It was Hell Night. Jeffrey Furek, a fraternity pledge at the University of Delaware, had already been whacked with newspapers, doused with beer, beaten with a wooden paddle, and forced innumerable times to fall down and assume "the cockroach position": on the back, with arms and legs waving frantically in the air.

In the kitchen of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house, Furek knelt as members poured pancake batter, pancake syrup and -- apparently by accident -- a lye-based oven cleaner on top of his bowed head.

On Oct. 30, a Superior Court jury in Wilmington, Del., awarded Furek $30,000 for the burns he received that December 1980 night, mainly holding the university at fault for failing to enforce its antihazing policy.

That same day, officials at Radford University in Radford, Va., announced the suspension of the school's Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter after members allegedly blindfolded pledges for several hours at an Oct. 10 party and made them participate in drinking games.

While officials at local universities say hazing has not been a serious problem, the Conduct Council at American University decided last week to suspend one of its fraternities, Alpha Epsilon Pi, after a hazing-related incident, according to a university spokeswoman.

The trial and the suspensions come at a time when fraternities are enjoying renewed popularity on college campuses -- and when antihazing laws and antihazing campaigns are at an all-time high.

Since 1971, fraternity membership has grown from a low of 150,000 nationally to about 400,000 -- boosted by young men "who are, quite frankly, very interested in success," said Jonathan Brant of the National Interfraternity Conference.

Since 1978, the number of states with antihazing laws has increased from five, including Virginia, to 28, now including Maryland.

Hazing is defined as anything that causes physical or mental discomfort or embarrassment, including forced eating or drinking, excessive fatigue, or humiliating public acts. The practice apparently dates to the 17th century European concept of "making the new student pay for being inexperienced," Brant said.

Officially, all 59 national fraternities and their 5,000 chapters oppose hazing. It is not, spokesmen said, what fraternities are about -- the building of character, the forging of friendships, the projects for charity. Hazing cases are isolated, they said, the work of only a few immature fraternity members. Yet, each new incident highlights an underside of the secret initiation ceremonies -- what can happen when youthful exuberance and peer pressure get out of hand.

"When we were going through initiation, I kept thinking, 'God, this is really stupid,' " said Furek, now 26 and a third-class boatswain in the Coast Guard. "But I couldn't walk out. There was a lot of peer pressure, and I was 18 years old. And I wanted to be a brother."

Furek, a football linebacker who was attending the University of Delaware on scholarship, dropped out of school after the incident. Today, his reminders of Hell Night include mottled skin on the back of his neck, scars on his chest and back and continued resentment about the incident.

Since 1978, 41 fraternity pledges have died in hazing-related cases in the United States, said Eileen Stevens of Sayville, N.Y., who heads an antihazing group called CHUCK (Committee to Halt Useless College Killings). The majority of deaths resulted from alcohol overdoses, she said.

Stevens' son, Chuck Stenzel, a 20-year-old sophomore at Alfred University in western New York, died in early 1978 after participating in a fraternity initiation. While locked in a car trunk, Stenzel was told to drink a pint of whiskey, a fifth of wine and a six-pack of beer, Stevens said. The cause of death was acute alcohol poisoning.

Whether hazing incidences have recently increased is unclear, because no central reporting office exists, but "there is a perception that we've had more cases in the past year," Brant said.

Several recent examples:In April, a former student at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro was sentenced to two to five years in prison for assault after beating a pledge's face with a two-by-four.

At the University of Lowell in Massachusetts, six fraternity brothers face trial -- the first under the state's 1985 antihazing law -- for allegedly fastening a sleeping bag over the head of a pledge, locking him in an attic and turning up the furnace full blast; his temperature shot to 109 degrees and he went into a coma.

Two weeks ago, pledges at a University of South Carolina fraternity were arrested for scratching state highway patrol cars and painting highways as part of their initiation; several years ago, a pledge at the same fraternity died of an alcohol overdose. His parents were recently awarded $250,000 in the death. In May 1986, a student at the University of Maryland was hospitalized after pledging Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He and another pledge reportedly were taken to the campus golf course and urged to drink large amounts of vodka.

Most area colleges and universities that have fraternities, including Maryland, have enacted antihazing policies.

The recent incident at Radford University, a state-supported school with an enrollment of 8,000 near Roanoke, involved underage drinking, said Associate Dean of Students Michael Dunn. Some of the blindfolded pledges were taken on trips to disorient them, and one intoxicated student fell and injured his head, Dunn said. The fraternity has been put on inactive status until the spring semester.

"When their parents were in college, hazing was a part of the fraternity experience," Dunn said last week. "There's some lingering confusion about what's tradition, what's ritual and what steps over that boundary into hazing."

Ken Mattox, director of Sigma Phi Epsilon's national headquarters in Richmond, said the Radford chapter has had problems in the past. "Radford is a very different chapter from Berkeley, which just raised several thousand dollars for AIDS research," said Mattox, whose 16,000-member fraternity is the nation's largest.

"Hazing is the Achille's heel for fraternities," he said. "At the same time, there are a lot of the right things going on -- they're just not as compelling."