Posted on August 9, 2020

Masks in Horror Cinema: Review & Interview

Guest Post

Masks are ubiquitous in horror films, to the point that they’re almost like oxygen – prevalent enough that we hardly think about them, but it is difficult to imagine horror without them. When we think of the laconic villains of horror, many of them come standard with mask. Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, and Leatherface are obvious examples, but further reflection reveals that masks are important to the persona of a number of other movie monsters: while we see Hannibal Lecter’s face frequently in Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) it’s hard to shake the image of him in the prison-assigned mask meant to restrain his cannibalistic tendencies.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s new book, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces (2020), discusses all of these films, and many more, offering the first book-length overview of masks in horror cinema. But the importance of the book lies not in its function as a survey text, but in its fascinating readings of the different uses and symbolic functions to which masks can be put. With this entry into University of Wales Press’s new Horror Studies series, Heller-Nicholas has made an important contribution to an overlooked area of horror. Throughout this monograph, Heller-Nicholas not only helps to point out how frequently masks are an integral part of horror narratives, but she also works to unpack the variety of functions they serve.

You can order Masks in Horror Cinema from Amazon:

After an introduction to the monograph, the first chapter provides an overview of masks and their connection to what Heller-Nicholas refers to as the “shamanic imagination” (23). Using the thoughts of Doug Bradley (yes, Pinhead!) as a jumping-off point, Heller-Nicholas suggests that masks have long served a ritualistic function and “can bestow certain kinds of power (particularly to transform) in cultural arenas such as horror” (27). This offers an interesting avenue for Heller-Nicholas to enter into the ritualistic dimensions of horror films themselves, such as the repetitive nature of the performance and the participation of the audience. Masks help to mark their wearers as participating in the “liminal spaces” (31) so integral to both ritual and horror. These ideas will return throughout the monograph.

The two chapters of Part One provide an overview of the influences on horror masks then move to a more-or-less chronological survey of horror movie masks prior to the 1970s. Chapter 2, “Masks and Horror in Literary and Performance Traditions and Early Cinema,” is just as wide ranging as its title would suggest. Briefly touching on Japanese Noh theatre, Italian commedia dell’arte, Gothic literature and the Grand Guignol tradition, Heller-Nicholas demonstrates the pervasiveness of masks as a means of supporting horrifying events and thematic material. These varied traditions also serve as a means of entering into the discourse surrounding masks’ multiple meanings. For example, Heller-Nicholas looks at the 1926 Japanese film A Page of Madness, arguing that this film draws on Noh traditions and explores masks as a controlling device (43-46). But in the discussion of commedia dell’arte, Heller-Nicholas notes that the primary function of masks is to establish their wearers as trickster figures within a carnivalistic world (46-49).

Lon Chaney’s masked character from Phantom of the Opera

Chapter 3, “Masks in Horror Film before 1970,” argues that these earlier films begin the process of the “codification of masks as a key element of contemporary horror cinema’s iconography” (63). She notes the iconic mask of the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera, and points out that “through the mask, rituals surrounding gender and performance begin to appear in horror even at this early stage of the genre’s history” (65). She explores Vincent Price, associated with masks largely due to his star-making performance in House of Wax (1953), as well as the use of masks across multiple national cinemas as a contributing factor to the “internationalization of horror in the 1960s” (85). Here, as throughout the monograph, Heller-Nicholas demonstrates her skill in both advancing a theoretical argument while also surveying a broad range of material.

Leatherface’s iconic mask from Texas Chain Saw Massacre

In contrast to the first part, Parts Two and Three offer thematic surveys, making connections between films that cross time periods and national traditions. What makes this approach work is that Heller-Nicholas is always attuned to how a film’s historical and geographical context influences its meaning. While she might be placing two films into conversation with each other that were made decades apart and in different parts of the world, she is aware of what these differences mean. Each of these chapters is focused on a different type of mask and the ways that this typology can emphasize particular meanings of masks or shift the possibilities altogether. “Skin Masks” explores a range of films including The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Alice Sweet Alice, Happy Birthday to Me, and, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She finds a common theme is that these films “use skin masks to critique or subvert patriarchal norms,” frequently using elements of performance rituals to allow “male performers to adopt female identities” (91). These masks can “subvert dominant structures through masked transformation,” or allow the wearers (such as Leatherface) to “return to a regressive past,” thereby also critiquing the present’s social constructs (108-109).

The next chapter examines “Blank Masks,” arguing that they demand “the audience work to locate meaning in a space defined by its very lack of visual information” (111-112). Heller-Nicholas uses the Halloween franchise to demonstrate how this blankness “suggests both an erasure of identity while simultaneously allowing the audience to ‘read’ their own experience of Myers’s presence ‘into’ the blankness itself” (116), a feature which allows Rob Zombie’s re-boots to expand “the narrative and symbolic functionality of the mask,” incorporating these masks into the killer’s troubled backstory (116-117).

