Many people erroneously believe group beach houses are a modern phenomenon, but history's first colony of shared summer cottages was actually unearthed along the Mediterranean Sea at Wali, near present-day Ashdod, by the ill-fated Goldblatt-McKay Holy Land Expedition of 1925.

Artifacts recovered suggest that these pre-biblical peoples regularly abandoned their dusty inland villages late on the sixth day of the week in summer and streamed toward the sea in long caravans of overheated camels and wheeled carts filled with irritable children.

These exoduses backed up traffic for miles along the primitive roads. So intense was the journey, according to scribes of the time, that tribal officials attempting to collect tolls on key roads leading to the sea were stoned to death by the harried travelers.

Archeological evidence also suggests these ancient seaside enclaves had religious significance -- unlike modern seasonal beach subcultures, which are unabashedly hedonistic. Residents of Wali, for example, built numerous altars to the god Ba'al, represented by a sacred orb covered in white goatskin. Ba'al shrines, separated from the living quarters by low screens of woven fiber, were scattered about the beach area.

Residents of Wali gathered at sundown to honor Ba'al by repeatedly passing the sacred white orb over the screens. While initially solemn, the ceremony soon became ecstatic as participants stripped nearly naked in the fierce heat and abandoned themselves to holy passion, leaping and cheering as they began throwing and hitting the Wali Ba'al back and forth over the screening until they fell from exhaustion. As this rite continued over the years, however, local deities lost their preeminence and the ritual of Wali Ba'al degenerated into a secular activity.

Ancient beach-house inhabitants also participated in the sha-na-wa, an ablution ritual that involved the sprinkling of fresh sweet water over their bodies at sunset. So precious was the water, however, that supplies often ran out before every resident could wash away the sha-mutz (which McKay translated as "the-little-bits-of-powdered-earth-that-grind-between-my-toes").

Many residents waiting to get into the sha-na-wa participated in a secondary libation ritual, involving the consumption of an alcoholic potion known as the shin-en-tonik. Goldblatt noted that after several days of not having a sha-na-wa and exasperation at sha-mutz getting into everything, many residents abandoned sha-na-wa, Wali Ba'al and everything else, devoting themselves entirely to shin-en-tonik, the imbibing of which has since become a distinct subculture.

The concept of beach houses proliferated rapidly with the coming of the Christian Era, and by the Middle Ages the Holy See had condemned group cohabitation at the shore as both a violation of the laws of God and of Pope Kreplach IV's Littoral Zoning Edict of A.D. 982. The Renaissance rekindled the human spirit, however -- including Leonardo's invention of the beach umbrella and Columbus' establishment of a cabana colony on Hispaniola -- and seasonal shoreline housing slowly reasserted its universal social appeal.

The modern ages saw extensive ethno- methodological research into beach behaviors, peaking in 1932 with Sigmund Freud's massive study, "The Psychopathology of Waves" (Der Meshuggeneh Ocean), which characterized shared beach houses as a manifestation of oedipal angst (the wish to merge with the Ocean-Mommy); adolescent libidinous fantasies (digging holes and heaping wet sand into mounds); and genitalia obsession (skimpy bathing suits).

Beach houses saw their greatest growth and acceptance in America from 1949 to the present. Cheaper fuel and automobiles, the social acceptance of increased mobility and a more permissive post-war culture encouraged 18-to-35- year-olds to make beach-house residence a rite of passage.

Indeed, occupying a shared cottage for even a weekend has offered several generations of American youths the opportunity to experience in a compressed time span a wide variety of psycho-spiritual events traditionally valued by primitive societies. These include the vision quest, psychedelic experiences, sexual initiation, ritual scarification, auto-intoxication, psychotic episodes, laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, trances, frenetic dancing, conversion hysteria, wienie roasts and group singing.

The beach house as a social phenomenon typically begins in February after self-appointed group leaders have concluded long and sometimes painful negotiations with a landlord for a suitable house within walking distance of the ocean at a rent roughly equivalent to the offering up of one's firstborn child or the surrendering of a spare kidney.

