Scene Again

Bates’ interesting past in words and images.

The Lemmings

A few creative Bates souls in the 1970s embraced the lemming as an alt. mascot, a role it would play into the late 1980s.

Ah, the misunderstood lemming. You see, they don’t really pitch themselves off cliffs in mass-suicide.

But a few staged scenes in Disney’s famous 1958 documentary, White Wilderness, not only reinforced the lemmings myth for anyone growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, but also ensured that any kid from that era would have at least two troubling cinematic memories: (1) those freaky, flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz and (2) droves of lemmings perishing by their own hands, er, paws, in White Wilderness.

The White Wilderness filmmakers, trying to show what they thought to be true, placed lemmings on a snow-covered turntable to film a migration sequence, then herded them into a river. Call it Lemmingstown.

And at Bates in the ’70s, a few creative souls, wondering what sort of turntable they were on, embraced the lemming as an alt. mascot, a role it would play into the late 1980s.

Paul Faustine ’77 (above, at his Commencement) says the lemmings idea “grew out of some general silliness among a group of writers, artists, and ne’er-do-wells known as Free Lunch. The Lunchies were prone to mixing their more serious work with happily pointless activities. I recall an afternoon spent taping leaves back onto tree branches in an attempt to hold off winter.”

The irreverent premise of the Lemmings, says another Lunchie, Brian Handspicker ’79, was that “like lemmings, Batesies tended to marry within the herd and work themselves to death, and our herd instincts would certainly lead us off a cliff one day.”

“Hey, I’m a liberal arts grad, so this is an observational thing, rather than critical,” Faustine says. “But despite diversity at Bates, an awful lot of folks felt they were headed in the same direction.” Faustine, who now owns Red Dragon Toys in Brunswick (, calls the Lemmings movement “a minor rebellion” against the times. Bates was relaxing its traditionally tight grip on student life, he says. “But they were doing it as conservatively as possible. Bates freed people up, but with a lot of oversight.”

Besides T-shirts grabbed up by the campus community, including faculty, the lemmings movement included a Winter Carnival snow sculpture. On April 1, 1978, The Bates Student named its parody issue the Bates Lempoon, which would keep the phenomenon alive for nearly a decade. In 1989, the fad finally faded away completely when The Student switched the name of its parody issue to Spudent.