What “Halloween” Taught Me About Queerness
Michael Myers wore the mask I wanted for myself
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John Carpenter’s Halloween opens with the post-coital murder of a half-naked adolescent girl at the hands of her younger brother, Michael Myers. He has just witnessed his sister’s seduction of a beautiful young man while spying on them through a window on Halloween night. What follows is a dreamlike first-person sequence that ends with the viewer looking through the eyeholes of a mask. As his sister’s lover bounds down the stairs and out the door, casually pulling on a striped T-shirt over a perfectly toned chest and torso, Michael seemingly takes the young man’s place, retracing his steps up the stairs and into the bedroom where his sister sits topless at a vanity table. He notices that the bed behind her is unmade, the sheets ruffled, evidence of an exchange that Michael doesn’t yet understand but for which he intuitively believes she must be punished.
The revelation of heterosexual desire seems to have triggered the onset of a latent evil inside Michael’s young body. This evil finds its mode of expression in the shiny blade of a kitchen knife, the first iteration of what will become his weapon of choice. After donning a clownish mask that had been discarded on the floor by the departed lover, Michael hacks his screaming sister to shreds before enacting his own post-climax exit down the staircase and out the front door. Outside the house, he encounters his parents emerging from the family car, and his father calls out to him by name as he approaches the street. But rather than relieve his son of the bloodied knife, Michael’s father first removes the mask. The imperative in this scene isn’t immediately to disarm the costumed Michael Myers of a murder weapon — rather, it’s to reveal him, to show his face.
The opening of Halloween is a coming-out story.
I was maybe ten years old when my father took me to the video store during one of the weekends when I was staying with him at the old house where we had all lived before the divorce, and we came home with a VHS copy of Halloween. I remember wandering the aisles alone while my father waited in the car, nursing one of the beers that he brought with him for even the shortest of drives. I inspected every film in the store before finally settling on Halloween, charmed by the haunting simplicity of the cover image of a vicious jack-o’-lantern seemingly gripping the exaggeratedly angled blade of a knife, the fire inside the pumpkin visible only through the carved-out holes of its eyes.
I was reminded of the horror paperbacks that lined the shelves of my mother’s bookcase. Their covers featured eyes glowing in perfect darkness, or headlights in the distance on an otherwise empty street, or a dark house on a hilltop beneath a stormy sky with just the uppermost attic window glowing bright, as if to say that the only person inside was to be kept hidden upstairs, perpetually out of sight. By then I had already read most of those novels, shuttling them in my backpack to and from school and then from one parent’s house to the other, and I already knew that what interested me in the world was also what scared me: the unexplainable, the supernatural, characters suffering random violence at the hands of strangers.
I instantly became obsessed with Halloween. The dread-inducing and methodically paced score quickly became the soundtrack to my own life, and I would hum its provocative notes as I walked or cycled through the streets and sidewalks of a small town that was to me a direct facsimile of Haddonfield, Illinois, where the future victims of Michael Myers sauntered home from school clutching textbooks and discussing their plans for the night. I could see myself in the universe of Halloween, recognizing its contours for the shape my own life had taken. I grew up a few hours south of fictional Haddonfield in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, but when Laurie Strode — the film’s protagonist and Michael’s primary obsession, his victims almost always being the people closest to her — peered out the window onto sidewalks filled with trick-or-treaters, she might as well have been looking out onto my street, my sidewalk, my house next door.
I was entranced by the way Halloween’s villain moved so slowly and ploddingly, knife in hand and mask firmly attached to his face, and yet always still managed to catch up with the young people who would eventually become his victims. As if the act of being deliberate about his choices was enough for him to get exactly what he wanted. After Michael’s escape from the asylum where he’s presumably been housed for the fifteen long years since his sister’s murder, he’s now returned home to Haddonfield, the scene of the original crime, and the camera in Carpenter’s film adopts not only the pace of Michael’s defining lope but also the nature of his perspective. Many of the exterior shots are framed as if viewed not by an audience, but by a bystander — someone watching unnoticed, just off to the side of its characters’ immediate focus, waiting for the perfect time to strike. The film teaches a voyeuristic way of being in the world, a way of looking without being seen. I recall my first furtive glances at other boys in the locker room after gym class and longing for the safety of something like Michael’s mask, the ability to hide a desire that I knew would be made plain by a quick glance in the direction of my gaze.
