For the vast majority of Yale students, Halloween conjures up vivid images of sheeted ghosts, flying witches, grinning pumpkins, oodles of candy and time spent liquor treating, party-hopping and laughing at the zany YSO midnight film and concert. I have recently discovered that many students seem to possess only a dim awareness of the historical roots of the spooky evening, tracing the drunken debauchery of October 31 to an ancient pagan New Year tradition. However, strikingly few Yalies have even the slightest clue about the history of Halloween at Yale. Only a precious handful of students have an inkling as to when or how the cherished staples of Yale Halloween originated, and still fewer can even visualize Halloween at Yale before the days of Pierson’s Inferno dance party and the YSO concert and film. Lea Alfi ’06’s exclamation, “But I thought the Inferno and YSO have always been here!” exemplifies most Yalies’ knowledge of the long-lost history of Yale Halloweens. However, the Inferno and YSO concert have not always been here, and the students mourning the termination of the annual Pierson Inferno would do well to look to their predecessors in the ’60s and ’70s, who found many creative ways to celebrate an Inferno-less October 31st at Yale. So what were Yale Halloweens like in the days before the Yale Symphony Orchestra wowed us with hilarious stunts and the residential colleges offered us a tasty variety of liquor treats?
Roll back 50 years to Halloween weekend, 1954. Welcome to a time when Yalies cared more passionately about winning a Yale-Dartmouth football game than a costume contest, a time when battles over bladderballs took precedence over struggles against evil spirits. Bladder-what, you say? The 1954 Halloween weekend marked the start of the bladderball tradition, in which teams representing various Yale organizations competed to gain control of an inflatable, seven-foot-diameter bladderball. Regulated by only the most vague of rules, the bladderball game — a combination of soccer, rugby and anarchy — was first organized as a precursor to Yale football games, but quickly evolved into a chaotic campus-wide competition between the residential colleges. The tradition of tapping kegs at DKE’s Mortician’s Ball in honor of Halloween hoopla, as Yalies did last Saturday, may have originated on the alcohol-drenched sidelines of the early bladderball games.
Halloween continued to receive very little recognition on the Yale campus through the 1960s. For example, instead of spreading hype about the upcoming YSO concert, the front page of the October 31, 1963 Yale Daily News heralded a Woolsey Hall performance by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. In fact, the Yale Symphony Orchestra was not even created until 1968. By the early ’70s, however, the YSO carried out October 31st midnight performances, but these Halloween concerts took a drastically different form than the costumed musical madness we now know and love. In the days of yore, not only was concert admission free (as long as attendees arrived in costume), but symphonies were played in their entirety, as when the orchestra performed Berlioz’s spooky “Symphony Fantastique” in 1975. Throughout the 1980s, the YSO concert increasingly embodied the Halloween spirit, as orchestra members began to sport crazy costumes and to carry out outrageous pranks. Yalies started to attend the midnight concert in throngs — in 1986, over 500 students had to be turned away at the door to Woolsey Hall. The YSO madness was in full force with the 1987 performance featuring strobe lights, a jello-tossing conductor, and a violinist who chopped up his instrument on stage.
The tradition of a Yale-themed comedic silent film to accompany the orchestral music did not start until around 1990. The film skits were originally created to correspond with a variety of long musical selections — the concert’s complete focus on the film is a relatively new phenomenon. According to 2003 film director Bill Strom ’05, “Over the last five or six years, the concert has changed pretty substantially — it used to be more of a regular symphony concert for which they would shoot different skits to correspond to longer sections of pieces. [Now] there has been a shift to make a featured film for which the music is picked. The focus is on creating a coherent story.” Planning the YSO film begins a full five months in advance, as scripting and casting commences in May. Yalies also prepare for the film and have to line up in Commons to buy advance tickets.
In 1974, President Kingman Brewster inaugurated the first “Hillhouse” Halloween celebration, treating students to live music and tasty refreshments. In those days, the university-sponsored bash extended beyond the confines of the president’s home, as throngs of costumed Yalies made the celebration a block party. University Secretary Henry Chauncey later recalled that the fireplace in a house fell through to the basement due to the excessive weight of the 1975 Halloween crowd. President Levin’s Hillhouse Halloween party still features live a cappella music — Shades — and donuts and cider. However, there is little danger of a crowd-induced accident, because the throngs of yesteryear have subsided as Yale’s Halloween party options have multiplied.
Had Yale students spent a little more time boning up on their Halloween history, the cancellation of Pierson’s Inferno might not have come as such a bitter shock. The Halloween weekend bladderball game was outlawed in 1982 due to repeated incidents of vandalism, student injuries and unfortunate police run-ins. Drunken bladderball competitors, desperate to gain control of the ball, resorted to destructive tactics, such as cutting open a lock on an Old Campus gate, smashing a car and wrecking the Branford dining hall in their frenzy to win. Sadly, Yale students did not learn from the mistakes of their past. Just last year, drunken Yalies desperate to enter the crowded Inferno attempted to destroy a lock separating Davenport and Pierson and broke a table in their frenzy to get to the dance.
The Inferno, like the bladderball competition, had purely innocent and constructive origins. The Halloween dance began in 1977 as a chance for students to dance and show off creative costumes. The dance quickly joined the ranks of bona fide Yale traditions — by October 31,1981, 1,200 dancers heated up the Inferno. In 1990, a costume contest and a smoke machine added to the intense Inferno atmosphere, and crowds annually swarmed the Pierson courtyard. But Yale Halloween history repeated itself — this year, at the height of the Inferno’s popularity, the dance has been called off — perhaps for good.
If you felt that Branford’s new Hellfire dance just did not get as hot as the Inferno and that the 2003 Halloween left something to be desired, dive into Yale’s Halloween history and you will find a cache of fun, or at least creative, ways to spend the evening on October 31. One of the earliest Yale Halloween pranks occurred on October 31, 1963, when Yalies played a practical joke on Skull and Bones members by chaining the doors to the Tomb and trapping the secret society members inside for hours. Or, if you love dancing but Inferno/Hellfire-style grinding is not your cup of tea, you could always try to revive the Yale Divinity School Halloween Square Dance of 1975. In the ’70s, before the Halloween craze consumed the entire Yale campus, costumed Halloween revelers took to invading libraries to interrupt studious Yalies not taking part in the festivities. For instance, you could follow in the footsteps of the group of Yalies who descended upon Sterling Memorial Library in 1976 dressed as Monty Python monks bearing incense burners, chanting aloud from blue books, and banging themselves in the head with text books. Cross Campus Library was overrun with Yale Precision Marching Band members masquerading as cone heads on Halloween night two years later. However, if scaring Yalies in weenie bins is not for you, you could always refer to the Halloween reading list of 1974, and spend some quality time with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Even better, create your own updated Halloween reading list. After all, with the gap left open by Inferno, the time is ripe for the commencement of new Yale Halloween traditions.
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