Halloween is almost here, and so is Devil’s Night — the night before Halloween infamous for pranks, from toilet-papering to arson.
Destructive pranks associated with the yearly tradition have declined since what seems like a peak in the 1980s and ’90s when novices and professional arsonists were setting homes on fire. There were variations of Devil’s Night around the country, but the level of arson and destruction in Detroit was so unique that people traveled from other states and countries to watch the fires.
Let’s rewind and look at the history of Devil’s Night in Detroit, and the city’s response to the phenomenon.
The roots of Devil’s Night are murky but may have started with a yearly tradition called Mischief Night. The mischief started in 18th century Britain, and by the mid-20th century, pranksters in Detroit had started relatively mild forms of disturbance and destruction around the city on Oct. 30.
The tradition had taken such a sufficient hold by the 1970s that the Free Press published a guide for readers called “How to beat the Devil” and “goblin-proof” their homes. Instructions included tips for how to respond to a variety of Devil’s Night pranks.
It reads: “One popular Detroit goblin trick to beware of: If someone throws lighted paper on your porch, do not rush to stomp it out — there may be animal droppings inside.”
These nuisance pranks became increasingly more destructive over the years. The Free Press reported vandals smashing 99 windows in 72 city buses, vandalizing 84 homes, and eight instances of arson in 1978. The destruction only worsened into the 1980s.
As Detroit’s population declined from its peak in 1950, more homes were left empty. Community groups believed the increased number of vacant homes played a large role in the escalation of dangerous pranks and arson. They criticized Mayor Coleman Young’s administration for its slow response to demolish buildings.
In 1983, people set hundreds of fires around the city, and the next year, Young announced strategies to combat destruction. Juveniles were largely blamed for causing much of the damage, leading Young to enforce youth curfews. He also increased police and fire department patrols.
The true number of fires is hard to pin down. In 1984, for example, the fire department believed Young underestimated the number of fires for political reasons. Young criticized the Free Press for what he believed was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“An expectation was built up in the minds of the public for negative events on Devil’s Night. So Devil’s Night came, and the wish became father to the thought,” Young said.
Young wasn’t the only city official to express displeasure with Devil’s Night media coverage.
Board of Police Commissioners Chairman Harold Shapiro argued, “The media took great delight in featuring the unfortunate actions that took place. …It was grossly exaggerated in tone, in content and in fact.”
Into the 1990s, city officials urged the media to refrain from using the term “Devil’s Night,” instead calling it the “Halloween period.” They also asked local news outlets not to air footage of the fires to prevent copycat crimes.
Detroit eventually called on volunteers to help quell arson and violence on Devil’s Night/Halloween period. This effort, later called “Angel’s Night,” attracted around 30,000 volunteers in 1990 and even more joined the effort the next year. Young spearheaded an ‘Adopt a House’ campaign, encouraging residents to watch abandoned or vacant houses in their neighborhoods. In 1991 and 1992, the city released several PSAs urging residents to “get mad, get involved, [and] stop Devil’s Night arson.”
Young also maintained the narrative that increased media attention and focus on arson would worsen violence and crime on Devil’s Night.
“It would be a mistake to over-publicize and remind too many people, or everybody, that Devil’s Night is the night the city burns down. You keep publishing stories about Devil’s Night that reminds… the people to set the fires,” Young said.
Devil’s Night shaped how Detroiters celebrated Halloween. Instead of a fun day of dressing up and eating candy, Halloween became a source of fear for some Detroit residents. As early as 1974, 63.7% of respondents to a Free Press reader survey believed the city should ban trick-or-treating and replace the tradition with Halloween block parties. As Devil’s Night grew more problematic, some shut off their porch lights and turned away trick-or-treaters.
Today, fires on the eve of Halloween are few and far between. Rather than fighting a legion of fires, the fire department decorates their stations and hands out candy. As fires died down, so did the Angel’s Night initiative. Mayor Mike Duggan officially ended it in 2017.
According to fire department data, the department responded to no intentional fires on Halloween or the day before in 2022. Most calls were accidental smoke detector activations, gas leaks or EMS calls due to car accidents.