Attack of the Three-Eyed Pig With Antlers
At James Madison University, I met up with a loose confederation of punks, nerds, hippies and other weirdoes who earned the name the “freshmen freak posse,” or later just the “freak posse.” Our pranks ranged from spontaneously acting weird (pretending to be robots, for instance) when prospective students walked by on campus tours. Or they were more elaborate, like celebrating “Parents Weekend” by constructing a small city in the center of the campus, complete with furniture, croquet, guys in dresses, and people cellophaned to trees.
We wanted to make our conventional school appear to be far more unusual than its PR-cultivated image, and so we put on a nonsensical performance. During my time at JMU, there were many more insurrections, big and small, but my most noteworthy college prank changed my life, and my relationship to media.
It started as a class project, of all things, but it was an assignment that changed my life. For my final project in an art class, I proposed to create a fictitious movement to change the school mascot into a three-eyed pig with antlers. The late Stuart Downs, who co-taught the course, took me aside after class to warn me that I might not know what I was getting myself into and that I should think it through. He was right. It turned out that I had absolutely no clue what I would stir up, but Stuart supported me, even when the president of the university became furious about what unfolded.
To make this mascot movement a reality—or “reality”—I began writing letters to the campus newspaper. These letters made ridiculous claims about why the JMU school mascot, a dog, should be replaced with a far superior creature: a three-eyed pig with antlers. I did this at the height of the Political Correctness movement backlash, so I intentionally pushed hot topic buttons with lines like, “it is degrading to celebrate a dog that yearns to be free, but can’t…” and “it seems sexist to honor an aggressive, masculine dog wearing a crown—a symbol of historical patriarchal oppression.”
Although quite a few people figured out it was a joke, many others took it at face value and became quite angry, making us the target of numerous harassing phone calls and some vandalism. Students wrote into the paper to say that they were “appalled and disgusted” by my arguments. “Your statement on animal rights is positively absurd,” one letter fumed, “because hey, we’re not dealing with a real dog. ‘Hello McLeod, Hello?’ We’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s a student in a dog costume!”
Regional newspapers quickly picked up on the story—with headlines like “Will Dog Yield to Antlered Pig?” and “JMU Fans Fight to Replace Bark With Oink—which helped to make this nonexistent movement appear legitimate. To make it appear more (sur)real, I collected over 400 signatures for a petition to change the mascot to “The Three-Eyed Pig with Antlers.” The fact that so many people signed on made it seem plausible that a small, vocal minority of freaks would prevail.
In response, a group of students started a petition to “save the Duke Dog” and submitted a student government legislative proposal to block our power grab. Things got stranger when, during that year’s homecoming game, the JMU marching band spelled out “We Love the Duke Dog” in their tubas. They also wore plastic dog bones around their necks as a sign of solidarity. Odder still, during the game someone threw an effigy of a three-eyed pig with antlers into the stands and the crowd ripped it to shreds. Here’s an overheard conversation from that game:
“Why are they ripping that stuffed animal to shreds?”
“Some fags are trying to change the mascot to a three-eyed pig with antlers.”
At the height of the nuttiness, the front page of the student paper listed the day’s top news stories—presumably in order of importance: 1) “Duke Dog Controversy”; 2) “Traumatic Drama at Gunpoint: Find Out How a JMU Grad Dealt with Being Shot.” This was not the first time in the history of the world that an inconsequential, sensationalized story trumped human tragedy. It was, however, the first time I personally went for a spin in the media machine, so it was an eye-opening experience.
What to do next? A rally—planned on Halloween, 1991, my twenty-first birthday. Local news crews from ABC and NBC showed up to film our mass marriage to bananas, and later the NBC story was broadcast on all affiliates in the region.
