Halloween carnival still up in the air

The Haunted Happenings carnival helped stem years of chaos in Salem on Halloween night. Now, the city may could lose it.

SALEM — It was 10:15 on Halloween night in 2005. In Town House Square, a stabbing victim had just been placed in an ambulance. Fistfights were breaking out to the left and right, and a man was down on the street. 

The city's heralded Haunted Happenings celebration was coming apart at the seams, The Salem News reported the next day. 

Two years later, planners added a carnival to the mix — and with it a volley of family-friendly activities, all aimed at attracting more families to the city's signature event.

The result was easy to measure. Arrests plummeted from 40 in 2006 to 15 in 2007, and residents applauded one of the safest Haunted Happenings in recent memory. Each year since, things have improved even more, as what was once late-night chaos gave way to an increasing influx of families.

Now, for 2018, Salem could be going without the carnival that played such a major role in keeping the city's Oct. 31 celebrations in line.

"We want to keep it family-friendly," Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said. "Like any public-safety planning effort, they evolve over time. But for us, the carnival, fireworks, messaging really helped us create a Halloween that wasn't a frat party." 

City Councilors have yet to hold any meetings on a proposal to relocate the carnival to the northern end of Riley Plaza. The carnival has to move because its former site — the "carnival lot" at 289 Derby St. — has been purchased by the city and is being transformed into a waterfront park.

The City Council would need to waive rules set in 1970 that ban carnivals at Riley Plaza, a move that was made to block more sketchy and less organized ventures from using the parking area after years of problems in the 1960s.

A quick sampling of councilors shows most either have concerns about using Riley Plaza for the Halloween carnival or, in a couple cases, outright reject it. That seems to match public opinion; the only voices heard so far have been those who oppose the idea, citing safety issues and the loss of parking spaces.

An alternative location has yet to emerge publicly, but it would need to be voted on and put into effect by the end of September in order for Halloween to have a carnival, officials have said.

The City Council has two meetings scheduled for September, but they haven't even met to discuss Riley Plaza yet, never mind a Plan B.

So the situation begs the question: What was Halloween like without a carnival, and would that be the case today if Salem doesn't have one this October?

A tale of two Halloweens

Haunted Happenings wasn't always the transformative event for downtown Salem that it is today. A review of Salem News coverage of Halloween from 1990 to 2010 shows a city coming to terms with its ballooning tourism draw, as it attempted to control increasingly large crowds pouring in for Halloween night.

More than 20,000 people packed downtown Salem in 1996. Cars were backed up so far on Route 128 that it took some revelers hours to get to the Witch City from nearby communities.

"This is just fun," one party-goer told The News that year. "There are't many cities you can go to on Halloween where it's all good fun."

By 1999, when Halloween fell on a Sunday night, the crowd estimate had reached 100,000 people.

"Every year people get crazier and crazier," one reveler said, "and it's harder and harder to find a place to park and a place to relieve yourself."

In those years, state Rep. Paul Tucker was a police captain. He wouldn't become police chief until 2009.

"I have very clear memories of the troubles we had," Tucker said, "the dozens and dozens of arrests."

Alcohol was a big part of the problem, he said. "Families frankly didn't want to be there."

Planners eventually created event stages to spread crowds out and lighten the mood. But Salem News headlines each year became darker than the last.

Nov. 1, 2005: "Despite positive beginning, Halloween revels end in violence." The next day, "City nearly lost control."

Nov. 1, 2006: "Halloween draws over 60,000; night ends with two stabbings."

Then, in 2007, bold letters ran on top of a photo of a Ferris wheel: "Better than Mardi Gras." In 2008: "More family-like, less frat party"

It seemed, with the renewed focus on family entertainment, like Halloween was being staged in a completely different city.

"Over the years we added things, and the carnival was one of those pieces," Tucker said. "It gave people something to do, and it attracted more of the crowd we were looking for — the families, parents, grandparents, children."

Crowds still took too long to leave, so 10 p.m. fireworks were added as well. "That was a signal to everyone that the events were over," Tucker said. 

The city also enacted strict regulations regarding bars and alcohol use.

Today, the police department has more than 200 officers in the city on Halloween night. Crowds come, crowds go, and arrests are always in the single digits. Each year, for the past 10 years, Halloween has been viewed as a public safety success.

Filling a void

Officials have frequently argued that the carnival fills a critical financial need, as well, providing about $30,000 in revenue that pays for event stages, portable toilets and more. Critics of the Riley Plaza plan say the parking and safety impacts downtown would be a greater price to pay.

So how could Salem prepare for a Halloween that could be missing perhaps the biggest piece of its family-fostering puzzle?

"The more events and destinations within the smaller area of downtown for people to go to, the better," Tucker said. "If we lose one of those? I don't know. ... That's a really good question."

Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, said the carnival "fills an entertainment gap we have in October. It entertains kids and tweens. It's something to do in Salem for families coming in with kids that are too young for the parties and too old for the family-geared events and programs." 

Organizers don't want to lose that crowd.

"People will come with or without the carnival. We'll have the stages Halloween night. We'll have the police presence," Fox said. "There's a lot for people to do without the carnival. It's just that the carnival fills a nice gap for an age group that's always in need of entertainment."

So officials are looking for options and eager for meetings to take place. A couple of ideas that keep circulating include open parking areas on Church Stree and on Front Street. Others have suggested Salem Common. All of the ideas, including Riley Plaza, have drawbacks.

Regardless of where the carnival would go, "it has been successful in the past in terms of the family-friendly environment we create," Driscoll said. "We'll move forward (without a carnival) if we have to, but we'd prefer to find a location that works — and that's the challenge."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.