Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Madison’s halloween history

In Celtic Ireland, Halloween traditions began in the year 5 B.C.E. On State Street in Madison, the University of Wisconsin students' tradition began in the late 1970s.

By request of UW Chancellor John Wiley, University Communications put together a history of the event citing the initial event as held by the student government in 1979.

Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said these early Halloween celebrations differed from what students are used to now.


"The Wisconsin Student Association — the former version of today's ASM — organized the first several years of the State Street Halloween tradition," Verveer said. "Crowds were much bigger than what we see today. Crowds reached over 100,000. WSA secured beer permits and sold beer to students right on Library Mall."

The largest crowds State Street saw were in 1981 and 1982, when they totaled more than 100,000. Unlike last year's contested bonfire, fires were commonplace in the past, according to Halloween history.

Windows were broken in the early years, but property owners viewed the damage as accidental, Verveer said.

"Nobody thought the damage was intentional," Verveer said. "People believed the broken windows were caused by the crush of humanity pressing against them."

The low point of the Halloween tradition came in 1983, when a man fell off a building on the corner of State and Lake streets and eventually died.

"The story goes that the man did not actually die immediately as a result of the fall," Verveer said. "But because of the crowds, the ambulance took awhile to arrive on the scene, and then some drunken idiot stole the keys to the ambulance, delaying the transfer of the man further."

George Twigg, communications director for the mayor, said in terms of crowds and crime, Halloween was a rollercoaster.

"As I understand the event, it has grown and receded in cycles," Twigg said.

Because of poor weather, changes in Madison law enacting stricter temporary liquor-license policies and a change in the drinking age from 18 to 21, the WSA stopped sponsoring the event after the 1987 celebration, which began a recession of the event.

Between 1988 and 1998, there was a decade of hibernation for Halloween in Madison.

In 1988, instead of sponsoring the traditional event, the WSA attempted to throw a non-alcoholic Halloween dance at the Field House, which was poorly attended. WSA attempted other non-alcoholic events on Halloween that were also relatively unsuccessful, Verveer said.

Verveer, who was hanging out with police officers in their "Halloween headquarters" at the University Inn on State Street in 1998, recalled the resurgence of the event students know and love.

"The MPD only had a skeleton crew staffed that night because, like years past, they weren't expecting large crowds," Verveer said. "But, suddenly, I could hear the police commander going nuts. He was shocked to see several thousand people crowding on State Street."

Verveer said he suspects the event rose from the ashes as a result of the beautiful weather Madison experienced that weekend.

Since 1998, according to University Communications' report, the event has steadily gained momentum, with crowd sizes rising from several thousand in 1998 to 75,000 at last year's event.

Citations and arrests have increased in conjunction with crowd numbers, which brings UW to this year, the continuation of a tradition.

According to Verveer, the event deserves a pulse on campus and in the city.

"The bottom line is that the Halloween tradition is fun," Verveer said. "I'd like to see it continue into the future."

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