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Who’s Behind the Mask?

The use of masks to strike fear in horror fans.

Time and again we have seen masks pop up in the horror genre. Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, The Strangers, and so many more make use of masks to conceal the faces of killers. In some cases, the mask is used to distract, in others to conceal, and in some cases even to allow the person wearing it to finally be who they truly are.

But why does this prop have so much power that it can make our hearts race, our palms sweat, and a blood-curdling scream escape our throats? “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne seeks to answer that very question. This scary story was published in Hawthorne’s collection Twice Told Tales in 1837, a whopping 141 years before we would be terrorized by the instantly iconic Michael Myers mask. Hawthorne, most well-known for The Scarlet Letter, explores the concept of fear of the unknown as a root of evil.

We Fear What We Cannot See

The protagonist Parson Hooper appears one day to his congregation with a veil that covers his eyes. The windows to the soul, as they’re often referred to, give us insight into other people. If you look at someone square in the eyes, you’re confident and have nothing to hide. If you avert your eyes from someone’s gaze then you might be lying. The importance of being able to look at someone’s eyes has its roots in empathy. When we empathize with someone, we can understand how they are feeling which gives us insight to what they might be thinking. If we can’t see someone’s eyes then we feel like they’re hiding something. In horror, characters written without empathy are either the killers or will soon be killed.

The rest of the characters in “The Ministers Black Veil” feel unsettled by not being able to see Parson Hooper’s eyes. One of his parishioners says “he has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face.” Is he hiding something? Does he feel guilty? Adults ignore him, children avoid him, and even his wife leaves him, all out of fear of what the black veil is concealing.

Serial Killers Don’t Blink

Why then can we see eyes through the Michael Myers mask, and Leatherface, and Hannibal Lecter? There’s a bone-chilling power in showing evil come through in place of a soul. Dr. Loomis famously says of Michael in Halloween: “I met this... six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and... the blackest eyes - the Devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.”

When Anthony Hopkins portrayed Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, he made it a point not to blink because it causes uneasiness in the audience. Humans are hardwired to blink. When you realize that someone is not blinking, your subconscious immediately registers that there’s something off there, something not quite human.

Which of us is the Monster?

Parson Hooper lives his life behind that veil, refusing even on his death bed to remove it. For Hawthorne, the power of the mask is in its ability to bring out the wretchedness of others. Adults ignored the Parson, and so he had no friends. Children avoided him, and so he was made to feel different. His wife left him, and so he was forced to live his life alone. People were too busy speculating about Parson Hooper’s faults instead of recognizing and reflecting on their own – an affliction that still plagues humanity today.

In modern horror though, the mask serves not to conceal but to guide the audience’s focus so they can see that Michael Myers has no soul, that Leatherface enjoys the kill, and that Hannibal Lecter cannot be contained. A mask tells the audience: beware!

Tell us about your favorite masked villains in the comments below!

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