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Horror Masks Are Never Just About the Monster

Surfacing

These cinematic mainstays continue to terrify.

When “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” came out in 1974, it was marketed as a true story, which undoubtedly added to the horror factor. The claim was mostly false, though the star of the movie, Leatherface, was loosely inspired by the killer Ed Gein, called the “Butcher of Plainfield,” who made furniture and a suit out of human skin. And there was another unnerving real-life inspiration. “The idea actually came from a doctor I knew,” Tobe Hooper, the director of the film, told Texas Monthly. “I remembered that he’d once told me this story about how, when he was a pre-med student, the class was studying cadavers. And he went into the morgue and skinned a cadaver and made a mask for Halloween.”

Even before Covid made masks a daily inconvenience for us, they occupied a mighty space in our cultural imagination. Masks are a mainstay of horror, donned by mysterious strangers and serial killers while they terrorize innocents. The blank, lifeless visages of such classic horror masks as those belonging to Leatherface, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers seem to signify corpses — faces stripped of their verve and individuality.

These masks also embody the unknown: the mystery of the person behind the mask and the disconnect between what may seem otherwise mundane (an animal mask, a hockey mask) and the mask’s frightfulness when placed in a new context. But there’s something deeper to the psychology of our fear around masks, related to our worst fears about ourselves and the fragile structure of society — whether it’s in a house of cannibals in Middle of Nowhere, Texas, or in our own familiar haunts during a time of pandemic.

Leatherface wears three different masks throughout the movie, which he switches into based on the situation, as a way to show emotion. Of course, the faces sag on his own face, so that on top of the horror of the mask itself, there’s the uncanny sight of our flesh-faced killer’s real features poking out from beneath the mask’s.

With masks, it is never about the monster but the man whose mask obscures and reveals him.

In the “Halloween” movies, Michael Myers’s chalk-white face mask, like Leatherface’s, is eerily emotionless. Designed by Tommy Lee Wallace, the mask was based on a Captain Kirk “death mask” that was created for “Star Trek.” The show didn’t end up using it, so Wallace converted it, coloring the hair and face and cutting the eye holes larger to create the vacant look.

But it’s not just a deficit of emotion that can add to a mask’s horror; it’s a false presentation of one. One of the ways humans socialize is via mirroring, mimicking the body language and facial expressions of those around us. Mirror neurons trigger our sense of empathy. Masking breaks this connection, making the masked person seem unknowable, perhaps even, in these worst cases, inhuman. And yet they are all too human. In fact, some horror movie mask designs nod to the fact that we all have a capacity to do horrible things.

The grotesque Smiley masks from the 2012 horror movie “Smiley” — fleshy featureless sights with eye slits and a smiling mouth slit cut and stitched in — recall the smiley emoticon. It’s well-matched to the movie’s theme, about a Candyman-esque killer who can be summoned via the internet to murder people.

For the seminal horror movie satire “Scream,” the director Wes Craven wasn’t initially sure what the killer’s mask would look like. The screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, simply referred to a “ghost mask killer” in the screenplay. While location-scouting in California, Marianne Maddalena, a producer on the film series, found the Ghostface mask — made by a Halloween company called Fun World, as part of its “Fantastic Faces” line — in a house that happened to be the same one Alfred Hitchcock featured in his film “Shadow of a Doubt.” Craven immediately loved it.

Even the humble beginnings of the iconic Ghostface mask, as just another commercial Halloween costume prop, indicates something frightful that was part of the appeal for Craven: The killer could be anyone, any person you know.

In “The Strangers,” three sadistic killers, one in a doll mask, one in a pinup mask and one in crude baggy mask — ones you would be able to make yourself or get in a store — terrorize people for the hell of it. Their anonymity and lack of motive undercut the comforting idea that people are inherently good, that one may not hurt a stranger senselessly.

A belief in human empathy, honesty and reason are our safety blankets when we consider horror. But masks may also expose our most primal selves. It makes sense, then, that many horror movies use animal masks for their frights. In “You’re Next,” in which a family is attacked by three men wearing a lamb mask, a fox mask and a tiger mask, the screenwriter, Simon Barrett (who was actually the man behind the tiger mask in the film), said, “If the movie has a theme, it’s what people are hiding on the inside.”

In the same interview with IGN, Adam Wingard, the director of the film, said, “We didn’t want them to be autonomous killing machines. There are actually people under the masks.”

But there’s also the scare factor of something innocuous being taken out of context. Just as horror movies make their currency in creepy children and dolls, there’s a sense of betrayal, then fear, that accompanies the perversion of the innocent, mundane elements of our lives. Animal masks may appear in a young child’s birthday party, or a cheap costume for Halloween. And yet, worn on three crossbow-shooting, ax-swinging grown men, they are divorced from such a chaste context.

Even an adorable bunny may become a figure out of a nightmare, as in the unseemly grimace of Frank from “Donnie Darko.” April Ferry, who designed Frank’s textured skin and foggy, pupil-less eyes, told Entertainment Weekly, “I was very adamant that it had to make an impact. It has to disturb people. It has to make the audience sit up in their seat and have a really intense response.”

For masks like those worn by Hannibal Lecter (whose character in “The Silence of the Lambs” was also based on Ed Gein and whose unique muzzle was based on a hockey mask) and Jason Voorhees, team sports figured into the horror. Jason’s iconic mask didn’t actually appear until the third “Friday the 13th” film, when he attacks a character in a barn and steals his hockey mask. Martin Jay Sadoff, the 3-D supervisor for the film, suggested they use a goalie mask, since Sadoff was a hockey fan. The look stuck, and it’s not simply the expressionless visage but the implication of violence. Hockey bears the reputation as an intentionally brutal sport, so a mask out of context invites the possibility for violence even off the ice. But it’s also the sepulchral, blank appearance, that recalls a skull.

We relate faces to our identities, so when we’re masked, the anonymity we’re granted may allow us to untether ourselves from any ethical or social contracts we’d otherwise be beholden to. Masks may recall killers and robbers, or even a night of more modest high jinks, like Halloween.

A mask is just material. The person? That’s the real horror.

Masks, which hint at some macabre sight or simply a human no longer in touch with his humanity, also imply a wider social disorder. In “The Purge” franchise, Americans have one night a year to give in to their most base, vile impulses without any repercussions. The movies paint a grim reality in which people are all too eager to put on masks and kill as they please. Of course, the conceit is a way to satirize the American systems that implicitly allow for the prejudice toward, disenfranchisement of and undermining of certain racial and socioeconomic groups by making such practices explicit in the world of the films.

The pandemic has made us all consider how much masks change the perception we have of ourselves and others. Jason masks have had a decent showing lately. When Tom Savini, a master of special effects and makeup artist for several George A. Romero films and other horror classics, teamed up with fellow artist Jason Baker to make horror P.P.E. masks, the masks were so popular they had to hire a crew to increase production.

The killer N.H.L. wannabe himself has had words for those who resist masking up during the pandemic. In a recent P.S.A. video from JoBlo Horror Trailers, Jason sadly deals with the fact that people run from him in fear, just to discover in the end that perhaps all he really needed was a Covid-19 mask, given to him by a little girl. “Wearing a mask can be scary. Not wearing one can be deadly,” the video ends.


Surfacing is a biweekly column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

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