Richard Scott Larson

On “Halloween” as a Coming-Out Story, Horror as Comfort, the Queer Canon, and His Debut Memoir, ‘The Long Hallway’

Cover of Richard Scott Larson: On “Halloween” as a Coming-Out Story, Horror as Comfort, the Queer Canon, and His Debut Memoir, ‘The Long Hallway’

“The opening of Halloween is a coming-out story,” Richard Scott Larson writes in his new memoir, The Long Hallway (University of Wisconsin Press, 2024). At first glance, the masked antagonist of John Carpenter’s classic horror film might seem an unlikely connection within one’s personal coming-of-age narrative. But from his very first childhood viewing of Halloween, Larson felt a connection between that mask and his own experience as a young closeted queer boy. As an adult looking back on his life, Larson identifies Michael Myers as something of a cypher for his own youthful self and the world around him—the fear and desire wound up in the idea of being revealed for who you truly are. 

“I was supposed to be reading books about chosen ones embarking upon quests to save imaginary worlds, sports heroes or mysteries soon to be solved by resourceful boy detectives. I was supposed to be reading stories with happy endings,” Larson writes. “But 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.” In rewinding his past to uncover the moments that made him, Larson honors that adolescent fascination by revealing what we can learn from looking closely at the things we fear the very most. The resulting memoir brims with uniquely personal insight that could only be gleaned from an enduring obsession with one beloved horror story.

I was delighted to speak with Larson over Zoom about searching for identity in horror, the writers who guided him on his nonfiction journey, and the legacy of Michael Myers.


Abigail Oswald: You write that you first watched Halloween at age nine. Can you talk about that initial viewing experience and why it made such a big impact on you?

Richard Scott Larson: I was always interested in horror films; that was my favorite section of the video store. I pretty much was given carte blanche to watch what I wanted in those years and the scary stuff was always what interested me. I watched the film alone in my dad’s house soon after my parents divorced, with my father—who was sort of descending into alcoholism—in the next room. We never returned the film to the video store after I watched it that first time, so it became this running entertainment source on those lonely visits to my father’s house. Over time, I just really internalized the story. It’s a very simple story, but I drew a lot of parallels with that story in my own life. I’m sure I forced some of them because I had that one thing to latch onto during all those visits. But it became a touchstone for me after that first viewing.

AO: How would you say your relationship to it has changed over the years?

RSL: I wrote an essay for Electric Lit several years ago now that became the spark of the memoir. When I wrote that essay, I wrote it based on memories of the film, but then of course I had to rewatch the film to fact-check myself and make sure I was remembering things correctly. And what I was surprised by in that rewatch was that all the things I remembered most about the film were those moments at the end, all the really heightened moments between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. But I’d forgotten that so much of it is this huge buildup, an hour where all you’re doing is watching these young people prepare for their evening in sort of banal ways, and you’re watching it slowly get dark in Haddonfield as everyone looks forward to Halloween night. I’d forgotten that slow buildup to the big moments that I remembered the most. 

I thought a lot about that and about how the experience of the closet is similar, because with the closet, you’re just waiting for that thing to happen so far in the future, right? And all those years of being in the closet become that sort of long prelude to this grand finale you’re picturing for yourself, and you don’t know what that’ll look like or whether it’ll even happen for you. That made me think about writing a book-length treatment of Halloween and my own life, focusing on those years—that long buildup—rather than just the big finale, focusing on the closeted years where no one knows what’s coming.

AO: I did wonder when you came to that Halloween/horror lens as you approached writing a memoir. So you first wrote the essay, which then led to the book?

RSL: That’s right. I was writing this novel for a long time after grad school, where I studied fiction in my MFA, and the emotional truth of that novel was something that I was really attached to—this lonely boy in a scary environment, trying to navigate it alone. But the fiction part was sort of stumping me; I just lost faith in fiction a little bit, lost faith in the ability to make decisions for imaginary people. So I started writing about my own life, and that was sort of a way back into my story. But then I realized that Halloween was such an important part of that for me, and for those years. And so in writing the essay, I was able to tap into Halloween to say some things about my life and my experience that I was having difficulty saying in more straightforward ways. And so the film gave me a way to offload my emotional baggage into a pop-cultural reference point that everyone could sort of enter into themselves. I was hoping that the film would let people into my personal experience based on a familiar thing we shared together.

AO: Are there other stories in which you identified an unexpected or unlikely coming-out narrative over the years, as you did with Michael Myers in the opening of Halloween?

RSL: One that comes to mind is a Joseph Conrad novella called The Secret Sharer. It’s this beautiful story, but I’m really intrigued by this sort of queer subtext. The story’s about a ship captain who’s newly in control of a new ship. All his crew are very tight-knit; they all know each other really well and worked together for years, but the captain is new. And so he’s in a position of authority, but he’s also unfamiliar with the rules, with the status quo, with the way things go on the ship. One night he’s on watch and he sees this stowaway clinging to the ladder of the ship, and he brings him inside, he shelters him, clothes him in his own pajamas, hides him in his cabin. I’m really intrigued by that moment, because after that the captain feels much more confident on the ship. His authority feels more real to him; it’s because he has this secret. It’s because he has a sort of double, this other figure that he’s keeping from the crew. 

