The HeyDay of Halloween in Southern Illinois Has Gone, but There’s Still Fun to Be Had
Once upon a time, just more than a decade ago, a city called Carbondale in southern Illinois was the place to be for Halloween. Throngs packed the streets and the costumes were outrageous and original and funny and everyone had one.
Fraternity brothers came as a six-pack of their favorite beer, the ghost of Halloween’s past complete with broken glass and used condoms wandered the streets, and the 15,000 or so visitors to the small university city made a huge mess that city and university officials got sick of cleaning up.
By the early 1990s, the city of Carbondale and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale were making a collective effort to end Halloween in Carbondale. The problem was that way too many people were crowding the city streets on the weekends closes to Halloween and they weren’t playing nice. Each year, several were charged with crimes ranging from mob action and arson (someone tried to light a Ford Festiva on fire, via a shirt in the gas tank used as a wick) to public urination, underage drinking and disorderly conduct.
The community and the university got sick of seeing their black eyes every November splashed all over the national media. And, the university wanted to ditch the image as a party school and develop a reputation for academic excellence.
The first step on the way…end Halloween…and spring fling and any other celebration that resulted in riots in the streets, property damage and house parties with in excess of 200 guests. It even meant cleaning up the student ghetto. But first and foremost, it meant killing Halloween.
The university did its part by ordering a fall recess, at first for a week surrounding Halloween, and in later years for just a few days close to the weekend of Halloween. The dorms were closed, the parking lots emptied and anyone without prior authorization to park on campus during the weekend was ticketed and towed.
The city punished the people who had been making money on the events, the bars along South Illinois Avenue, the section of town known as “The Strip.” Actually, the first few years, they punished every liquor store in town. Liquor sales were banned on The Strip as were keg sales for the week of Halloween. Police actively hunted down and broke up house parties and The Strip was closed.
It worked, sort of. Residents of Carbondale have know had to find other things to do on Halloween and some of them are more productive than the bar parties. Some seem to encourage local residents to do their partying out of town and present more risk to themselves and others as they try to get home afterward.
But some parts of the community have tried to take the focus away from drinking and put it back on to more family-oriented activities Several local groups, in Carbondale and the surrounding communities have developed haunted houses.
Once the university stopped closing its doors for the weekend closest to Halloween, the advertising club on campus began hosting a Haunted Walk as a fundraiser for the club and family-friendly alternative for Halloween. The walk around the Campus Lake is haunted by students and has done well for the last three years.
In nearby Carterville, the Jaycees have for years produced a Haunted Hayride. Residents have to drive out to the event, but it is again, family-oriented with hayrides and weenie roasts and bonfires, and the requisite witches in trees as you ride through the graveyard. Usually, the only problem with the hayride is that it can be downright cold in Southern Illinois in October, sometimes even snowy.
The newest haunted option to spring up was last year’s “Haunting of Chittyville School.” The attraction is about 15 miles from Carbondale, just north of Herrin, in an old school that was once part of the Herrin School District. The building was purchased by a local food service company and together with community groups and local radio stations they put together a fun and profitable haunted house.
The reason the Chittyville haunted school became a must do for the Halloween season in Southern Illinois had a lot to do with the marketing talents of the people involved. The staff created a legend of people disappearing into the boiler room of the school never to be seen again and began promoting the legend in early September, long before they officially announced the creation or hours of the haunted house.
The first radio ads for the haunted house featured realistic-sounding interviews with people claiming to have attended Chittyville School and their stories of the friends, teachers and staff that went missing each year. The ads ended with a haunting reference to the website for the haunted house, but never mentioned the haunted house or other activities scheduled for the school.
It wasn’t until about a week before opening night that they began inviting people to come see the re-opened school and hear the screams from the boiler room. The marketing campaign was very effective.
In addition, the cost for the haunted house was reasonable, $10 for adults for a 15-20 minutes haunted house and the wait to get in was less than an hour. Since it is not unusual in some places to wait more than two hours to get into a haunted house, the wait was reasonable. The staff also planned for the wait, making certain to have concessions and bathrooms available for those in line and a collection of recent horror movies playing on big screens throughout the waiting area. They also arranged for most of the waiting to be done inside the school in the gymnasium, making visitors more comfortable and keeping them out of the elements.
The haunted house itself had many of the elements of a first timers haunted house. It relied a little too heavily on darkness and startlingly loud noise to get a jump and a scream out of visitors. Some of the rooms were a little confusing, trying to find the appropriate exit, and the stairs leading to the boiler room had a very rickety banner, cool for ambience, not so cool for safety.
Still, all in all, Southern Illinois has come a long way from the days when tear gas marked the end of the Halloween celebration. These days celebrating Halloween in style just takes a little more imagination and a car.