“The Biggest College Party in California”: A History of Isla Vista’s Halloween



For decades, students have donned costumes and flocked the streets among thousands of out-of-town visitors to wander from party to party and witness the flood of pedestrians, police and paramedics on Halloween weekend.

“People think of [Isla Vista and Halloween] as something that’s been around since the beginning of time,” Adrienne MacIan, a UCSB Ph.D. student who wrote her 2006 dissertation on Halloween in Isla Vista, said.

Only 23 percent of those polled on the Daily Nexus website correctly answered the question “When do you think Halloween in IV became a renowned event?” with “In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.” Despite the perception of Halloween as a long-standing tradition, it was not always similar to the wild event of the past three decades.

The Predecessors

“[Isla Vista as we know it] wasn’t there until the University moved out there and [Halloween] didn’t become what it was today until the late ‘60s,” MacIan said.

UC Santa Barbara was not located at its current site until 1954 and, in fact, the first huge Halloween bash connected to a UC campus was not at UCSB, but instead at UC Berkeley.

Cal held an annual “All Cal” event on Halloween weekend. According to a 1954 article by El Gaucho’s Christy Lord, students from around the state flocked to the event, which included football games between UC teams and a massive bonfire at the Cal Greek Amphitheatre.

However, despite its popularity among students, references to “All Cal” in El Gaucho ended by the mid-‘60s.

UCSB’s own predecessor to Halloween was a Homecoming celebration in the fall, which, according to MacIan, included the crowning of a Homecoming Queen and a bonfire rally. The event waned after moving the parade location from State Street in downtown Santa Barbara to Isla Vista in 1968, and the event ended entirely when the football team was disbanded in 1971 due to budget cuts.

The First of Halloween

The initial signs of mayhem were reported in 1962 when, according to a 1965 El Gaucho article, “there was a … disturbance between two dormitory living groups involving water balloons and mud-clot throwing.”

Riotous conduct was reported in 1963 as well.

“Students entered a women’s residence hall, knocked down the housemother and poured through the building,’” Captain Willis A. Lowe said in the article. “Students also gathered in groups of hundreds on street corners.”

In Isla Vista: A Citizen’s History, Carmen Lodise said the first of the more modern Halloween parties also began to spring up around that time.

“Starting sometime in the 1960s, locals began dressing up and attending keg parties along Del Playa Drive,” he said.

However, according to MacIan, Halloween reports are strangely absent from the Nexus and other Santa Barbara community papers from 1966 until the late ‘70s — a testament that the celebration was not a news-worthy event until 1978.

“Nineteen-seventy has been the most startlingly controversial year in UCSB history,” said the La Cumbre yearbook that year. With the dawn of the 1970s came escalating political tension at the university.

“Del Playa Becomes a Halloween Riot.”

The infamous burning of the Isla Vista Bank of America building in February 1970 added to the general sense of unrest felt across the nation.

In a 1988 interview printed in the Isla Vista Free Press, then-sociology professor Dick Flacks discussed the political climate.

“What happened [in I.V.] was that there was some kind of mass release from that need to suppress the rebellion,” he said. “When thousands of people are marching in defiance of authority, suddenly you become ‘authorized’ to reel against that authority, to express those buried feelings. And, there was an emotional, psychological release in expressing them, especially with a whole lot of other people expressing them, too.”

The Isla Vista Foot Patrol was created in the fall of 1970 in response to the revolutionary behavior in the area.

“The Foot Patrol was designed as a solution to the specific problems Isla Vista was experiencing in the wake of the 1970 civil disturbances — problems, some said, that were directly associated with the lack of community relations between police and students,” Andrew Shulman wrote in a 1988 issue of the Isla Vista Free Press.

Tension mounted until 1978, when students recognized Halloween as an opportunity to strike out against authority.

On October 30, the Daily Nexus’ front page headline read “Del Playa Party Becomes a Halloween Riot.” According to the article, a party of approximately 600 revelers turned violent when two officers on bicycles were pelted with bottles from a balcony and subsequently entered the residence. Of the 18 arrested, seven were UCSB students.

