is the Pugs and Fugs Society (actually, that might be a good one...).
Most secret societies have used the formula:
"Scary word 1" + and + "Death-related word" = success!
Examples include The Skull and Bones Society
Established Beliefs and History of Your Society
One of the quickest, easiest way to build trust within your group is to outline a certain goal or expectation you have for the society. Whether it is maintaining your school's honor code or hoping to promote romance and chivalry on campus, a valiant goal stirs a valiant heart (which, if you read the above paragraph, is the kind of members you have found.
Create a history. Find an inspiring story, haunted building, or forgotten hero from your university's history and fight for it/it/him! With a vision and foundation in place, the passion from your initial members will follow.
Then, buy into your own story. Who cares if the man you base your society off of was a janitor they named the men's tennis locker room after? YOU DO! Buy into your story, believe in what you're doing, and your new-found comrades will follow.
Fellowship within Secret Societies
So you've found strong, passionate founders and convinced them to buy into your vision. Now, here comes the hard part: maintaining the first few years. As the founder(s), you set the tone for your initial group as well as the next years and years of your SS. As such, it is vital that your organization behave like an organization. No business or family is successful if its members only interact every other Spring Break. Though your members are all busy college students, you need to establish a schedule for at least a few meetings per semester.
Remember, your founders have joined you because they want to be in a secret society, use this to your advantage. Make the meetings extremely secretive and don't communicate through simple things like e-mail or texts. That's too easy and will quickly lose its appeal. Instead, use a secret code or leave cryptic notes for them under their door. This will keep them excited about your movement and will retain the solid membership any good society is built upon.
Second and more importantly, treat your members as real people and genuinely care about them. If you want the SS to move from being a joke to a true family, you must actively care about your group's well being, as a whole and individually.
Community Perception of Your Secret Society
Lastly, you must contend with your community's perception of your SS. Though mystery and intrigue are the most neutral options (and thus safest to pursue at the beginning), you may find that your actions anger or bring joy to your campus. Either way, you should be the one deciding that.
If at any point you find that the community is perceiving your organization in a way that you hadn't planned, you're probably doing something wrong. People respect and are intrigued by secret societies because they are seemingly in control at all times. This both excites and frighten people.
And it should do the same for you. But, it should also be true. You are the society founders and you control your destiny. Keep it that way. If you are in control, respect and intrigue will follow.
There is no one surefire way to bring these feelings about. Here are a few examples of basic strategies for newer SSs:
-Communicating your message in a different language (especially Latin, Greek, or Hebrew) can be very cool. However, it may also come off as corny to many. Use carefully.
-Post pictures that are blurred or seem illicit in nature. Use slashes and hidden or nonexistent dates (like February 30th, 2013 as the date for your first meeting) to show that there is much more than meets the eye.
-Access places that are locked and leave a mark. Definitely make use of places that seem like they are off limits or locked down, but are actually easy to enter. This will keep you on the legal side of things as well as garner attention.
Life in your Secret Society (hopefully)
The Key to a Good Secret Society
Timing, timing, and more timing.
The hardest and most important lesson you should learn in your first year is timing. Though it may be tempting to immediately begin swamping your campus with your awesome new logo or your pictures of your founder, the greatest asset a SS has is its timing. You must stay out of the public eye until right before they forget about you.
Never strike out as people are talking about your posters and secret messages on the walls of the library. Wait until the anticipation is at nearly zero...then, and only then, make your move.