I watched Halloween countless times after that first viewing with my father, always in the dark, always aware that I was coming closer and closer to unearthing something locked up within myself. Sometimes I would rewind and start the film over immediately from the beginning after delighting once more in the revelation of Michael’s uncanny escape after having been presumably vanquished. I recognized something in the expression of existential anguish settling onto Laurie’s young face as she realizes that she’s been consigned to a lifetime of looking over her shoulder for the bogeyman.
The reason I was able to watch the film so frequently was because my father never returned it to the video store. The tape and its plastic box remained at the house, the small label on the otherwise blank container revealing only the name of the film, the year of its release, and its genre: horror, a word that would come to imply a kind of comfort for me throughout my childhood and adolescence, an increasingly necessary escape from the real.
I finally stopped watching Halloween on a continuous loop when I stopped going inside my father’s house during the mandatory visits after the divorce. The film remained on the other side of a doorway through which I had come to dread entering. My father was an all-day drinker by then, his eyes always glassy and far away, empty cans littering every surface of the kitchen, the carpet in the hallway perpetually soiled. He would pass out and wake up and start drinking again, cases of beer at a time, like it was some kind of race to get it all down. My mother would drop me off outside his house on Saturday mornings and I would wait for her to drive away before storing the cooler containing my lunch in the backseat of his car, always left unlocked in a neighborhood like the one we lived in, and then I would play with the neighborhood kids until dusk, when my mother would pick me up again. And by then I saw the streets of my old neighborhood through Carpenter’s lens — danger lurking behind every hedgerow, the possibility of the bogeyman stepping out onto the sidewalk in front of me and the knowledge that he would catch me no matter how fast I ran.
No one knew where I was. Anything could have happened.
I was afraid of being a teenager long before I became one. What I knew or at least expected of adolescence was that it would involve performing desire in the form of pursuing girls and trying to lure them into dark corners. The heavy petting I had seen in movies always took place in closets. I didn’t yet have a name for what I was, but I knew that it was derogatory. Schoolyard jeers portrayed queerness as a weakness, an affliction, some kind of monstrosity. I watched with a barely containable resentment as the girls flirted openly with the most alluring of the boys in the hallways of my large public middle school, all of their bodies having sprung suddenly from awkward childhood into something resembling beauty, and I didn’t understand yet that I hated these girls because I wanted to be them, or at least to hold the power that they held over the boys chasing them, pawing at them, trying to claim them. I didn’t understand yet that what I wanted was to be claimed by those boys in exactly that same way.
In one of my last memories of my father, we met in a public park, the old house having been lost to foreclosure, and he tried to talk to me about girls. I was twelve years old and a girl named Sarah had recently pursued me at school, leaving notes in my locker and then in a brave show of vulnerability asking me to a school dance. I accepted because I was afraid of what would happen if I turned her down, failing to play the part I’d been assigned. But the night of the dance came and I pretended to be sick and I avoided her afterwards at school in the most cringingly obvious of ways. She never asked me out again after that, and we eventually became just two young people who would pass each other in the hallway with maybe a smile, maybe a small wave, the confusion and hurt in the wake of what had happened never exhumed or made right.
But I couldn’t tell my father about any of that. Instead, I invented a crush and invented a failed pursuit of this imaginary crush, invented an explanation for why I spent all of my time alone.
Watching Halloween was the first time that I knowingly witnessed a blatant representation of human sexuality — in this case, heterosexual human sexuality, the kind of buzzing horniness most explicit in representations of adolescence on film and television — and what I saw confirmed to me that I was not welcome there. There’s a scene in the second half of Halloween in which Laurie’s friend, Lynda, welcomes who she believes to be her boyfriend, Bob, back into the bedroom in which they’ve just finished having sex. She slowly reveals her naked breasts to him from behind a bed sheet, the camera’s gaze sliding down her body in imitation of Bob’s own, until she is fully revealed, smiling seductively as if she knows that she is giving Bob exactly what he wants. She understands his desire, and she knows how to satisfy it. But she doesn’t know that the man she thinks is her boyfriend is actually Michael Myers in disguise. She doesn’t know that he has just stabbed Bob to death after rushing out at him from a closet, and that what he desires is something different entirely.
