I used to think I was a bad gay because I loved Halloween more than Pride. Now it’s worth noting that New York City, where I live and actually moved to mostly to come out of the closet, is big on parades (Living here, you have elaborate plans to avoid the ones you find annoying, and bigger plans to celebrate the ones you embrace). And the Pride Parade is historic, joyous, and essential. I remember my first Pride Parade so clearly: as I stepped out of the subway, I caught sight of a police marching band as they began to play “New York, New York,” and I was stunned. “There are gay police? And enough of them to actually form a band?” I was thrilled at this slap-in-your-face realization over how big our community is, and how much I had still to learn. Immediately, this became my town. And my town is big on Halloween. Before I went to my first Pride, I went to my first Halloween Parade. If you haven’t been to New York City’s Halloween Parade, go. Just go. It’s an absolute old school New York City good time. And man, let me tell you, it’s an adult parade. The exhibitionists, the costume designers, anyone and everyone are out. This is a night time event, and sure kids come and have a great time (hell, I’ve brought some of my nephews and they loved it), but it’s a prelude to drinking and mischief. And the gays are there, front and center. Absent the serious political core of Pride, Halloween is a time for queers to just let their hair down (and let our horns shine bright). And the audience lining the parade loves us, hooting and applauding some of the campiest costumes you’ve ever seen (one of the biggest hits I’ve witnessed was a dozen guys dressed as Richard Simmons jogging along the route). Suddenly straights not only get our humor, but view us as an essential part of the overall celebration. But as we all know, Halloween is really about fear. I’d blogged about gay horror here before, but wanted to take a moment to focus on the final piece in my collection, Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe. I wrote this story at the request of an editor, a buddy who wanted a queer horror story. Just by asking if I had anything, I realized I had been thinking about this idea for years and never put it down on paper. Halloween Parade is just that, a story about a unique cultural phenomenon concerning a very particularly American holiday (with old world paganism bursting through the scarecrow seams) in one of the gayest cities of the world. New York City, the epicenter of the AIDS crisis and the Stonewall riots -I wanted to write about how a man with a rather obsessive predilection for horror films navigates the parade, and the particular temptations and anxieties of living here. Sometimes our parades, our parties and such, are a great way to let lose, to dance it off and be free, but sometimes total abandon opens a door that would be better left shut:
The Halloween Parade in New York City is a sloppy pageant of mock mayhem and elastic shadows. Outer-borough boys in drugstore masks muffling beery breath push through the crowd to grope no small variety of ass canvassed by tight-fitting jeans. Tourists gape and take pictures as men in heels strut about in glamorous costumes so meticulous most Las Vegas showgirls would hang their sequined heads in shame. Everywhere Frankensteins, Draculas, and Wolfmen cavort with modern incarnations of fear: those cinematic flavors of the moment, disgraced politicians and goofy celebrities, interspersed within a sea of witches, some in elaborate dark robes, wielding scraggy brooms, others sporting nothing but a pointy hat, just enough to signify membership among the coven.
Stephen sifted the crowd as he performed his annual census. He relished this time of year, when adults snatched back the one holiday that mattered from greedy made-for-cavities children, this pagan night that celebrated frenzy and death and darkness. Stephen kept Halloween alive throughout the year by meticulously maintaining his collection of horror films and memorabilia. He purchased horror movies of all stripes, running through countless phases, grabbing up the reissues, the director’s cuts, jumping on gory bandwagons galore: Asian cinema was big a few years ago and he’d lost count of the number of spooky bootlegs he’d gathered in Chinatown featuring ghost girls streaming black hair. He had reverently replaced his vast VHS collection one-by-one as the format was superseded by DVD, cherishing those grainy slasher and monster films that had yet to be re-released on disc. Halloween was a stake in the ground around which his whole year swung, and every year at the parade Stephen counted the killers.
My gay friends all talk about American Horror, Scream Queen, and The Walking Dead just as much as my friends, gay and straight, who also write in the genre. Maybe our flirtations with darkness access the same humor and intellect that inform our gay sensibilities. In The Halloween Parade, it’s the darkness that takes hold, however. And isn’t that always a possibility? Isn’t that why we check the doors after watching a particularly scary movie? Not because we’re scared, but ultimately, because we want to feel safe.
My first Halloween Parade was every horror (music) fan’s dream: my friend, Mike, scored tickets to see the reformed Misfits, with a set featuring guest drummer Tommy Ramone. And as I walked into the club, Jerry Only of the Misfits thought I was a friend and rushed over and gave me a hug. Realizing that we didn’t know each other (well, I knew him!), he released me and politely moved on. (Looking back, I bet he thought I was Moby, who was really blowing up at the time. I’d been mistaken for him at Limelight several times and twice gave fake autographs to get rid of some really insistent drunk people). After the show, the parade had dispersed but people in costumes hung out everywhere. Ears still ringing, I wandered around like I was shell-shocked in a city of masks and dreams.
I was still pretty circumspect about being gay at that first Pride. I was hesitant to stick around but I did manage to see First Lady Hillary Clinton there, waving, really enjoying the reception (she was about to run for Congress). I didn’t know she would be marching under the sun with us, and I was proud to realize that our event was such an important one. I also noticed seemingly straight families in the audience, kids on their shoulders, cheering us on. Some of the same kids would, in a few months, be in costume at a very different parade, just like so many of us.
Lou Reed, Halloween Parade, from the New York Album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb_r-IwB8t8