Costume Culture, Monster Movies, and Hell Houses: A Queer Unpacking of Halloween
By Keshia Mcclantoc
The weather is getting cooler, the leaves are changing color, the pumpkin patches and apple orchards are opening up, streaming services and theatres are playing all the best horror movies, and shelves and closets alike are filling up with costumes upon costumes. All of this can only mean one thing – it’s time for Halloween.
Though a well-loved holiday by many, Halloween is hardly America’s favorite holiday. Christmas lives solidly at the top of many ranked lists, with Thanksgiving as a close second. The Fourth of July and Easter usually come next. And then, maybe it’s Halloween…or maybe it’s Mother or Father’s Day first, depending on who you ask or where you look. Americans like Halloween, but don’t love it. And that’s fine, because I don’t think Halloween is meant for the average American, instead, I think Halloween belongs the gays.
LGBT+ communities and queer cultures have always had a special relationship with Halloween. So much so that in her 1984 publication of Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, lesbian poet and activist Judy Grahn argued that “Halloween is the most significant Great Gay holiday” (Holdgrafer). In large part, this love of Halloween comes with the deep love of costumes present in many queer cultures. It’s obvious that LGBT+ peoples are going to embrace a holiday that celebrates the freedom of expression, that encourages you to drop the pretenses of heterosexuality and fully be a character or concept that is more indicative of a truer self.
History proves this too, with the culture of Halloween in the U.S. often running parallel to the queer history of costume culture, as Grahn furthers in her observations of queer Halloween, “elaborate drag balls often accompanied by costume parades and attendance by stars and political figures, large parties, processions, limousines, and mass public turnouts in Gay ghetto areas on Halloween mark it as the Night of Nights for the Gay community” (Holdgrafer). This history stretches much further back than Grahn’s time too.
A queer embrace of Halloween and costume culture first began with drag balls in Harlem, at the Hamilton lodge, the earliest record of one dating back to 1869 (Rosado). Although drag balls were often deemed immoral by society, the balls held on or associated with Halloween were not thought of as such and allowed for a thriving foray into queer costume culture. Or, as Emily Rosado says in “Gay History: The Queer History Behind Halloween,” – “the newly commercialized Halloween celebrations had people from coast to coast throwing parties and holding costume contests for who was dressed best. The extravagance of costumes led people of the time to test the boundaries of what was acceptable” (Rosado). Halloween gave queer individuals an excuse to embrace all forms of gender variance. It also helped, too, that laws that otherwise outlawed any form of cross-dressing were largely ignored around the Halloween season.
The costumed embrace of Halloween spread across the nation, with drag balls cropping up on Halloween across most major cities in the U.S. In Chicago, in the 1930s, queer PoC individuals embraced costume culture at Alfred Finnie’s jazz club drag balls; in the 1940s through 1960s, Halloween celebrations in the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco brought queer crowds from all overt he U.S.; and as the LGBT+ Rights Movement revved up during the 70s and 80s, New York City began hosting the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, a celebration whose costumed spirit and energy were not unlike the contemporary Pride Parades we see today (Rosado).
There’s just something about costume culture that makes Halloween an incredibly emancipatory holiday for LGBT+ peoples. In David Frum’s “Halloween Craze Started in Gay Culture,” he argues that “It’s not just a party. It’s an ideal of personal emancipation, self-expression and self-fulfillment – an ideal that loses none of its power when it takes the form of a sexy nurse’s outfit” (Frum). Nicolas Rogers, in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night furthers that “it has been the gay community that has most flamboyantly exploited Halloween’s potential as a transgressive festival, as one that operates outside or on the margins of orthodox time, space, and hierarchy” (Rogers 203). In short, Halloween belongs to the gays because it has long been the night where costume has meant freedom, where putting on a mask has meant letting yourself go unmasked, just for a moment.
However, there’s more layers to this queer embrace of Halloween. LGBT+ peoples embrace Halloween not only because of the inherent freedom that its costume culture provides, but also because for too long, individuals on the queer spectrum have been codified as monsters, outcasts, and the ‘other’ in the monster movies that tend to crop up in relation to Halloween. And while that villainized representation was once a marker of how far queer emancipation had yet to come, in contemporary times, LGBT+ peoples are embracing the monstrous depictions of queerness, and in turn, embracing the holiday they are most associated with.
In Kenneth Figueroa’s “Haunted: The Intersections of Queer Culture and Horror Movies,” he posits that “while the surface goal of the horror genre is to instill fear and suspense, one will be surprised to find there are many underlying political themes, especially when it comes to its vivid congruence to queer culture” (Figueroa). He further adds that, as a child and even still, as an adult, that he “thrived off the feeling of fear, enthralled by the tales of monsters and wayward souls living a life of dissonance and death” (Figueroa). Born during a time when the Hollywood Production Codes prevented anything explicitly queer from happening on film, the monster movie genre became a distinctive in its representation of queer beings – the looming Frankenstein, whose ‘father’ rejects him for perceived differences and imperfections, the flamboyant vampires who merrily moves between masculine and feminine gendered performance, or the serial killers who phallic-like weapons speak to all types of penetrative metaphors. Again and again, monster movies depict their villains in both subversive and overt ways.
