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Freakfest is the official name of Madison's annual Halloween celebration on State Street. The name was created in 2006 when the celebration was transformed from a free form gathering to a corporate-sponsored event with music stages and ticketed admission.
Madison's Halloween celebration on State Street originated in 1979 when the celebration was started and organized by the Wisconsin Student Association. In 1981 and 1982, the crowds reached a peak at 100,000 people attending. During the event, WSA secured liquor licenses and sold beer to students. This practice ended when the legal drinking age was changed from 18 to 21 and WSA stopped sponsoring the event in 1987.
The student government tried to hold non-alcoholic alternatives in the field house from 1988 on, but failed to draw a sizable crowd. The numbers of attendees on State Street also dwindled during this 10-year period. From 98' on, numbers started to climb again.
The celebration began to take a turn for the worse in 2002, when the celebration turned into a full-scale riot, causing Madison Police Department to deploy tear gas for the first time since the anti-war protests of the 60s. In the aftermath of the riot, Alderman Mike Verveer, District 4, said the police coverage was flawed, as 110 police officers turned out for Thursday's festivities and only 40 were present during the Saturday night rioting. 16 people were arrested for looting, disorderly conduct and battery and many local businesses were robbed.
In 2003, the city packed the street with more police, and while the wide-scale looting of previous years was not present, riots still had to be broken up with pepper spray. Arrests numbered only 13, down from the previous year. Noble Wray, then assistant chief of police for MPD, complained that some police officers did not have appropriate protective gear for dealing with Saturday's rioters. Minor damage was done to business windows and a black Volvo was turned over by rioters, but Friday's celebrations were described as "an overall safe and fun night."
In 2004, continued to pack the streets with police, but riots broke out once again. Saturday's Crowds jumped from last year's 40,000 people to an estimated 75-80,000 people. Fires broke out in the 500 block of State Street, but police responded with stadium lights and pepper spray. Preliminary reports said arrests skyrocketed that weekend to 448, 196 on Friday, 252 on Saturday. This was the first Halloween to be overseen by both Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and MPD Chief Noble Wray. Cieslewicz remarked on the festival by saying it was time to decide whether to drastically alter the event or cancel it completely.
Campus attempts to control the event involved ASM's Halloween committee offering free food in Library Mall and alternative events at Union South. Much of the criticism for the riots fell on out-of-state visitors, who made up the majority of Halloween weekend arrests.
2005 saw similar problems, despite increased police presence and speakers mounted on top of The Towers private residence hall telling students to disperse. Police were criticized by UW students for breaking out pepper spray and tear gas without provocation. Cieslewicz denied this was the case, and said police were attacked with projectiles, while vandalism and fires continued to threaten the State Street area. 468 people were arrested, prompting Cieslewicz and others to seek an alternative to the celebration.
A change in plans
After four years of Saturday's festivities ending in rioting, city officials decided it was time for a major change to the event. Cieslewicz decided the 2006 celebration would become ticketed event, with students having to purchase $5 tickets for admission to State Street. In addition, there would be bands playing different ends of State Street for entertainment. The proposal passed in Madison City Council, with Alders Austin King and Brenda Konkel voting against the proposal.
In the end, the switch resulted in lowered crowds around 30,000 and no need for police force to dispel late-night celebrations. The event was looked at as a success in terms of public policy, although the event itself was far more subdued than previous Halloween parties.
Following the 2006 success, the city decided to hand over production and planning of the event to Frank Productions, which brought in corporate sponsors Mountain Dew and recording artists such as Ra Fury and Lifehouse to transform the event into a concert/party style event.