Friday, October 30, 2009

The Origins Of Devil's Night

Most children who grew up in Michigan, as I did, were acquainted with the horror stories of what took place on October 30th, better known as Devil's Night. The name alone was enough to send chills down my spine! That was the night when hooligans would crawl out from the shadows and engage in destructive activities. As I grew older I was surprised to discover that Devil's Night, for the most part, is a Michigan thing and that few people outside the state are familiar with its treacherous customs.

The origin of Devil's Night can be traced to Detroit and dates as early as the 1930s. Traditionally, youths in Detroit engaged in a night of criminal behavior, which usually consisted of acts of vandalism (such as egging, soaping, or TP'ing). These were almost exclusively acts of petty vandalism, causing little to no property damage.

However, in the early 1970s the vandalism escalated to more devastating acts, such as arson. This primarily took place in the city, but surrounding suburbs were often affected. Property owners unable to sell in the rapidly declining housing market would use this night as an opportunity to burn down their homes, collect the insurance money, and claim that an arsonist was at fault.

The crimes became more destructive in Detroit's inner-city neighborhoods, and included hundreds of acts of arson and vandalism every year. The destruction reached a peak in the mid- to late-1980s, with more than 800 fires set in 1984, and 500 to 800 fires in the three days and nights before Halloween in a typical year.

By the early 1990s, Detroit saw little decline in Devil's Night arson. After a brutal Devil's Night in 1994, then new mayor Dennis Archer promised city residents arson would not be tolerated. In 1995, Detroit city officials organized and created Angel's Night to combat the problem. Each year as many as 50,000 volunteers gather to patrol neighborhoods. Additionally, youth curfews in the city as early as 6 P.M. are instituted on the days before Halloween. The program has been kept up in force even to this day.

Despite the fact that the activities associated with Devil's Night have greatly quieted in recent years, and even though I now live 2,500 miles away from my home state, I still get a chill when the sun sets the evening of the 30th. I lock the door, draw the curtains and nestle inside the safety of my home, fully expecting to wake the following morning to a world decorated in toilet paper. Perhaps the kid in me can't help but recall the grim tales and horrific images it conjured. I'm sure there's nothing worth going out for anyway...