Greatest Masks in Horror

By: Heather Seebach

The Purge opens this Friday, and while it does have a promising dystopian vibe going on, the marketing is all about those masked villains, huh? Why killers would need masks on a day-without-crime eludes me, but nevertheless, to celebrate the film's opening weekend, here are some of horror's greatest masks, from classic to contemporary.

The Legends

The Shape/Michael Myers, Halloween (1978)

This infamous face is one of the plainest masks in horror history, and yet it remains the most terrifying. Perhaps William Shatner is to blame for that, as the mask was created in his likeness. Fashioned from a Captain Kirk Halloween mask, the pale, emotionless face perfectly matches the cold, soulless demeanor of “The Shape” (as Carpenter’s killer was known back then). Together with that blue jumpsuit, the mask has solidified Michael Myers as a horror icon.

Leatherface, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Few things are more terrifying than a nut-job who wears other people’s skin – especially when said nut-job is an inbred, mentally-challenged, chainsaw-wielding cannibal. The Sawyer boy’s tendency to wear the skin of his victims as masks was inspired by real-life killer, Ed Gein. The look is such an integral part of the character that it has become his name – Leatherface. “Bubba”, “Junior”, and "Jed" have all been thrown around as monikers for the killer, but those names will never make you shudder like “Leatherface” does.

Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th: Part III (1982)

Jason has undergone numerous makeovers during the course of the franchise, from deformed boy to sack-headed hillbilly to full-on zombie, but only one look is recognized by anyone aged 5 to 95 – the hockey mask. Thanks to Jason, this otherwise harmless piece of fiberglass has become a symbol of terror. Even goalies stopped wearing this style of mask, so the look is truly Jason’s now (well,his and Casey Jones'). Either way, when you see this face coming at you, you know to run the other way.

Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Unlike the other entries on this list, Hannibal did not wear this mask for his kills, or even by choice. But who can deny the terrifying imagery of the infamous cannibal in his mouth restraint? From the nose down, it somewhat resembles the iconic Jason Voorhees mask. Only with Hannibal, we can see his eyes – those bat-shit crazy eyes. The purpose of this mask is to prevent you from becoming dinner but the image definitely doesn’t evoke a feeling of safety. The mere concept of a grown man having to wear a muzzle like some rabid Rottweiler is quite unnerving.

Jack Griffin, The Invisible Man (1933)

One of the legendary Universal monsters, the Invisible Man wears a mask of bandages to make himself seen. The scientist behind the monster is Dr. Griffin, a man who discovered the secret of invisibility. His newfound ability drives him insane and he starts killing people. The bandage face with sunglasses is one of the oldest and most recognizable masks in the horror genre. 

Ghostface, Scream (1996)

Inspired by Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream," this iconic 90s mask has become the most bought and worn Halloween costume in the U.S. It has been used not only in the Scream movies but in numerous spoof films, as well. Although the youngest mask among these legends, it is still easily recognized by all generations of horror fans.

The Cult Favorites 

The Yellow Raincoat Killer, Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Like Don’t Look Now for the slasher crowd, this thriller is full of striking imagery, creepy children, and strong characters. But Alice has something that movie did not – a killer in one freaking scary mask. In addition to the memorable yellow raincoat he/she wears, the villain obscures their face with one of those transparent, plastic masks with the makeup painted on. This look reiterates what Michael Myers taught us – a frozen human face is scarier than any monster mask.

The Miner, My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Twenty years after a tragic mining accident, someone is killing the locals, and everyone believes it is Harry Warden, the sole survivor of the accident. After killing the miners who almost killed him over a Valentine’s Day dance, Harry warned the town to never throw the dance again. Now, two decades later, the town has disobeyed his warning. Wearing a gas mask, headlamp, and mining jumpsuit, the Miner dispatches his victims with a pickaxe. It’s a practical look, given Harry’s old profession, but his monstrous appearance is sure to inspire nightmares.

