Beneath the pimp costumes and “skankified” Disney character outfits often donned by Isla Vista Halloween revelers, a UCSB Ph.D candidate has found student partiers seeking more than just free beer and easy sex on the annual celebration’s packed streets – although free booze and sexual gratification still fit into the picture.
Graduate student Adrienne MacIain, in pursuit of a doctorate in dramatic arts, has taken to researching the broader cultural stimuli that fuel Halloween in Isla Vista for her dissertation. By viewing each participant in the drunken celebration as an individual performer, each person acting out his or her unique struggle with identity and sexual exploration, MacIain said she hopes to come to some broad conclusion about what makes up the college experience in the United States, since obviously it’s about more than just getting a degree.
MacIain, who teaches an introductory acting class at UCSB, said Halloween in Isla Vista is far more complex than the police or many members of the university administration realize.
“At this point, what I’m understanding is that [Halloween is] … a kind of right of passage, a point where people can separate from their childhood,” MacIain said. “They’ve just come from high school and most people who come from high school have been in the same place for a very long time. People know them inside and out… I think [Halloween] is really a crucial time for identity development.”
In her work so far, MacIain has filled over seventy pages with analysis of Halloween’s history in Isla Vista, largely based on newspaper clippings gleaned from The Daily Nexus archives between 1978 and the present. In addition, she cites books about the cultural influences fueling other carnivalesque celebrations throughout the world in her explanations of the forces influencing behavior on Del Playa Drive.
“[Halloween’s] a performance,” MacIain said. “And what I want to find out is what are people conveying through this performance, what are they communicating to each other, and what are they communicating to the outside world?”
She writes in her paper, “Finding Nemo on Del Playa Drive,” which she presented at May 2004’s Consortium for Literature Theory and Culture conference, that a “…closer examination [of Halloween in Isla Vista] reveals common themes which begin to form a coherent narrative: rebellion against authority through the carnivalesque arts of rule-breaking and taboo-twisting; the parodic perversion of childhood games and fantasies; an exaggerated indulgence in alcohol and other substances forbidden to Americans in childhood; the flagrant foregrounding of sexuality; and a pervasive preoccupation with the creation and documentation of a sufficiently outrageous Halloween experience to carry into the increasingly isolated space of American adulthood.”
MacIain said that I.V. Halloween is more important than people have assumed in the past, especially because the size and scope of the celebration always manages to rebound after any attempted law enforcement crackdown or university intervention.
“Why is [Halloween] such a big deal to people? It’s been around for a long time and people have been trying to shut it down since the riots back in the 1970s, but it never goes away. It keeps coming back stronger and stronger,” MacIain said. “And so the question is, why do [the partiers] keep going back, why do they keep doing it? Is it just to say, you know, ‘fuck you’ to the police, like we can do what ever we want, or is there something they’re getting out of it? I think it’s a little bit of both.”
What exactly Halloween revelers are getting from their time spent partying on the streets of Isla Vista is one of the central questions throughout MacIain’s work.
MacIain writes that “…at once a celebration of the fleeting freedom allowable before the onset of post-college productivity, and a funeral for the abandoned dreams of childhood, Halloween in Isla Vista is much more than a gathering of costumed college students: It is an emblematic expression of what are commonly regarded to be ‘the best years’ of an American’s life.”
“I think the people who are excited about this research – and a lot of people are getting excited about this research – are people who recognize that there is something going on here [during Halloween] and that it’s being ignored,” MacIain said.
MacIain said she first became interested in the root values propping up Isla Vista Halloween while taking a Caribbean theatre class in winter of last year.
“One of the questions [my professor] asked in class one day was, ‘Where is the carnivalesque, where is the carnival spirit in Santa Barbara?’ And I said, ‘It’s right over here in Isla Vista,’ and everyone laughed. And I said ‘I’m serious, that’s where it is,'” MacIain said. “And I started thinking about that and wondering why that is. Why is it that it all sort of gets pushed over here?”
MacIain said she began doing archival research and became addicted to finding out more about the history of Halloween in I.V. She said she came across several references to an article in Playboy magazine during the late 1980s that supposedly ranked Isla Vista’s Halloween celebration as one of the largest and craziest in the country.
“There’s the whole urban legend about the Playboy article,” MacIain said. “There never was any Playboy article. I went through every freaking Playboy magazine, and there is not an article. And it just proves that [Halloween in Isla Vista] is something that the students love. And why do they love it? It’s still kind of a mystery because there’s a lot about it that’s really kind of fucked up.”
As a spontaneous occurrence that manages to carry on annually with no advertising other than student word of mouth, MacIain said Halloween in Isla Vista is a very rare cultural phenomenon.
“One of the things I think is really cool about this event is that nobody has cashed in on it,” MacIain said. “It’s still a totally spontaneous student-driven event. That’s one of the things that’s actually really great about it.”
However, she said that over the years, the police have done as much to shape the event as the students by limiting the full extent to which Halloween can be celebrated. In her writing, she describes a continual tension between law enforcement and students, since police become the “caretakers” of the community in the absence of adults. She writes that Halloween may serve as an annual release of that tension.
She said the presence of local law enforcement is certainly necessary on Halloween, but their tactics should be modeled after policing practices employed by police in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, which include more horse mounted officers. She also said both police and university officials should stop blaming “out-of-town visitors” as the crux of the Halloween problem in Isla Vista.
“[The university and the IVFP] believe if [Halloween] was a local thing it would be fine – which I thoroughly disagree with,” MacIain said. “I understand out-of-towners do cause problems, but at the same time, there were problems [in the late 1970s] before the out-of towners showed up.”
MacIain said she receives two distinct reactions to her research: People either think she is brilliant or they think she is crazy.
“The people who think I’m crazy, I think they’re angry or they’re just amused,” MacIain said. “The people who are angry seem to really feel like [Halloween] is a very dangerous event, more dangerous than other things that go on, and that it needs to be shut down at any cost – that it’s not doing anything positive for the community. [They say] the only reason [the kids] like it is that they get to get drunk and sort of go out of control and take no responsibility for it. I disagree, but I think that’s a point of view and I’m not going to deny that there are problems. There definitely are, I just think that it’s a lot more complicated than people are making it out to be.”
MacIain said she is sympathetic to arguments that Halloween is a dangerous place, particularly for women who are forced by the Isla Vista Halloween culture to dress more proactively than men or risk not fitting in.
“But at the same time, I think you have to understand that there is a reason why [students] keep going out there. They know it’s dangerous … and yet they go out there in these [sexualized] outfits, so there’s definitely something they’re getting out of it.
MacIain said the people who think she’s brilliant think she’s figured out a way to study something really fun.
“I think they think it’s sort of illegitimate in some way that I’ve … found [a] loop whole in the academic system – that I’m studying partying. But one of the reasons that I can get away with this is that I don’t drink. I’ve never been a drinker. I’ve never been much of a party girl in that way, so I am sort of coming to this as an outsider and it’s very fascinating to me. I really do look at it as a sort of ethnological experiment when I go to these parties. I’m like, ‘wow, what are the rules of the game,’ I’m trying to figure it out. So it’s fun to me to explore this new world, but I don’t think of it as partying. I still think of it as research, definitely.”