Food, culture, and tech writer. Author of Mad City Eats, the definitive guide to eating in Madison, Wisconsin. Published by The Onion, Isthmus, and Wired. Curator of the Madison Food groups for Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Here comes another lame Freakfest. Kids who don't know better or newcomers to Madison may not have a problem with the current sad setup, but that is perhaps because they've bought the revisionist history, or they simply aren't thinking about it very hard.
So think about it: do you actually like blinding Klieg lights and dozens of armed cops at parties? Can you think of other parties you attend that feature guys with Tasers, truncheons, and mace? Did you know that the police film every part of the event and monitor your actions remotely from a media station?
Freakfest is social engineering. The authorities have, amazingly, convinced people that this is a cool scene. That's quite a feat, when you look objectively at what it is: an open air temporary prison with the dubious merits of mid-tier acts like OK Go or Third Eye Blind there to distract you.
But it used to be epic!
A little history. Back in the late '70s and '80s, the Halloween party didn't have a name. It wasn't branded. There were no fences, there were no Klieg lights, and the cops were pretty chill about the whole thing, by necessity.
It was a dangerous affair -- you didn't go down to State Street if you weren't ready for heavy weirdness from devils and superheroes tripping balls, for cops that weren't actually cops, for people climbing on rooftops and throwing candy from on high (or in one memorable case, doughnuts).
Photo credit: UW Alumni
But there were no riots. And even as late as 2001, more than 60,000 people attended. Some estimates are as high as 120,000. There were 0 arrests.
It was a wild scene back in the '80s, and not for the faint of heart, but in wasn't until 2003 that frat boys started burning and smashing stuff. The mayor and other authorities were justified in trying to turn the party into something more controlled, and I respect that as a reaction to a situation that had gotten out of control. They had to do something, right? So they put fences up, began charging admission, and moved all those Klieg lights in.
Enter "Freakfest" with its lights, tickets, and cops, in 2006. 32,000 people attended.
In 2011 25,000 attended.
The real Halloween Madison tradition is dead.
The revisionist history around this event is the most troubling thing. The implementation of this boring version of the evening was never to protect citizens, who could obviously just avoid the whole thing. It was always about public relations for the mayor. (I concede that business owners in the area benefit from less chaos.) In the old days, everyone understood that State Street was a place to stay far away from if you weren't ready for a wild night, and most Madison residents simply stayed away. But for those who attended, it was an unforgettable party of the highest order.
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