The blank mask of the stalker in Hush

Intriguingly, the chapter ends with a discussion of Bruiser and Hush, both of which use the blank masks to symbolize an erasure of identity. But in Hush, the killer removes this mask early on in the film, rendering him “more human and thus able to be conquered” (126). “Animal Masks” uses test case films which are even more disparate than in other chapters: of the six films discussed in depth, one is from South Korea, one from Italy, one from France, one from Canada, and two from the US. And even more than the wide range of national traditions, the films’ genres cover “neo-giallo,” “art-horror,” and “found-footage horror,” along with a low budget tongue-in-cheek slasher and a more recent, self-aware home invasion film (129). Strikingly, Heller-Nicholas is able to facilitate this conversation by remaining attuned to the particularities of national cinematic traditions and generic lineage, while also exploring the films’ unique relationships to masks. In Motel Hell and Bloody Reunion, Heller-Nicholas argues that the use of a pig mask associates the characters with their own sense of abjection (132), while also connecting the characters to “ritualistic” transformation (134). In contrast, the masks of Stagefright and The Conspiracy connect characters to myth and folklore (136-137). In the section’s final chapter, “Repurposed Masks,” Heller-Nicholas looks at the miner’s mask of My Bloody Valentine, Jason’s iconic hockey mask, and the use of doctor’s masks in Dead Ringers and Anatomy to explore the ways in which the function and symbolic value of masks can be changed by the context in which they are worn. Heller-Nicholas perceptively reads the masked killer of My Bloody Valentine as “repurposing the symbol of the very industry that forms the town’s foundations,” which “exposes the vulnerability of their social, economic, and cultural infrastructure” (152). Similarly, Heller-Nicholas argues that Jason’s hockey mask signifies a “macabre subversion of the complex relationship between sport, culture, and ritual” (156).

The third (much shorter) part includes only a final chapter on “Technological Masks” and a brief conclusion. Noting that “technology and ritual are closely aligned” (171), Heller-Nicholas uses some intriguing case studies to explore the potential for horror to use technological masks to trace the shifting relationships between ourselves and the world around us. Intriguingly, Heller-Nicholas first looks at Mark’s camera in Peeping Tom as a form of mask: “Mark wears the camera” (173, italics original).

Mark’s camera in Peeping Tom as a kind of mask

Wearing this mask allows Mark to make the transition from victim to killer. The chapter also explores how the masks of Halloween III reflect on the ritual of consumerism, and the ambiguous symbolic values of the gas mask and plague doctor mask worn by the killer of The Poughkeepsie Tapes, as well as the masks he forces his victims to wear. In the brief conclusion, Heller-Nicholas reflects on the mask’s “potency as a transhistorical, transnational artefact and the horror genre’s status as a contemporary forum where this power can evolve and adapt to new aesthetic, ideological and national contexts” (191). It is this flexibility of the mask as symbol, along with Heller-Nicholas’s finely tuned attention to this flexibility, that allows for such a continuously engaging book.

With this monograph, Heller-Nicholas has made an important contribution to horror scholarship, and furthered the still emerging dialogue between the academic fields of horror and ritual studies. This is a book that should definitely be consulted by scholars studying any of the films it discusses, as well as the slasher genre more broadly. It also provides a model for how to mediate conversations between films across national boundaries and from differing time periods, as it consistently strikes an excellent balance between broad thematic concerns and finely tuned attention to the specificities of the individual films and their particular contexts.

Below is an interview Brandon Grafius conducted with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas about her book:

Dr. Heller-Nicholas was gracious enough to offer some additional thoughts on her work via e-mail.

BG:  Do you remember when you first became interested in looking at the various functions of mask in horror cinema? Was there a particular film or films that first got you thinking about this topic?

AH-N: I only half-jokingly mention Scooby Doo in the book, but seriously, I think many of us – myself included – have a child-like fascination with masks as sorts of ‘magical’ objects, both through our own experiences of dressing up and playing make believe, but also through the frequently wackadoodle kids’ media we consumed. Long before I even knew what a horror film was I knew that masks were magical, and I think in many ways this project is an acknowledgement of a kind of ‘pre-critical’ engagement with material culture that evolved into a specialised field of academic research as a much more boring grown-up.

As for specific films regarding horror in particular, I have always had a soft spot for slasher movies, the Halloween franchise especially (for the record, Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers is the best Halloween, and I won’t accept any criticism on this position!). While I don’t think it started with Michael per se, I think my interest in this area as a hugely undervalued field worthy of critical attention certainly stemmed from my fascination with Halloween and films of its ilk – not just only in how the masks overlap in how they are employed, but (much more interestingly) how they deviate and diverge.

BG: What movie mask has scared you the most? Do you have an idea why?

AH-N: This is really fascinating to think about in retrospect after writing the book; I think for myself on a subjective level, I’m always drawn to the enigma of blank masks, so films like Halloween or Eyes Without A Face and how they use masks are boosted in their spook-factor because of the deliberate absence of meaning contained within the mask design itself. That has enormous power because there’s a tension between it speaking to fears and anxieties about a broader absence of identity (a kind of abyss), but also that it can often teasingly prompt us to almost subconsciously project our own meanings onto those blank canvases.

