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Hallowed Divinity: A Halloween Portrait of Divine

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“Without obsession, life is nothing.” – John Waters

When I was a kid, my parents took me to Hairspray on Broadway. I asked why a man was playing Mrs. Turnblad, and they explained that the choice to do so is in honor of a man named Divine. Divine has not left my consciousness since, and I can safely say, I have become more and more obsessed with him throughout my adulthood.

My obsession stems from two factors: queer culture and horror films. Both culminate spectacularly during Halloween as flamboyant and outrageous costumes fill West Hollywood, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village. The birth of Divine by Harris Glenn Milstead and his makeup artist Van Smith is intrinsically linked to Halloween costume pageantry. In 1963, Milstead and his then-girlfriend Diana Evans were getting ready to attend a Halloween costume part. Milstead, with a push by his drag mentor and future fellow Dreamlander David Lochary, presented himself as a stunning Elizabeth Taylor. Milstead, the drag queen and actor, made her debut.

Divine would go on to subvert the expectations of drag. While others treated drag balls as pageants and expressions of traditional femininity, Milstead flipped the script and used his size to his advantage. Being bigger while wearing skimpy outfits made him stand out amongst the more conventional contestants. He stole the show.

Milstead would soon be dubbed “Divine” by friend and filmmaker John Waters as part of Waters’ Dreamlanders, a group of misfits, queers, and artists who acted in his low-budget films (Dreamland Productions), which were antagonistic toward the hippie subculture, its cliches, and traditional ideals of beauty. Never shy from controversy or bad taste, Waters’ films are in-your-face rebuttals to popular culture and traditional American values. Divine was possibly the very first person to portray Jackie Kennedy on film in Waters’ short film Eat Your Makeup (1968), which included a re-creation of the JFK assassination, another first on film, complete with a blood-soaked ensemble. Following his full-length feature film debut in Mondo Trasho (1969), Divine revs up the larger-than-life Divine persona as the monstrous Lady Divine in Multiple Maniacs (1970). Divine’s character “turns” lesbian after a sexual encounter with a woman in a church involving anally inserted rosary beads; goes on a murderous rampage; is raped by a giant lobster; roams the streets of Baltimore, foaming at the mouth, growling; and is gunned down by the National Guard to the tune of America, the Beautiful. “I wanted him to be the Godzilla of drag queens,” asserts Waters in My Son Divine (2001). “I mean, at the end of Multiple Maniacs, the National Guard shoots him. How much closer to Godzilla can you be?”

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What became Divine’s career-making role was the filthiest person alive, Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingoes (1972). Aside from the groundbreaking and revolting final scene in which Divine eats fresh dog shit, one cannot forget Divine’s skin-tight, blazing red lobster tail dress, eyebrows dramatically drawn well beyond an acceptable hairline (an idea conceived by Van Smith), aiming a gun at the antagonistic Marble couple, and decreeing their conviction of “assholeism.” The ensemble and make-up conjured by Smith and Waters would inspire punk for decades to come: a mix of terror, rebellion, and femininity. These themes would follow throughout Divine’s work with Waters, especially Female Trouble (1974), where body horror was on full display after an acid attack had left Dawn Davenport (Divine) severely and outrageously scarred.

After his successes in Waters’ movies, Divine went on to perform as a disco/dance musical act with several singles such as “Born to Be Cheap” (1981) and “I’m So Beautiful” (1984). He had solidified himself as a headlining drag performer and socialite among the stars. Divine made head-turning appearances at queer functions and famous discotheques such as Studio 54 with the likes of Andy Warhol, Elton John, and Grace Jones. During this time, Divine hosted multiple Halloween events, including a Divine look-a-like contest billed as “A Divine Halloween” at the Plush Room Cabaret in San Francisco (1980).

In 1982, Divine was again the main attraction of the Halloween party at the I Beam on Haight Street in San Francisco, the city’s first large dancing and music venue. The event poster proclaims that Divine is in search of his groom, with a $200 award for first place in the costume contest. The Bride returned at a Halloween party at the Giftcenter Pavilion in San Francisco three years later. For the Special Costume Category, “The lovely bride DIVINE will choose her groom in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The lucky groom will receive $500 and DIVINE.” The Bay Area Reporter advertised the event, asking readers to help Divine find a husband.

