The best horror movies are frightening because they stretch our imagination, engrossing us in situations previously unthinkable but now all too present. They may be rooted in actual fears we have—ghosts, clowns, murderers, etc.—but the story takes them to the extreme. And the only comfort to be found after, when you’re trying to sleep, is telling yourself, "It’s not real." What makes Goat—Andrew Neel’s damning examination of fraternity hazing releasing today through Paramount in theaters, on-demand, and on Digital HD—terrifying is how real it is, especially if you’ve been in Greek Life. This is not a horror movie. It’s not built on exaggerations. Fraternities are truly this awful.
Pop singer Nick Jonas plays Brett, the archetypical manic pixie frat boy who’s the reason many of us joined a fraternity in the first place. He’s confident, charming, persuasive, and he has a lot of sex. He knows how to have a good time, and in any other fraternity movie (see Animal House or Old School), he’d be the unquestioned hero. In Goat, he’s the reason why Brad (Ben Schnetzer), his younger brother and an incoming freshman, joins Phi Sigma Mu. He’s the reason why his own flesh and blood gets the shit kicked out of him by his supposed brothers.
After leaving a recruitment party before the school year begins, Brad is jumped and robbed by a couple of dudes he mistakenly agrees to give a ride home. He pleads for them not to hurt him; he’ll give them whatever they want. But his pleas are for naught, and he’s left bloody and bruised on the side of a backcountry road.
Once the school year and pledgeship starts, Brad is willing to give the frat whatever they want, including his own body. He accepts the beatings, physical and psychological, in order to become a full-fledged brother. By drinking an absurd amount of alcohol while being forced to mud wrestle, go slap for slap with his pledge brother, and go through a gauntlet of wailings, he’s proving not only that he’s "man" enough to handle it all, but also that he’s not the same "pussy" who let himself get car jacked.
Fraternities are full of this toxic masculinity, where "pussy" and "fag" are tossed around as often as "man" and "dude." And while I didn’t experience the type of relentless hazing from Goat while in a fraternity at Mizzou, I experienced the exact same culture that creates, allows, and encourages it. I’ve heard stories from my friends in other fraternities that are just as bad if not worse. A high school friend of mine once gleefully described the time he lit a couch on fire and forced a pledge to remain sitting on it. He also showed me the photos of a pledge’s ass after paddling, which was as black and blue and red as Brad’s face after he was robbed. These are secondary stories, but not because my fraternity was special and made up of morally superior men. These are secondary stories because we were under heavy scrutiny from the national fraternity and the University after restarting a fraternity that was kicked off of campus five years prior. I have no doubt now, two years after graduating, that my frat has started to wean itself back into hazing, or will in due time. And the house will probably get away with it, too.
Fraternities are innately good at self-preservation, using the guise of secrecy and brotherhood to protect the larger institution. When tragedy strikes Goat's Phi Sigma Mu and a body lies freshly buried, the fraternity brothers focus on how to protect their standing in the school and make sure the frat lives on, no matter what.
It's natural to ask why people even join fraternities, and the simple answer is that they're fun. They offer an unmatched opportunity for debauchery that's been shown throughout pop culture for decades. Now, the darker side is finally getting its shine thanks to a brilliantly spot-on script adapted from Brad Land's memoir. Neel punctuates the film's exhaustive acts of cruelty with long, eerie bouts of silence that capture Brad's sense of dread. Goat is far from fun, which makes it the fraternity film we need. It should overwhelm; it should scare the shit out of you. And if you think any of this is normal, if you're accepting this behavior, you're part of the problem. You're part of the reason why fraternities continue to break young men across the country as real-life horror stories make their way into the news.