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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  Overcast
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Devil's night
Madison has become the city where Halloween turns to hell
Those aren't costumes! Click for more images from Halloween, 2005.
Credit:David Michael Miller

For years now, it has been the same irksome story. The Halloween revel on State Street ends in a melee, property is damaged, pepper spray is fired. Then comes the cleanup, and then come the recriminations. Could anything be more depressing?

As it turns out, yes. What is more depressing is that this year, the recriminations began well in advance of the holiday, from the moment last summer when Mayor Dave Cieslewicz announced plans to rein in the chaos. The city will sell tickets for a party called Freakfest on Saturday, Oct. 28; State Street will be fenced off; and the gates will close at 1:30 a.m. daylight-saving time. (The change that morning to Central Standard Time means two 1:30s.)

Alexis de Tocqueville would have marveled at what happened next, as voluntary associations, aided by social-networking Web sites, sprang into existence solely to object to the mayor's scheme. One group was Move Halloween to Langdon 2006, the straightforwardly named organization that proposed relocating the party to Fraternity Row. That group subsequently endorsed the city's plan and renamed itself the Halloween Action Committee. Another protest faction, CRASH Madison, purports to link State Street merrymakers in a kind of cybernetic web of cell-phone text messages.

All I can say is: Huh? How did Halloween, the putatively charming festival of masks, devolve into our city's yearly muddle of hooliganism and police action (to say nothing of the grassroots organizing)? To be certain, Halloween has always been about more than caramel apples and kid stuff. The very term 'trick-or-treating' contains the threat of vandalism, after all, and it was not many years ago that the Halloween season was an annual horror of arson for citizens of Detroit.

But let it also be said: Madison is a hard-drinking town, and Halloween is scarcely the only local event at which rowdy drunks get out of hand. Witness this year's outbursts of bar-time unrest on King Street. As with the Halloween anarchy, some blamed the King Street havoc on out-of-towners, and there may be some truth in that. But what is it about Madison that attracts rowdies? A perception that the city is a safe space for bedlam?

And surely visitors are not the only problem. Football fans now regularly decry the acrid mood at Camp Randall, where the jeering, often sauced hometown crowd can make Badger games so unpleasant.

So would it help if everyone cut back on the booze this Halloween? Probably, but good luck to anyone who tries to make that happen. I am thinking particularly of the leaders of CRASH Madison, who have come up with a novel scheme. The group suggests on its Facebook page that downtown partygoers ingest marijuana rather than alcohol, since 'everyone agrees that Halloween would be a much happier and safer time if drunks were replaced by stoners.' But is pot really the answer? Why not have everyone drink warm milk?

Freakfest on State Street
Saturday, Oct. 28

State Street will be fenced off between 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Bands on two stages include Butt Funnel, Smile Thru This, I Voted For Kodos, the Crest, Plunket, the Mighty Short Bus, DJ Jeremy Thomas, Paper Tiger and Delta Nove. Tickets cost $5 and are available in advance from the city parks office or the booth on Library Mall. On Saturday, tickets will also be available on State Street at three more booths. For complete coverage of Halloween in Madison, see Your Source on Madison Halloween 2006.

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