John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic Halloween was by no means the first slasher movie, but it inspired a wave of imitators which collectively codified a lot of what fans still expect from the genre: the gory impalements, the connections between sex and death, the casts of young people who get picked off one by one, and so on. Perhaps the most enduring element in Halloween is the mask. The killer Michael Myers — which Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill sometimes call “The Shape” in their script — wears a ghostly white mask, blank and expressionless.
In the movie’s reality, Myers swipes the mask from a store. But Halloween’s production designer Tommy Lee Wallace actually made the prop by spray-painting a pre-existing mask of William Shatner’s Star Trek character Captain Kirk, and widening its eye holes. Though ostensibly an off-the-shelf product, the modified mask was strangely grotesque — and now, it’s iconic. By the time Halloween’s closing credits rolled, memorable masks had become essential accessories for blade-wielding maniacs.
In the years and decades that have followed, horror filmmakers have played around with the looks of those masks, diverging in fascinating ways from Halloween’s “disturbingly abstract” mode. With the understanding that there are always blurred lines in categorization, here are six of the main groupings of slasher masks, divided both by how they appear on the surface and how they unsettle the audience.
Sleek and/or blank
Prior to Halloween, masked killers in horror movies gravitated toward cleanness. In Mario Bava’s seminal giallo film Blood and Black Lace, the villain’s head is wrapped in a skin-tight, shroud-like, anonymous white cloth — as is the head of the murderer in Sergio Martino’s classic giallo Torso, and the one in Clive Barker’s cult favorite Nightbreed. By contrast, the plastic, silver half-mask in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise stands out, with its bird-like nose and huge eye-holes. But its shininess also makes it look somewhat unreal, as though it has been untouched by human hands.
In Sophia Takal’s 2019 version of Black Christmas (vastly different from the earlier versions), the mask serves as a symbol for misogynistic evil. It’s black and polished, looking like faux-stone. Yet like the white and silver masks above, there’s an emptiness to the design that allows viewers to project their impressions and fears. There’s something sickly clinical about all these masks. They’re not like something you’d see on a phantasmagorical monster. They’re more like what some very human, very kinky fetishist might wear.
Like the blank and shiny masks, the loose burlap masks that some movie slashers sport are fundamentally featureless. But there’s a rawness to sack-masks that makes them more shocking than a form-fitting or a craftily molded blank mask. Serial murderers who throw a bag over their heads seem like they’re in a hurry. They have to kill and they have to kill now.
One of the first of the sack-headed slashers — not so well-remembered today — appeared in the 1976 horror film The Town That Dreaded Sundown. A micro-budget thriller from the Arkansas B-movie impresario Charles B. Pierce, The Town That Dreaded Sundown riffs on the semi-true story of a 1940s “phantom killer.” Later examples of effective bag-masks include The Strangers and its sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night; and the scarecrow-masked kiddo known as “Sam” in the anthology film Trick ‘r Treat.
In fact, the resemblance to a scarecrow may be the best way to understand the disorienting visual effect of the sack. Killers draped in burlap look like they were once stuck on a stick in a cornfield by a farmer looking to freak out a flock of birds. Now they’ve come to life and they’re coming after you.
Off the shelf
Even hardcore horror fans sometimes forget that Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees wasn’t the killer in the 1980 original (spoiler alert: it was his mom) and that he didn’t wear a hockey mask in the 1981 sequel (where he wore, instead, a sack!). It wasn’t until 1983’s Friday the 13th Part III that Jason picked up the hockey mask that he has continued to wear in every subsequent franchise entry. Sometimes his masks look like they could see action tomorrow at a local ice rink, and sometimes they look as outsized as Jason himself has become over the decades, as he’s evolved into something superhuman.
The quasi-practical mask isn’t super-common in slashers. (One of the most prominent non-Voorhees examples is the gas mask in 1981’s My Bloody Valentine and in its 2009 remake.) But the horror films that use them speak to a nebulous fear within the audience. If we were walking around an arena or a mine, seeing someone in a hockey mask or a gas mask might not seem strange. But if we were in a parking lot? And someone in a gas mask walked up to us? We’d likely be unnerved, wondering why someone was wearing that out of its usual context. We’d be confused and panicked … right up to the moment when a pickaxe started swinging toward our chest.
Nearly all slasher movies call back to cautionary fairy tales and the notion of a “big bad wolf.” But some are more explicit about this than others. In Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’s meta-horror Creep films, for example, the killer — if he actually is a killer and not just a lonely prankster — dons a wolf head. In the home invasion thriller You’re Next, the mysterious intruders disguise themselves as a lamb, a tiger, and a fox. And even in the Saw franchise — which already has horrors aplenty — the writers and directors come back again and again to the image of a disgustingly realistic pig mask.
Wolf or not, it’s easy to see why animal masks have such a visual impact. They’re a reminder that we aren’t too far removed from any other beast that’s out in the wild, scratching for survival and trying not to get eaten. They’re also a reminder that we share this planet with other creatures, who can be inscrutable and sometimes dangerous.
Young horror fans should seek out the 1976 curio Alice, Sweet Alice: a brain-bending murder-mystery in which multiple characters (including the killer) wear a yellow hooded raincoat with a painted baby-doll mask. This is a prime example of a kind of slasher mask that’s still used effectively today: one that’s outwardly cutesy and fun, but which disguises something menacing. In recent years, slasher connoisseurs have seen similar masks in the two Happy Death Day movies (with their oversized baby-face masks) and the Purge series (where some of the anarchic agents have worn grinning masks with puffy cheeks, like a mix of Guy Fawkes and Jimmy Carter).
One of the most enduring ironic masks is worn by multiple iterations of “Ghostface” in the Scream movies. Those films are at once ruthlessly terrifying and smirkly self-aware; so it’s no coincidence that the Ghostface mask resembles Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Like the movies, the mask is sort of a joke, which also, somewhat perversely, taps into a well of real, painful emotions. It’s no wonder Ghostface has become such a popular Halloween costume in the 25 years since the first Scream. The mask is fun and disquieting, in almost equal measure.
Poll just about any group of film buffs about what they think the best or the scariest slasher movie masks are. Odds are, there will be a fair number of votes for Jason Voorhees’ arena-ready attire, and perhaps even more for Michael Myers’ pale, bloodless Shatner. But even hardcore fans of the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises will likely admit that the most bone-chilling masked killer is Leatherface, from 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and its many, many sequels). A wild cannibal — who like any good hunter tries not to waste any part of his kill — the hulking Leatherface typically covers his actual face with the stitched-together features of his victims. He’s a bad dream, come to life.
Leatherface’s original distorted, decaying look also set a standard that many subsequent slashers have tried to match. It’s always going to be a challenge to come up with a mask as singularly horrifying as his; but the teams on movies like The Burning, Behind the Mask, Smiley and more have certainly come close, relying on design motifs like exaggerated eyes and mouths, and stitching that resembles scars.
This all brings us back to the original Halloween, where just a few alterations to the color and the features of a human face made it look inhuman. This is what a great horror movie mask can do: take something recognizable and distort it until it appears alien. Sometimes these films and their costumes frighten us just by warping the ordinary, and reminding us that we’re not as far removed as we think from living inside a nightmare.