If you are reading this and were the lucky winner of Divine’s hand in marriage, please contact me immediately.

A mix of queer drag culture, particularly the subversion of traditional drag from the 1960s, and cult films defined Divine’s career. As a midnight movie Godzilla, nightclub act, recording artist, and costume ball headliner/Bride, Divine has reigned supreme as one of the most recognized figures in queer culture and frequently celebrated mad woman of camp and Halloween. Harris Glenn Milstead’s grotesque elegance of Divine, born from a Halloween party, has captivated audiences for decades, including me. I cannot escape him, nor do I ever want to escape. Without divinity, my life is nothing.

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Abigail Waldron is a queer historian who specializes in American horror cinema. Her book "Queer Screams: A History of LGBTQ+ Survival Through the Lens of American Horror Cinema" is available for purchase from McFarland Books. She resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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Fangoria: The #1 Magazine Subscription for Horror Fans

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This article contains affiliate links.

Here at Horror Press, we are longtime fans of Fangoria. Between the iconic merchandise, the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, the magazine that began a prolific horror empire, and more, Fangoria creates content that speaks to fans of the macabre everywhere.

Because of our love of the brand, is it any wonder that we’ve teamed up?

Now, you, dear fans of Horror (Press), can save 20% at Fangoria with discount code: HORRORPRESSLLC.

Look at this amazing cover art by @GhoulishGary exclusive to Subscribers for the January issue!

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What is Fangoria?

Founded in 1979, Fangoria holds the title of the longest-running horror-centric magazine in the world. Its famous pages have even appeared in horror productions such as Friday the 13th Part III, Gremlins, Brainscan, Seed of Chucky, and, most recently, Mike Flanagan’s The Midnight Club, among many others.

Inside the glossy pages of Fangoria magazine, you’ll find high-resolution images from your favorite horror films, exclusive interviews, peeks behind the scenes, recommendations for horror reading, and more.

One of my favorite things about Fangoria is all the coverage explaining how special effects artists achieve different looks. Legendary masters of the craft, such as Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero, are only a tiny sample of the experts featured in Fangoria to give insight into their work.

With all this macabre magazine has to offer, treat yourself or your favorite horror buff to the ultimate gift of horror via a subscription to Fangoria+.

What Comes with a Fangoria Subscription?

A one-year subscription to Fangoria comes with more than 400 pages of horror, as 100-page magazines oozing with gruesome goodness are delivered every three months. These collectible issues contain content that you will not find online. Keep an eye out for the magazines which include a poster inside!

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You’ll also get a “Mini Fango” periodically sent to your email via the Terror Teletype newsletter, written by none other than Phil Nobile Jr. These emails include horror news, updates to the Fangoria archives, where covers from the last forty years of horror coverage are regularly added, links to the weekly crossword, and more.

Finally, Fangoria+ subscribers are given first access to merchandise releases and opportunities for exclusive giveaways.

How Much Does Fangoria Cost?

This bounty of incredible, ghastly content usually costs $6.66 monthly or $79.99 for the year, but because you’re a Horror Press reader, use HORRORPRESSLLC as a discount code at checkout to receive 20% off your entire order. That brings the year total down from $79.99 to $63.99 (before applicable taxes and shipping, of course).

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While we cannot recommend enough the Fangoria+ subscription for horror fans everywhere, the discount code works for almost everything in the Fangoria shop. So, this means merch and single issues too!

The October 2022 edition (Vol. 2 Issue #17) of Fangoria is already sold out on the website. Own the future remnants of horror history before it’s too late; sign up for your Fangoria+ subscription today!

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I Love You, E.T.: A Lifelong Friendship

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My gateway to horror did not involve a bloody massacre, nor a monster in the closet or a slasher hiding in the woods. It was a little alien creature with an affinity for Reese’s Pieces.

