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Thursday, July 10, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Partly Cloudy
The Paper


Wild things
Madison won't easily bottle up Halloween's demons

Even students who only read about the State Street riots in the next day's newspaper must feel a sense of their own collective strength.
Even students who only read about the State Street riots in the next day's newspaper must feel a sense of their own collective strength.
Credit:Christopher Guess
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It was, by all accounts, a moment to remember, when everything suddenly turned and headed in the other direction. The crowd, what was left of it, had gone sour, chanting "We want tear gas" and "I smell bacon," the latter a reference to the police, who were out in force, many on horseback. It was the witching hour, just before 2 a.m., when Halloween is supposed to be over but, for some people, has just begun. They were jumping up and down, waiting for the tipping point to arrive.

"Olé!" they shouted. "Olé! Olé!" - a trigger mechanism, meant to provoke a response. It had arrived, the moment we'd all been waiting for, when the 2006 installment of Madison's annual State Street Halloween celebration would go from revelry to devilry, treat to trick.

Then something beautiful happened, a beau geste. When Joe Volz, a police officer brought over from Waukesha County to beef up the Madison Police Department's ranks, rode his horse onto State Street, it didn't seem like a night for beau gestes. Pumpkins were flying through the air. People were screaming. But when someone threw one of those beaded necklaces that Mardi Gras is known for and it caught on the toe of Volz's boot, he decided to turn swords into plowshares. With the crowd chanting "Put 'em on! Put 'em on!" he reached down, grabbed the beads and slung them around his neck.

And just like that, Altamont turned back into Woodstock Nation. People cheered. Some even came over and petted the horses. "That's what changed Halloween," a UW freshman later told The Capital Times. "Those officers on horses were really nice."

Gee, if we'd only thought of that before, we might have saved ourselves a lot of grief over the last several years, as the Halloween bash, a magnet for party animals all over the Midwest, kept transforming itself from a riotous good time into...well, into a riot. (Must-have T-shirt for outside agitators: "I got maced in Madison.")

It was beginning to look like there was no way to put the brakes on this runaway event, which Mayor Dave Cieslewicz once described as "a huge public drunk." But last year the city may finally have found a way to slow it down. By fencing off State Street and charging admission, it engaged in some classic crowd control. Bands were brought in to soothe the savage beast, and the thing was given a name: Freakfest.

On paper, it seemed to work. Only 35,000 Halloweeners showed up, less than half the turnout of previous years. Arrests were way down. Virtually no property was destroyed. And the mayor must have had to bite his tongue the next day to keep from gloating. Happy days were here again.

Or were they? Was last year a fluke? That's the question that hovers over this year's Oct. 27 celebration as the city tries to make it two in a row. More bands are being brought in. And Mountain Dew has signed on as a corporate sponsor. The goal is to turn Freakfest into a wholesome community get-together. But is that really what we want? And even it if is, can the ancient spirit of Hallow's Eve be tamed that easily?

The origins of Halloween are lost in the murky mists of time, but it's been traced to the Celtic druids, who held a yearly festival in the fall called Samhain that observed the transformation from summer to winter, lightness to dark, ripeness to rot.

Exactly how they marked the occasion is anybody's guess. It's doubtful they handed out bags of Mini Snickers. On the other hand, they may have indulged in human sacrifice, and death would always play a role in this morbid holiday. Borrowings from Christian festivals like All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day would infuse it with a sense of the supernatural - the spirits of the dead floating among us. Hence, the séances and divinations that were still part of Halloween as recently as a hundred years ago. Young women would use nuts or apples to reveal the names of their future husbands.

Other influences were at work as what we came to call Halloween made its way to America, brought over by Irish and Scottish immigrants. England's Guy Fawkes Day, which has always overshadowed Halloween in that country, lent a sense of prankishness, its preferred method of celebrating Fawkes' ill-fated attempt to blow up Parliament. And there's always been a strong element of the carnivalesque about Halloween - the masks, the costumes, the alcohol consumption, the lowering of inhibitions and the blurring of identities. The Roman Saturnalia, which was still going strong when Goethe wrote about it in the early-1800s, turned the world topsy-turvy. So does Halloween.

And it does so, in part, by raising a little hell. "It was customary to root up vegetables from backyard gardens, disfigure jack-o'-lanterns on front steps or porches, unhinge gates and shutters, tip over outhouses, pull down signs and fences, and even tear up the wooden boarded sidewalks," Nicholas Rogers wrote in his 2002 book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Rogers was describing the 19th century, when he says the holiday took firm root in this country. And he claims that, until the end of the century, police tended to look the other way, with perhaps the hint of a smile on their faces. "Youthful pranks were tolerated," he writes, "provided they did not inflict too much damage to property or endanger life."

Then again, how much damage is too much damage? Is soaping windows okay? What about throwing rocks through windows?

