Doughnuts, Witches and Start-Ups: Five Stories About Secret Subcultures

Photo: GôDiNô

What makes a secret society? Is it the codes and the handshakes, the physical language? Perhaps it’s accessibility—you might know an organization exists, but you’ll never be a member. Take this: I rushed a sorority—the same sorority!—three times, because I wanted to be able to walk into any room on my small college campus and see a welcoming face. I wanted the anonymity, the lettered sweatshirt, the history. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, something a little mysterious. Sure, I could study the colors and crest and memorize the majors and extracurriculars of every glossy-haired member, but that wasn’t the same as being in. I didn’t get in, obviously.

This urge to rush a sorority over and over (insanity, by Albert Einstein’s definition, I know) has manifested itself before. Middle-school me devoured books about the rich and privileged—Gossip Girl, The Clique, Private–because I knew there was a secret and I had to find out what it was. I had to, or I would be stuck reading the “How to Be Popular” WikiHow guide for the rest of my life. Kindergarten me yearned to sit next to the most popular girl in class during circle time, only to be snubbed by her henchmen. See a pattern? My identity crises have perfectly styled hair and would never wear last season’s Tory Burch flats. I continue to be fascinated—less pathetically, hopefully—by these exclusive subcultures. Luckily for you, I didn’t include any essays about the angst of privileged boarding school students. Instead, I’ve packed this list full of success stories, start-ups, witchcraft and comedy.

1. “My Year in San Francisco’s $2 Million Secret Society Startup.” (Lydia Laurenson, Motherboard, March 2016)

“We always intended to start a real secret society that cared, and mattered, and treated people well.” In 2015, Longreads published a story about The Latitude. Now, Lydia Laurenson writes for Motherboard with a first-person account of the enduring thrill and rapid decline of her year in that same IRL social network/scavenger hunt/secret club.

2. “The Secret World of the Dunkin’ Donuts Franchise Kings.” (Neil Swidey, Boston Globe, September 2014)

The tycoons behind doughnuts ‘n’ coffee are divvying up Florida.

3. “Saying Goodbye to a Secret Bookstore.” (Brian Patrick Eha, The New Yorker, August 2015)

In the same way that children imagine adults living in perfect freedom, enjoying all the cookies and television they want and staying up till all hours, Michael’s shop was what a bookish child might dream up as a fantasy home for himself, a place far from any responsibilities, where he would never run out of stories.

4. “The Secret Society of John Hodgman.” (Monique Madrid, Splitsider, December 2014)

“I discovered once I locked the doors of the basement and trapped a hundred people in the room with me and swore them to secrecy was that I could just tell the truth.” Here’s a touching, hilarious interview with comedian, author and so-called eccentric millionaire John Hodgman.

5. “Witches of Chiloé.” (Mike Dash, Compass Cultura, February 2013)

The last witch trial in the world took place in a desolate corner of Chile. La Recta Provincia, or “The Righteous Province,” was the realm of shamans who believed in dark magic, deformed monsters and human sacrifice. But it was their political influence the Chilean government most feared.