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Redding has Rodeo Week, New Orleans has Mardi Gras, and Rio has Carnival. But Ashland has Halloween. Boy, does it ever have Halloween.
It’s got kind of a rocky history, its ups and downs, but I haven’t yet found a town that comes close to matching Ashland’s crazy Halloween celebration. No matter what measures city officials have had to implement over the years to try to tone things down and lower the number of costumed revelers, the levels of inebriation, and the bad decisions that tend to go hand in hand with the combination of the two, Ashland’s Halloween celebration still seems to go unmatched.
I don’t know when it all started. I can’t find much on the history of Ashland’s Halloween Boom, but I remember heading downtown circa 1983. I was probably 16 years old, and what seemed like an impromptu parade began snaking down the street, stopping traffic, and the bars were packed and noisy, and looked like a lot of fun. Then around 1985, I marveled in the idea that with face paint and a costume, I had no problem waltzing into establishments that would normally spend a good two or three minutes scrutinizing my ID, then my face, then my ID, then my face. I mean, if I had a fake ID, that is. Or if I’d borrowed my slightly older blonde next door neighbor’s ID (thank you Konnie May). Turns out I didn’t even need it, since nobody ever asked to see it. I remember going into the bar at the Marc Anthony Hotel (now Ashland Springs Inn), and seeing Reuben, a teenager who was enough younger than me that I’d helped a friend babysit him once, with a drink in his hand. And he wasn’t even in costume. It was just that easy, back in the mid 80’s. On Halloween, that is.
Every bar in town was packed. Costume contests were everywhere, the parties spilled out into the streets. Costumes were elaborate, many times involving large groups of people. The Geppetto’s marching wontons were a local favorite. The same crowd, I think, was behind the California raisins in 1988 and an entire deck of cards (including the Joker) another year. My mom (who one year went dressed as a high school version of me), remembers some of the best costumes over the years included a person wearing nothing but a shower cap taking a shower, and weatherman with an inside out umbrella and a windblown necktie. Other costumes involved pieces that were probably borrowed from the wardrobe department at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In fact, I think the dramatic types from OSF and other theaters around Ashland had a lot to do with the community’s tendency to jump headfirst without looking into Halloween, and a lot to do with how wonderful it was for so many years. That was all before it imploded.
Eventually, the popularity of Ashland’s Halloween celebration came back to haunt the town. The event had grown so large that tour busses were booked from faraway cities to bring hundreds of additional partiers to this artsy fartsy village of about 16,000. In 1986, the partying started early. On my way home from work at 4 in the afternoon, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and T-boned me going around 5 miles an hour, but he did about $700 worth of damage to my car. Later, dressed as a vampire bride, I made my way downtown where a stage was set up on the plaza and a band played for an overly enthusiastic crowd. Thousands of non-Ashlanders from as far away as Eugene and San Francisco poured into the small downtown. Five thousand extra people, by my dad’s account. The party filled not only the entire downtown, but it overlapped into Lithia Park and out into the surrounding neighborhoods. I remember seeing a car that had jumped a curb and was left, parked diagonally in the middle of someone’s front lawn. That night things got a little too rowdy for this sleepy little hamlet. A guy got stabbed, and another guy I’d gone to high school with got shot in the foot. I probably had a horrific hangover. It was just out of control, and too much for the city to handle.
This is when the city stepped in and tried to ratchet things back a few notches. In fact they pretty much cancelled Halloween for a couple of years. Revelers looking for an over the top, wild ass party had to find somewhere else for awhile. There was no band. No parade. No street closure. That made it a little bit more difficult for pedestrian crowds to fill the boulevard, and bars cracked down on what had been an all-ages free for all. Bouncers were hired to stand guard.
Slowly, things relaxed a little. The parade was held again. And people started to celebrate with wild abandon once more. And when things got rowdy this time, the Chamber of Commerce took quick action and cancelled everything back in 2011.
These days, Ashland’s Halloween is a bit more dignified and organized, and mostly geared towards fun seeking kids instead of thrill seeking adults. There’s a morning Monster Dash, Spooky Storytelling Time at the library, and a choreographed performance of “Thriller” by Ashland Danceworks in the middle of the street that takes place right before the Children’s Parade at 2:30 in the afternoon. In case you’re thinking about going, there’s a schedule. On paper (and online), there’s not a lot for adults at the contemporary Ashland Halloween celebration. But in reality, there are just as many adults in costume as there are children. In fact my dad’s buddy Joe once said this about Halloween in Ashland: “I’ve been to Rio, and I’ve been to the Big Easy. In those places about 90% of the people are standing around watching the other 10% who are in costume. In Ashland, 90% of the people are in costume and the other 10% are standing around watching.
Today’s Ashland Halloween party is almost dignified, except that (for good reason, I’m sure) they’ve had to set a few publicly posted ground rules. Like no open flames, nudity or display of weapons (real or fake), and no costumes that depict hatred, racism or religious offensiveness. And there’s more.
If you didn’t know better, if you didn’t grow up in Ashland and see it go from pretty sleepy to pretty crazy back to pretty sleepy again, you might not think all those rules were necessary. But looking back at the late 80’s, when things were so fun that they weren’t so fun anymore, they’re probably necessary.
As for me, my Halloween partying days ended the year that I dressed up as a mummy clad in full length long johns and wrapped from head to toe in the longest ace bandage known to mankind, but failed to consider in advance that I might need an escape route later on for any beverages that I might imbibe over the course of the evening. It was one of the most miserable nights on the town I ever spent, and from that moment on I’ve spent most Halloweens at home, handing out candy to about 3 or 4 kids over the entire course of the evening. And I’m good with that. Because I can always tell stories about the days when I experienced the wildest Halloween parties this ol’ country has ever known.
If you happen to be the kind of person who still likes to get together with a group of folks for a rousing Halloween experience, I’ve got the perfect Halloween Party Playlist to go along with it below, and of course it starts off with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
This best of post was originally published on October 23, 2015.