Mistress of the Mix: When Halloween Gets A Little Too Thrilling

'Thriller' performed by Ashland DanceWorks

‘Thriller’ performed by Ashland DanceWorks

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.

Ashland's plaza on the craziest Halloween of record.

Ashland’s plaza on the craziest Halloween of record.

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.

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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.

Windblown weatherman, photographed by Keith Henty

Windblown weatherman, photographed by Keith Henty

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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.

Valerie Ing
Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
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25 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Did I miss it, where is Monster Mash?
    I have celebrated Halloween in big and little towns, even at a RV park in the Rockies, and that is the funniest holiday. I’ll have to repost my Halloween pics on Facebook again.

    • Mistress of the Mix Mistress of the Mix says:

      To be honest, Monster Mash probably wouldn’t make it onto the playlist for any Halloween party at my house simply because it’s so campy (but then again, so is Thriller). So I added it!

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        There’s a video of Springsteen doing “Monster Mash” on Halloween. He intros it by saying, “This is definitely NOT the best Halloween song, but it’s the one we rehearsed during our soundcheck…”

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        “Thriller” wouldn’t make it onto my playlist for an entirely different reason. I’m always kinda surprised when MJ pops up during our Saturday morning tennis clinics. I guess it’s hard for the coaches to resist occasionally working in “Billy Jean.”

  2. Avatar Doug Cook says:

    I never understood the change in Halloween from kids trick or treating to now the focus on adults dressing up. I think I was 13 the last time I wore a costume for Halloween.
    In the restaurant that I ran, upper management wanted staff to dress up gor Halloween, I resisted because it was my observation that most that went out to dinner on Halloween are trying to avoid the holiday and avoid having to hand out candy. In addition, it was difficult keeping costumes appropriate. I had a young man dressed as a pregnant nun with a cigar in his mouth, yes…I sent him home. I stopped allowing costumes until I got in trouble from corporate.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      I’ll bet you wore the minimum 15 pieces of flair, as well.

      • Avatar Linda Cooper says:

        Steve Towers – I will bite. Since it’s Halloween. I need some interpretation here. Nah, don’t tell me, I’m wondering if Doug gets it or not. Trick or treat!

        • Avatar Doug Cook says:

          The interpretation is from a wonderful movie called Office Space, check it out. Yes…Trick or Treat, a nice tradition for 6 year old kids…not for a 30 year old woman to dress as a slutty nurse.

          • Avatar Linda Cooper says:

            I don’t watch many movies. Just the British stuff. I will check it out. Off to hand out allergy free candies to the kids. lol. After 26 years of living in old Shasta, where one would really be spooked to come up the shared driveway, without trick or treaters…it’s kind of fun. I do miss my early days of trick or treating. In San Clemente, CA. Invited into the homes of people who had spreads of home baked goodies. Homemade popcorn balls! Ice cold punch! Pies! Cakes! Brownies! Nothing sealed! Glowing candles, elegant table cloths Wow, I lived that life as a kid. Have no idea why I am sharing this.

          • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

            Doug — I’m a fan of pretty much everything by Mike Judge, including his current “Silicon Valley.”

    • Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

      I can see why you stopped allowing costumes!

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    I’m a little surprised that there’s no “Witchy Woman” by The Eagles, or just about half of Stevie Nicks’ songs.

    But I’d top my Halloween music playlist with “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

    https://youtu.be/RrxePKps87k

  4. Mistress of the Mix Mistress of the Mix says:

    I ADORE The Cramps! And I’m adding all your suggestions to the playlist, because…you’re just so damn good at this thing!

  5. Avatar Candace says:

    I’d have added The Cure’s “Lullaby”.

  6. Avatar Candace says:

    Whoops, didn’t mean to have commented the same thing twice.

  7. Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

    We forgot “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. That might be a little before the time of some people here (early 60’s, I believe), but it’s still a great song for Halloween.

  8. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    In Halloween news Airbub has brought the mass party shootings usually found in Texas or Mississippi to the affluent subrubs of San Francisco. A Halloween party at an Airbub in Orinda left four people dead.

  9. Avatar Daniel Whitley says:

    Valerie,
    I was in Ashland Thursday night — specifically for Halloween. I don’t have your historical perspective but I think it might be inching back up to crazy town!!

    • Mistress of the Mix Mistress of the Mix says:

      Daniel, I’m so sorry I missed you! I was here too, out trick-or-treating with my niece! Well, to be honest, I was drinking bourbon with all the adults in a centrally located home while my niece and all her middle school friends trick-or-treated throughout the neighborhood!

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