Masked Maniacs of the Movies

I wanted to close out this Mad As Hell Halloween month with an article about one of my favorite accoutrements of horror film villains: the mask. These iconic items are sported by the many deranged film psycho killers and have become symbols of dread. In effect, when we see them, we know exactly who they represent and what they’re used for.

What is the real reason killers wear masks in horror films? I’d say the first obvious answer would be anonymity but also the fact these human monsters are often deformed in some way and want to hide their disgusting appearances. Still, it makes you wonder why a killer who is psychotic would care enough about their looks at all to them cover up. For example one of the most popular movie killers, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, whose face and body are burned extremely bad, never dons a mask yet he is probably one of the more visually repulsive characters in the genre. I guess Freddy has no vanity and wants to be accepted for who he is, not for just his looks.

The earliest masked psycho film that I can think of is Phantom of The Opera (1925) which starred Lon Chaney as a mysterious disfigured musician who haunts a music palace. This “mutilated genius seeking revenge” archetype would be revisited many times over the years in later films like House of Wax (1953), The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Darkman (1990).

Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) has the most grotesque mask because as you probably know it’s made out of human skin. The character was based on the real serial killer Ed Gein, who was a necrophiliac and grave robber that actually made lampshades and other ghastly ornaments from the skin and bones of his victims. Throughout the story, the ghoulish mask had different style from a goofy wig/clown quality to the modern version which gave him a more monstrous hulky appearance. Along with the meat butcher fashion touch, it made Leatherface a truly memorable horror character.

What could be more creepy looking than a skin mask? How about a Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) halloween mask? That’s what psycho Michael Myers (aka the Shape) in Halloween (1978) dons after he escapes the mental hospital and his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance). To make the mask even more unnerving, the FX crew cut out the eye holes a bit more round and tweaked the hair to give it a frayed appearance. Michael was the first killer to have the blue collar worker look. He wears the clothes of a tow truck driver he dispatches at the beginning of the first film. This would influence our next horror legend…

Jason Voorhees of the Friday The 13th series was unique because he actually had two different masks and both equally creepy. The first was his sackhead look, which had one eye hole cut out. Horror fans have noted this was inspired by the killer from The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), if you watch both films you can clearly see the similarity. After being downed for the count by Ginny in Part 2, Jason decided to ditch the hillbilly garb and go for something a bit more sleek. In Part 3 of the series, he steals some mechanic type work clothes from a small general store. Then for the piece de resistance he obtains his iconic hockey mask, which was actually used by Shelly (Larry Zerner) to scare one of the other kids first. Shelly is a horror fan and he actually had another mask as well, but Jason took a liking to the hockey mask. When he first appears with it on he looks like he just bought a new car. It’s more frightening because not only is he a bulky deformed psycho, but you know what’s behind the mask isn’t very pleasant to look at. The hockey mask idea was used in a film before this called The Rape Squad (1974) by a villain, and this could be where the idea came from for Jason’s look (or not). The hockey mask has been used in other films since, one that comes to mind is Michael Mann’s HEAT. In that film, the gang of bank robbers wear them during a armored car heist.

In Wes Craven’s post-modern slasher film Scream (1996) where the genre itself is used as part of the storyline/plot, the featured disguise is a rather goofy looking ghostface mask. In actuality this mask is probably the least scary in appearance of all of them to me. What really makes the killer frightening is his voice, which is created by a sound manipulation device. Scream is alot of fun because of the fact that it combines the telephone horror theme we saw/heard in films like Black Christmas (1974), When A Stranger Calls (1979) and Don’t Answer The Phone (1980) with the well known masked killers from the aforementioned films and does an imaginative genre twist that was refreshing, especially if you’re a longtime slasher fan.

Do you have a favorite masked psycho? If so, let us know in our comments!



Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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