There's always been this tension between license and restriction, expression and repression, when it comes to Halloween. That's a major part of what the holiday's about. But things have definitely gotten out of hand on more than one occasion. When the Chicago World's Fair of 1934 made the mistake of choosing Oct. 31 as its closing night, it shouldn't have been surprised to be joined by 300,000 revelers who, according to one newspaper account, "drank everything in sight except Lake Michigan," then declared the entire fairground one giant souvenir. Elsewhere, Toronto was the site of a major Halloween riot in 1945, when thousands of high school kids lit bonfires, threw rocks at police, barricaded the streets and finally had to be dispersed by fire hose.

Substitute tear gas and you could be standing on State Street 60 years later.

All along, efforts have been made to channel this explosive energy into acceptable outlets - carnivals and street fairs designed to cut down on the vandalism. Rogers mentions the "Neewollah" celebration in Independence, Kan., which was an attempt to reverse ("Neewollah" is "Halloween" spelled backwards) the holiday's rowdier trends with a parade, a musical comedy and the crowning of a Neewollah Queen. In the 1920s, Los Angeles started holding city-organized Halloween carnivals to, in the words of The Los Angeles Times, "transform the annual celebration from a night of vandalism to one of fun for all." (Sound familiar?)

But perhaps nothing has had a greater effect on turning this dark and stormy night into a festival of sweetness and light than the introduction, in the late-1930s, of trick-or-treating.

Historically, there'd long been a tit-for-tat dimension to Halloween, where revelers, in exchange for being invited into people's homes and served something tasty, would pass over those houses later in the evening, when the bad moon was on the rise. But the institutionalization of trick-or-treating, which gained strength throughout the 1950s, was a more or less deliberate attempt to sever the connection between hospitality and vandalism. Basically, kids were bought off with candy. (Adults can be so devious.) And the holiday started to take on a more commercialized flavor, with costumes as likely to be store-bought as homemade. The candy was now manufactured as well, and to collect it was to engage in America's favorite pastime: consumerism.

"If trick-or-treating had previously been a localized hit-or-miss phenomenon," David Skal wrote in his 2002 book Death Makes a Holiday, "it was now a national duty."

By 1975, things had gotten so well-behaved that Margaret Mead, America's preeminent anthropologist, penned an article for Redbook magazine called "Halloween: Where Has All the Mischief Gone?" Mead, who'd made her reputation with 1928's Coming of Age in Samoa, said she missed the Halloween of her own childhood, when you would bang a sack of broken glass against the wall of someone's house to make it sound like you'd broken a window. "It was the one night of the year when the child's world and the adult's world confronted each other," she wrote, "and the children were granted license to take mild revenge on adults."

In the 1960s, though, when I was on the frontlines of the child-adult confrontation, it was all about the candy. Yes, I dutifully said "Trick or treat?" when someone answered the door, but if they'd chosen "trick," I wouldn't have known quite what they were talking about.

But that would change not long after Mead took her stroll down Memory Lane. Halloween was about to turn ugly again. First, there were all the rumors about food-tampering - razor blades in apples, etc. - an urban legend that cheated a lot of kids out of a lot of candy. (A 1985 poll indicated that only 60% of all parents with children under 5 were planning on taking them trick-or-treating that year.)

And then there was Devil's Night, an annual lighting of the torches that threatened to reduce Detroit to a pile of ashes. In 1983, as many as 1,000 fires were set, another 840 in 1984. And although there were any number of reasonable explanations for why the good citizens of Detroit would let their city "burn, baby, burn," it surely wasn't a coincidence that they chose the nights surrounding Halloween, when the witches' cauldrons were already boiling over with resentment.

Interestingly enough, the '70s and '80s also saw the rise of Halloween as a carnivalesque costume party akin to Mardi Gras. In such major urban areas as New York City's Greenwich Village and San Francisco's Castro district, the gay communities organized parades that doubled as Dionysian rites of exhibitionism and voyeurism. Cross-dressing was practically a requirement, and the crowds just grew and grew. For gays, Halloween became something like the Fourth of July, only more fabulous - a time to declare their independence, their sense of community, their right to convene in a public place and let their freak flags fly.

But heterosexuals were getting in on the act as well, in bars, discos, offices, not to mention on the street. Trailing New Year's Eve by a fake nose, Halloween is now the second biggest party of the year, Rio of the North. In that sense, what goes on in Madison isn't so different from what goes on elsewhere in the country. And anyone who thinks that vandalism and taunting the police are recent phenomena should look through newspaper accounts of the Halloween street parties of the late '70s.

But what exactly are these rioters up to? What are they trying to say, if anything? Are they just a bunch of drunks defending the UW's title as the Number One Party School in America? Or is this a case of a few bad apples spoiling the fun for everyone else, inciting the mob to violence when, given the choice, it would gladly go over and pet the horsies instead? Whatever it is, the State Street riots must seem like a parody of campus unrest to those who participated in the antiwar protests of the '60s and '70s, Madison having been a hotbed of political activism.

Don't these kids know there's a war going on?

I suspect they do. And I suspect that if you asked them, late on Halloween night, what they were rebelling against, they'd answer the same way Marlon Brando's Johnny Stabler, the original juvenile delinquent, did in The Wild One: "What've you got?" To be a student at a major public university these days is to be caught in a bureaucratic machine that spits out degrees, like so many sausage links. Anonymity breeds anomie breeds acts of rebellion.

