Another young woman might have screamed. Or called the police. But not this Brigham Young University coed. She grew up expecting the zany, the wacky, the pie in the face. She grew up in Utah, after all. She was reared on the concept of the creative invitation.
Thus, she wasn't afraid a deviate had broken in that fall evening when she came back to her college apartment, went into the bathroom and saw the toilet filled with ice cubes and a single red rose sticking forth from the bowl.She didn't shriek. She calmly dropped to her knees and started looking for clues. Presently, behind the toilet, she found a small note from a cute guy: "Now that you have no other place to go, will you go to homecoming with me?"
The "Rose in the Toilet Bowl" invitation is recorded for posterity.
On the fifth floor of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU is a door bearing a combination lock and a modest sign: Folklore Archives. Within the cramped windowless office, on bookshelves stuffed with research projects, you'll find more than 100 papers on "Mormon Courtship Patterns."
The research began in the 1970s. The papers chronicle thousands of true life anecdotes, from creative dates for high school couples to creative marriage proposals. Main emphasis: the creative prom invitation.
Kristi Bell wrote one of those papers 21 years ago when she was a sophomore at BYU. Her folklore professor, William Wilson, suggested she interview friends and roommates. Wilson thought he could detect a subtle shift in courtship rituals. Could it be the "creative date" was becoming passe and the "creative invitation to a dance" was the new trend?
Bell grew up to be a folklore archivist, as well as a composition instructor at BYU. She regularly assigns her students the same topic Wilson assigned her. The body of research keeps growing.
Several years ago, Bell got a grant from the BYU Research Studies Center. Now she's delving deeper into Mormon courtship patterns.
"I told Kristi: `You need to publish!,"' says Jill Terry Rudy, director of the Folklore Archives. Rudy recently got a doctorate from one of the top folklore schools, Indiana University. The academics will go wild over this courtship stuff, Rudy is sure.
If you live in Utah, where prom rituals are prevalent, you might not see how interesting they are. Rudy says folklorists have seen no professional studies about Mormon culture except narratives about sightings of the Three Nephites (whose history is told in the Book of Mormon).
The "creativity" phenomenon puts a uniquely LDS spin on what Bell and Rudy see as the natural tendency of adolescents to avoid face-to-face rejection. (You ask her to a prom with a treasure hunt. She answers with a note in a balloon. You don't have to hear her voice, much less see her expression.)
The LDS Church encourages teens to delay getting too involved until after a young man comes home from a mission. "Creativity" helps delay serious romance. Creativity promotes same-sex friendship (because you need help carrying out these schemes) and group dating (because if you have a truely creative brainstorm, your friends will all ask their dates the same way and then you'll all go together).
Also, Bell says, if the marriage ceremony is private, as temple marriages are, people emphasize the public portions of the courtship - dating and, especially, the engagement. A creative marriage proposal might be popular in all parts of the country, but in LDS circles it is practically required now, says Bell. "It gives you something to talk about, something you can compare."
As opposed to engagements, Bell says, creative prom invitations are only common where there are many Latter-day Saints: in Idaho, California, Arizona and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. In Utah, the practice is so pervasive that non-Mormon teens do it, too, without a second thought.
When they are in high school, Bell's students say, the Especially For Youth summer camps keep them on the cutting edge of creativity. In college, they become EFY counselors, passing on creativity tips to the next generation.
Most BYU students tire of creative invitations by the time they are juniors. But they enjoy turning their expertise into research papers - with examples and conclusions such as these:
An "unusual" invitation should include a treasure hunt, a puzzle or something to decipher. It must show the cleverness of the person doing the inviting. (Puns are good.) "Date invitations are a preview of the personality," points out a student researcher.
With so many teens inviting creatively, it becomes increasingly difficult to be original. Within the archives are endless variations on the same themes: Clues are planted in food, frozen in a block of ice, hidden within a dead fish. Boys are serenaded in the middle of the night. Girls are asked to search through a bag of flour and then, when they've made a mess, someone hands them a flower and a note that says, "Sorry, wrong flour."
Spend an afternoon in the Lee Library and you will find just a few ideas you've never heard of before. One high school senior, weary of the game, decided to respond with "a surfeit" of creativity. He went to the junkyard, filled his truck with trash, and unloaded it in his girlfriend's front yard with a different pun pinned to each broken lamp and couch. "I was answering in excess," he explained.
In an effort to be unique, some push the boundaries of taste. They involve a toilet, perhaps, or get their friends to call a girl to the front of the room just before an a cappella choir class and then, with the entire choir watching, spread syrup in her hair while giving her clues and puns.
Once a girl came into a guy's kitchen while he was eating. She was covered in ketchup and had what appeared to be a knife sticking out of her heart. Pulling a hangman's noose high around her neck, she handed him a note saying, "I'm dying to go to the dance with you."
"It must have worked, " reports the researcher. Her zaniness wowed him. "Now they are engaged!"
Former Deseret News columnist and LDS youth leader Elaine Cannon must bear some responsibility for all this lightheartedness. Beginning in 1949, for more than 20 years, Cannon wrote a column that almost daily broadcast ideas for unique dates that would be low-cost and fanciful. (Example: a candlelight picnic at the top of a parking terrace.) She gave school workshops - Seminars for Sally and Sam - on etiquette and fashion and - yes - more creative dating.
The seminars were not exclusively for LDS teens, she says. The reason that creative dating morphed into creative invitations, and why the whole thing is still popular today, is that Westerners like to have fun, Cannon says. A creative invitation is more joyful and more people share the joy. "And it's safe. I don't just mean you are safe from sex, I mean your ego isn't smashed. You aren't competing on looks or money, you are competing on creativity.
"I think it's a darling phenomenon."
Rudy wonders if creativity is about to collapse of its own weight. Prom invitations have become about as elaborate as possible. Perhaps next year, she says, the truly bold guy will just call a girl on the phone.