Irving Wallace, Stage Fright: Aquarius (1987)

Not to be confused with the similarly-named Hitchcock thriller or Ozploitation flick, Michele Soavi’s 1987 slasher film follows a group of stage actors who become locked inside a theatre with actor-turned-maniac, Irving Wallace, who has recently escaped the loony bin. The killer dons a giant owl head (a prop from the play) and picks the thespians off one-by-one. Amusing as the owl head may be, it is equally creepy, especially those beady bird eyes.

The Groucho Killer, Terror Train (1980) 

While the killer in this film wears the familiar Groucho Marx mask for only a small portion of the film, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this mask-heavy cult classic. A group of graduating college students takes a “steam engine excursion” wherein they have a drunken masquerade aboard a locomotive. Unbeknownst to them, a killer has snuck aboard and uses the victims’ masks to get around discretely. The first of which is a Groucho mask, an image that has become synonymous with this film. Who knew the lovable Groucho could be so evil?

The Prowler, The Prowler (1981)

A jilted World War II veteran returns home and murders his ex-girlfriend on the night of their graduation dance. Thirty-five years later, at another graduation dance, the kids are being picked off by a masked killer in WWII fatigues. The Prowler’s mask is basically just a closed-up hood, but it effectively turns his/her face into an eerie, shapeless black figure. Combat boots, a helmet, and a trench knife complete the look. Don’t ask me why he has a pitchfork, though – just enjoy the Prowler’s kills, courtesy of Tom Savini. 

The New Class

Jigsaw, Saw (2004)

I decided I could only choose one pig mask for this list, and despite my love of Farmer Vincent in Motel Hell, I am giving it to Jigsaw for sheer scares, as opposed to laughs. Call it trite but the mask, the robe, and the inexplicable wig all make for a creepy bad guy. One year on Halloween, I dressed as Farmer Vincent and every kid I encountered said, “Cool, it’s the Saw guy!” As much as that irked this horror snob, it goes to show you what an impact the look has had on modern youth. Jigsaw is doing to kids today what Freddy Krueger did to children of the 80s.

Leslie Vernon, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Quickly becoming a horror icon, Leslie Vernon gives us a peak behind-the-scenes of the slasher subgenre. Wearing a Myers-inspired mask with large, hollow eyes and a down-turned mouth, Leslie aims to become the next horror legend by taking a camera crew along for his exploits. Behind the Mask is one of the better horror offerings in the last decade, and like Scream, it pokes fun at its own genre clich├ęs.

Sam, Trick r’ Treat (2007)

If scarecrows did not already ruin burlap sacks for you, then Sam ought to do the trick. With button eyes and a stitched-in smile, the little guy looks harmless. But don’t let the orange footie pajamas fool you – disobey the rules of Halloween and you will get a jagged lollipop in your eye. Sam proves that size does not matter, especially with a potato sack on your head that keeps everyone wondering, What the hell is under there?? I actually wish I didn’t know – Sam is a lot scarier with his mask on.

Man in the Mask, Dollface, and Pin-Up Girl, The Strangers (2008)

This home invasion horror has not one, but three masked foes. Even creepier, it is implied that these masked terrors are a family unit – father, mother, daughter. Each wears a different scary mask – the “dad” in a pillowcase-like sack with droopy eye and mouth holes; the “mom” in porcelain china-doll mask; and the “daughter” in a wide-eyed babydoll face. The trio terrifies a young couple for seemingly no reason. Most of the scares in the film are attributable to the incredibly creepy masks, without which the movie would not be the same.

Chrome Skull, Laid to Rest (2009)

Amidst the shit-storm of horror remakes and crappy sequels out there, Laid to Rest shows that original, masked slasher villains are not just a thing of the past. With the exception of Leslie Vernon, true slasher killers on-screen are hard to find these days. While that film aimed for parody, Laid to Rest shoots to be a hardcore slasher. Chrome Skull – a tall man dressed in black with a chrome skull mask – wields twin knuckle knives and videotapes his kills from a camera on his shoulder. Not unlike Leatherface, the mask names the killer, and proves that old-school slashers are not dead.

What are YOUR favorite horror masks? Sound off in the comments section below!

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