The art of mask-making is a prehistoric tradition that dates back at least as far as the Upper Paleolithic era, but it took 30,000 years and the invention of the slasher genre for it to really come into its own. Ever since horror icons Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees lumbered on to the scene looking like a pair of deranged Phantom Of The Opera understudies, mask-wearing has become a minimum dress code for the stalk-and-mutilate set.
The appeal of a masked villain is obvious. Only a select few actors have faces scary enough to send scantily clad teenagers running for the hills, and Gary Busey can only make so many movies per year. With the addition of a mask, however, even the most mild-mannered of stars can be transformed into a terrifying symbol of cold-hearted evil.
Equally potent are the financial benefits of an anonymous antagonist. Unlike most long-running film sagas, horror franchises with masked villains are free to recast their central characters at will. In the first Halloween movie alone, three different actors portrayed Michael Myers. Before the franchise was out, they were joined by six more, saving the producers a fortune in contract negotiations and ensuring the true star of the series was always the mask that struck fear into the hearts of Michael’s victims, and not the face behind it.
Dr Allen Barnes (The Mask, 1961)
Horror movies have routinely been accused of encouraging viewer complicity in the gruesome crimes that they depict. Such an assertion is not without basis in the case of The Mask, in which psychiatrist Dr Allen Barnes inherits a cursed mask that sends him into fits of murderous hysteria. As part of an expensive marketing gimmick, audiences at the time were provided with their own masks, complete with anaglyphic 3D lenses that allowed viewers to experience his dizzying hallucinations.
Leatherface (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974)
Relatively few real-world murderers bother with masks, but notorious serial killer Ed Gein was a rare exception, found to possess multiple masks made from the skin of human women when he was finally arrested in 1957. Gein was the inspiration for several fictional killers, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface, who shared Gein’s penchant for arts and crafts, routinely sewing the hides of his victims into grotesque face masks.
Jason Voorhees (Friday The 13th Part III, 1982)
In the two decades between Friday The 13th (1980) and Jason X (2001), Jason Voorhees transformed from a dead pre-teen child into an invincible space-travelling psychopath with a self-replenishing metal body. It wasn’t until the third film in the series that he acquired his signature hockey mask, having previously appeared unmasked or beneath a burlap sack. Nonetheless, the mask quickly became the character’s defining characteristic.
Ghostface (Scream, 1996)
A recurring joke in the long-running Scream franchise sees the beleaguered police force of Woodsboro, California struggle to identify a rampaging masked killer as scores of local teenagers run amok in identical fancy-dress outfits. In a case of life imitating art, the killer’s distinctive Ghostface mask became America’s most popular Halloween costume. Adding to the confusion, the Ghostface persona is adopted by a different attacker in each successive film, making him less a serial killer and more a corporate mascot for first-degree murder.
Man In The Mask (The Strangers, 2008)
There’s very little that’s more terrifying than an evil man with a smile on his face, as archive photographs of Fred West, John Wayne Gacy and Jim Davidson so ably demonstrate. In The Strangers, Liv Tyler finds herself besieged by a group of home invaders led by an ominous individual with a smiley-faced sack pulled over his head. His crudely customised headgear is all the more terrifying for the fact that he’s otherwise reasonably well turned out in a natty brown suit.
“GOD” (The Purge: Anarchy, 2014)
Watch carefully and you may be able to detect an element of social commentary buried deep beneath the surface of The Purge: Anarchy, a new film about government-sanctioned killing sprees designed to wipe out the poor and defenceless for the benefit of the rich and powerful. The most perceptive audience members will be able to pick up on this layer of meaning each time it’s delicately spelled out for them in the film’s dialogue, or literally spelled out for them by a machete-wielding masked antagonist with “GOD” scrawled across his face in marker pen.
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