I understood that I should want to look, too — that what Lynda expected Bob to gawk at was something that I was also expected to gawk at — but I ended up identifying more with Michael Myers than with these young, doomed characters who would shortly succumb to the actualization of a desire that does not match their own. The experience of adolescence as a closeted queer boy is one of constantly attempting to imitate the expression of a desire that you do not feel. Identification with a bogeyman, then, shouldn’t be so surprising when you imagine the bogeyman as unfit for society, his true nature having been rejected and deemed horrific.
And Michael as Bob is not only wearing the familiar mask now ubiquitously associated with his character in the Halloween franchise. He’s also wearing a white sheet covering his entire body, with Bob’s glasses resting delicately where his own eyes are, and the imitation is deliberate and well-imagined. Michael is pretending to be a straight man — a straight, sexualized man — in order to make possible the expression of his true desire, a pursuit far more deviant than the enactment of a heterosexual coupling. He is wearing a mask over a mask. And he seems so cartoonish in this moment, his desire to conceal himself having reached the level of self-parody. How silly it looks to hide in plain sight.
The second time Michael Myers is unmasked in Halloween — after his father removes his mask in the film’s opening sequence — is by Laurie Strode herself. She has just risen from the hallway floor where she had been recovering from the shock of what she believed to be her final encounter with Michael, having stabbed him with his own knife and believing him to be dead, when he suddenly rises from the floor behind her. He begins to walk toward Laurie just as she steps out onto the landing, and she is alone in the frame for only a moment — believing herself to be safe — before Michael catches her from behind and turns her around to face him, his hands at her throat. He begins to choke her.
Laurie’s panicked astonishment is palpable as she thrashes about within his grip, and in the commotion, we think she’s grappling for his throat, perhaps trying to weaken his hold on her. But then we see that she’s instead trying to remove his mask, as if she intuitively recognizes the source of his power. To disarm him, she must reveal him. And I remember the horrified expression on his face when it was finally displayed onscreen — ugly and confused, blinking in the sudden light, all of the threat he had previously posed dissolving in his sudden nakedness. He releases Laurie in the effort to conceal himself, fumbling desperately with the cheap plastic, and I remember hating the look of him without the mask. My body seized with an urgent, almost unbearable need for him to put it back on. I didn’t want to see him like that.
Early in the summer in which I would later turn thirteen years old, my mother took me on a weeklong vacation to Florida with the man she had been dating for the past several years. The sprawling seaside resort was magical to me — it was the first time I had seen the ocean, and now we could see it out of almost every window — and I often explored the grounds while my mother and her boyfriend were upstairs in the rented room, sleeping off the effects of morning poolside cocktails. I would get myself lost and then make a game of finding my way back to our building again, one of several identical towers in the complex, mapping the space between them as lizards scurried across the sun scorched path at my feet. One afternoon, I was swimming alone in the shallow end of the pool when a man waded toward me. He said he’d been watching me, that I looked lonely, like I could use some company. His chest hair was thick and his arms looked strong. He had large teeth that revealed themselves when he smiled and suggested that we play a game.
The game we played was that I would swim between his legs, straddled wide at first, with the goal of not touching him at all as I swam through, and then each time he would narrow his stance further, closing the gap, making it more and more difficult for me to pass without our skin touching. I thought I was winning the game because I kept angling my body just so, and I would get through each time without my own legs rubbing against his. But then I went down again and saw that he had pulled himself out of his swimming shorts, his cock now lolling in the water above me.
I knew that he wanted me to touch it, to willfully or even accidentally lose the game. It was clear what he wanted to provide for me, and what I would be expected to provide in exchange. I wondered later, after the fear and confusion and disgust with myself had dulled to a gnawing sense of dread, what I had done to show him that I might have wanted it. Had he seen me watching the older boys in the pool whose bodies were already lined with smooth, curved muscles snaking down their arms and torsos, loose swim shorts hanging just below the stark tan lines on their waists, clinging tightly to their bodies as they pulled themselves up the ladder out of the pool? Had he known how badly I wanted to be with them, to wrestle with them in the water and allow them to hold my head under until my lungs were bursting, but that I was too afraid to approach them, too afraid that they would recognize what I really wanted from them if I got too close?
I swam away and hurried up the ladder, running all the way back to the room without bothering to gather my things. I pounded frantically on the door until my mother let me in, complaining about how much noise I was making. But the man from the pool had followed me. He knocked on the door shortly after I came inside, and when she opened it for him, he asked my mother whether I wanted to come back down and continue the game we had started. I imagined him walking slowly up from the pool while I scrambled toward safety, thinking that he could get what he wanted just by asking — by showing up and telling me exactly what was going to happen next, whether I liked it or not.
