Madison will once again host Freakfest Saturday, the annual Halloween bash that takes over State Street with music, food and costumes, which has become an integral part of Madison’s culture as a party destination on Halloween.
But only a few years ago, the atmosphere of Halloween on State Street was unrecognizable compared to the gated and more carefully policed street festival it is today.
Madison has long been the destination of a pilgrimage of partiers from around the country, drawn to the Halloween hijinks on State Street. But during the early 2000s, crowds escalated to tens of thousands of people who showed up to drink and party during the weekend preceding Oct. 31.
These unsanctioned parties grew in size every year, and in 2002 through 2005 police resorted to riot gear and pepper spray to disperse the crowds in the early hours of Sunday mornings.
Violence, injuries and vandalism were rampant at the event during these years, with many partiers breaking windows and looting stores, according to former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.
Cieslewicz said he received pressure from Madison residents to shut down the event because of the dangerous atmosphere, financial burden to the city, and negative stigma it created for Madison.
“It was getting dangerous, and that was the thing that concerned me as mayor,” Cieslewicz said. “It wasn’t a good image for the city, it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t good for students, it wasn’t good for anybody.”
Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said the city had a choice to either either end Halloween festivities or figure out a way to make Halloween a safer event for downtown Madison.
“The idea that the city obviously chose instead was that if you can’t end it, mend it and really embrace this annual tradition,” Verveer said.
In 2006, city officials addressed the problem by creating Freakfest, an official fenced-in, ticketed and policed event that included musical entertainment and food. They hoped the new event would improve the safety of the holiday, recover some portion of the public cost, and provide an alternative to dangerous over-consumption of alcohol.
Cieslewicz called Freakfest’s first year a “fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants operation,” with unorganized ticketing and an unpaid band that was booked last-minute by a UW-Madison student, current Ald. Bridget Maniaci, District 2, who interned in Cieslewicz’s office at the time.
Maniaci, who used to work for The Daily Cardinal’s Arts Desk, said she was familiar with bands in the Madison area and booked nine of the 10 bands for the event.
After the first year of Freakfest went smoothly, Frank Productions, a concert promotion company, quickly made a pitch to the city to take over production of the newly-formed event and with its influence, it began to take shape as the Freakfest students celebrate today.
According to Frank Productions promoter Charlie Goldstone, the company’s experience with Freakfest has been overwhelmingly positive and successful at turning a negative night for the city into a positive one.
“We haven’t seen any mass riots since we started organizing the event six years ago.” Goldstone said. “The level of arrests has gone down each year so the cost to the city for police overtime has decreased as well.”
But Maniaci said she is “frustrated” none of excess revenue from ticketing goes to the city, but rather to the production company. She said she would like to see the city use some of the money to further promote the arts in Madison.
As Freakfest has evolved over the years, there has been some difficulty with attracting relevant bands to draw in the student crowd, according to Verveer. With headliners like O.A.R., Third Eye Blind and OK GO, many students have opted to avoid Freakfest in favor of other parties.
But Verveer said this year’s headliners, Mac Miller and Big Gigantic, are expected to draw some of the biggest crowds yet because of their popularity with students.
The magnitude of the musical entertainment this year has raised concerns that increased attendance and excitement could result in more arrests, but Verveer said he is excited for Freakfest’s turnout this year.
“It has been frankly frustrating to hear over the years that UW students are not excited about Freakfest or that the talent involved is something that isn’t very popular,” Verveer said. “I really am excited that more students than in prior years will take advantage of Freakfest.”
Verveer said the city expects crowds of up to 45,000 people, the fire marshal’s legal limit, are expected to turn out for Freakfest this year, and the city is thrilled they have managed to maintain Madison’s role as a Halloween destination while cutting back on crime.
“I really don’t expect any problems,” Verveer said. “The police are going to be well-prepared for this.”
As for the origin of Madison’s near-mythical reputation as a Halloween mecca, Cieslewicz is as stumped as the rest of us.
“Who can explain culture or what becomes cool in any given moment?” he said. “For some reason it is. And actually right now it’s a good thing; it’s a source of pride for the city.”