Life is an event. What longings does the new party culture satisfy?

Michael Birnthaler

Anyone who studies the party culture among young people will have noticed that “having a party” has become a trademark for almost all current youth cultures. A current puzzling mega-event is a good example of that. It is a spectacular blockbuster film which has grossed more than 100 million dollars in the cinema. I am talking about Project X from the USA which went viral in early 2012. The film tells the story of Thomas, a 17-year-old high school pupil in America.

His problem: he is seen as a loser and a wimp at home and among his fellow pupils. In order to show that he is not, he comes up with the idea of a mega party to gain social credibility. He sets about the task with a couple of friends, day X arrives, the party takes off and goes the whole hog including everything that is considered cool: sex orgies, huge consumption of alcohol, drugs and other excesses. In the course of events, Thomas’ dad’s Mercedes is driven into the pool, a flamethrower is used, people are injured and finally the fire brigade arrives to put out a fire Hollywood-style with a helicopter.

The end of the film is particularly telling. The group of youngsters who organised the party do receive punishments, which must however be seen as something of a joke. But when Thomas’ parents return home, his father is shocked on the one hand, but on the other is also proud that his son was capable of pulling off such a top-class event. In school, the boys are feted as heroes. Final scene: some sort of apology is expected of Thomas – after all, damage was caused and regrettably people were hurt. But instead, Thomas shows that he is no longer a loser and has graduated to become the king of cool. Instead of responding with insight or remorse, he merely responds with some offensive remarks – and with an invitation to the next party.

The simple screenplay of the film – based on a real case – turned out to be so successful that it was illegally downloaded 8.7 million times in the following months – the most frequently downloaded film of 2012 worldwide.

The aftermath of the film is also notable. There were imitation events all over the world. Youngsters organised mega parties, sent out invitations on Facebook and ruinously celebrated Project Crash. People were injured and even killed in some places. The police and courts stepped in.

Parties – this is the message of the film – are celebrated as events which are more like a test, indeed, almost take on the status of an initiation rite. Before the party, Thomas, the hero of the film, was seen as a wimp and pansy. With the success of the party, the tests he passed during it, his survival of the crash test of a toxic mix of “sex, drugs & rock’n’roll”, he was able to prove his manhood and celebrate his admission as a daredevil to the guild of adults.

Of course the film shows an extreme, but it is the tip of an iceberg. An iceberg in whose hidden crevices we can find what the young people who indulge in the party culture are actually longing for. Most likely this is self-initiation witnessed by friends, the striving for a new degree of maturity, the contest for a higher social rank – a graduation of a particular kind. The exams here are not in mathematics or English, but above all in alcohol and sex (“sleeping around”). There is good reason why the bestseller among games books is called Drinking games. 44 ways to get really wasted.

Party cult as borderline experience

The tests can also consist of other forms of endurance trials to prove oneself. Another new interesting party cult has established itself in recent years. Example: Laos, a new Mecca of the party generation. For years, 120,000 young party freaks have been rushing to the small town of Vang Vieng in Laos in the summer to celebrate noisy parties. The challenge is to drift down a four-kilometre stretch of the river in an old tractor tyre inner tube (tubing) while filling up with an alcoholic brew from a bucket.

A reckless slog which primarily attracts beginning students from western countries. There have repeatedly been deaths in recent years. In contrast, those who manage the descent afterwards feel they “know it all”. Party holidays have never been so popular. Be it the island of Pag in Croatia, Lloret del Mar in Spain or the Golden Beach in Romania – the party continues round the clock.

Have party holidays taken on the role of a ritual for the passage to adulthood in which young people go through exceptional risks and undergo borderline experiences?

“Adventure Race” as an alternative

We know in education that young people must have achieved a certain inner stability by the age of sixteen. If that has not happened for some inner or outer reason, they are more susceptible to addictions, mental illness and health problems in later life.

If the party drug really is a symptom of specific youthful borderline experiences which have not been acted out, then we should seek for specific educational alternatives which are of equal value to the type of borderline experience exemplified by the party culture. Educators can find an antidote to the party culture in social-Dionysian methods of borderline experiences, that is, threshold experiences with the character of rites of passage including a euphoric part and a social component.

Classic examples of this are methods such as “Vision Quest”, “Solo”, “The Hero’s Journey” or other outdoor education projects with the character of a borderline experience such as Raid / Adventure Race, trekking tours or hikes and city games such as “The Hunt for Mr X”, “Citybound”, mega scouting games such as “Pampa”, caving in a group, live action role play or a sailing trip.

School graduation as an example

It is common practice at a lot of schools for the final year pupils to “chill” after graduation and “live it up”. They proceed from one graduation party to the next – at some schools there is also a graduation celebration and ball – ending in a mad graduation prank. As a finale, they then head south to let their hair down. It is quite obvious that for months beforehand these graduates were only fed dry intellectual fodder instead of the actually longed-for real “test of maturity”. So once these graduates are unleashed, they make up for it in double time and understandably turn into party animals in the following weeks. A whole industry has arisen as a result which makes a mint out the graduates’ party mood. What might a counter-concept look like? That is, a test of maturity which can offer equally high-octane analogous borderline experiences?

The United World Colleges and the schools of Kurt Hahn offer die-hards risky expeditions: rescue missions in the mountains or at sea, working with the fire brigade, the German THW disaster relief agency or the Red Cross. That young people grow beyond themselves is part of the “graduation concept” of this provision. Kurt Hahn (1886-1974), the founder of outdoor education, for the whole of his life looked for a “moral equivalent in education to war”. He found his educational magic formula in the “adventure of helping”, in emergency services educationally set up as a whodunit. He was in no doubt that anyone who had taken this “serum” during their school days was immune to idleness.

Another example: in ancient cultures and among indigenous peoples there were and are the so-called rites of passage. In searching for their vision, the young participants are prepared over a longer period of time for the threshold experience they are about to have. Mostly they had to spend three days and nights in nature, alone and without food. They were even set the task to begin by building their own house of the dead. They had to organise their own burial including their own commemoration. The real aim was that they should grow beyond themselves, defeat their baser instincts and be inwardly reconciled with friend and foe. The vision seeker returns after three days and nights, mostly purified and transformed, and is accepted into the community as a “hero”. Finally, the return of the heroes is celebrated with a great festival which on this occasion does not turn into a booze-up due to the elevated mood. Anyone who is familiar with a comparable ritual will better be able to understand the term “youth dedication”.

Are cultural rituals of passage still possible at all today? Are there modern, youth-appropriate ways to recultivate such rites of passage and conceive of them in a new way? It is difficult to swim against the hedonistic tide today. One concrete outdoor education project is “Die Weltenwandler – Jugend on the road” (World wanderers – youth on the road).

Instead of parties and graduation trips, school leavers take to the road. That will not prevent a Thomas from throwing his mega party, but it might save some “smaller” Thomases from tagging along with the party mainstream. Because Thomas is dependent on fans.

About the author: Dr. Michael Birnthaler is director of the EOS Institute (