Do you prefer in-your-face horror or suggestive horror? Which frightens you most when you’re reading a ghost story or watching a scary movie? In Poltergeist, while we do see a number of masks worn by the real supernatural entity, for most of us, the clown doll that we see in place of the monster itself is, from the very beginning, the primary mask, the horrific image we retain long after the movie is over. It’s iconic. From the moment we see the form in the closet covered by a blanket and expect it to be Carol Ann’s lifeless body to the startling figure on the chair in the dark and the thing lurking under the little boy’s bed – it’s not the real monster that terrifies us, but the toy clown. And a clown face is terrifying because it’s a mask of happiness.
Mask is the key word. Think of Stephen King’s IT. The clown – supposedly an image children love – is only one disguise IT uses, but it is the most effective. Again, that’s because the mask of happiness hides true horror, and on some level, we sense that. And a mask we recognize from everyday life is easily more terrifying than something that tries our comprehension.
Masking a monster is done in many ways. A ghost, demon, or dangerous human usually appears to be something it isn’t. In my own books, I use masks in various ways. In The Crimson Corset, Gretchen VanTreese, the undead proprietor of a nightclub of ill-repute is as beautiful as she is deadly, and the other vampires in the story also wear masks of beauty to draw in their human prey. In The Cliffhouse Haunting, the primary spirit, the Blue Lady, appears to be beautiful … until she gets close enough to wrap her cold arms around you. Even then, she retains her mask as a misty figure that people can’t quite comprehend. The Ghosts of Ravencrest holds many monsters – evil nuns, nature elementals, serial killers, and a myriad of ghosts – all with masks of their own.
Masks are effective because, as we all know, there is nothing more frightening than the unknown. In the movies, we are haunted by images of Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and Ghostface because we don’t know what lies beneath the facade. In real life, there is perhaps only one serial killer even more terrifying than John Wayne Gacy when he dressed as a clown: Ted Bundy, whose own handsome face was a mask disguising the monster beneath the surface. In this way, he is the most frightening of all because we are attracted to handsome and beautiful faces, not frightened by them.
In horror, masks are vital. Masks are what we fear for we cannot see what’s really behind the beauty or the clown make-up. What’s underneath – what each individual imagines in his or her own mind – is the most terrifying monster. After all, if you remove the monster’s mask, chances are the fear is greatly lessened or even removed. Your own imagination is where the scariest monsters live and a wise author or filmmaker remembers this and reminds you regularly that what you’re seeing is only a mask – that the real monster is lurking in your own mind.