One thing I’m perpetually fascinated by is the concept that we can never truly know other people, even those we might feel close to. All we can ever know is our own experience of their behaviours. We may even be able to predict those behaviours to a reliable, comfortable degree but when those predictions fail – when someone confounds our expectations, acts out of character – then we find this deeply disturbing.
We get a glimpse of that which we somehow already suspect, deep inside; what we know of other people is simply a facade. What we know of other people is not the person but the persona they choose to let us see, either consciously or not, and persona is a very interesting word to use. When taken back to its Greek roots, persona has a very particular definition; it means “mask”, specifically the mask worn by a stage actor.
We are surrounded by strangers wearing masks and we are terrified of what we might see should those masks fall away. We are terrified of what others may see should our own mask fall away.
Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that I leapt at the chance to review Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ investigation, through the lens of horror cinema, into that very subject.
Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces is split roughly into two main sections, bookended by an introduction and conclusion. The first section places masks in context and analyses their use in various fields of entertainment: the theatrical traditions of Noh and Grand Guignol; the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James et al; early cinema like The Phantom of the Opera or Eyes Without A Face (Les yeux sans visage), which lends the book its subtitle and cover art. Here, Heller-Nicholas begins by discussing two very interesting theories relating to masks and mask-wearing.
Firstly, as Heller-Nicholas states, “masks are things – material objects that can be felt, worn and touched”. More than that, however, masks are things that pretend not to be things, unliving objects that pretend to be living subjects. This means that masks are deeply uncanny and, as Freud explains in his essay The Uncanny, belong to “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”. Indeed, what is more familiar to us than a human face?
We yearn to see faces so much that our minds sometimes generate them where they do not exist, creating the phenomenon known as pareidolia. We are so involved with faces that the experience of this familiarity becoming unfamiliar – when a living human face becomes the expressionless mask of a corpse, for example – can be overwhelming. Masks add to this uncanniness by existing not only in multiple categories – they generate humour when worn at a party or festival, horror when worn during a robbery or execution – but also between these categories. Unpleasant masks can add a welcome frisson to pleasant situations, pleasant masks do not alleviate unpleasant situations. Masks, therefore, are not just uncanny but they are also abject, something which Julia Kristeva tells us in her seminal Powers of Horror “lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the rules of the game”.
This leads to the second theory of masks; that they are deeply involved with the transformation and liminality of trickster figures. Heller-Nicholas quotes anthropologist Michael Ripinsky-Naxon in support of this: “when a man puts on a mask, his symbolic position is enhanced, for he assumes the significance of something other than himself”. This element of mask-wearing – using masks to adopt the appearance, and by inference adopt the powers, of some other creature – is obviously tied up strongly with what is often considered to be a shamanic approach.
This is a complex and problematic area of investigation, though, and one which Heller-Nicholas very cleverly side-steps by accepting that while “shamanism is a product of Western academia” – one which is often used to other and minimise members of so-called “primitive” cultures – there is still room for what could be called a “shamanic imagination”. Heller-Nicholas states that this shamanic imagination “allows a conceptualising of symbolic movements and transformations historically understood as spawned from (but not the same as) traditional shamanic rituals and practices, directly linking masked ritual, its transformative capacity and relationships to power with the realm of the supernatural or the other kinds of liminal spaces where horror is so frequently set”. The shamanic imagination is what allows us to believe things that we simultaneously do not believe. It is a sleight of mind that allows us to be frightened by the ghosts and monsters that we know do not exist, to place ourselves in situations that we know can never happen.
Masks, then, are tools that allow the development of the transformations and confusions which exist at the heart of horror and Heller-Nicholas uses the rest of this first section to explore their use. This is presented as a fascinating, if rapid, journey through theatre, literature and film; examples include the way uncannily inhuman Noh masks in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 film A Page of Madness are used to imply the collapse of individuality through insanity and how Harlequin trickster archetypes from Italy’s commedia dell’arte inform the disruptive protagonists of The Mask or even the Mexican lucha libre wrestler El Santo’s blurring of real/unreal experiences.
This discussion of the strange properties of masks as uncanny ab-things and the transformative action of mask-wearing behaviours is an excellent resource of theory and media of all types which has given me a huge list of films, books and plays to investigate. It also leads us nicely into the second main section of the book, a series of case-studies selected from post-1970 horror movies.
Which, unfortunately, and ironically, is where Masks in Horror Cinema starts to lose its way.
While the opening, introductory section was a whistlestop but enthusiastic tour through the wider arena of mask theory the main meat of the book becomes almost frenzied in its breathless need to cover as much ground as possible and loses a lot of power because of it. Each sub-section – divided by type into Skin, Blank, Animal, Repurposed and Technological Masks – covers six separate films. This allows comparison of the similarities and differences between these films but it also means that few of them get more than a couple of pages to themselves, much of that taken up by contextual plot overview. Equally, the sub-sections themselves seem slightly arbitrary.
Jason Vorhees’ hockey mask is placed, understandably, in the Repurposed section because of its background as a piece of sporting equipment but it’s also, in its expressionless and featureless gaze, a Blank mask. The mask from Alice Sweet Alice is described in the Skin section, as it attempts to emulate a human face, but this doesn’t seem much different to the supposedly Blank mask of the Man from Hush – which Heller-Nicholas even describes as having the human element of a smile that “adds a further degree of cruelty than would an expressionless mask” – especially when compared with Leatherface’s truly skin-constructed mask from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This may seem like niggling over categories but these decisions lead to a lot of jumping back and forth with regards to the actual theory which, I feel, could have been avoided especially when the categories seem to serve no real purpose when discussing the films themselves; Heller-Nicholas spends some time linking Jason’s repurposing of a hockey mask with the concept that serial-killing is a game for the character, which seems perfectly plausible until it is punctured by a quote from director Steven Miner where he admits that the introduction of the mask in Friday the 13th Part III was “just something that looked really good”. Is the type of mask, its source and construction, really more important than the intent of the mask? The use of masks, to frighten or disguise, seems more interesting to me than what they are made of.
The one part of the book where this categorisation of form does work is in the final section on Technological Masks, where Heller-Nicholas brings in computer screens, online personae and the machine-as-eye of the camera as barriers between victim and perpetrator. I found this discussion particularly interesting, especially as we now use screens to present ourselves in multiple ways far more than many of us used to but also because of the way that documentary-style fiction – in which video footage is reviewed by law-enforcement agents as fact but ultimately revealed to be misleading, for example – lends itself to an analysis of the increase in fake news, “faction” and entertainment reporting we have seen in the past few years. Indeed, thinking more about this angle, a section on Human Masks (or perhaps Humans-as-Masks) that looked at how the process of acting in itself is a form of mask and mask-wearing would’ve been a very interesting coda.
Ultimately, I found Masks in Horror Cinema to be a very useful and thought-provoking book but also a bit of a slog to read, especially in the case studies section where the repetition and reinforcement prevalent in academic texts became tiring and distracting. Added to this, a number of minor and easily-corrected errors – the use of “grizzly” rather than “grisly”, reference to a non-existent Chapter 9 and, a particular bugbear of mine, describing the plague doctor masks of the 16th century as medieval – made me wonder what else in the book may be incorrect.
As Heller-Nicholas notes, there are few serious investigations into how masks are used in horror film but Masks in Horror Cinema ultimately feels like it wants to correct this by, over-ambitiously, trying to cover everything in one go.
Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is published by University of Wales Press.