Time for another installment of “Allison in Madison,” in which I highlight as best as possible some of the unique things about the city I call home. Originally, my intent with this feature is to take a picture of myself at the featured place, event, etc. That approach won’t work this time, though, and I’ll tell you the reason after I tell you what the event is:
That creepy looking logo is for this year’s edition of Freakfest, which is the officially sanctioned and heavily supervised Halloween celebration that takes place on downtown Madison’s main thoroughfare, State Street, on the weekend nearest Halloween. As that big fat “X” behind the logo suggests, this year’s edition of Freakfest is the 10th to be held, and it’s known for its concerts, entertainment stages, and many thousands of attendees sporting costumes or whatever else they want to party down in.
I use the descriptives “officially sanctioned” and “heavily supervised” for a reason: Freakfest was born out of necessity. Since at least 1977, State Street had a reputation for wild, spontaneous parties on Halloween weekend. Those wild parties were fueled by college students just wanting to have a rowdy time. (I’d be tempted to say that copious amounts of alcohol fueled some the students, but that would be playing the blame game too easily.) That party-down-on-All-Hallows-Eve reputation would spread across the Midwest through word of mouth, resulting in a lot of out-of-town or out-of-state folks descending upon MadTown to have a wild time.
By the early 2000s, however, that wild time would result in a lot of damage, and I don’t mean damage to the partygoers’ livers either. Riots and serious damage tended to happen, with the gendarmes dealing thrown bottles, broken windows, punctured tires, small fires, and tens of thousands of revelers, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Needless to say, all that damage did a dent to the bottom line of the State Street businesses, as well as denting the city budget devoted to police, who had to use pepper spray or mace (as this disturbing video, which should be watched with caution, proves) to subdue the partygoers by the mid-2000s, when estimated Halloween crowds reached the low-triple digits
By 2006, Madison’s powers-that-be had had enough, and they set forth on a plan to take control of Halloween on State Street, all with an aim to put the clamp down on the physical damage and the costs that resulted. The city’s moves would lead to the very first Freakfest later that year. The changes that were immediately noticeable then are still part of the event today: You can’t get into Freakfest, nor can you get past security and the gates, without a paid ticket. Floodlights are installed so that revelers (and police) can see everything. There are event sponsors up the ying-yang. And there are concerts with artists closely vetted by the concert promotion company the city hires to maintain the event, the aim being to feature acts that obviously won’t turn Freakfest into another riotous atmosphere but won’t turn it into a soporific either.
The result: Yes, there were (and may still be) complaints that Halloween on State Street isn’t what it once was, in that it’s not a spontaneous event that students who just want a good time (but certainly don’t want a riot) would appreciate. To put it more succinctly: The Man threw his weight around and harshed everyone’s mellow. The flip side of that, however, is that, well, Halloween on State Street isn’t what it once was, as far as arrests and damage amounts are concerned anyway: Estimated arrest numbers at the event that were in the 300-500 range before The Man took over have gone down drastically, dropping to as low as 30 for the 2011 event. Of course, there are fewer attendees, as organizers cap attendance at no greater than 80,000 revelers.
Thanks to Freakfest, Halloween on State Street isn’t a trash-everything-in-sight event anymore, but it isn’t a brie-and-cabernet sauvignon kind of thing either. I mean, take a look at some of the past concert performers here and you’ll notice quite a few rock or hip-hop acts that are well-known now… but who have played Freakfest in the past. And there are more of the same this year, as the list of artists at this link can attest.
So, you’re probably wondering at this point, “Are you going to Freakfest, Allison?” Well, here’s the thing… I’ve never been a party person. Going up and down a crowded street on a chilly evening, with revelers all around me, has never been my thing (with or without the riots). Plus, although I’m sure it’d be cool to dress up as Allison and be among a lot of other costumed people (including, in all likelihood, several other crossdressers), I tend to do my dressing up in the light of day, and without a lot of people surrounding me. (And, as I noted in my previous post, I don’t tend to dress up on Halloween for the sake of the holiday). And on top of that, Freakfest, and the tradition of State Street on Halloween, has always been a young person’s thing, something the college kids would appreciate more than this old grand dame (and, lest one forgets, Madison is a college town).
So, while these images of Freakfests past prove that partygoers still have a good time even under strict supervision, and while I’m sure tomorrow night’s Freakfest will be awesome, I’ll just stay home and relax. But I won’t begrudge anyone who dresses up and heads down to State Street, $15 ticket in hand, and takes in the rockin’ atmosphere. If you’re in Madison and you’re attending Freakfest 2015, by all means have a good (and safe) time. I’m not a party girl, but a part of me will certainly be with you in spirit.