There are two films that best capture Victor Turner’s ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’: Stand by Me and Animal House. They are not about tribes in remote parts of the world. They are about young kids growing up or refusing to grow up, in the Animal House case.
Stand by me tells the story of Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) and his group of unconventional friends going on a journey to find the body of a missing boy. The kids are ‘other’, they do not abide by social norms. Gordie is very quiet, Chris (River Phoenix) comes from a family of alcoholics, Teddy (Corey Feldman), who has suffered violence from his father, is eccentric, and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is fat and bullied for it. They don’t fit in society and are valued less for it, as Gordie’s father shows when he asks Gordie why he can’t have any (normal) friends, like his late brother. The group goes through various adventures in the woods. Like a traditional rite of passage, they leave the community, face adversity, which makes them mature but also unites them. That’s when liminality and communitas come in.
For Victor Turner, ritual is a process with different stages:
- separation from everyday activities, relationships, and environment
The ritual allows a moment of dispensation from the structure of society. Liminality is ‘anti-structure’, the moment when all hierarchies, statuses, and roles dissolve. In the liminal stage, the person does no longer engage in the activities that are part of his role in society (it’s mostly about men, this model for ritual doesn’t really fit women, as Bruce Lincoln and Caroline Bynum explained).
Liminality is “betwixt and between … likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon”. (Turner 1966: 95)
In that liminal moment, communitas arises. Communitas is a spontaneous community of equals. It is an undifferentiated “communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders” (Turner 1966: 96). The liminal stage then gives way to structure. The person is reintegrated into society with his new identity and can fulfil his duties.
Turner had a romantic idea of communitas as a spontaneous assemble of equals. He saw that in hippy groups and the early stages of the Franciscan order (before it became an order). I doubt communitas actually exists for more than a moment, but here may be two instances. The first is from Stand by Me.
The second if from Animal House. What is striking in this scene is that, just like in Turner, the ritual candidates are all dressed in the same way, men and women, and they all follow the ritual instructions of the officiant, Otis Day.