With the dissemination of the code words, "Hey, I got a place," the information spreads rapidly (telepathically, say some researchers) and the potential non-paying group membership begins growing exponentially, rapidly exceeding the population of an emerging nation if not checked. Once the core unit is formed, dominant group members emerge with pocket calculators to determine each participant's rent.

This process involves an arcane socio-arithmetical formula that divides the total rent by the number of bodies multiplied by the total floor space in square inches, excluding broom closets.

Each paying group member is then assured a horizontal sleeping area on the floor with an adequate (though not guaranteed) oxygen supply. Wexler- Winkler-Dinkler et al. (1986) found in a stratified random sampling that beach- house sleeping arrangements are sharply divided according to demographics.

Bona fide married couples invariably demand beds; single, upwardly mobile women request couches; single, career-oriented men require room to unroll L.L. Bean sleeping bags.

Men in their late teens and early twenties adapt most readily to more informal sleeping arrangements, the most popular of which are automobiles parked behind gas stations, blankets on the beach, jail cells and gutters.

Another study found that young females are better adapted to gross crowding than their male counterparts (2.5 females can occupy a space shared by 1.7 males) because increased testosterone levels in all-male houses (particularly those in which a predatory mentality prevails) can rapidly build to toxic proportions -- often threatening the structural integrity of the dwellings -- and therefore act as a self-limiting factor.

Inebriated males have been known to wander far from their primary territorial groups, however, and female group members often awaken in the morning to find these uninvited men sleeping on the floor. Known colloquially as the "I-Thought-He-Was-Your-Friend" syndrome, the phenomenon was thought by the ancients to be an instance of divine intervention or the spontaneous generation of matter. Modern parents accept neither of these explanations, nor did Freud, who condemned this wanderlust as wish fulfillment.

Once the beach house is fully established, the group dynamics shift markedly, and relationships are formed, altered and terminated (often in the same evening) as factors of proximity, personal hygiene, sexual proclivity, diet, political leaning, musical taste and economic circumstance prevail.

Cognitive assessments of a group member's strengths and weaknesses begin changing in direct proportion to the passage of time (see chart). Perceptual attitudes toward one's housemates change similarly. Thus a group member valued for his or her personality and character traits on Friday afternoon in the city may be considered totally dysfunctional by Saturday night on the boardwalk and be thereafter subjected by the group to social sanctions and isolation or -- in rare cases -- buried in the sand up to his/her neck.

Several studies suggest that group- house activity is directly related to socio-maturation components, with active participation declining for males and females after their early thirties. This is due to a combination of cultural expectations and individual factors including a diminution of personal physical energy, a lowered capacity for alcohol absorption and an unwillingness to engage in behavior that might make one look like a jerk.

Some people refuse to relegate beach life to the past, however, and persist in activities no longer appropriate to their age and social standing. These individuals form a defined subculture and can be recognized by their madras shorts, T-shirts bearing crude sexual suggestions, multiple gold chains and prolapsed abdomens (men), blue eye shadow and chain-smoking (women), extraordinarily loud voices and prodigious alcohol consumption.

Finally, marriage and child-rearing severely alter participation in group beach houses, though couples initially try to remain part of the subculture by sharing housing with other couples and their children. These groups start out happily enough with the children spending their time bringing sand into the house while the parents read cheap novels and discuss no-load mutual funds.

These group houses rarely last more than a week, however, nor do many of the parents. Clinical studies have repeatedly shown that prolonged cohabitation with numerous pre-school children in an unstructured beach-house setting -- particularly if rain persists -- invariably leads to intrapersonal chaos, cluster headaches, intestinal distress and an overwhelming wish to merge with the Ocean-Mommy. :: SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Durkeim, Emile. Under the Boardwalk: Mechanical vs. Organic Solidarity. Paris: University of Paris Press, 1897.

Funicello, A., and Avalon, F. Review and Retrospective: The Making of "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." Malibu, Calif.: Malibu Press, 1975.

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Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the Nets: Volleyball and Historical Dysfunction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

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