Masks feature heavily in monster fiction; both literally and figuratively the idea of the mask is prevalent across narratives, and seeps into those without supernatural creatures too. In thinking about this recently, it seemed only sensible to explore it a bit more. Of course, once I started, then connections began to spring forth.
Why is the idea of the mask so important to monstrosity? Firstly, a way to illustrate this would be to remind you of one of the most famous masks in culture:
Yes, The Phantom of the Opera. His mask hides his monstrosity, or his deformity, and the crux of the story, like so many others, is whether he can be accepted by his true love for what he really is underneath the mask. It acts as a barrier between the public and the private self, an armour of sorts, a self-chosen identity. The same goes (to an extent) with the multiple serial killers in slash-flicks who obscure themselves behind masks, though their ultimate aim is to terrify with the fear of the unknown (without knowing who is under the mask, it could potentially be anyone, and the possibility is more frightening than its answer) rather than being accepted.
When it comes to figurative masks, it is the monsters of the present day screens that can be seen wearing these. The current fascination with assimilating with humanity requires masquerading as something else, something that is socially acceptable. The mask is behavioural, not cognitive, and allows the monster to pass undetected. It is reminiscent of gods who assume human form in order to avoid fear or alienation. It is particularly prevalent in shows such as The Vampire Diaries, Being Human and to an extent, True Blood.
True Blood is a very interesting case indeed. Because vampires are ‘out of the coffin’, there is little to no need for a mask, as their identity is known. However, they still need to maintain a respectable relationship with the humans, primarily to acquire political rights. For the most part, vampires pretend to be more human friendly than they are, simply as some kind of PR exercise. Rather than the vampire being the one who needs to hide in the shadows and wear a public mask, it is the other monsters in the series who are lurking behind the pretense of humanity – and not just the supernatural creatures…
It gives him powers, and in this case the mask is not a way of hiding or obscuring a truth, but contorting it and making the wearer a monster. The mask seems to have a power of its own, and the wearer cannot control their actions, rather, they are just the vehicle.
On the other hand, masks also feature in True Blood as a way to both make a political statement and protect a group of extremists from prosecution. This group, a bunch of vampire haters, brutally attack vampires and ride around taunting them in Obama masks. The mask here is used as an uncanny device – taking the familiar face of a politician and matching it up with extremist acts and violence.
It seems for the most part that the mask is synonymous with monstrous, whether literally or figuratively. For the monster, the mask offers safe passage in a world where they are rejected. But for humans that don a mask, it turns them into a monster.