I thought a lot about that, about how the queer person is always multiple selves—the version you present to the world and the version you keep to yourself. And in that Conrad novella it’s really interesting to me that it’s the fact of the secret that gives him the power. And so it’s the moment that his queerness, at least to himself, becomes apparent. The fact that he has the secret becomes a source of his power.

AO: At one point when reflecting on the past, you describe seeing yourself in a memory from third-person point of view, applying cinematic technique to your own recollections. How do you approach reconstructing memory as a writer? What do you draw from?

RSL: I drew from conversations I had with my family—what they remembered and how they saw me. I think a lot about film form in the book, and this idea of the mask. I love imagining a shot/reverse shot structure—like what you see and then what the other person you’re talking to sees—and in the book I consciously tried to have these scenes where, for the longest time, it’s just what I saw, through the literary device of the mask. And at the very end of the scene, I wanted that reverse shot where you see what other people saw of me. I wasn’t really wearing a mask, so I was always present in the scenes I was writing about. But I wanted these long passages to just be about observation, things I was noticing and seeing, almost forgetting that I was there, and reminding the reader at the very end that I’m also a physical presence in this scene and I’m affecting it, people are being affected by my choices, my actions, in ways that I probably wanted to not be true. And so my mask—hiding my queerness—sort of manifested in other invisibility fantasies. Like just trying to imagine myself as not part of the world I was in, and then remembering at the end, oh, I actually was, and people saw me the whole time.

AO: You do write about voyeurism in Halloween and more generally in horror, which reminded me how writing itself can sometimes veer into voyeurism. Writers are also “lookers,” close observers. When did you start writing? Did it feel tied to that history of remove, of looking?

RSL: I was always interested in writing as a practice because of the experiences I had reading horror as a kid. Horror became a sort of comfort zone for me because the fears I was having in the real world were insurmountable. There were fears that had no resolution. But in a horror story or novel or film, it’s all about controlling fear, managing it by giving it a structure. Once I internalized the structure of a horror story and how it worked, that ability to contain it within a story became really important for me to manage my own fears. And that’s why I was so obsessed with those narratives and I really wanted to replicate that later in life. 

I remember watching Misery, the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The opening is this writer in the Colorado lodge finishing his novel, having his glass of champagne, and then driving off to deliver his book to the world. I always loved that idea of solitary creativity, going off alone, creating something for the world, and then sending it out independent of you. So I was always writing horror as a kid and then through young adulthood as a way to offer that experience back to someone, to a reader. I didn’t come to writing about myself until very recently, and of course I went back to horror because that was what I was comfortable with. I like that the memoir definitely nods to the ways in which the horror genre became a source of comfort for me, and really helped me through a lot of the problems I was having in my own mind.

AO: That’s so interesting, this idea of horror as comfort. Why do you think horror functions in that way for some viewers, even though it often means staring right into the face of the world at its worst?

RSL: Well, I think it teaches us how to deal with our fears—the things we’re afraid of the most in the world. There’s no real escape from those fears, and there’s no escape from what they imply about the world in that we sometimes have very little control about our environment and the things that affect us. So I think we can go to horror to learn or to witness. To witness someone else facing those things down and either succeeding or not, but it’s giving us a manual for the worst possible scenarios. Not just literally—not just in the form of a serial killer or a ghost or whatever—but to watch someone else have that reckoning that we have to face with our own fears. I think it’s just witnessing the worst possible thing in someone else, even though it’s a story and probably because it’s a story, it’s even more helpful, because in fiction, you can see the real world reflected back at you. 

AO: You mentioned that you came to writing about yourself pretty recently—what was that transition from fiction like?

RSL: Yeah, I wrote the Electric Lit essay maybe six, seven years ago now. That was the first time I’d ever written about myself. I’d written criticism before that, and I still write criticism. I’m comfortable with that distance the critical voice can create. I like the “I,” but I use it sparingly in criticism, whereas in personal writing, it’s all the “I”—the “I” is front and center. And that was something that initially made me uncomfortable; it was embarrassing to write about myself. But now I’m really interested in life writing and the history of it, especially the queer history of life writing. 

I used to think memoir was only for exceptional lives—like, oh, I’m a star athlete, or I’m a movie star, and now I’m gonna write a memoir explaining how I got here. And then I discovered the queer canon of life writing like David Wojnarowicz and Hervé Guibert and Derek Jarman—mostly writers who were writing about AIDS during the height of the AIDS crisis. And this idea that the urgency of life writing, the urgency of writing a memoir, can just be to express the very specific thing you’re going through, to communicate your mundane normal existence, and convey the urgency of it to someone else.

AO: You mention a horror film seminar you took in college, how “the assigned readings finally gave me language for the experience I’d internalized when I first saw Michael stalking his victims.” Can you talk more about those revelations, and the experience of gaining language for something that you hadn’t before been able to put into words?