Even those students who only read about the State Street riots in the next day's newspaper must feel a sense of their own collective strength. They could end the war in Iraq if they set their minds to it, or if the Bush administration was ever foolish enough to institute a draft. The thing is, there aren't too many opportunities for them to express their solidarity - sporting events, mostly, which don't exactly threaten the existing order.

In her 2006 book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the carnivalization of sports in contemporary American life. Before World War I, there wasn't much pageantry involved in watching a game. Then military bands got added. And people started singing the national anthem. And politicians gave speeches.

Today, of course, fans don't just watch the show, they're part of the show - singing, dancing, often in unison, their faces painted, their bodies decked out in team-color "costumes." When network television decided that sporting events were ready for prime time, back in the '70s, the audience split in two, Ehrenreich says. Older fans stayed at home to enjoy "the best seat in the house" while younger fans stuck around for the spectacle. The home team might not win the game, but "We will, we will rock you."

Anyone who's ever participated in "The Wave" knows the joy that can surge through one's body when it's joined together with thousands of other bodies in a mass demonstration of people power. And Ehrenreich's book traces the history of such moments, from ancient times to the present.

What she calls ecstatic rituals, which can mean anything from fertility rites to a rock concert, have been around since before the dawn of recorded history, and they've often been contested, if not downright condemned. Rome went after the cult of Dionysus like it was a barbarian horde, which it was, in a way. And the Roman Catholic Church picked up where Rome left off, followed by the Calvinists and the Puritans and - oh, I don't know - the Women's Christian Temperance Union. When the Western colonial powers got a good look at the native populations' ritual practices during the Age of Conquest, they recoiled in horror.

Then again, who likes peering into the Heart of Darkness? Ecstatic rituals can look mighty strange to those not participating in them - all that chanting and prancing about. But Ehrenreich stresses the spiritual value of losing oneself in a group. It strengthens societal bonds, even when the whole point of the ritual is to temporarily loosen them. Authority figures tend to frown upon public displays of collective joy - too subversive.

And yet, no matter how much force is applied to hold those displays in check, they tend to wriggle free. Ehrenreich points to that altered state of consciousness known as "the '60s," when sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll seemed to unite an entire generation in communal ecstasy. Yes, it was largely a myth, but it was a powerful myth. And as cultural touchstones go, I'll take "Let's Get Together" over Bowling Alone.

For today's youth, communal ecstasy is largely vicarious or virtual. On the Web, social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook provide a sense of connection but not a sense of community. Everything's too fragmented, each of them sealed off in their very own personal iPod.

Ehrenreich wonders whether it's even possible for people to get together, given the atomization of modern life. "Urbanization and the rise of a competitive, market-based economy favored a more anxious and isolated sort of person," she writes, "potentially both prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures." She has a point. I, for one, tend to avoid communal pleasures like the plague. It's privacy I'm after, the chance to sit alone, far from the madding crowd, and contemplate how sad it is that I never want to leave the house anymore.

But I'm middle-aged. I'm supposed to be a homebody. Kids aren't. On Saturday night, they're all dressed up with, alas, nowhere much to go. So it doesn't surprise me that they've latched on to Halloween as the one night out of the year when, instead of playing by society's rules, they make society play by theirs.

And there are rules, largely unspoken ones. I've always been amazed at how ritualistically the Halloween celebration on State Street devolves into seeming chaos. It's almost like there's a script, with everyone taking their assigned roles. And perhaps the best way to view the whole phenomenon is as a massive piece of street theater, something between a happening and performance art, with an ample dose of what the revolutionary French theorist Antonin Artaud used to call "the theater of cruelty."

Artaud thought plays should wake you up, startle you, even shock you. And he was willing to do just about whatever it took to get the job done. The point was to change your life, not just sell you another secondhand experience. "Artaud's theater, in short, is designed to have the function of a Dionysian revel, a Bacchanal, a sacrificial rite," Robert Brustein wrote in his 1962 book The Theatre of Revolt, "relieving the spectator of all the wildness, fierceness and joy which civilization has made him repress."

But why keep all that wildness, fierceness and joy pent up in a playhouse? Why not take to the streets? Happenings, which flourished during the '60s, weren't all that wild and fierce, but they did eliminate the fourth wall as well as the other three. And in doing so they blurred the boundary between art and life, illusion and reality, performer and audience.

That's what I like most about the Halloween celebrations, the sense that everybody is both watching and being watched, playing and being played upon. The event is unpredictable, up for grabs. And so is the holiday itself. It keeps mutating, whereas the other major holidays have reached a kind of stasis. They've been domesticated - literally, in the case of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are largely homebound.

Will the city succeed in domesticating Halloween as well? Can we fence it in, turn it into the fall version of Summerfest? Possibly. And don't get me wrong, I think anyone who commits an act of vandalism should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But I also think that in trying to rein this thing in, we may be cutting ourselves off from something that's woven deep into the threads of our psyches, the need to act out, act up and act silly with those who have joined us during this brief moment in time.

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