The largest Halloween party in the world is held in what some might say is a surprising place. It is not New York, New Orleans or any big city that sees the most Halloween revelers; it is the Appalachian Foothills of Ohio. Each October, on the Saturday before Halloween, Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University, erupts into a wild, bohemian, costumed block party that stretches the length of the town. Now in its 40th year, it is reported to be the third largest block party in the United States, surpassed only by Times Square on New Year’s Eve and New Orleans on Mardi Gras.
Each year Court Street in Athens becomes jam-packed with partyers in fanciful costumes. The Halloween block party of 2014 was no exception. Most of the revelers put some thought into their costume – some may spend all year planning an extravagant and unique outfit. Of course, there were the “sexy this” or “sexy that” costumes, for both women and men, but there was also a Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus. At least ten Austrian alpinists, a dozen bananas and countless trios of blind mice roamed the streets. One young women dressed exactly as Na’vi from Avatar; another as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. People of all ages stroll up and down Court Street to show off their costumes and enjoy the creativity of others. Early in the evening there is a parade of puppet costumes and many families come out to partake in the festivities. The crowd changes as darkness falls and the the bands begin to play on the three stages. By 10:00 p.m. the out-of-town visitors arrive and the party becomes more a Halloween bacchanal than a family event.
The Athens Halloween block party, or, more accurately, city-wide party, began in 1974 when students from Ohio University extended their revelries into Court street. At that time, no one knew it would turn into the world’s largest Halloween party. For two hours on Halloween night the costumed students blocked traffic and partied in the street. The next year, Homecoming fell on Halloween, but in 1976 students once again closed the street at 11:00 p.m. By 1977 the city of Athens closed Court Street ahead of time and allowed live music. In 1978 both the city and the university endorsed the event. As the party grew and became a bit chaotic with arrests by the police nearing the hundreds, both Athens and OU withdrew their support, but the annual block party continued to grow. Eventually, the city and university became involved again in order to maintain a safe, fun atmosphere for residents and students. Now, the world’s biggest collective Halloween event is held in a most surprising place. Athens Ohio is considered a very small city, with a population of approximately 24,000. At Halloween time, that number swells dramatically.
The festivities are not limited to Court Street. The city abounds with house parties that spill onto the yards and sidewalks all over town. The most famous of which is Mill Street which borders Ohio University and is home to many students living off-campus. The house parties start in the early afternoon with alcohol flowing freely. There are open container laws for Court Street so many people and students drink at private parties and head to Court Street for music and dancing close to midnight. People over 21 fill the bars and restaurants lining Court Street. Residents say it is a toss up whether the Halloween Block Party is an economic boon to Athens or not worth the cost of the clean-up and the police patrols. The manager of an Athens motel said all the rooms were filled Saturday night, but nearly half of them were trashed by patrons coming back drunk.
The city of Athens and Ohio University take safety seriously. Athens police, safety teams, Ohio staff, State Troopers and police from other towns brought in for the weekend work hard to protect people and property. They maintain a strong presence to bring a bit of order to the celebration. The most famous are the mounted police. Party-goers say the police look impressive on their horses, have a good view, and can move through the crowds with a quick clip-clop. There are two rules that are taken very seriously on Mill Street – do not walk in the street and do not touch the horses.
Officials say the Halloween block party of 2014 went smoothly. A mild evening drew close to 30,000 party-goers. They enjoyed dressing up, drinking and dancing. The party ended abruptly, though, when shots were fired into the air at 2:06 a.m. The police quickly cleared the streets to begin their investigation, but actual arrests for rowdy behavior were down this year. The Athens Police made 40 arrests and the OU police made 24. The Ohio Investigative Unit usually makes most of its arrests for underage drinking, but has not published numbers yet. Many Athens residents said the party has not changed in the past 40 years. The costumes, the drinking and the behavior, they claim, are not any different from what they were in the 1980s.
A couple of older OU alum said they had come as students and they thought the party was exactly the same as it had been in previous years. They commented, “It’s harmless fun.” That sentiment seems to be echoed by the residents, university officials, and police. It takes work to patrol the party and keep people safe, but the tradition is going strong and likely to continue. The world’s largest Halloween party is held in a surprising place, but participants say it certainly provides plenty of fun for those who attend.
By: Rebecca Savastio