This Swarthmore Ritual Is One Of The Weirdest College Traditions

At a quick glance, Swarthmore College looks like many other schools across the country. It's a small liberal arts college located outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with just over 1,500 students (via U.S. News & World Report). But like Harvard University and Cornell University, this seemingly sedate school plays host to one of the country's strangest college traditions. At Swarthmore, the mild-mannered campus goes a bit wild every October (excluding a pause in 2020 because of the pandemic). The event, known as the Pterodactyl Hunt, has been described as a mashup of a live-action role-playing game and a treasure hunt (via Swarthmore magazine).

This evening of creative chaos started in the early 1980s as a prank. A group of students wanted to get back at some others who had taken their table in the dining hall, and get a rise out of their resident adviser to boot. But what started as a one-time wild goose chase quickly evolved into one of the college's most beloved, if somewhat bizarre, traditions. "There was a hole in campus life that our Pterodactyl Hunt was just waiting to fill," said James LaTourette, one of the event's original founders.

Swarthmore students battle monsters on campus

In its early days, the Pterodactyl Hunt involved different groups of participants pretending to be hunters or monsters, including pterodactyls and dragons (via Swathmore magazine). Borrowing from the popular 1980s role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, there was also a quest element to the event as well. Hunters had to fight pterodactyls wearing garbage bags and armed with rolled-up newspapers.

These days, the hunt is organized by the school's science fiction club, Psi Phi. The hunters wear white trash bags and many of the monsters don black trash bags, according to the Swarthmore Phoenix newspaper. And there's now an array of monsters for hunters to battle, including goblins, orcs, and a troll, in addition to the classic pterodactyls (via the Swarthmore College official site). The event's fictional backstory explains that the appearance of all these creatures on campus is caused by an annual rift in the temporary boundary between the present and 65 million years ago. Nowadays, armed with foam bats — an upgrade from the rolled-up newspapers of old –  the hunters are still fighting off these invading monsters.

The Psi Phi Club spends several weeks preparing for the event, which draws anywhere from 50 to 125 participants. As Swarthmore College alumnus Ben Schwartz explained, the Pterodactyl Hunt is "a chance for students to drop their usual inhibitions, stop worrying about classes or grades or stereotypes or heteronormativity, and just be completely ridiculous for an evening."