A Historical Look at SIU: When Halloween was Official

A Historical Look at SIU: When Halloween was Official

Halloween in Carbondale has a well-deserved reputation of almost mythical proportion. From car flipping and beer tossing to keggers and John Candy, this Halloween we look back at the holiday’s long tradition at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIU-C) and the parties that started it all.

The Halloween festivities SIU-C students know and love today largely got their start in the early 1970’s. The October 31, 1975 edition of the Daily Egyptian (DE) boasts a few Halloween themed advertisements, including an invitation from the Student Government Activities Council to a “Funky Halloween Costume Contest,” but most of its pages are covered in unrelated stories.

The November 4 edition of the DE from the same year reports that a crowd of 700 costumed party goers shut down traffic on Illinois Avenue from Friday night until 2 a.m. The article said no arrests were made but notes several incidents of minor property damage and theft were reported over the weekend.

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As the 1970’s drew to a close, SIU-C’s student population increased to 23,236 students, and Halloween grew with it. Student government remained involved, with the Oct. 29, 1980 issue of the DE advertising a Student Senate funded Halloween concert, designed to draw students away from Illinois Avenue.

Further articles make it clear that all attempts to structure the free-spirited nature of the party largely ended in failure.

“It was just crazy,” said SIU-C alumnus John Timmerman, who attended the ‘79 party. “There was a group of people dressed as an Amtrak train, maybe eight or ten people. There were people dressed as Hanes underwear […] everybody was having a good time, and everybody was festive and wanting to dress up.”

The DE’s coverage of Halloween speaks to the event’s growing popularity. Ads littered the pages leading up to October 31, broken up by police advisories urging caution. Four firemen, 30 Carbondale police, 20 SIU-C police, and a number of State Police were reportedly watching over the event in 1980. 

The DE reported an attendance of well-over 10,000 people with only 41 arrests recorded, down from the reported 100 arrests made in 1978.

“[A]s soon as students started to crowd the streets, the barricades came down and […] the cops shut down the streets for six or seven blocks,” said Timmerman of the parties. “The police were fairly preventative. They didn’t want stupid stuff to happen. Lo and behold, some person left their Volkswagen there, and they [students] flipped it end over end about 20, 25 times down the street.”

The 1980 Halloween edition of the Daily Egyptian notes, “Police also had to deal with a group of about 18 men,” who were caught rolling a Volkswagen Beetle around. The article concludes police were able to work with the men to roll the car over to a parking lot by the train tracks, out of the way of the crowd.

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Legendary comedian John Candy filmed the 1980 Halloween festivities for a NBC special named “Roadshow” while on hiatus from Saturday Night Live. In the video, viewers can see the vast crowds of makeup-covered revellers, replete with the odd Santa Claus and Michael Jackson.

In between accepting drinks offered by the friendly crowd, Candy interviewed then-SIU-C Professor Harold Grosowski, who spoke highly of the event’s attendants. 

“That same weird behavior you see out there, that’s the student who you’ll then see in the classroom doing some very innovative work in whatever department he or she might be in,” Grosowski said. In these early years, the holiday was considered both an economic stimulus for the town and a good-natured way to blow off steam.

By 1985 opinion regarding the Halloween bacchanal had changed for the worse. Attendance was now recorded in the tens of thousands, and Halloween ads for costumes and events covered two and even three pages of the DE. They ran alongside multiple complaint columns, rosters of injuries in the dozens, and reports of property damage in the thousands of dollars.

The sexual assault of a 17 year old girl in 1981 marked an extreme case in a yearly cycle of increasingly out-of-control behavior.

In response SIU-C began banning alcohol sales during the run-up to the event, law enforcement presence was greatly increased and university preparations were no longer ad-hoc. 

Events were hosted by SIU Housing, Student Council and other organizations in an attempt to contain the affair, to little effect. Despite this, the University continued to assure students that it would allow Halloween festivities to occur.

“I think it got out of hand more,” said Timmerman of the parties he attended in the early 1980s.  “It became much more of a drunken party. People became a little bit more… I don’t want to say violent, but more problems were caused.”

City of Carbondale officials made the decision to further cut back Halloween celebrations in 1988 with the cooperation of University administrators. 

A panel made up of University faculty, community members, and students cooperated on recommending regulations to a Presidential/Mayoral Task Force on Halloween.

Alcohol sales were completely banned in the city for the week, including kegs and other goods. Thousands of students living in the University dorms were sent home for a mandatory five-day break. 

“We want to get to the point where we’re not concerned about Halloween,” said then-City Manager Jeff Doehrety.

Officials felt the rules didn’t do enough to tone down the atmosphere, and by the mid-1990’s the tradition had been officially axed. 

Some SIU-C students had a hard time letting go. 

In 1995 a confrontation between 500 bar patrons and city police resulted in 14 arrests, eleven of which were of SIU students. The incident climaxed with the throwing of “MacGuyver bombs,” despite the many restrictions in place to prevent the destruction that occurred the previous year, when multiple business windows were shattered, cars were torched and participants were maced.

Determined party-goers would continue to clash with police yearly, well after the party was past its prime.

In the mid-2000’s, the university’s mandated 5-day break was circumvented by students who gathered to party the week before the break began, often in secret, invite-only house parties to avoid attracting attention. 

Thus, the tradition of “Unofficial” Halloween that SIU-C students know and love today was born. 

University and Carbondale officials have allowed the new tradition to continue to grow, often with tacit agreement between authorities and party hosts; so long as the party stays calm, the police tend to stay out of the way. In 2013, the ban on Halloween was officially lifted.

“I think it was really an evolution in the 5-6 years I was there,” Timmerman said. “I think by the end it was just, let’s have a party and who cares about dressing up. The group of people I hung around with, though, we still dressed.”

Timmerman laughed as he recalled one of his last parties at SIU-C. 

“My wife and I went as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, except that I was Scarlett and she was Rhett,”” Timmerman said. “It was hard to fit into a dress, but I did. A big antebellum dress hoop dress. She actually wore the tuxedo we got married in.”

 Consulting reporter Ryan Jurich can be reached at [email protected]. To stay up to date with all your Southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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