I remember shaking my head vigorously, refusing to even look up at him in the doorway from where I’d burrowed into the cushions of the cheap couch, and my mother eventually turned him away, perhaps baffled by the exchange, expecting me to have chosen a different kind of friend. But even after he was gone, I knew he had taken something from me. What I had thought was only a secret desire had actually been visible on my body all along to those who knew how to look. I had never really been wearing a mask at all.
My father died while we were in Florida. We didn’t find out until we got back home because no one had wanted to interrupt our vacation. I was in my mother’s bedroom unpacking when she answered the phone next to the mirror at her vanity table.
The last time I’d used the telephone she was holding was when I’d hung up on my father just before our trip. He was slurring his words and I angrily accused him of being drunk yet again. Our last conversation. When my mom told me that he was gone, I thought at first that he had died from a sudden relapse of the cancer he had suffered through a few years before, during which time we would visit him in the hospital, a dimly lit room full of the various machines to which he had been attached. But the truth was that he had drank himself to death. He had been driving home from a bar. He was often drunk when he drove, beer cans nestled between his legs and at his feet; sometimes he’d pull over to vomit out the open window. He had pulled over to the side of the road this time, too, crawled out and waited for his heart to stop.
I became a teenager one month after my father’s funeral. I entered adolescence during a summer in which I didn’t sleep, simply waited up every night in darkness, thinking that if I succumbed to sleep then I’d succumb to death. I watched endless horror movies on the small television above my bed in an effort to keep myself awake, and I became acquainted with other villains aside from Michael Myers, each with his own particular desire and his own particular method of enacting its consummation. I was giving myself an education in what to expect from the world, or in how I expected the world to eventually receive me, and those long nights alone in the dark were spent paralyzed at the threshold of a reckoning I could not yet imagine.
My father had been there, too, and he’d seen his way through to the end. Maybe that final night wasn’t the darkest he had ever known, but it was the last of a series of dark nights, the end of a long pursuit by his own relentless bogeyman. Because in his story, he was the one being chased.
I finally recorded Halloween onto a blank tape from a late-night television broadcast after searching in vain for the old video store copy in the boxes in the basement from my father’s house. I watched it over and over again that summer, renewing my obsession with seeing the world through Michael’s eyes. Watching it again, I was struck for the first time by the final moments of Carpenter’s film. Following the revelation that Michael Myers has indeed escaped into the night largely unscathed, the camera lingers on images of interior domestic spaces now made fraught by Michael’s various intrusions into their presumed realms of safety, as if he’s perhaps still there, lying in wait behind the couch or the curtains, appearing suddenly at the top of a dark staircase. And the final shots of the film are static images of the Haddonfield houses in which the murders and attacks have been committed, as if to show us that what seems innocuous on the outside can in fact contain deadly secrets. The lights are all off, and we can’t see in through the windows, but we know what might be lurking just beyond those seemingly inviting front doors.
By the end of Halloween, earlier representations of the suburban landscape as benign and knowable are rendered short-sighted, and the film asks us to gauge our expectations about these domestic spaces against the knowledge we now have about what they might contain. I would lie awake in bed during the summer of my father’s death and picture what my house looked like from the outside, a small two-story house in a modest row of small houses in a quiet neighborhood where young children often played in the street until dusk. Mine was the only upstairs bedroom window that faced out onto the street, and I often wondered whether it was obvious from the outside that someone like me was living there.
In the early morning hours, long before dawn but after the house had fallen asleep around me, the windows would be dark and the horrors on the television would be muted and I would allow myself the pleasure of my own touch. And just before I came, the man from the pool would always resurface like some kind of secret companion in my mind. I fantasized relentlessly about what might have happened if I hadn’t run away that day, hadn’t come up for air, but instead had done everything I imagined he might have offered. I followed him to an empty room at the resort, photographs of sea shells in cheap frames on the wall, a painting of an endless horizon at sunset hung at a slight tilt above the unmade bed. He turned off the lights, drew the curtains, and stepped toward me in the dark. I was already hard when he grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me over to the bed before scrambling toward me, his body heavy on top of mine as he tugged my wet swim shorts down to my ankles.
I wasn’t twelve years old anymore. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. After all, I had been begging for it. Everyone had seen.