Amidst the confusion, there were scattered reports of police brutality. A Nexus reporter noted that she allegedly saw an officer grab a female passenger out of a vehicle by her hair before slamming her against a cop car.

The next year, locals seized another chance for rebellion.

The Nexus’ headline on October 31, 1979 read, “Calm Halloween Reported to IVCC,” but, in reality, a riot of an entirely different nature broke out. Unlike the 1978 riot, which began spontaneously, posters announcing a staged riot were distributed throughout SBCC and local high schools. According to MacIan, the perpetrators of the riot that transpired consisted of mostly high school students, copy-cats of the year before.

Due to the obvious placement of the posters, police were able to plan for the events and the riot was quickly shut down.

“The Golden Years:” 1980-1985

“It wasn’t until the ‘80s that Isla Vista became a destination for Halloween. The reason for it is still a mystery,” MacIan said. “Nobody can tell for sure why going to Isla Vista for Halloween became so popular, except for those [1978 and ‘79] riots … Rumor of the riots spread and people wanted to see what was going on there.”

In November of 1980, the Nexus’ Jonathan Alburger wrote, “Unlike the ‘mini riots’ which marked the last two years of celebration in the Del Playa area, Friday’s procession of costumed students handled themselves without any major incident…”

From 1980 onward, the number of attendees began steadily increasing by approximately 1,000 attendees every year until 1985 — when the number spiked to 10,000.

Michelle Morgante, who attended UCSB from 1985 to 1991 and worked as a Nexus news editor, said her Halloween weekends were always positive, despite the growing crowds.

“It was a blast and I lived on D.P. for three years, so I had a great location for the whole scene,” she said. “We had live bands playing everywhere and keg parties were very common. Everyone just kind of wandered the streets with their plastic cup listening to great music.”

“All Hell Broke Loose in 1986…”

The 1986 Halloween weekend marked the first time that the open container ordinance was enforced, which prohibited anyone from carrying open alcohol in public.

“You had to carry your cup upside down when you were walking in the street … People learned how to deal with it,” Morgante said.

Despite the new restriction, that year saw a record-breaking number of attendees. “All hell broke loose in 1986 when over 30,000 people showed up, literally thousands arriving in a fleet of chartered busses from San Diego State University,” Lodise wrote. “The cops busted over 1,000 persons that weekend, nearly three-fourths from SDSU.”

With the rise in Halloween attendees, came a rise in criminal activity.

“A female UCSB student who thought she had been hit by flying rocks went three days with a bullet in her chest before discovering that she had been shot,” according to an Office of Student Life administrative file.

That same year, a 26 year-old male sustained multiple stab wounds to the chest and two others fell off the bluffs.

Due to the unprecedented attendance in 1986, the university recognized a need to reduce the number of out-of-towners. In 1987, UC officials launched the first “Don’t Come to I.V.” campaign at other California campuses.

The county also leapt into action by commissioning traffic control to restrict the volume of out-of-towners. Cars rushed to the area on Friday but, by 8 p.m., the area was closed to incoming traffic and students were directed to park on campus or Hollister Road.

Regardless, Nexus and A.S. records show that 35,000 still managed to find their way onto the streets. A total of 1,096 arrests were made — the largest ever for any Halloween weekend in Isla Vista.

The Office of the Vice Chancellor announced in late October of 1989 that the CHP and Sheriff ’s Department would establish points on a number of main access points to restrict access to Isla Vista residents.

These new regulations marked the beginning of a chain of restrictions aimed to curb Halloween, culminating in the 1993 “Five Year Plan,” which has lasted for almost two decades.

CHECK OUT TOMORROW’S NEXUS FOR PART TWO OF THE SERIES: 1990-2009

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7 Responses to “The Biggest College Party in California”: A History of Isla Vista’s Halloween

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  2. Ullrich F. Reply

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  3. andrew Reply

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  6. Istvan Szabo Reply

    October 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm

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    • amy rocklin Reply

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