Freakfest was canceled for the third year in a row, prompting questions from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and its surrounding community about the future of the State Street Halloween party.
Freakfest began in 2006 at the behest of then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. However, Halloween parties have occurred on State Street since the 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s, the unofficial State Street Halloween party increased in popularity.
“It was huge in the 80s. I was a student in the ‘80s and MTV would come down,” Cieslewicz said. “It was packed. Then in the ‘90s, it sort of went away. For whatever reason, it fell out of fashion and then in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, it started to pick up again.”
By the early 2000s, crowds of up to 65,000 attended the festival, according to the Daily Cardinal. In 2005, the year before Freakfest was officially created, crowds peaked at around 100,000 people, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Alongside the increasing crowd sizes, the State Street Halloween party began to see increased chaos. In 2002 and 2003, police used pepper spray to disperse rioters throwing objects, uprooting trees and looting storefronts from the State Street area.
“A couple years before I took office, things were getting kind of dicey on State Street,” said Cieslewicz, who was Madison mayor from 2003 to 2011. “They had ended with some disruptions, broken windows and bonfires in the street, that kind of stuff. And then my first year [as mayor], 2003, we had the same thing.”
Prior to 2006, the city tried to mitigate the potential riots on State Street.
“In 2004 [and] 2005, we tried to bring in high intensity lights, we tried to provide food and things for people to do like costume contests and stuff like that,” Cieslewicz said. “But it just didn't really work. After a while, it got a reputation of ‘come to Madison and come for the costumes — stay for the riots.’”
“It just seemed like every year things would go fairly well, and then right at the end, around two o'clock or so in the early morning hours, things would go haywire,” Cieslewicz continued.
Samantha Garay, a 2007 graduate of UW-Madison, attended Freakfest every year between 2002 and 2006. She said the years she attended the State Street Halloween Party were much more relaxed — and more fun — than when the city made the festival official in 2006.
“I preferred those years,” Garay said. “There were less barricades, less police attendance — I don't think we had to pay any kind of fee. Everyone just dressed up, went down to State Street and walked around. It was insanely crowded, but everyone just had a good time.”
Cieslewicz and his staff put together Freakfest in 2006 to quell the chaos of prior years, he said. The first year of Freakfest ended peacefully without any major incidents, Cieslewicz wrote in his “Citizen Dave” column for Isthmus. About 35,000 people attended Freakfest its inaugural year.
In the years after Freakfest began, attendance slowly declined. According to the Daily Cardinal, attendance in 2015 was 34,000 while attendance in 2017 dropped to 19,000. By 2019, the most recent year of Freakfest, attendance leveled out to roughly 20,000.
Current UW-Madison senior Juliet Stills attended Freakfest in 2019. She said the crowds drove her to leave shortly after arriving.
“It was extremely crowded, and you really could not walk. You had to push and shove because everyone was slowly moving,” Stills said. “There really wasn’t enough space, and I couldn't hear any of my friends and it wasn't worth it to stay there.”
Garay said the creation of Freakfest drained the fun out of the event. The closed-off, pay-to-enter event left out the communal aspect of the State Street Halloween party.
“They took the uniqueness out of it,” Garay said. “There were barricades up everywhere. I remember having to pay money, and it just kind of lost the appeal to me. There was just more rigidity and law and order — it just took the fun out of the entire experience.”
Freakfest canceled again (and again)
In response to COVID-19, the City of Madison canceled Freakfest and other large gatherings in 2020. In 2021, the city canceled Freakfest again because of a COVID-19 resurgence. And, in 2022, Freakfest was canceled once again.
However, unlike in 2020 and 2021, this year’s cancellation was not attributed to COVID-19.
In a press release, the City of Madison said it “moved away from a formal/sanctioned event for Halloween.” Frank Productions, the company that was in charge of Freakfest’s live musical performances, declined to sponsor the event in 2022, according to District 8 Ald. Juliana Bennett.
Despite representing most of the UW-Madison campus community, Bennett said she was not consulted prior to the cancellation of Freakfest.
“It was a decision that was not really consulted with me as a city alder,” Bennett said. “I was just told by the mayor's office that it was canceled.”
Bennett said she disagreed with the city’s decision to cancel Freakfest, but understood why it was canceled. In place of Freakfest, she said the city should host other activities on Halloween.
“Instead of bringing in a bunch of big name bands and paying a whole venue like they normally do, maybe they could have just brought out some local bands or worked with downtown businesses to put on a similar programming to what Freakfest did,” Bennett said.
Cieslewicz said future city-sponsored Halloween events should have a focus on live music similar to Freakfest
“I think having a music festival of some sort is always going to be an enduring attraction,” Cieslewicz said. “So I would think that whatever we do in the future, it's going to have to involve music.”
The future of Freakfest
Cieslewicz believes the State Street Halloween party didn’t die with Freakfest. He said large-scale parties during the fall months have been happening on campus since the 1930s, and they will continue to happen whether sponsored by the city or not.
“There's stories from the 1930s about how Homecomings could get wild and out of hand. I assume that regardless of whether or not the city is going to formally have Freakfest or not, people are going to show up on State with costumes and party,” Cieslewicz said.
Garay said she remembers her time at the State Street Halloween party fondly, and she wishes current students, especially those who haven’t had a chance to attend over the last three years, could go.
“I do wish kids that go [to UW-Madison] now could experience it because it was so unique and so fun,” said Garay. “There was just a sense of pride in it.”
Because of Madison’s long history of partying, Cieslewicz said the return of a party similar to Freakfest is inevitable. The only question is when.
“Whether it's the fall blowout or the spring blowout, things will get a little bit askew,” said Cieslewicz. “But you know, I don't know what will happen this year, it probably won’t happen next year or even 10 years from now, but I think it will happen.”
Drake White-Bergey is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Cardinal. Before becoming editor-in-chief, Drake was the photo editor of The Daily Cardinal. You can follow him on Instagram at @whitebergey.photography and on Twitter at @DWhiteBergey.