Hansen Bursic is taking viewers back to the 1980s to tell an important story about the transgender experience.
“Halloween 1987” tells the story of Cory, a gender-questioning teenager whose girlfriend, Meg, wants them to wear a couple’s costume to a Halloween party. Because Cory presents themself as a boy, Meg comes up with the idea that she dress up as Cory, and Cory dress up as her. Cory, although hesitant, agrees, and the night changes Cory’s life.
The premise is based on the real-life experience of Jenny Jae Cory, a transgender woman from Towanda, a small, rural town in Appalachian Pennsylvania. Bursic met Jenny Jae Cory while working as the lead media coordinator for the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, the state’s sole LGBTQ youth advocacy organization, according to its website.
Bursic, a 2020 film and media arts alumnus, was in Towanda to film the LGBTQ pride parade Jenny Jae Cory had organized. As they talked, Jenny Jae Cory shared her draft of her autobiography, which included the story about her epiphany during that fateful Halloween night.
“[Jenny Jae Cory] is somebody who has history, important history, untold history, and that’s really why I want to tell that story,” Bursic said.
For Bursic, this experience is the side of the coming out story he feels is rarely seen because there’s so much internal work going on.
“Just as every queer person that I know and trans person that I know talked about you know the moment that they came out to another person, they also had a very distinct memory of when it clicked for them, when they finally were able to admit to themselves,” Bursic said.
The actor who played Cory, Derek Van Holmes, had a similar experience when he realized he was transgender.
“In the film you do see [Cory] opening up, opening up way more when they are validated as themselves for the first time, and I related to that heavily,” Van Holmes said. “I understand what it’s like to be very uncomfortable with yourself, and much more reserved. And then once you start accepting yourself for who you are or seeing who you are, you start to be more confident with yourself and you don’t care what other people think because they just see you as you.”
Van Holmes was a little hesitant to play Cory because he feared being typecast, or only chosen for transgender and queer roles. Despite his reservations, Van Holmes took the role because he knew it was bigger than himself.
“I think honestly it was a good decision on my part because even if I’m not super comfortable being super out to the world yet,” Van Holmes said. “I think it’s important for these types of stories to be heard and for actual trans and queer people to be playing trans and queer people in film and TV.”
Jenny Jae Cory was impressed with the film, she said during a question-and-answer session following the film’s initial screening.
For Jenny Jae Cory, one scene in particular brought her right back to that night. In the scene, the character Cory has a moment of dizzying anxiety, and has to leave the party to get some air.
“When I saw that, that tapped into a deep feeling inside of me that I’d forgotten,” Jenny Jae Cory said.
Jenny Jae Cory remembered that, at that time, it was hard for her to figure out that she was transgender because of a lack of information. Back in the 1980s, her main resources for information were her grandmother’s encyclopedia, her local library, and her peers.
“The only information you got was from your friends, and it was that you’re weird and you’re a freak,” Jenny Jae Cory said.
Although the film’s initial screening could not be done in person, Kenagh Babcock, the film’s producer and a senior film major, is working with the rest of the Halloween 1987 team to raise funds so the film can be shown at festivals in 2021.
“I think the world needs films like this so people feel seen, or can be educated about the experience,” Babcock said.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story did not properly characterize the gender of the film’s main character, Cory. Also, this was not the film’s premiere, it was the film’s initial screening.