The Complicated History Of Devil’s Night

Photo: Getty Images.
Growing up in Michigan, there were a few state-specific things that I assumed the whole country had: Vernor's ginger ale. Coney Islands (the diner, not the hot dog or the Brooklyn neighborhood). A Sufjan Stevens album dedicated to my state. Another one of those things: Devil’s Night — a.k.a. the night before Halloween.
Devil’s Night has many similarities with Mischief Night, observed in other parts of the country. Both events take place on the evening of October 30 and are full of “tricks” — think toilet-papering neighbors’ houses and egging cars. Growing up in a small town outside Detroit in the late '90s and 2000s, I knew Devil's Night for these minor acts of vandalism. But the history of the night is much more complicated
“Devil’s Night in Michigan was part of the much wider Halloween tradition of mischief night in the USA,” Owen Davies, a contributor to BBC’s HistoryExtra and an historian, tells Refinery29. “It seems to draw heavily on a similar Irish tradition of Halloween violence and vandalism. It was well-ingrained in the big cities by the 1930s, with the youths of Dallas, for instance, greasing the railway tracks, puncturing tires, smashing windows, and turning over outdoor toilets.”
However, in the '70s, Detroit's “Devil’s Night ‘celebrations’ grew more violent,” Owens says. And by 1984, Devil’s Night in Detroit was known for arson, with 810 fires reported that year, according to Atlas Obscura.  In 1985, Detroit increased the number of firefighters and police officers on patrol on Devil’s Night, and in 1986, instituted a mandatory curfew for minors. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw an increase in volunteer patrols to “take back the streets," and arson reports began to decline.
Then, on Devil’s Night in 1994, a one-year-old girl named Destiny Wilson was killed and four other people were injured when a fire swept their four-story apartment building. Reports said there were between 200 to 300 fires that night. In response, city officials and community leaders launched "Angels’ Night," in which 50,000 volunteers patrolled the streets on the days before Halloween.
Some have argued that depictions of Devil’s Night are overblown, the result of racist tropes. According to MASK Magazine, authorities framed Devil’s Night “not as an isolated incident, but as an aftershock of [the 1967 Detroit riot] that rivaled its destruction and, therefore, should be eligible for the same levels of counterinsurgency." To justify the increased policing, authorities "resort[ed] to racist and supernatural tropes... Much in the same way that the witch was manufactured to target a heterogeneous population with the figure of a supernatural, life-stealing Other, the figure of the Devil had also been revived to literally demonize the insurgent Black youth of Detroit.”
Critics say the media was responsible, too. In 1990, Newsweek critiqued an ABC segment on "Detroit's plight" that emphasized Devil’s Night, murder, and drug use. The report “lapsed into gratuitous stigmatizing shorthand,” Newsweek staff wrote, adding that several Detroiters featured in the program felt they were misled by ABC. One woman thought the story would be about the work of community-based anti-violence organization SOSAD (Save Our Sons And Daughters), while others said the producer “promised a balanced portrait.” Newsweek noted that the segment "outraged many Detroiters" to the point that "60 community representatives flew to New York to tell ABC executives that the city's virtues were ignored in pursuit of a lurid, easily reported story."
By 2015, the number of fires on Devil’s Night were no different from the number on fires on any other night of the year. Two years later, Detroit retired its Angels’ Night patrols, replacing them with a celebratory event called “Halloween in the D.” “After yet another quiet year, it’s clear this is the time to give Halloween back to our children,” Fire Chief Eric Jones said in a statement in 2017, via the Detroit Free Press. “From now on, Halloween in Detroit isn’t going to be about fear, it’s going to be about fun.”

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series