Below is the NBC news coverage of the event:
Below is the ABC news coverage of the event:
The funniest part about the original NBC broadcast is that no one noticed that our friend Greg—dressed in the Duke Dog outfit—started simulating masturbation behind the reporter by rubbing his furry crotch. Below is a short documentary Terry Harrison made about the event:
And here is Terry Harrison’s student television story about the events:
I concluded the wedding ceremony—dressed in a makeshift reverend outfit that was accessorized with a rubber pig nose, antlers and a third eye on my forehead—by telling the newly betrothed, “You may now eat your spouse.” (A JMU alum wrote me a few years later, “I fondly remember you marrying me to my first wife, a banana. A whirlwind courtship, and a quick and yummy annulment.”)
Although I chose a banana because it was a goofy idea, I was also inspired by the arguments against gay marriage that were circulating at this time, and which continue to this day. As the logic goes, if we allow two people of the same sex to get married, then we’ll also have to allow polygamy … which is just one slippery slope away from bestiality and, of course, wedding a fruit! Pranks can be understood as a unique op-ed piece, albeit one that leaves more open to interpretation—and confusion—which is true of the banana mass marriage.
The footage of our rally was incorporated into a CNN story about a grassroots fight against racially offensive mascots like the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves. And the Roanoke Times & World-News ran a front-page story on the affair. During an interview with the reporter, I decided to make up as much outrageous stuff as possible to see what the paper would print without fact checking. I made up Nancy X, a nonexistent woman who supposedly invented the new mascot while tripping on LSD at a “naked party.” I casually spun a ludicrous story about the origins of the Antlered Three-Eyed Pig while telling the reporter, I mean, of course everybody knows that the three-eye pig with antlers was a pagan symbol of sexuality, right? The article published the next day explained, “Nancy X—who prefers to keep her identity hidden, although apparently nothing else—proposed a regular two-eyed pig with antlers, a pagan symbol of fertility and sexuality. But another faction wanted a three-eyed clown, so they compromised.” Straight from my loose cannon lips and onto the front page of the newspaper, printed as fact.
It was eye opening to see how news outlets gave broad coverage to a trivial event while ignoring plenty of other politically explosive issues. However, I should give the JMU student newspaper some credit, for their coverage was the smartest. The Breeze hit the nail on the head in an editorial published on the day of the rally, which chided the readers for obsessing over such a trivial, contrived matter. “It’s almost an insult to the editorial page,” the paper stated, especially given the troubles in the Middle East and the serious crises faced by Virginian higher education at the time. The Breeze editors pointed out that, “the people who dreamed up this suggestion did know that the campus would react violently to their idea. This was a way to make people upset—and showcase lack of attention to important issues.” Sadly, newspapers aren’t always this perceptive.
I also discovered firsthand how one could make a complete fabrication real. Or “real.” Think about what I could do—a relatively unsophisticated college student with no money and a little free time on his hands—and then compare it to the resources available to lobbyists and public relations firms. It still makes me shudder, but it completely freaked me out at the time; I could never look at the news the same way again.
In addition to the lessons learned about how the news media works, our three-eyed pig prank had another dimension. It was a satire that targeted both the news media and the student population. The project was designed as a commentary on nationalism, and it was intended to be an informal social-psychological experiment. To give some context, the three-eyed pig with antlers prank came closely on the heels of both Gulf War 1.0 and a high profile debate about flag burning stirred up during an election cycle. Rather than putting the American flag in peril, it seemed more interesting to watch how a community reacted when a silly sports icon was threatened by an even sillier plan of action.
By threatening an abstract sign that united the campus community, we wanted to highlight the absurd ways people are irrationally invested in such symbols—whether it was a sports mascot or the American flag. The aforementioned Breeze editorial bemoaned the fact that “the campus played straight into their hands. Students missed the goading behind this ridiculous campaign, and wrote in to angrily defend something that really isn’t jeopardized.” All of this—turning the campus into a social-psychological performance art piece, gleaning firsthand truths about the news media, and disseminating our satire far and wide through news outlets—gave me a lot to think about. But these experiences raised more questions than they answered, and a year later I went to grad school to figure things out.