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Frights on Franklin Street

A look at the Triangle's most popular Halloween celebration

<p>UNC student plays dress up.  </p>

UNC student plays dress up.  

When the sun sets on Halloween, the world transforms for a night—and perhaps nowhere as dramatically as Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

Since the 1980s, crowds from across North Carolina have flocked to the downtown Chapel Hill area to celebrate the one night when you can take on a new persona, whether that be a witch, zombie or Disney princess. Although the event was originally designed for the Chapel Hill community at large, recent turnouts of more than 80,000 attendees forced the city to aim efforts to exclusively include only those within the community and students of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But against the wishes of Chapel Hill’s chief of police, the event’s stubborn popularity persists, and even the much-maligned devils from Duke manage to find a way into one of the state’s largest celebrations.

“It’s really exciting, especially if you go dressed up,” senior Juan Ramirez said. “The costumes are always fun to watch and take pictures of. It’s pretty friendly.”

Notable outfits in past years have included minions from "Despicable Me," "Hunger Games" characters and a male student wearing a Barack Obama mask surrounded by his “secret service”—friends dressed in suits speaking into walkie-talkies. One teenager even took the phrase “one night stand” literally by dressing up as a cardboard nightstand. For those of age, bars like The Library and Spanky’s also provide venues for celebrating the night.

And as it goes with any event bringing out tens of thousands spooksters, Halloween on Franklin Street allows for people of all ages to come together over a mutual love for the spooky holiday.

“It’s an opportunity for students and locals to share common ground,” said Lt. Josh Mecimore, public information officer of the Chapel Hill Police Department. “They get to interact in a way that they don’t normally get to.”

However, huge crowd sizes in the past show that locals are not the only ones attending the event. At its peak in 2007, more than 80,000 people visited Franklin Street on Halloween night—a figure that surpasses the city population, said Chris Blue, chief of police for Chapel Hill.

After realizing that the town could not safely handle such an influx of people in a single night, Town Manager Roger L. Stancil began “Homegrown Halloween” in 2008, which aims to reduce crowd sizes and turn Halloween on Franklin Street into a small-town community gathering as it originally was. Blue noted that since then the crowds have reduced dramatically—last year, an estimated 32,000 people attended.

Mecimore explained that this alteration remarkably reduced the number of incidents that have occurred since 2008, most of which have resulted from alcohol consumption.

Still, Halloween on Franklin Street poses significant challenges for Chapel Hill authorities like the police department.

“From a public safety point of view, keeping 30,000 to 40,000 people safe is a virtual impossibility,” Blue said.

But Blue added that the Homegrown Halloween initiative has resulted in a greater level of cooperation from attendees and that more people come in costume now. In the past, many just attended the event to watch the crowds.

But even with the decrease in attendees, alcohol overdoses are the biggest issue the department faces, according to Blue. Last year, the number of overdoses saw a “dramatic and significant” increase, he said, a possible result of the fact Halloween fell on a Friday night. During the celebration, 13 arrests were made and 29 EMS calls occurred.

Because the festivities occur in a confined space, crowd rushes are also a concern. The police attempt to avoid this by restricting items that could be construed as weapons, which might lead to widespread panic.

“If you’re going to be a pirate, you’re going to be a swordless pirate,” Mecimore said.

Mecimore added that the police department plans for Halloween on Franklin Street year-round—beginning the day after Halloween with plans for the next year’s celebration. Strategies to reduce incidents include traffic diversion plans and a perimeter set up within the main event that checks for prohibited items. The police department also recruits officers from neighboring areas for the night to compile a force of 300-plus officers.

Although many Chapel Hillians take pride in the event because of its popularity and regional acclaim, Blue noted that he does not see any benefits of the event because of the event management costs—which range from $230,000 in 2006 to $188,000 in 2013—and the public safety concerns.

“There’s not much in the way of culturally redeeming characteristics,” he said.

Several Duke students also noted that the downsides to the event can outweigh the positives.

“The novelty wears off after the first 30 minutes to an hour,” sophomore Ozi Boms said. “It’s only fun if you have something to do after or you know someone at UNC.”

Sophomore Bella Rivera noted that her experience with Franklin Street last year mostly involved cold temperatures and being surrounded by strange people.

“Unless you’re 21 or have a fake, you can’t get in anywhere,” she said. “If you have good friends though, it becomes a bonding experience.”

Despite the negatives of the celebration, Blue said that he thinks Chapel Hill as a town does a great job managing the event and that all of the town departments and surrounding agencies cooperate well.

“It’s very much a team effort,” he said. “We take our responsibility very seriously.”

Blue emphasized that Halloween on Franklin Street is for Chapel Hill residents only and discouraged Duke students from attending.

"Don't go and tell your friends not to go," he said.

However, if this year is anything like past years, chances are that at least a few Blue Devils show up. Whether it’s the costumes, the excitement in the air or the potential for controversy, there’s something about Franklin Street on Halloween that’s irresistible to many.

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