Fact Check

A Fete Worse Than Death

A young couple is surprised by party guests while engaging in sexual play.

Published Jul 29, 2000

Legend:   A young couple takes advantage of an empty house to engage in sexual play, only to be caught when the parents spring a surprise party on their daughter.


[Collected by Jansen, 1959]

There was a young couple of well-to-do families who were engaged to be married. On the girl's birthday, the two of them went out, but returned home rather early. Upon returning to the girl's home it was discovered that the parents were away. The two of them decided to do something "different" and removed all their clothing. Soon thereafter, the telephone rang. When she answered it, the girl was asked by her mother to please go to the basement and turn off the automatic washer, which she had forgotten. When the conversation ended, one of the couple decided it would be fun if the boy carried the girl downstairs piggyback. This they proceeded to do, and when they reached the bottom of the stairs, the lights came on and a large group of friends and relatives yelled, "Surprise!" The girl, I was told, had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. The boy has neither been seen nor heard of since.

[Collected by Jansen, 1970]

A girl was invited to spend the night with her best friend, whose family was on vacation. On arriving at her friend's house, the invited girl was met with a note from her friend saying that she had gone to Cincinnati with an old boy friend who had shown up unexpectedly. The note said that she would be home about three or four A.M. and she still wanted the girl to stay.

The invited girl did not want to stay in the house by herself; so she called her boyfriend and asked him to come over. One thing led to another and soon they were both stripped down to the nude. All at once a key turned in the lock and the girl's friend burst in, accompanied by about ten of their mutual friends, yelling, "Surprise!" They had arranged a surprise birthday party for the girl, whose birthday was in a few days.

The boy left town soon after and the girl is said to have had a mental collapse.


  • In most versions the young man and woman are engaged, but some versions describe them as a "recently married" couple.
  • The surprise party is usually arranged for the young woman's birthday, but versions involving a married couple mention a party to celebrate the recent marriage.
  • The reason the couple goes downstairs to the basement (or down to the living room from an upstairs bedroom) varies: a telephone call from the girl's mother asks her to perform some task (usually involving laundry) in the basement; the couple goes down to the basement to look at their wedding gifts, the couple (while upstairs in the bedroom) hears noises coming from the living room and goes down to investigate, or the couple walks downstairs to answer the phone. In some versions (such as the second example above), the guests burst in on the couple through the front door.
  • The party is generally a complete surprise to the couple, but in early versions of the legend it is arranged by the boyfriend.
  • In most versions involving a descent to the basement, the boyfriend carries his fiancée downstairs in some manner: riding piggyback, carried in his arms, or perched on his shoulders

  • The legend always ends with the engagement being broken off. Additionally, the woman usually suffers a nervous breakdown (and is often institutionalized); in many versions the boyfriend disappears, never to be seen again.

Origins:   This


example is one of two common versions of the "Surprise Party" tale: a legend in which sexual misbehavior is accidentally discovered (and "punished") during the course of a well-intentioned surprise. The legend dates to at least the 1920s and in this form involves a couple whose engagement ends tragically when they are caught indulging (or about to indulge) in premarital sex. Sexual activity prior to marriage was still strongly taboo when this legend originated, and the offending youngsters are punished with permanent separation. Versions of this legend involving a married couple are mere embarrassment tales with no moral point and may be corrupted versions of the original.

The sexual activity is in this legend always described as being initiated by the woman or by mutual consent; there is never the implication that the boyfriend has coerced or pressured his girlfriend into having sex with him. Perhaps because the girl's willingness to "sin" is seen as being greater than her fiancé's (good girls should know better, after all), she suffers a far worse fate (mental breakdown) than her boyfriend. The presence of church leaders or members (as well as parents) at the denouement emphasizes the conflict between the religious values of the older generation and the looser morality of their children.

Sightings:   In a 1964 book of reminiscences, Hollywood publicist Art Moger recounts an incident of being invited to a surprise birthday party for an unnamed actress "only a few years ago." According to Moger, after the creme de la creme of Tinseltown was gathered in the girl's foyer, her boyfriend called her to come down from the second floor, promising a surprise. But it was the boyfriend (and the guests) who got the surprise when she came sliding down the bannister in the nude. Given the lack of details provided in the tale, it's impossible now to determine if the "sliding naked actress" story really did happen. It should be pointed out, however, that elsewhere in the autobiography Moger carefully distinguishes between events he was present for and bits of lore he merely heard told as true


A 1999 television commercial for Michelob Light featured a young woman who discovers a note from her husband instructing her to grab a few beers and join him in the living room. Figuring she knows what the invitation is for, she changes into sexy lingerie before fetching the beer. When the living room light snaps on to reveal family and friends, she's standing framed in the doorway in her sexy nightie.

In November 1982, television's Newhart aired an episode in which Bob's wife, clad in a filmy negligee, descended the stairs to what she thought was going to be a romantic date by the fireplace with her husband, only to find a surprise party awaiting her.

Last updated:   5 March 2006

  Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 33-34).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Vanishing Hitchhiker.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.   ISBN 0-393-95169-3   (pp. 143-146).

    Jansen, William Hugh.   "The Surpriser Surprised: A Modern Legend."
    Folklore Forum.   Vol. 6; 1973   (pp. 1-24).

    Moger, Art.   Some of My Best Friends Are People.

    Boston: Challenge Press, 1964   (pp. 91-92).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.

    Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1984.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (p. 33).

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