That one time in Michigan: When we invented Devil’s Night

A ghostly snapshot of Detroit. (Image via Pixabay)

By Karel Vega

October 31, 2023

It didn’t end well.

Did you know Devil’s Night is a Michigan thing? While kids in other states cause mischief on the night before Halloween, 1930s Detroit is where the “holiday” as we know it began. Let’s talk about it.

A night of danger

The history of Devil’s Night in Detroit goes back nearly a century. According to the Detroit Historical Society, the tradition probably came over from similar nights in Europe, like Mischief Night—which dates back to 1790 in Britain.

Here in the US, some historians make a direct connection back to the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929, which started the Great Depression.

For a long time, Devil’s Night was filled with youthful pranks, like egging houses or TP-ing trees. But by the late ‘70s, the pranks had turned into something far more dangerous. The majority of people who responded to a 1974 Detroit Free Press poll even thought Detroit city officials should ban trick-or-treating entirely, to stop the increasing levels of crime on Halloween Eve. In 1978, troublemakers smashed the windows in 72 city buses; in 1984, more than 800 cases of arson were recorded in the city.

How to Beat the Devil: A Detroit Free Press advice story from Oct. 29, 1975

Images from those years are easy to find. Photographers and documentarians from around the world would fly into Detroit just to capture the city’s night of terror. On Oct. 30 1994, things got particularly nasty. As hundreds of fires raged across the city, police arrested more than 300 teenagers, and the night ended in tragedy: A 1-year-old child died in a fire in the suburb of Highland Park.

Why so many fires? Possibly tradition. The Detroit Metro Times reports that “since the 1910s, fires have been a part of the Halloween tradition in Detroit. Students at the former Detroit College of Medicine used to set large bonfires in the streets and even handed cigars to arriving firefighters.”

Though the city had been slow to address many of the root causes of such violence—like systemic racism, crumbling infrastructure, and widespread poverty—in the 1990s, officials launched campaigns to stop glorifying Devil’s Night—including youth curfews, asking the media to help prevent copycat crimes, and asking for volunteers to come out for “Angel’s Night.”

Here’s a video from the city’s 1991 campaign, where the city asked people to “get mad, get involved.” The fires were cut in half—36,000 volunteers had come out to help in that year alone.

That one time in Michigan: When we invented Devil's Night

(Source: Detroit Historical Society)

From nightmare to celebration

That one time in Michigan: When we invented Devil's Night

(Source: detroitmi.gov)

In the 2010s, Devil’s Night became something more like a ghost story. In 2018, the city officially ended Angel’s Night, electing instead to use the program’s resources to host a celebration: Halloween in the D. The occasion is a collection of family-friendly events all across the city’s police precincts, fire stations, and rec centers.

in 2019, the Detroit Metro Times declared Devil’s Night “dead in Detroit.” In the years that have followed, firefighters reported Devil’s Night fires to be no different from any other day.

Today, volunteers in Detroit and some nearby cities continue to patrol the streets, on a mission to keep neighborhoods safe.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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