The mask that she wore,
My fingers would explore;
The costume of control--
Excitement soon unfolds. . . .
-- The Doors
In the factory, we make cosmetics; in the drugstore, we sell hope.
-- Charles Revlon
Masks. At the same time, they both conceal and reveal or, sometimes, protect. They link those who wear them to ancient superstitions and to their cultural heritage. They symbolize enterprises and aid in performances. They may even impart the powers and characteristics of those whom they represent to those who wear them.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, words the origins of which are associated with mask include mascara (meaning stain, or mask); larva (meaning ghost or mask, “applied in the biological sense. . . because immature forms of insects ‘mask’ the adult forms”); mummer (in part from momer, meaning mask oneself); mascot; person (“originally ‘character in a drama, mask”); masque; boycott (based upon the “Irish Land League ostracism of Capt. Charles C.
Boycott. . . land agent of Lough-Mask in County Mayo, who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers”); masquerade (for masked party or dance); oscillation (“supposed to be from oscillum ‘little face,’ lit. ‘little mouth,’ a mask of open-mouthed Bacchus hung up in vineyards to swing in the breeze”); muskellunge (“long mask”); and mesh.
Comedy and tragedy, the two chief divisions of the drama by which human behavior and its significance are enacted upon a public stage before a live audience, are represented by masks--a smiling and a frowning mask, respectively. The faceless faces of everyman, they suggest that the proper response to human conduct is either humor or sorrow; drama--or, rather, the spectacle of human behavior that it represents--makes us laugh or cry.
Masks have been worn to protect fencers, athletes, and soldiers, but their chief use is to disguise those who wear them, the role that they serve in Alexander Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker’s Lone Ranger, and countless costumed superheroes and movie villains, including Darth Vader. A cursory examination of the masks of DC Comics and Marvel Comics characters discloses the almost infinite variety that is possible with regard to such coverings of one’s countenance. They range from the simple Zorro or Lone Ranger type mask that is little more than a strip of cloth with eyeholes cut into it to the helmet-style masks of Dr. Doom and Galactus. Occasionally, comic book characters’ masks are also equipped with weapons effects and, indeed, the mask that the X-Men’s Cyclops wears is a protective one, blocking the optical energy beam that, unleashed, can demolish a mountain.
Masks are associated with one’s traditions. In ancient Rome, the death masks of one’s ancestors, stored in the family’s shrine, or lararium, were evidence, albeit not living proof, of a citizen’s lineage. During funerals, surviving relatives would wear such masks as they enacted the feats of the deceased (Kak).
Halloween masks and costumes were donned, originally, to ward off evil spirits, who, it was believed, would be frightened by the masks’ and costumes’ hideous appearances.
Leopold Sedar Senghor’s poem, “Prayer to the Masks,” conveys something of the communal ties that were believed to exist between family masks and tribe:
Masks! O Masks!
Black mask, red mask, you white-and-black masks
Masks of the four cardinal points where the Spirit blows
I greet you in silence!
And you, not the least of all, Ancestor with the lion head.
You keep this place safe from women’s laughter
And any wry, profane smiles
You exude the immortal air where I inhale
The breath of my Fathers. . . .
Before the advent of the camera, death masks (plaster casts of the deceased’s face) were made to preserve the appearance of famous people, including such luminaries as Blaise Pascal, King Henry VIII, Dante Alighieri, Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederic Chopin, Czar Peter the Great, and Abraham Lincoln. For photographs of famous death masks, visit the online Lauren Hutton Collection of Life and Death Masks.
In Gaston Leroux’s play, The Phantom of the Opera, Erik wears a mask to hide a physical deformity. Other characters’ reactions to his deformed appearance, once he is unmasked, reveal their own spiritual deformity or the beauty.
The example of the man in the iron mask, who became the subject of Dumas’ novel, shows how a mask often creates mystery. Many books have been written in the attempt, as it were, to unmask the mysterious prisoner who was supposed to have worn the iron mask at all times to conceal his identity and to fathom the motives of the one who ordered this extreme measure, with such candidates as the illegitimate son of Mazarin and Anne of Austria (and, therefore, a half-brother to King Louis XIV) being named by Voltaire and Alexander Dumas; Luis XIV’s father being named by Hugh Ross Williamson; General Vivien de Bulonde; a composite of a valet and Ercole Antonio Mattioli, named by Roux Fazaillac (a variation of which theory was also advanced by Andrew Lange); the bastard son James de la Cloche of England’s King Charles II, named by Arthur Barnes; and others (“The Man in the Iron Mask”).
Masks, not surprisingly, have appeared in a number of horror stories, novels, and films. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” involves a masquerade party at Prince Prospero’s castellated abbey, during which the Red Death makes his appearance. The masks and costumes seem to suggest the outwardly merry demeanor that people effect in the face of tragedy and death in their attempts to deny the reality and the inevitability of their own imminent demise, whether as a result of disease or some other means.
In “Dead Man’s Party,” an episode of the televisions series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers’ mother, Joyce, the owner of a local art gallery, hangs a ceremonial mask on her bedroom wall, causing the resurrection of the dead. First a cat, and then quite a few human zombies, appear, the latter attacking Buffy, her mother, and friends during a coming-home party in Buffy’s honor.
In another Buffy episode, “Halloween,“ the masks (and costumes) that teenagers and younger children buy at an occult Halloween costume shop cause them to become the characters that their masks and costumes represent. Buffy becomes an aristocratic lady, and her friends Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris become a ghost and a pirate, respectively, while children become demons and various other monsters.
Masks in horror films are used both to conceal identities and simply to frighten moviegoers. Thanks to the magic of special effects, masks can be both gruesome and realistic--at least on the silver screen. Movies in which characters (often the human monster) wear masks include Halloween, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Scream.
In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the villain, Leatherface, wears a mask fashioned of human flesh, a takeoff on the masks that Ed Gein, the so-called “Butcher of Plainfield” (Wisconsin) wore, which were the faces he removed from corpses he’d dug up in the town’s cemetery or the graveyard, known as Spirit Land, a few miles north of Plainfield. Also the basis of Norma Bates (Psycho) and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs), Gein’s wearing of literal facemasks (and leggings, labia, and a “mammary vest”) were attempts by him to resurrect his mother, with whom, despite her death, he maintained a love-hate relationship.
Horror stories’ use of masks plays upon the notions that masks both conceal and reveal, disclosing the horrors of custom, tradition, family history, individual trauma, and a host of other influences that make up who (and what) we are, whether we happen to be heroes or horrors. What really lies behind the social mask, or persona, that each of us wears? The face of Norman Bates? Michael Myers? Leatherface? Ed Gein? In “Halloween,” Buffy tells Willow, “Halloween is come-as-you-aren’t night.” Let’s hope she’s right!
Ritual, Masks, and Sacrifice; Subhash Kak, Studies in Humanities and Social Services, vol.11, Indian Institute of Advance Study, Shimla 2004.
“The Man in the Iron Mask.” Wikipedia. 2008.