Students, Madison residents and visitors from all over the state will crowd State Street decked out in trashy and topical costumes for Madison’s annual Freakfest event on Saturday–but the city’s festivities have not always been so tame.
Halloween is Madison was not always a safe occasion historically, Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said, with unruly guests causing damage to businesses and rioting on one occasion.
In the mid-1980s, Halloween in Madison meant upwards of 100,000 people cramming onto State, Verveer said. Some years the street was so packed, storefront windows would break from the sheer pressure of having so many people pressed against them, he said.
Verveer said the tradition of Halloween on State Street has gone through many phases – some good and some bad. As a former University of Wisconsin student and long-time city council alder, Verveer said he has seen his share of Halloweens in the city.
“State Street Halloween has completely turned around, in terms of now it is practically 100 percent problem free,” Verveer said.
Mark Woulf, city alcohol policy coordinator, said this major shift is thanks to the city’s recent partnership with the production company Frank Productions to put on Freakfest.
Woulf said the city has now been able to pull back city resources and allow Frank Production’s private security to monitor the event. He said this saves the city money.
“[The savings] are a testament to Frank Productions and what they’ve been able to do in transforming the event,” Woulf said.
The event has been transformed, Verveer said. The costume party on State Street began in the 1970s and reached a peak in the 1980s, he said.
“I think it would suffice to say it was a big deal. With over 100,000 people attending, it was crazy,” Verveer said. “I’ve seen pictures and heard stories about how crazy it was.”
Soon, the event began to get out of control, Verveer said. A student died after falling off a roof and regular and purposeful vandalism was expected with the event, he said. Finally, Verveer added, the student government decided to stop sponsoring ‘Halloween on State Street.’ However, this caused a downward slope in attendance.
By the early 1990s, Verveer said the tradition of celebrating on State had almost died out. Then, in 1996, Halloween heated up again – literally.
Halloween that year was unseasonably warm, which Verveer cited as the reason for “astonishing” crowds that showed up to celebrate Halloween on State Street.
“Because the weather was so amazing, there were thousands of people spontaneously showing up,” Verveer said. “This was before social media and even texting, so it was pretty amazing that all these people showed up. And the cops were just horrified.”
Woulf said the the tradition then took a turn for the worse, as the atmosphere turned riotous. Verveer said people began to bash in windows, vandalize buildings, make bonfires in the street and loot businesses.
“Badger Liquor had the vast majority of its cigarettes and bottles of booze looted [one year],” Verveer said. “And I remember standing right there watching the looting take place at the store and just feeling helpless.”
Woulf said the city government could no longer justify the event without stepping in, considering all the costs to the city and taxpayers.
In 2006, Freakfest became the ticketed event it is now, Woulf said. A year later, Frank Productions partnered with the city, lowering costs and providing private security.
“It’s turned into a mostly positive atmosphere,” Woulf said. “We prepare for worst, but hope for the best.”