While consistent villainization of queerness has certainly done a number on society, LGBT+ peoples have reclaimed the monster much in the same way that they have reclaimed the term ‘queer’ itself. One of the most prominent examples of this embrace comes from the 1975 film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Initially a commercial failure, Rocky Horror later became a cult and Halloween classic alike, in large part because of queer audiences. Or, as Curtis Wong says in “Why ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ Remains a Queer Cinematic Milestone,” “much of its ‘midnight movie’ success can be attributed to LGBTQ audiences, who identified with its embrace of sexual freedom, its objectification of men for a gay gaze and, of course, its unforgettable song-and-dance sequences” (Wong). Dr. Frank-n-Furter, the main character of the film, is undeniably a queer monster. They claim themself as a gender defying “sweet transvestite,” openly kill and sexually manipulate other characters, and like most monsters, face a tragic ending at the hands of the ‘greater good’. Despite all these monstrous qualities, they are one of the most queerly well-loved monsters within Halloween adjacent filmography.
In more recent years, this queer embrace of monsters has made itself even more present. There are now comics about the gay life of Moth Man, The Bababook (the titular monster in the 2014 film of the same name) was claimed a symbol of gay defiance under the Trump administration, and people have argued that Pennywise (the fame clown from Steven King’s IT) is just an exaggerated caricature of a gay man in drag. In “How Did A Bunch Of Mythical Monsters Become Queer Icons,” John Brammer argues that an embrace of monsters is a recognition of how, much like the monsters in these movies, queer peoples have been too often vilified by society, saying “queer people, finally fed up with being called villains, decide to reclaim cryptids as their own. It’s a delicious subversion of the rhetoric that has historically been used against us: a reclamation, a reappropriation, a hijacking” (Brammer). With this embrace of monsters come a further embrace of Halloween and all the spooky figures it conjures up.
Of course, while queer peoples have fully embodied both the costumes and monsters we so associate with Halloween, it doesn’t mean that embrace of this holiday has always been an easy task for LGBT+ peoples. In fact, Hell Houses have often taken the queer embrace of Halloween and used it to further vilify and demonize LGBT individuals. Though not as popular as they once were, Hell Houses became notorious throughout the 70s (and lasting well into the 2000s) for their horrific depictions of all things anti-LGBT. Conceptually, Hell Houses are simple – around Halloween time, Christian Evangelicals would build their own take on haunted houses that depicted the many sins that could land you in Hell in graphic and unsettling ways. There would be scenes of abortions gone wrong, alcoholics and drug addicts overdosing, teen suicide, and even victim-blaming depictions of date rape (NGLTF). And of course, there were also scenes depicting the sins of homosexuality.
According to a 2006 National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce (NGLTF) report:
“Instead of spooking youth with ghosts and monsters, Hell House tour guides direct them through rooms where violent scenes of damnation for a variety of ’sins’ are performed, including scenes where a teenage lesbian is brought to hell after committing suicide and a gay man dying of AIDS is taunted by a demon who screams that the man will be separated from God forever in hell” (NGLTF).
These Hell Houses followed a long tradition of fearmongering as method of anti-LGBT backlash. That these houses were targeted so specifically to the holiday that has long been lauded by many as the ‘Gay Christmas’ and that Evangelical groups highly encouraged families to bring their children to these houses is both appalling and unsurprising at the same time. Though Hell Houses are not as popular as they were once, there are still multiple places where ‘Hell House Kits’ may be purchased and there are many Christian organizations who believe the best way to combat queer peoples is to reappropriate their favorite holiday for some truly horrific means.
Despite the influx of Hell Houses, queer culture has yet to loosen its strong grip on Halloween as its own. Or as Irene Monroe says, “their attempt to turn our most cherished holiday against us failed” (Monroe). Halloween will always belong to the gays because it has a such a rich and long history of emancipation through costume culture. Halloween will always belong to the gays because the monsters we associate with it will always be reclaimed for subversive means. And Halloween will always belong to the gays, despite all attempts to push us away from it, because it will always be the one night of the year where many of us on the LGBT+ spectrum aren’t afraid to revel in our proclivities, whether they are ghoulish, garish, or slutty as hell, because in the eyes of society, we already represent those things every day. So why not embrace it, and the one holiday that we may claim and truly and fully ours.
Brammer, John P. “How Did A Bunch Of Mythical Monsters Become Queer Icons?” BuzzFeed News, 21 September 2017. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jpbrammer/how-did-a-bunch-of-mythical-monsters-become-queer-icons
Figueroa, Kenneth. “Haunted: The Intersections of Queer Culture and Horror Movies.” Wussy Magazine, 17 October 2017. https://www.wussymag.com/all/2017/10/6/haunted-the-intersections-of-queer-culture-and-horror-movies
Frum, David. “Halloween Craze Started in Gay Culture.” CNN, 1 November 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/11/01/frum.halloween/index.html
Holdgrafer, George. “Halloween is the ‘Great Gay Holiday.’” Lavender Magazine, 17 October 2013. https://lavendermagazine.com/our-scene/halloween-is-the-great-gay-holiday/
“Homophobia at ‘Hell House’: Literally Demonizing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth.” National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Report, 2006. Print.
Munroe, Irene. “Remembering When Evangelicals Tried to Exorcise Gays With ‘Hell Houses’” The Advocate, 27 October 2016. https://www.advocate.com/commentary/2016/10/27/remembering-when-evangelicals-tried-exorcise-gays-hell-houses
Rogers, Nicolas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Rosado, Emily. “Gay Christmas: The Queer History Behind Halloween.” Queers for a Cause, 5 November 2020. https://queersforacause.com/lgbtq%2B-culture/f/gay-christmas-the-queer-history-behind-halloween
Wong, Curtis M. “Why 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' Remains A Queer Cinematic Milestone.” HuffPost, 16 October 2018. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/rocky-horror-picture-show-musical-matt-baume_n_5bc63c51e4b0a8f17ee6be26