But I also have a real vulnerability to what I call repurposed masks – masks that we recognise as having a perfectly legitimate non-horror function, but are redeployed in a horror context as in what are sometimes really unsettling ways. I’m here thinking of things like the surgical mask in Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman, the welding mask in My Bloody Valentine, or of course, perhaps most famously, Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask. There’s something about these otherwise seemingly innocuous signifiers of occupational safety and protection having their meanings usurped for such gruesome motives that is really disorienting and creepy, for me personally at least!

BG: There’s quite a range of subgenres represented in this book – one of many things I really admired about it. Are there subgenres that you feel are particularly conducive to using masks as part of their meaning-making process, and subgenres for which this is particularly challenging? Or is it more or less the same across the board?

AH-N: The slasher film is an obvious one here – it really is so central to the iconography of that subgenre – but I wanted to be really aggressive in how I historicised that. I spend a fairly big chunk of the book doing a kind of pre-history of the horror film mask, moving from ancient theatre through to gothic literature and other forms before arriving at early cinema, where masks and horror forged a very early union. One of the sections of the book I’m the proudest of, for example, is about Abel Gance’s now lost 1912 short “Le masque d’horreur” (“The Mask of Horror”) which according to the surviving documentation really is quite extraordinary in how it flags the foundations of how the mask functions in horror today. So my argument is that across both time and different national contexts, the mask in horror moved towards the early 70s until for a variety of reasons it hit a point where it became codified: and from this, we really see it become fundamental to the iconography of the slasher subgenre especially. But of course, its utility is very broad across the genre as a whole.

BG:  Since your book’s publication, masks have obviously taken on an increased cultural position, with mask-wearing becoming increasingly common, if not mandated, in public as a result of COVID-19. There’s brief mention of mask-wearing in the book, in the discussion of Slit-Mouthed Woman, but I imagine there would be quite a bit more to say on this topic now. Does this new cultural salience of masks connect with the history of masks in horror films? Does horror need a new category of masks to encompass this cultural moment?

AH-N: I don’t think it needs a new category per se, but I think it will keep the conversation evolving. Much of my thoughts about repurposed masks especially are again clearly relevant here, and I’ve actually just written precisely on the politics of the mask in the context of COVID-19 here which probably expands upon this much more eloquently than I can do in this brief answer!

BG: I imagine the manuscript was finished before the release of Us, correct? I found myself wondering what you’d say about Jason/Pluto’s masks in this film. Do they fit comfortably within one of your categories, or straddle some boundaries? And does this film use these masks in a way similar to other films you’ve analyzed, or is it doing something different?

AH-N: This is my third survey book of sorts – I’d previously written books on rape-revenge film and found footage horror films – and I have learned from experience that you have to have an ‘off’ switch with a project, or you just will never get your manuscript in! This book was in fact adapted from my PhD which was submitted in March 2017, so outside a few small updates and alterations in the thesis-to-monograph conversion process, certainly the case studies all remain largely intact and precede that date.

So absolutely Us would fall in there, as would a large number of other recent films that use masks. I was really determined in the book to keep a fairly intersectional as well as interdisciplinary approach in place, so questions of gender, race, sexuality, religion and class were all at the forefront of my mind when I worked my way through masks and issues surrounding identity. I remember at one point really wanting to do more on Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) but not really having a satisfactory ‘in’; it would be interesting to revisit Us through that perspective to see if there’s anything there if it’s not already been written about. I haven’t really thought this through, but absolutely that is one amongst a number of post-publication films I’d love to see discussed more in terms of the conceptual and symbolic mechanics of the mask.

BG: Do you see your work on masks as informing your future work in horror, or is this a self-contained project?

AH-N: Again, you have to have an ‘off’ switch! I loved this project – it’s probably my favourite of all my books I’ve written – and I’d love to see it evolve into a documentary or something like that, now that masks are very much a subject of discussion (even six months ago I don’t know if people would have understood what I meant by ‘the politics of masks’, but now – circumstances being what they are – I think everyone gets it!). But since this was written I’ve written two more books; my 200,000 word tome 1000 Women in Horror, 1895-2018 is about to come out, and my eighth book – The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema – has just gone on pre-order.

But all my books are my babies; I keep coming back to rape-revenge (I’ve written two books on this subject and am working on big project related to that now), I’ve recently written a book chapter on found footage horror, and I have no doubt that masks will be the same. Never say never, right?

Brandon R. Grafius is associate professor of biblical studies at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Detroit. He is the media review co-editor for The Journal of Gods and Monsters, as well as the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Biblical Monsters (with John W. Morehead). His monograph Reading the Bible with Horror has been nominated for the Grawemeyer Prize in Religion, and his handbook on The Witch is forthcoming from the Devil’s Advocates series.

You can find Heller-Nicholas’s introduction to her book on the University of Wales’ website.

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