Everyone has one horror movie villain that, more than any other, scares the bejeezus out of them. It’s rarely Jack Torrance or Norman Bates or Annie Wilkes or anyone, for that matter, with a human face. It’s Michael Myers in his white, featureless mask. It’s the home invaders from The Strangers with their faux baby doll disguises. It’s Jason Voorhees with his cold, calculating eyes peering through the holes of a hockey mask. The terror of the unknown has become such a useful tool in fear filmmaking, creepy masks are now literally a horror movie staple. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a studio in want of a profitable horror movie franchise must be in want of a creepy mask. But just why is that, exactly?
While masked characters had been used to menace on film before (notably The Phantom Of The Opera from 1925 and even Nosferatu in 1922 to a degree), it wasn’t until the sixties that directors began to see their proper potential. Eyes Without A Face from 1960 played on the idea of a face that was almost normal, almost serene, but just not … quite. Alice Sweet Alice and Tourist Trap – both from the ’70s – took it a little bit further, plus there was The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre’s horrific human skin mask donned by Leatherface in 1974. Yet it wasn’t until John Carpenter’s seminal slasher Halloween in 1978 that the magic formula was unlocked. It was a Captain Kirk mask spray-painted white, but the lingering and looming Michael Myers was able to prove what we’ve always known: William Shatner is more than a lil’ bit scary. In 1982’s third Friday the 13th film Jason Voorhees donned what would become the killer’s iconic hockey mask and now over three decades later we have been inundated with alternate versions of the classics.
Ghostface from Scream was truly the only mask that lived on through the nineties – perhaps that and Hannibal Lecter’s half-mask which covered only the bottom portion of his face. The noughts appeared to be all about the animal masks: Donnie Darko had that fucked up metallic rabbit, Saw’s Jigsaw and associates favoured a pig mask (which in and of itself seemed a throwback to 1980’s Motel Hell) and the antagonists from You’re Next were a mish-mash of cuddly critters that looked like something left over from The Wicker Man (remake or the original, you pick). Masks also had a ‘big moment’ courtesy of The Orphanage, Trick R Treat and The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Although other trends in horror have largely come and gone, masks have endured largely because of our fear of them. Unrealistic from a practical standpoint – if you were trying to attack and pursue someone, a mask would greatly limit your field of vision – horror movie masks tap in to a deeply ingrained fear of the anonymous killer.
Our brains are programmed to recognise faces and read faces: it’s the instinct that tells us whether we can like someone, trust someone, or whether we should run from someone. When that face is hidden behind a mask, it immediately takes away one of our key defensive tools. As Benjamin Radford from Live Science puts it: “For many people, the idea of being murdered by an unidentifiable stranger for no reason is more terrifying than being killed by someone you do know.” A fear of masks is often compared to the way people fear clowns, which has been traced to a deep-buried psychological response known as deindividuation. Clowns are uniform, largely unable to be told apart from one another and their true facial features to be read properly by those observing them. They’re hidden under somewhat of a mask. It seems as long as people continue to find clowns creepy – hint, forever – the utilisation of masks in horror movies are as much a staple of the genre as arterial blood splatter.
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author previously seen on SBS Viceland’s The Feed. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz.