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HALLOWEEN

‘Just for the Hell of It’: A History of Detroit’s ‘Devil’s Night’

Jake Rossen
Detroit had a firebug problem.
Detroit had a firebug problem. / IlonaBudzbon/E+ via Getty Images
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Nobi Shigemoto couldn’t quite believe it, and neither could his viewers.

It was 1986, and Shigemoto had flown from Japan to Detroit, Michigan, instructing his camera crew to point their lenses toward the flames. It was almost too much to take in: All around the city, abandoned buildings, cars, and dumpsters were ablaze.

Shigemoto was a producer for Japanese television channel Asahi TV, and it was the second year in a row he had traveled to Detroit. “People [in Japan] don’t believe there are these fires,” he said.

Shigemoto was hardly alone. Children in the city used binoculars to scan for signs of new infernos; firefighters peddled t-shirts with captions like The Heat Is On and Just for the Hell of It; even national CBS newscaster Dan Rather mentioned it during the CBS Evening News, noting that “two hundred young people” had already been arrested for fire-related incidents.

What drew attention from as far away as Japan was something that had become a macabre ritual. Every October 30, hundreds of fires were started in Detroit, a tradition wholly unique to the city. It was neither trick nor treat, but a fiery demonstration the night before Halloween that anxious locals came to refer to as Devil’s Night.

Firestarters

Celebrating the night preceding Halloween dates back decades. Depending on the region, it’s taken on various names, from Mischief Night to Cabbage Night—the latter for a child’s habit of plucking cabbage to hurl at houses in rural areas. In most cases, these activities are done out of amusement or to go against societal taboos, albeit briefly. (The most infamous October 30 prank? Likely the Orson Welles 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds that had some listeners believing an alien invasion was really happening.)

Matches are pictured
Fires were a pre-Halloween tradition. / Roc Canals/Moment via Getty Images

For Detroit, Devil’s Night may have come in response to tough economic times. While some fire-related pranks in the city date back to the 1910s, when Detroit college students started bonfires and then handed cigars to arriving firefighters, pranks increased during the Great Depression. According to the Detroit Historical Society, such activity was largely harmless for much of the mid-20th century. But in the 1980s, Devil’s Night devolved into something far more serious.

The city, which had once been the nucleus of the American automotive industry, was seeing rising unemployment and an increasing number of abandoned buildings. Those properties held a certain appeal for those who had a fascination with fire and who wanted to blend the city’s ennui with a dangerous escalation of seasonal mischief. But there was substantial risk that the fires would spread to a nearby—and potentially occupied—building.

Year after year, a rising number of buildings were targeted for arson. Normally, Detroit might have seen 50 to 60 fires reported over a 24-hour period. Yet in 1983, an astounding 553 fires were recorded during a 72-hour period around Halloween; in 1984, Devil’s Night saw a record 810 fires.

The night was so calamitous for firefighters that it became common for them to commensurate the next morning, trading war stories. One told a Detroit Free Press reporter in 1985 that some of the blazes were less prank and more insurance scam, with building owners using Devil’s Night as a cover to torch their own property.

The spectacle was such that in addition to media attention, Detroit began to attract so-called “fire buffs,” or people who enjoy watching blazes and firefighting techniques. Like storm chasers, they would converge on the city: In 1986, a data processing consultant named Kenneth Kiplinger drove from Illinois to witness the blazing skyline firsthand. Dozens of others visited for the same reason, including off-duty firefighters from New York City.

This was hardly the kind of tourist attraction Detroit was looking for. After those two record-setting years, city officials decided they needed to douse what had become a pervasive appetite for destruction.

Fire Fighting

A fire truck is pictured
Detroit fought back in the late 1980s. / Visoot Utheraim/Moment via Getty Images

By 1985, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young had seen enough and took action. Acting under his orders, officials coordinated more than 8000 police officers, firefighters, and other city workers; trucks patrolled streets looking for telltale signs, like youths with gas cans.

Under his No More Devil’s Night awareness campaign, Young instituted a citywide dusk-to-dawn curfew for kids under 17 years of age. More than 11,000 volunteers patrolled the streets in a kind of fire-specific neighborhood watch program, reporting firebugs to authorities. The fires that year went down to 370, roughly half of the 1984 high.

In 1987, the volunteers rose to 17,000, and the number of fires dipped again to 290. Every year saw an increase in civilian help and a subsequent decrease in fires, with the city actively reducing possible targets by demolishing abandoned buildings.

Officials also requested that local newscasts avoid airing footage of fires during early broadcasts, as it seemed to promote copycat behavior. Some even declined to use the term Devil’s Night, preferring to reference it by using that Halloween period instead. Residents also followed the Adopt a House program, watching one nearby property for activity during peak Devil’s Night hours. By 1988, just 104 fires were reported on the night itself.

Thanks to volunteer efforts, Detroit largely abolished the arson epidemic by the 2000s, a community response that drew (almost) as much attention as the problem that provoked it. The city even managed to rebrand October 30 as Angels’ Night. While the night before Halloween is still home to juvenile pranks, it’s no longer drawing the interest of foreign media. Security cameras have also cut down on similarly tumultuous nights in New Jersey and Philadelphia, where kids might be too preoccupied with smartphones and other distractions to turn to arson.

In 2017, just six youths were detained in Detroit for mischievous behavior, a far cry from the chaos of the 1980s. Days later, the city officially put an end to the Angels' Night program.

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