In 1982, an alien later named E.T. (real name Zrek) came to Earth in search of organic plant life along with his fellow alien friends and family. Upon discovery by local authorities, E.T. becomes stranded on Earth as his family takes off in their spaceship to avoid capture. E.T. wanders the California hillside and happens upon the home of young Elliott, himself in search of belonging. The two form an unlikely bond and connection as Elliott navigates a disjointed family environment, girls, school, and of course, helping E.T. contact his family for rescue.

Beginning in the first grade, E.T. The Extraterrestrial dominated my childhood. I had every piece of merchandise I could get my tiny hands on, especially the coveted “antiques” belonging to my mom, who saw the film in theaters her sophomore year of high school. “I loved it!” she remembers. “I went to see it at the Elk River theater in Minnesota. Back then, it was a one-time deal because it only came through town for a short time. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of money to go more than once… Reese’s Pieces became my favorite candy for about one year.” She explained to me that the toys I commandeered in my childhood were once displayed all over her bedroom. She even had the original E.T. doll, the iconic one seen given to Princess Diana by then-seven-year-old Drew Barrymore. “You always took very good care of your toys,” she explained. “As soon as you were interested, I would let you play with them.”

This E.T. doll is still in impeccable shape, by the way.

My grandma gave me a talking animatronic E.T. doll one Christmas. Like a Furby, he would speak to me sometimes at night. “E.T…. feel… siiiiccckkkk.” Flashbacks to the scene where E.T. is sickly pale, lying face down in a drainage ditch with the score rising and causing my eyes to grow big were frequent. I had to take his batteries out after one too many nightmares and calls for my mom to comfort me in the dark, “It took you a while to embrace that one.” Yet, I never stopped watching the film that gave me laughter, tears, jumps, and wonder. After all these years, I still look out for E.T. merch whenever I go into an antique shop, pop culture toy den, and thrift store. He brings me so much joy, and I connect with my inner child whenever I find him. As I write this, my E.T. Coloring Book from 1982 just arrived at my apartment mailbox. I am 27 years old.

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E.T. was a sensation upon its release on June 11th, 1982. The film made back its $10.5 million budget opening weekend, grossing $11,911,430 and going on to earn $797,103,542 worldwide. E.T. merchandise soared off the shelves. Iconic is the infamous E.T. Atari game that was notoriously difficult to win and was eventually dumped into a massive landfill by its creator company. I found a cartridge at the Barnesville Potato Days Festival (yes, this is a real festival). I finally caved during the pandemic and bought an old Atari gaming system to give the game a whirl. The game is not that bad! Confusing, yes. Delightful? Also yes. Clearly, I will do anything for this little big-eyed bugger.

One night in college, after a night out drinking at the local bars, I stumbled home alone to get away from the typical college bar drama and crowds. To be by myself. I popped in my E.T. DVD at 3 am and began watching as the room spun. My roommates came home an hour later, laughing at where they had found me. One joined for a bit, then went to bed with the others. I alone stayed up to finish. I was comfortable basking in the colors glowing from the TV set.

As a kid, I related to Elliott in many ways: his stressful family situation, being told he wasn’t allowed to play with his older sibling, who seemed to have all the cool friends, and like me, having little of my own. And through all this, a miracle of a friend beamed into Elliott’s life. I shared this new friend with him. And for the one hour and fifty-four-minute runtime, I didn’t feel so alone. I still feel welcome when I put the film on.

I am 5’1 (and that’s rounding up an inch). All my life, I was too short for roller coaster rides. My mom and dad would tell me, “Stretch like E.T.!” when I was told to line up against the measurement requirement for rides, and even that often left me on the sidelines while my sister and dad had all the fun (my mom would stay with me as support). Luckily, this wasn’t the case for the ride I had been dreaming about at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida: E.T. Adventure. Here I am, pictured with my friend, too small to reach the pedals yet beaming at the camera with my underbite stretched in a smile. Two decades later, I am happy to say we are still friends, albeit sometimes long-distance.

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