When it comes to Halloween, there's perhaps no costume more simple, effective, or even as scary as a good mask — especially when chosen wisely. A good mask doesn't just change how you look, it can also allow you to become your true self, the anonymity allowing you to do things you might never do otherwise, something horror movies play on constantly. After all, the real fear lies not in what's behind the mask, but rather, what the wearer might plan on doing as we're unable to really read their intentions.
The pilot episode of the Goosebumps television series — which aired 25 years ago on Oct. 27, 1995 — takes this concept one step further, turning it inwards on its main character, Carly Beth Caldwell. The story, which was based on one of the books from the best-selling series by R.L. Stine, sees 11-year-old Carly purchase a mask in order to scare two off her classmates who are constantly scaring her. But while she succeeds at her goal, the mask begins affecting how she acts, changing her voice and making her meaner. Eventually, she discovers that she can't take it off, because it's now fused to her skin permanently. And thus begins the true horror of Stine's tale, as Carly works against all odds to free herself from this terrifying fate.
But not all masks in popular culture have terrible intentions, that's usually reserved for the characters wearing them. Still, they do have the potential to instill great fear and leave memorable impressions on the the audience, be it because of the materials and design that went into the mask, or the character(s) behind it. To celebrate this, here's a ranking of some of the most iconic horror movie masks, and just how effective they were at scaring us.
Polite Purge Leader (The Purge)
Perhaps the scariest part of this movie is just how good the casting is for the man underneath the mask, True Detective's Rhys Wakefield, who it uncannily resembles — despite the large, almost vacant eyes, and over-exaggerated fake smile. It blurs the lines between him even needing the mask, seeing as how all manner of crime is legal for 12 hours during the Purge, and the way he and the rest of his "gang" revel in that, with this leader even taking off his mask at one point, fully secure that people seeing his face won't affect him in any way, and that he won't be facing any consequences.
Man in the Mask, Pin-up, and Dollface (The Strangers)
While there's nothing particularly special about theses masks in terms of design, it's interesting that they don't quite match each other, and seem to have been chosen slightly at random despite the three characters working together — especially with the almost crude "home-made" nature of the Man in the Mask's mask, with its cut out eye holes and drawn on mouth, which clashes against the other two store-bought ones. The film itself offers no real reason for these choices, just like there is no real motivation given for why the three characters break into someone else's home and torture and murder the inhabitants, as they do. The result is something far scarier than some of the other films on this list, as director Bryan Bertino denies both the audience and even the characters any recognition of who these killers might be, and flat out refuses to state their intentions. All that's left is a fixed focus on the characters themselves, and anything else that can be gleaned by the masks they're wearing, which again, is frighteningly little.
Animal Masks (You're Next)
Animal heads are fairly common as far as mask motifs go, but this trio of masks — a tiger, a fox, and a lamb — is not only memorable in terms of its simple yet evocative design, but it allows viewers to easily separate the three people attacking this family in their home, further defining their personalities. More than that, it speaks to the movie's central theme: that no one is what you expect, and that the masks we choose to wear (animal or not) can sometimes belie just how dangerous we might be. According to the film's writer, Simon Barrett, it's no coincidence that the person wearing the lamb mask proves to be the deadliest attacker of the three, seeing as Erin (Sharni Vinson), one of the main characters of the film, isn't quite as helpless as she might let on either.
Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th Part III)
Ask anyone to describe Jason Voorhees, and the first thing that likely comes to mind is his now character-defining hockey mask. However, as many fans of the Friday the 13th franchise will point out, it doesn't make an appearance until the third film in the series, with Jason's face having no real covering or protection before this. Part of what makes this particular mask work is that it's not only a fairly commonplace piece of sporting equipment, but it's also something that is used to protect its wearer, i.e. a means of defense, that in Jason's hands, becomes twisted from its original use as he goes around killing people. If anything, this mask only adds to the fear he causes in his victims, as its blood-splattered form covers his face while he hacks away at them.
Elegant in its simplicity, the "Ghostface" mask from Wes Craven's iconic Scream series has a lot going for it. Not only does its design reference Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream, but within the universe of the films, the mask is actually quite ubiquitous, an easily found Halloween costume that could be purchased by anyone — a perfect send-up of that aspect of the slasher genre. But that only adds to its effectiveness as a disguise as it tells you next to nothing about the person wearing it, hiding their gender and race and keeping the focus on the mask itself. This has allowed multiple people to don it over the course of the first four films, and likely now yet another to do so in the upcoming fifth one. It's also the most expressive of all the masks here, as its droopy eyes and long exaggerated mouth create a bit of a blank canvas as characters beg for their lives against it.
Michael Meyers (Halloween)
It's the mask that launched the slasher sub-genre as we know it, when Myers first burst onto the scene in Halloween. The blank white expression as formed by the mask's slack features and the almost baggy fit allows the mask to distort Myer's face slightly while defining what he looks like to all of his victims — as well as to an audience on the edge of their seats, quietly willing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) to safety, after yet another brush with the character.
What's interesting about Myers' mask is that it was originally a real-life mask of William Shatner as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, before John Carpenter and the rest of the film's production team got their hands on it, painting it white and stretching it out a bit, and creating an uncanny visual. If Ghostface's mask allows a small level of projection onto it because of its gender-neutral features, then Myers' mask does the complete opposite, its blank features rendering it effectively unable to form much of a canvas for victims hoping to survive, which in turn makes it even scarier.
Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
Masks can be pretty scary on their own, but a mask made of human skin is absolutely terrifying. Not only did Leatherface have to procure the materials to make said mask — skin from no less than three human faces — but the kill-happy cannibal also chooses to keep on wearing it because he considers it a better alternative to his real face and something that will help him express himself even better. And just like with Myers and the characters from The Strangers, some part of the inspiration for Leatherface's mask is based on an aspect of real life. In this case, it's the American serial killer Ed Gein, who also made masks (and some parts of furniture) from human skin. And just like any good classic horror movie villain, Leatherface will be coming back, no doubt in some new horrifying human-based creation.