UW students weigh in on Freakfest and what this year’s celebration has in store.
Freakfest — the monumental event that occurs the Saturday closest to Halloween that has helped put Madison on the map and bolsters the University of Wisconsin’s reputation as a top-rated party school.
Each year, students and community members flood by the tens of thousands to State Street, donning every costume imaginable to celebrate Halloween. People from around the country also come to celebrate in the famous — usually infamous — celebration of the event.
However, the Freakfest most current students know is not how it always has been in Madison. Since the late 1970s, the celebration of Halloween on State Street has changed dramatically.
The very beginning
The history of Halloween on State Street begins in the late 1970s, when a crowd of students formed an impromptu block party Halloween night of 1977, starting bonfires and drinking on the street.
The Wisconsin Student Association, the student government at the time and precursor to our current Associated Students of Madison, saw the celebration and seized the opportunity to turn it into a fundraiser. So, in 1979, WSA began to sponsor the event, taking out street permits, hiring security and selling beer on the street.
However, when the legal drinking age changed from 18 to 21 in 1986, WSA was unable to sell beer, eliminating their primary money-making source and leading to the eventual end of WSA’s sponsorship of the party in 1988.
From 1989 until the late 1990s, the celebration waxed and waned, with some years drawing big crowds and others none at all.
The era of rioting
The late 1990s to the early 2000s brought a resurgence for Halloween on State Street, as the Friday before Halloween became the official day of celebration. However, with the resurgence of celebration came violence.
The crowd grew from in the thousands in 1998 to more than 60,000 in 2001.
The celebration took a turn for the worse in 2002, when a crowd of 65,000 broke windows, looted stores and caused thousands of dollars of property damage to half a dozen State Street businesses.
Only 40 police officers were patrolling the area.
“One individual got hit in the head with something and was hurt very badly. As police and firefighters tried to get there, people began fighting them,” said Joel Plant, assistant to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.
It was at this event when the police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd, trying to reach the injured person. However, the pepper spray eventually ran out and the police began to use tear gas for the first time in Madison since the Vietnam War riots.
Sixteen people were arrested on charges of looting, disorderly conduct and battery.
“All in all, 2002 was a disaster,” Plant said.
Halloween celebration in 2003 wasn’t much better. Vandalism and property damage continued, as did the use of tear gas. In the end, 170 people, mostly out-of-towners, were ticketed.
In 2004, State Street saw more than 75,000 people. Bonfires, property damage and the use of pepper spray were again common at the celebration. A total of 448 arrests were made with students representing 12.8 percent of the arrests.
The Sunday after the event, Oct. 31, 2004, Cieslewicz held a press conference saying enough was enough. The city had two options: cancel the event or a complete revamp of management.
“We’ve got to ask ourselves whether or not we should try to manage this event in the future or try to discourage it actively,” Cieslewicz said.
Despite this declaration, 2005 brought 100,000 people to State Street, some chanting “We want tear gas” and “Ole! Ole! Ole!” causing police to wear riot gear and use pepper spray for the fourth year in a row. Police made 447 arrests for open intoxicants, underage drinking, disorderly conduct, public urination and more.
Tickets, barriers and management
After four years of riots, pepper spray, vandalism and overall chaos, the city finally decided to make radical changes to the way Halloween would be organized in 2006.
According to Plant, the mayor and other city officials began searching for alternatives in 2005, looking at examples nationally and internationally to come up for a solution which would take away from the nearly $750,000 Halloween was costing the city every year.
After consulting private companies, community members and business owners, the solution of ticketing and barricading State Street was conceived.
“As evident by the way the event turned, the community got entirely behind gating and ticketing the event and letting those enjoying the event pay part of the cost,” Plant said.
In 2006, Halloween celebrations ended peacefully for the first time four years. Attendance was more than 30,000, arrests were down to 230 between Friday and Saturday night, there was limited property damage and the 32,000 tickets sold covered quite a bit of the cost of Halloween. Also, no pepper spray was needed for crowd control.
Madison concert promoter Frank Productions took notice of the success of Halloween 2006 and offered to sponsor the event in 2007, taking care of everything from food, entertainment stages, ticketing and more.
Ad2Madison was also hired by the city to market and advertise the event, creating the pumpkin logo and coining the event name Freakfest, according to Plant.
“We had a desire to create something to entertain these people and make it an event everyone could be proud of and the community could take ownership of,” said Dave Maynard, vice-president of Frank Productions. “I’m sure there are those who disagree, but I think we’ve brought entertainment, given people sometime to do rather than just flood the street. … We’ve tried to put something for everyone there.”
Freakfest 2007 was an even bigger success for the city than 2006, when more than 34,000 people were in attendance and only 175 arrests were made. Freakfest 2008 followed suit, with more than 38,000 people in attendance and only 77 arrested.
Freakfest 2009 promises to hold the same amount of success, as Frank Productions will continue its ticketing and barricade policy of State Street while also bringing local and international bands, including Third Eye Blind, to the event for a night that will prove to be fun and safe.
The News Explainer column will run every Wednesday, answering the questions and concerns of the student body. If you have any questions regarding a story that you would like to see further explained in this column, e-mail [email protected].