We're afraid of things that go bump in the night because we're afraid of what we can't see. Perhaps that's why masked killers so common in horror movies, because we can't really see the face of the knife-wielding maniac underneath, just their emotionless false face.
In an article for LiveScience, Benjamin Radford wrote that we find masks so menacing is because "our brains are specialized for recognizing faces. A person's face provides a wealth of information" and once that veil of information is removed, the thought of being killed by an unidentifiable stranger gets instantly more terrifying.
While masks in horror are mostly associated with the slasher subgenre, they'd been used for decades before the disfigured face of William Shatner found its way into Michael Myers' hands. Theatre actors have been using masks for centuries (think of the comedy and tragedy mask motif). In films, masks have long been used to hide the identity of the villain.
With the new Halloween making a splash at the box office this past weekend, it's time to take a look at the best masked killers in horror movies.
Christiane in Eyes Without a Face (1960)
A French horror film about a horribly disfigured young woman forced to wear a haunting mask over her face. Driven to madness by the guilt of causing the accident that disfigured her daughter, a plastic surgeon becomes obsessed with murdering young women to try and perform a face transplant on his daughter.
The reason the mask is so effective is that it looks like a regular human face, but smooth and featureless, creating an eerie and almost sad figure. It's a simple design that is made horrifying thanks to Edith Scob's haunting performance.
As an added bonus, this film is also said to have inspired the idea of a featureless mask for Michael Myers in Halloween, and the mask in Mike Flanagan's Hush sure looks like Christiane's.
Sam in Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
One of the best anthology horror films ever made, the real star of Michael Dougherty's 2007 cult classic is without a doubt Sam, the mischievous spirit of Halloween. Sam appears in-between stories, serving as a guide to the audience, and a vengeful being that punishes those who dare not follow Halloween traditions.
As if his orange pajamas and murderous hobbies weren't enough, it's the burlap sack he wears as a mask that makes him iconic. The button eyes, the stitched-up grin make this killer both cute and disturbing. Sam's design, especially his child-like appearance and stature, are often juxtaposed with the graphic violence he inflicts upon his victims, making this for a gleeful but terrifying mask.
The Animal Killers from You're Next (2011)
A family dinner gets interrupted by a terrorizing group of masked killers until the would-be victims start fighting back.
One of the film's coolest aspects is the simplicity of the killers' masks, each of them modeled after a different animal: a fox, a lamb, and a tiger. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett wanted the masks to look iconic but real: "It was hard to believe that the You're Next characters would sit at home spending weeks designing their masks," Barrett told IGN. The result is a group of horrifying and gritty killers, each with a distinct personality.
As a bonus, check out the video game Hotline Miami, which came out just a year after the film and features similar animal masks.
Mask of Satan in Black Sunday (1960)
In 1630 Moldavia, a young woman is sentenced to death for sorcery. Before being burned at the stake, a bronze mask with the image of Satan and nails on the inside was hammered into her flesh. Of course, before dying, the woman places a curse upon her killers and vows for revenge.
Before Mario Bava directed this early Italian slasher, which became to be known as a giallo, he made this Hammer Films-like horrific tale of witchcraft, featuring one of the masks in this list. Sculped by Bava's father, the mask features what look like fangs and a crown, evoking the image of the Prince of Darkness — but it is the nails on the inside of the mask which make this the most uncomfortable mask on this list.
Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Like so many horror movies, including another one in this very list, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was inspired by one of the most terrifying serial killers in America: Ed Gein, a real killer who had several pieces of furniture and a few masks made from actual human skin.
The film follows a group of friends being hunted by a family of cannibals. The film is mostly remembered for the outstanding character of Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding cannibal who wears three different human-skin masks, depending on what he's trying to do. What makes this mask terrifying is that there is absolutely nothing underneath. Leatherface himself can't express anything, so he wears the masks to serve as his personality. It's a visceral and grotesque look that makes this one of the most shocking character introductions in horror, and introduced the idea of a large, hulking, faceless killer.
Tomás in The Orphanage (2007)
Absolutely the saddest film in this list, J.A. Bayona's story about a woman who brings her family back to the ramshackle orphanage she was adopted from to reopen it as a foster home is not only terrifying, but it's a melancholic story featuring some great kid actors.
The best among them is also one of the creepiest kids since the twins from The Shining. Tomás starts out as a spooky ghost residing in the titular orphanage, always wearing a weird makeshift potato sack over his head that resembles a face. The mask is creepy because it looks made by a child, yet slightly off, with a missing eye that will give you nightmares for days.
Ghostface in Scream (1996)
The beauty of Ghostface is that it actually makes true on the promise of a masked killer possibly being anyone. It’s a simple yet striking design that is loosely based on Munch's 'The Scream' painting, it is one of the many horror masks that were actually taken from an actual commercial Halloween mask and then altered to become the iconic look we know and love.
It may only have sagging black holes for eyes, but Ghostface is one of the most expressive masks on this list, with its elongated mouth screaming "I'm going to kill you now."
Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Someone at Strong Heart/Demme or Orion must have realized nothing beats a good hockey mask when it comes to designing a scary serial killer. Ed Cubberly, the man behind many of the NHL's goalie masks, also came up with the simple concept of using half a mask and give it metal bars over the mouth hole as a muzzle.
Though Lecter wears the masks for only a couple of minutes, it's a mask that sends shivers down your spine because of what it hides. It's also the only mask in this list that is used against the villain. It's a safety net that holds both a promise and a threat. A promise that as long as Lecter is hearing the mask, nothing bad will happen, but a threat that if it ever comes off, unspeakable terror will be unleashed.
Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
The most recognizable aspect of the entire franchise, and one of the most famous horror images, and it wasn’t introduced until the third installment in the series. A happy accident in which the film's 3D supervisor brought up a hockey mask as a solution for Jason's look in 3D gave us one of the most iconic looks in cinema history. The moment he puts on the mask, you start to wonder why he wasn't wearing it all the time, it's just that good a fit.
The film that made people realize sports equipment could be terrifying, Jason transforms from a crazy killer into an otherworldly force of nature. The fact that it uses such a common item meant to protect its wearer, and instantly soaks it in blood, makes for instant horror.
Michael Myers in Halloween (1978)
The strangest of this list's masks, this is the only one based on an actual human being's face. The way John Carpenter and his team were able to take the emotionless gaze of a William Shatner mask (for kids to dress up as Star Trek's Captain Kirk) and turn it into Evil incarnate is just Hollywood magic. Leatherface may have been first, but the babysitter murderer is the standard by which all other masked killers are compared.
This mask is special just because it takes a human face and removes all expression from it. The mask gives Michael — or, rather, 'The Shape' — a cold, soulless look that becomes his actual face, with just an empty void hiding behind it.