Over the years, my alumni parents and their friends shared with me a lot of storied Badger traditions. But the State Street Halloween Party seemed particularly memorable for them — drinking, rioting and arrests.
The State Street Halloween party was attended by University of Wisconsin-Madison students, students from across Wisconsin, and even people from elsewhere. As my parents would describe it, the street was packed with thousands of students. I was told stories about the arrests of family friends who I still know today.
The State Street Halloween party began as riots on State Street in 1977 and was recognized as the Midwest’s largest Halloween festival. To make the event more gentle and family-friendly, then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz officially created Freakfest in 2006. The once violent and rowdy scene on State Street soon consisted of trick-or-treating, hayrides, and Halloween movie showings. In 2020, the city of Madison canceled Freakfest in response to COVID-19.
Some believe Freakfest’s cancellation will prevent the underage drinking that the State Street Halloween party is known for. Still, these precautions will do exactly the opposite. UW-Madison is known as one of the nation’s top party schools, and many students are determined to live up to that reputation.
As the Halloween season was approaching, the question I often heard in my dorm was: “Is Halloween in Madison fun?”
Catriona Ross, a freshman at UW–Madison, said she heard from other students that Halloween is “one of the most celebrated holidays in Madison.” Also, as a freshman myself, I wondered if that statement was true and became more curious about how Halloween would unfold this year. Would it be different from the Halloween my parents experienced as UW-Madison students? Would it be the same extreme parties all weekend long?
On Thursday of the “Halloweekend,” police officers surrounded nearby streets to prevent a repeat of some of the less savory State Street Halloween moments. Emails contained not-so-subtle reminders that guests were not allowed in residence halls during the weekend, including students from other residence halls as well as off-campus visitors. Students were advised to make smart and safe decisions.
Normal weekends consist of my roommates and my friends coming into our dorm from other dorms, girls fighting over the mirror in the bathroom and loud music playing. Not Halloween though. Not being allowed to go to our friends' dorms, my roommate and I got ready together as if it were any other day.
After experiencing my first Halloween in Madison, I can report back that it deterred very few. Arrests, fights and alcohol were still prevalent this Halloween, according to incident reports by the University of Wisconsin–Madison Police Department. I can also report back that it was very different from the endless partying and rampage my parents described. Eager underage students still roamed State Street and campus parties as they would any other weekend.
Students swarmed the streets, attempting to avoid the disturbing noise of the wailing police cars while trying to find parties that wouldn’t get raided by the officers. After arriving back at my dorm, I was greeted by campus housing staff, who checked WisCards at the entrance in a similar manner as you would see in the Milwaukee airport.
Ross said the overwhelming security measures implemented during the weekend made her feel “uneasy and concerned.”
“I felt the security that is already implemented is enough and made me fear that there is something to be concerned of,” she said.
Incidents of past State Street Halloweens and fear of recurring ones cast a shadow on this year’s celebration.