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The Biggest College Party In California: A History of Isla Vista’s Halloween pt. 2



Although it began as a water balloon and mud fight between dorms in the early 60’s, Halloween in Isla Vista has entirely warped the traditional notion of “trick or treat.”

The weekend-long celebration drew attention in the late 70’s after two mini riots, swelled in the 80’s and gained national notoriety by the 90’s.

[media-credit id=13831 align="alignleft" width="250"][/media-credit]“‘It used to be a local event, strictly local,’” now-former Isla Vista Foot Patrol Lieutenant Ken Shemwell said of Halloween in Isla Vista in a 1992 Daily Nexus article. “‘[In the late 80’s] though, people from out of town came to party and trash the town, they didn’t really care. They were going to be here for one or two days and go home.’”

According to a 1993 Santa Barbara County Action Plan Report, people from Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada and all over California flocked to the area for the weekend-long celebration. Over 70 out-of-town schools were represented among the arrested and cited students.

‘For young people in the age group of 14-26 years, Isla Vista has become ‘the place to be’ on Halloween,” the report said.

“Big, Destructive and Dangerous”

The early 90’s saw a huge increase of Halloween attendees, accidents and arrests.

Michael Young, vice chancellor of Student Affairs, said he had heard rumors of the wild revelry when he started working at UCSB in 1990.

“Halloween celebrations had gotten way too big, destructive and dangerous,” he said.

According to the Office of Student Life administrative files, 853 of 25,000 attendees were arrested in 1991. Of the offenders, 80 percent were out-of-towners.

That same year, two people fell off the cliffs and two deputies were injured while on duty.

Despite growing concern from the community, Halloween of 1992 fell on a Saturday and no serious moves were made by the county or university to stop the event.

That year also had the second most arrests and citations in Halloween history — 1,090 out of 40,000 attendees, 95 percent of which were for alcohol violations. Again, two people fell off the cliffs, including a teenager who fell 65 feet from the 6600 block of Del Playa.

According to Santa Barbara Sherriff Summary Reports, Halloween 1992 cost the county approximately $100,000 in law enforcement overtime alone.

“It was a particularly bad Halloween that year [1992] and a decision was made, and made by the county, that they needed to, if not put an end to it, then certainly bring it down to more acceptable levels,” Young said.

What Caused The Change? The Infamous Playboy Article… That Wasn’t

A letter from Sherriff Jim Thomas to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in September 1993 explained why he thought the party boomed.

“In the mid 1980’s, the news media descended on Halloween in Isla Vista and made it into a nationwide media event. Major television newscasters and publications such as Playboy magazine did extensive coverage of the ‘party,’” the letter said. “Halloween evolved from a local holiday spirit event to the largest college party in California.”

A number of Daily Nexus articles in addition to reports in the La Cumbre yearbook and The Santa Barbara News-Press also attributed the spike in attendance to a mid-80s Playboy article that listed Isla Vista as a top spot to celebrate Halloween.

While researching for her 2006 dissertation on Halloween in I.V., then-UCSB Ph.D. student Adrienne MacIan said she encountered a number of interviewees who noted that the infamous magazine was instrumental in the weekend’s infamy.

“Everyone told me, ‘Things got really out of control after that Playboy article,’” MacIan said.

In a Daily Nexus poll issued last week, 52 percent said they thought Halloween in IV became a renowned event “In the late 80’s after Playboy ran an article on the event.”

In actuality, the article is nothing more than an urban myth. There is no evidence of its existence in any Playboy magazine from 1985 through 1992.

MacIan said all of the individuals who claimed they had seen the story later admitted they had, in fact, only seen a Xeroxed copy of a list. None had seen the actual article in the magazine.

According to MacIan, a student most likely perpetrated the rumor as a practical joke.

“There was a whole urban legend built up around this thing that nobody ever bothered to check,” MacIan said.

The Five Year Plan

“We, at times, had busloads of people from other campus come here, get trashed, trash the place…and then leave,” Young said. “…What I felt, and what certainly many people in the leadership community felt, was that we should not encourage people to be here and we should warn people that the county had made a set of judgments that it was no longer going to tolerate certain kinds of behaviors.”

The Santa Barbara Grand Jury issued an investigation and, subsequently, recommended that the Board of Supervisors take action to halt the event.

“…Many county government officials recognized that the Halloween ‘college party’ in Isla Vista was no longer an event that can be sanctioned, condoned, chaperoned or tolerated by this County,” a 1993 County Action Summary Report said.

Local law enforcement drafted the “Five Year Plan” to limit the number of revelers that flocked to I.V. the next Halloween weekend.

The procedure included a “no tolerance policy” in addition to a festival ordinance that forbade outdoor music from 6 p.m. onward during the weekend, the confiscation of any costume prop that could be used as a weapon, barricading five main entrances into Isla Vista, restricting parking on Del Playa and Sabado Tarde from Oct. 29 until Nov. 1 and implementing pre-Halloween regulations as early as the first week of September.