RSL: Until that point, horror was so personal to me. It was something that I thought about a lot, but I thought I was having my own experience of it. I thought the way I looked at it was singular, was my own. I took that course because I was interested in watching more films and learning about the history of them. I didn’t know that I would be receiving a scholarly and theoretical perspective on the experience I’ve already been having my entire life. So I felt very seen in the sense that naming the ways in which I was experiencing horror as a genre really exposed the universality of those experiences. 

I knew that identifying with Michael Myers was a weird thing, and I knew that it said something about me and it put me in a certain space of, like, oh, if he sees himself as a villain, if he sees himself as a monster, what does that mean for his psyche, what does that mean for his place in the world? And then to hear writers with fancy degrees talking about those same things, giving them real life as ideas, freed me from some of the shame about all those things because I was like, oh, this is actually an intentional way that this art form is created. It’s created to show us those things about ourselves that we probably wouldn’t want to look at very closely otherwise in the context of reality, right? That really opened me up to more scholarly pursuits in general, and just understanding that art and our reactions to it are really complicated but also really amazing. That gap between the thing you see and the experience you have in your mind, or in your heart, can be named. That was really exciting for me.

AO: What’s the scene that defines Halloween for you?

RSL: I think it’s both unmasking scenes—both times Michael Myers is unmasked. The first one as a child, which is this horrific moment when you see this six-year-old’s face right after he’s seen what he’s done. He’s just murdered his sister. But then later in the film, there’s a struggle between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode where it seems like she’s trying to strangle him, but what she’s really trying to do is pull off his mask. And in the moment he’s unmasked, all of the threat that he poses to the world is gone, because you really see him for who he is at the core, and who that person is is a scared young man just trying to hide from the world around him, trying to stay invisible. His only motive is to put the mask back on, and to become invisible again. And that really sort of struck me as a child—this idea that more than anything he just wanted to stay hidden, because I really felt that way about my own self, my own body, at the time.

AO: Halloween is a film with quite a few sequels; a whole sprawling story extends out from that single first installment. What are your thoughts on the franchise and Michael’s legacy?

RSL: It’s interesting, because I remember watching the first Halloween as a kid so many times, and it became such an internalized story for me, that I remember being really destabilized when I found out there were more films. I saw Halloween II many years later and it really freaked me out, because it’s the same night, you know—it’s all the same night, and it’s right after the first film ends, and the second film begins with Laurie Strode in the hospital. I remember it felt like a personal affront—the fact that there was a part of the story that I didn’t know, because I was so obsessed and in the world of Haddonfield, the version of Haddonfield that I came to know through Halloween at my father’s house. And so finding out there were more films, I remember feeling sort of like someone else continued a story that I thought was my own. It was a sense of losing power a little bit, because I felt like other people knew more than I did.

Later, I was really intrigued in the second of the remakes, because it also picks up from the same night: the cops are looking for Michael Myers after he disappears at the end of the first film. And that was also really destabilizing, because in my mind, I know that story, I know how that night ends, but they just continued it without me, and I felt I was sent straight back to my father’s house when I saw that at the theater, because I was like, oh, this is the thing that I watched so many times and now it’s going on, it’s continuing. So that was very unnerving. I was already writing the book at the time that I saw that film. And I was like, do I have to incorporate this into my book? I was like no, my book’s about watching it as a child. And so it’s fine, but that sense of like, when you’re a kid and you find the perfect story or the perfect film or whatever, and you think you’re the only person in the world who has that relationship to that art object. And suddenly you find out that no, it’s a whole part of the culture. It’s not just yours.

AO: If you were telling the story of Halloween, is there anything you would do differently?

RSL: I guess I’d like to think of my memoir as a veiled retelling of Halloween in the sense that I focus on those years of development. Michael Myers in the film arrives fully formed as an adult, and you know his place in the world. But I was more intrigued by the development of that figure. And so I think my book in relating myself to Michael Myers or at least in the sense of how I thought I would be received by others and what I thought I was bringing to my community, this sense of doom—I wanted to sort of live in that space of how that was formed and how the environment, the people around me, might have contributed to that. And so in that sense, I’m sort of looking at Halloween, but dissecting those years that are fast-forwarded through in the film, where Michael really developed into this figure, who kind of all he has left in him is a sense of destruction.

AO: So focusing on origins, creating empathy?RSL: Yeah, creating empathy is a really good way to put it. Because I do dedicate the book to Michael Myers. It’s just “For Michael,” so it’s kind of a vague thing, but I wanted it to be for this misunderstood figure. I’m not condoning his actions, obviously, but the idea that there’s one project for him in the film, and that’s to kill these other people. But I wanted to think about the ways in which reducing him to that one social function—destruction—is a missed opportunity to think about the ways in which we develop alone. We develop the way we see the world through our very own personal experience and the things that we see around us and the things that are done to us. And I wanted to explore that through myself as a protagonist.


Richard Scott Larson is the author of The Long Hallway, a debut memoir recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press. He has received fellowships from MacDowell and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and his creative and critical work has appeared in The SunLos Angeles Review of BooksHarvard Review, and elsewhere, and has also been recognized twice by The Best American Essays. He lives in Brooklyn.

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