Philadelphia — When the month comes to an end and dozens of people cheerfully parade neighborhoods with masks, capes, fangs and fake blood, Halloween is officially in full swing. Between watching scary movies in the dark; binge-thrifting the necessary pieces for the perfect costume; and stocking up on chocolate bars, Nerd Ropes and lollipops, Halloween is a tradition that allows you to tap into your creative side and test your limits.
For some communities, the best part of the holiday isn’t simply the candy, clothes and adrenaline — it’s the promotion of self-expression and feeling comfortable in your own skin, be it hidden under a monster costume or on display in drag. For the queer community, Halloween is a celebration of self-acceptance and, with that, an indication of changing times.
As October tips a hat to cult classics like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Addams Family,” horror fiction tales like these have often been allegorical of the social shame and exclusion of the queer community. With that, as the queer community evolves and expands, these monster stories take on a new narrative — reading less as a scary story and more as a popular thriller.
According to Dr. Naja Later (she/they), an academic tutor at the Swinburne University of Technology, “Halloween is a seasonal ritual of opening oneself up to horror, discomfort, disgust, unfamiliarity or danger. Once we move past our boundaries, we [can] discover a different kind of thrill on the other side or simply learn to appreciate things that used to scare us.”
With a longstanding interest in storytelling and narrative analysis, Later has dedicated their research to pop culture and its intersection with politics with a specialization in superhero and horror genres.
As horror stories evolve, their queer subtext is altered from an initial shameful relatability. Monster stories like Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” a lesbian gothic novella and one of the earliest works of vampire fiction, have paved the way for queer-coded horror media in which monsters become metaphorical for sexual and romantic outsiders.
Most notably, vampires — popularized as seductive, androgynous, shadow-lurking monsters — were often linked to closeted queer individuals who have been unjustly seen as predatory or peculiar. However, as queerness becomes more socially and culturally accepted, these vampire stories take on a new audience — attracting cult followings that advocate for the spread of queer horror media and, with that, more sexual vampire content.
Later argued that “there are parallels between the way queer people have been humanized and the way vampires have become as familiar as pets. For vampires and queer people, assimilation comes at the cost of being de-fanged: all the monstrous and dangerous parts must be purged for the rest to be assimilated into humanity.”
In part, the romanticization and normalization of monster stories stems from the role Halloween plays within the LGBTQIA+ community. For decades, Halloween has been the one day of the year where gender non-confirming individuals, in a city, state, or country that criminalizes homosexuality, can safely cross-dress and look as explicit and fabulous as they so desire.
With that, the holiday has been adoringly declared “gay Christmas” — though, according to Marc Stein, a professor of history at San Francisco State University and author of “City of Sisterly and Brotherly Lovers,” it was previously nicknamed “bitches Christmas.”
In the 1950s and 60s, hundreds of Philadelphia’s queer community would celebrate the holiday by barhopping the city’s gay bars and dressing in drag — a tradition now commonly seen as a queer must-do or coming of age event. In the 70s, between 1974 to 1979, “gay Christmas” was so widely celebrated that queer Halloween street parties grew from 160 attendees to over 200,000.
Molly Weisner, a senior psychology major at Temple University, said “elaborate costumes and dress have been popular in the queer community for quite some time now so it only makes sense that a holiday promoting and encouraging that would be so popular within the community. It’s a time to be yourself and the ‘weirder’ you are, the more celebrated and congratulated you are.”
For the third year in the row, Weisner is involved in Temple’s annual production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a musical from 1973 that has amassed a large LGBTQIA+ cult following due to its straightforward and positive display of gender expression, androgyny, and sexual identity. In 1974, homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” and only one year later, the film adaptation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was released. The musical not just ahead of its time but also loudly advocated for a community that was still negatively perceived on a grand scale.
Weisner, currently the Assistant Stage Manager for this year’s “Rocky Horror'' production, argued that “this tradition [at Temple] helps with visibility of the queer community. Putting this on shows there’s a safe space for LGBTQIA+ students if they so choose to seek us out.”
Live shows, remakes and adaptations of queer horror media are indicative of how and why the narrative on queerness and acceptance is constantly changing. As queer horror becomes more mainstream, it speaks to how queerness as a whole has become normalized. Advocating for LGBTQIA+ visibility allows the community to feel heard, seen, and understood in a world that still attempts to declare them abnormal or dangerous.
As Later wrote, the evolution of monster stories and the popularization of queer horror “helps us recognize our experience as outsiders in monsters, and embrace our desires for both the forbidden and the familiar.”
Halloween can be fun for all ages but for the queer community, it’s more than just an excuse to dress up and eat candy. It’s a day founded in expression, identity, and self-acceptance without fear of judgment. While the world changes and mainstream media makes a space for queerness, Halloween remains a comfort zone for closeted and out queers to be their truest selves, however they see fit.
Rosie Marie Hendricks (they/them) is from New York City, but is a Philly-based journalist who covers entertainment and culture. You can find them on Instagram @rosiehndrcks and on LinkedIn @rosiehendricks.
Edited by Nykeya Woods.