“Arrests were up, citations were down and Isla Vistans agreed it was a very different Halloween experience from years past…” Brett Chapman wrote in a 1993 Daily Nexus article. “Operational changes for 1993 included making custody arrests whenever possible, exacting higher fines for infractions and strictly enforcing a ban on live and amplified prerecorded music.”

Whether increased police presence or the fact that Halloween fell on a Sunday was more influential, the weekend saw only approximately 25,000 partiers. According to Office of Student Life files, 966 arrests were made, of which 93 percent were out-of-towners.

Some students reacted against the new regulations and there were rumors that an abandoned apartment complex on Del Playa would be the target of arson on Halloween weekend. However, overall, reports noted that “officers observed a compliance to the laws and ordinances that were being enforced.”

From 1993 onward, the numbers of attendees decreased and stayed low for almost a decade. In 1995, only 1,750 joined in the notorious street party, and both the administration and county officials started to think that the final nail was in the coffin for Halloween altogether.

“I think it actually had an effect for a couple of years,” Young said. “But then the activity and the numbers began to creep up again.”

[media-credit id=13831 align="alignleft" width="163"][/media-credit]Halloween On The Rise

Exactly 10 years after the “Five Year Plan” was first implemented, 40,000 flocked the streets to celebrate Halloween — the same number of people that were at the disastrous 1992 event that initially inspired the stricter enforcements.

According to Chancellor Henry Yang, the number of attendees varies greatly depending on what day Halloween falls on. Halloween 2003, for instance, fell on a Friday.

“The Halloween celebration in Isla Vista does change from year to year, partly in response to whether Halloween falls on a weekend,” Yang said in an e-mail.

Young speculated that other factors may have a hand in Halloween’s resurrection.

“Frankly, I think the internet and Facebook and the ability of people to communicate and for ideas to go viral and for whole communities of people to find out about something … it sort of catches on,” he said. “I think that there’s something to be said for modern social media. I think that the press also continues to dredge up things … up until recent years, people felt compelled to drive trucks up from Los Angeles to here to broadcast about Halloween. If the media makes noise about something, then people will to come and participate in it.”

The Office of Student Life also “made some noise” about Halloween when it sent out a university-wide e-mail entitled, “The party is over.” The message, which included the line “There is NO party,” attempted to deter students from celebrating Halloween.

However, Young admitted that perhaps the university’s anti-Halloween campaign might have, ironically, actually encouraged out-of-towners to join in the festivities.

“As I think about it, some people could see [the university’s past involvement] as counterproductive,” Young said. “People want to come to something that you say they shouldn’t come to … But my sense is that these kinds of activities have grown all over the country … there’s something in our culture that, at this time, makes these kinds of events appealing for young people.”

In 2004 the university took a new approach to controlling Halloween with the ‘Keep it Safe, Keep it Local” campaign. Instead of trying to deter students altogether, administrators encouraged students to celebrate Halloween without outsiders.

Last year, IVFP records say that there were 25,000 Halloween attendees, a modest number for IV. However, 2009 did set a record with 1,013 arrests and citations — the third most arrests in Halloween history.

Additionally, it was estimated in the Daily Nexus that Halloween 2009 was going to cost the county and sate approximately $1 million.

That year, stricter parking regulations and a no-visitor policy in the dormitories were enforced.

In 2004, Maxim deemed IV one of the top places in the nation to celebrate Halloween — finally bringing the Playboy myth to fruition.

Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr said, while running for her current position in 2008, she asked if she could walk along with members of the IVFP for Halloween.

“I wanted to see it for myself,” she said. “…I actually thought that, despite the crowd, everything seemed to be handled as well as possible.”

Aside from several incidents of students jumping off roofs, Farr said that there “seemed to be a good working relationship between the Foot Patrol and the students.”

Despite encouragement from Associated Students, the university administration and the county to keep the event local, out-of-towners still flock to the 2.1 square mile beach town every year to wander the streets.

“…Everyone knows that Santa Barbara is the ultimate party spot for Halloween,” Levi Burridge, a 19-year old Fairfield resident, said in the Daily Nexus. “…This place is where I know we can all get down and party it up with everyone in Santa Barbara.”

CHECK OUT TOMORROW’S NEXUS FOR PART THREE OF THE SERIES: 2010

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2 Responses to The Biggest College Party In California: A History of Isla Vista’s Halloween pt. 2

  1. The Chemist Reply

    October 26, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I wonder if there is a way to charge everyone from outside of SB county a $20 ‘asshole tax’ to pay for the mess. I like to party, but I prefer if no one gets raped, nothing gets vandalized and no garbage gets on the beach. So as long as people from out of town think IV is a cross between Las Vegas and Ciudad Juarez, there will be problems.

    • ian campbell Reply

      November 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm

      this is localism at its best. do you think that the local IV crowds don’t do any of those things? i lived in IV from ’71 to 76 and both my sons are there now. go out early friday sat. and sun. any weekend and see how much garbage is around. My sons have had stuff stolen right out of their apts. during parties. don’t blame the “out of towners” blame the locals who don’t really care about IV. it is just one stop along their route Trash it and leave it what the heck i graduate in June anyway attitude

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