Halloween in Isla Vista is part Mardi Gras, part riot and part police state, with wholesome family fun lurking on the edges, trying to look brave.

Even in Isla Vista, children dressed in store-bought and homemade costumes look adorable in exchange for candy on a night where magic almost seems to live in their dimples. Even in Isla Vista, there’s a carnival, a block party and a haunted forest fit for all ages.

It’s boring as all hell.


Cute dimples and peeled-grape “zombie eyeballs” cannot compete with eight guys in one giant penis costume, with the guy in the tip spraying blasts from a fire extinguisher as the phallus thrusts its way through the crowd. Even if you – high-minded and all-American you – prefer sweet-voiced urchins to troops of near-naked nymphets traipsing through the streets in costumes ranging from bimbo angel to strumpet soldier, the rest of the world is more interested in those nipples pointed heavenward in the fall chill.

That’s why the rest of the world comes here to party and make an ass of itself.

Mardi Gras West

It’s not true to say that I.V. has turned into Sodom by the Sea every year on Oct. 31. The dinosaurs, as far as we know, didn’t go in for Triassic trick-or-treats, the woolly mammoths didn’t wooly bully, the Chumash didn’t use a Roman calendar and the Marines weren’t allowed to raise hell on their own base. Our Halloween history begins in 1978 when revelers pelted the police with rocks and bottles. The police called it a “mini-riot” and arrested 18 people.

Ah, I.V. – those were the days.

Isla Vista’s Halloween glory years were supposedly from 1978-86, when it was a big, stinking, drinking party, sure, but everyone knew each other, the costumes were the best ever and the antics were wild but not too wild. So say the old-timers, who were, well, not old then. In those days the sky was probably bluer, the people more virtuous, the beer sweeter, the drugs harmless and the reckless behavior merely youthful hijinks.

Even the cops remember ’78-86 fondly. In 1999, the Nexus interviewed Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Sgt. Ken Reinstadler (who at that point had been working in I.V. for 21 years) and he laughed as he remembered the costumes in the 1980s and revelers’ relations with the police.

“[T]here was this guy in a gorilla suit hanging around and chumming up to the officers, trying to get his picture taken with them,” Reinstadler said. “Well at this time, there was no problem with the officers having their pictures taken, so when the deputies were looking forward and smiling to have their picture taken with this guy, he would pull out this large, grotesque object from his groin area and make lewd gestures toward the officers for the camera.”

There were other memorable costumes as well, including a Rambo-Reagan hybrid that its owner dubbed “Ronbo,” a two-person “69” costume and, of course, the eight-man penis.

In 1986, the Sheriff’s Dept. estimated 30,000 people – compared to Isla Vista’s regular school-year population of 20,000 – spent Halloween in I.V.

The Bad Old Days

In 1987, the Sheriff’s Dept. estimated that 35,000 people partied in our little town. One old-timer who occasionally writes columns for the Nexus as a “longtime Isla Vista resident” says 60,000 people showed up – which would have put that weekend’s population density at about seven and a half people per square foot – and it was the best party of his life. These numbers are just guesses and the only sure way to judge a crowd at an Isla Vista Halloween is purely subjective: How long it takes to walk from one end of Del Playa Drive to another and what gets thrown at you (award extra points for bottles and rocks).

One number for the ’87Halloween that no one disputes is the number of arrests: 1,096.

A 1991 Playboy article declared Halloween in Isla Vista to be one of the best parties in America. The Playboy nod kept I.V. well stocked with partying tourists or, as they’re more commonly called in police logs, “suspects.” In 1992, the cops estimated 40,000-plus partiers and another 1,000-plus arrests.

“We had every type of assault imaginable,” Reinstadler said in 1999, “from violent assaults and fighting, to sexual assaults, girls getting grabbed and pinched.

“One year we had over 130 officers working. You want to keep everyone in line, but with these numbers of people, it’s very difficult. I mean, you can’t shoot these people and you can’t take them on. I’ve been in situations in years past when people start pelting us with bottles and rocks and it gets so bad that we think, ‘let’s retreat,’ and you can’t let that happen because then it would be sheer anarchy.”

The Sheriff’s Dept. is no fan of anarchy and in 1993 it enacted an unfortunately Soviet-sounding “Five-Year Plan” to curb Isla Vista’s rowdy Halloween. The plan was very simple: Instead of anything goes, nothing goes. Under a “no-tolerance police,” Isla Vista Foot Patrol officers, no matter how tolerant they personally might feel, had to cite or arrest anyone breaking the law.

UCSB, ever worried about its students and public relations disasters, banned visitors in the residence halls over Halloween weekend and many apartment leases also forbid guests around the Oct. 31.

The crackdown worked. In 1994, police arrested 184 people and by 1997 they only had to arrest 13 people. (The numbers have climbed slightly – the police arrested 123 people during Halloween weekend 2001.)

Thanks to this success, the Sheriff’s Dept. “no-tolerance policy” lives on, though it stopped being called the “Five-Year Plan” after about its ninth year.

These Days

Halloween isn’t what it used to be; there hasn’t been a riot or even a “mini-riot” in years. The Sheriff’s Dept.’s best guess for the number of merrymakers last year is around 15,000.

People still go out looking like bongs, penises and, were it any other night, prostitutes. People still drink more alcohol than the Surgeon General recommends. It’s still the biggest party in town and probably always will be.

But things are a little different. Chancellor Henry Yang strolls down Del Playa and stops in at parties (people compliment him on his costume) and kids – not the overgrown drunk kind, but real, honest-to-goodness kids – come out to play.

It may be boring next to gigantic genitals, but the laughter of children is nice to hear in Isla Vista.