It’s Halloween, so what better time to talk to you all about the masks or mask-like uses of make-up that annoy, upset or absolutely terrify me.
One of my earliest memories is of a television commercial promoting an Alice Cooper concert in Dallas. I must have been three or four at the time. I was absolutely terrified by his appearance, with the heavy eyeliner that appeared to be running down his face, the wild hair, the marks around his mouth that might have been blood for all I knew – our old television was in black and white.
My parents decided that the best way to help me overcome my fear of this horrible man on the TV was to force me to watch it every time it came on. My father would prevent me from running from the room when it aired, holding me there and telling me over and over that it was just a television commercial, it was just a man in make-up, that none of it could hurt me. It didn’t work. I screamed and cried and still he and my mother persisted, convinced they could reason with a frightened child. I had similar reactions to KISS, mostly Gene Simmons.
Interestingly, I am not particularly unnerved by clowns. I look at a clown, and I know it’s some asshole wearing a bunch of make-up and a wig and maybe some stupid clothes. I know what the intent is behind clown make-up – to delight or terrify. When I know the intent, it’s hard to be afraid, and that is where my parents, as well meaning as they were at the time, missed the mark. I didn’t need to know that it was a commercial and couldn’t hurt me. I needed to know why the man was dressed that way, what his intent was, what he planned to do in that get-up. And of course I could not express this so young and of course my parents had no idea what was at play in my terror. Variations of not knowing the reason behind the disguise fuels my adult uneasiness around masks, I think, though surely there are other explanations, from Jungian collective unconsciousness ruling my response to just plain jitters.
There are a lot of explanations as to why it is that people wear masks and costumes at Halloween and I am loath to discuss them because to do so means I have to cover every potential reason going back to early recorded history or someone will show up and leave a very long comment schooling me on Samhain-this and Pope-Boniface-that and how it’s racist for a white woman even to say Dia de los Muertos, let alone discuss the purpose behind sugar skull make-up. But this is a time of the year that makes a woman who finds the purpose behind masks very important somewhat uneasy. And perversely, because it makes me uneasy, I expose myself to it in ways that make me even more unnerved. But I can’t seem to avoid it, and since I can’t stop poking at this canker sore in my psyche, I’ve decided to drag you all down with me.
Like I said, clowns don’t scare me, nor do regular people who are just wearing too much make-up.
And not all masks meant to hide identity or intent bother me. Michael Myers from Halloween freaks me out, but Jason Vorhees does not and I have a hard time explaining why. I think it may be because Michael Myers approaches the uncanny valley and triggers something primal in my brain that a dude in a hockey mask does not. That flesh-colored William Shatner mask looks like loose skin atop Michael Myers’ face, showing a human hiding behind an actual human face.
Hiding your identity using guises of actual humanity is bizarre, but it also drives home what monsters generally are – they are generally us.
But my other fears are not so easily analyzed. Take the works of sculptor Hans Bellmer. He is famous for his “dolls,” confusing mannequins with too many legs, too many arms, a sense of unreality around body parts we see on ourselves every day. But as weird as his dolls are, the ones with faces make me catch my breath when I see them.
For example, this does not bother me.
Nor does this.
But this comparatively innocuous face behind a mask? This upsets me.
I know there is nothing behind this mask. I know this is a sculpture. But look at her eyes. There is something sly about this, about how her face appears. It is very much as if someone is hiding and I have no way of knowing why. A series of legs cannot deceive you but a covered face can, and sometimes the slant of eyes behind a mask can be more sinister than the implied violence behind creating a woman out of a jumble of limbs.
That mask leads me next to Shaye Saint John, whose now decade-old films still make people’s “Worst Thing I Ever Saw Online” lists.
Shaye Saint John was the brainchild of a performance artist called Eric Fournier, who sadly died from complications of alcoholism. The story behind Shaye is that she was a famous supermodel but a train accident stole her looks and her mobility so she wears these masks to be more comfortable with her appearance. Shaye’s shambolic appearance is bad enough but in her case the mannequin heads and masks hide an incomprehensible, gibbering insanity.
Strangely children don’t seem as terrified of her as adults. Sometimes adults see children as little versions of us who are insane but will grow out of it. Shaye’s bizarre appearance and lunatic ramblings may not seem that awful to children who spend part of the day pretending to be a puppy and speaking in made-up languages. To them Shaye may just be a weird but big kid. Or she may have the genuine appearance of being injured and kids have been trained not to be unkind to those with a different appearance. But adults are terrified of Shaye because under that mask is a lack of sanity and that lack can rob us adults of our jobs, homes, friends, and see us sitting in a literal pile of garbage at the end, which actually happens in this video -s he sits stunned, wallowing in trash, babbling about skin tape. Shaye’s mask is frightening not in what it hides, but what it represents. A dada-esque sort of performance art in the right economy and we understand what may happen if we take our masks of sanity off.
Next I need to talk about Nattramn. I’m sorry for those of you who abhor metal genres, but it has to happen.
Nattramn is the artistic name of one Mikael Nilsson, most notable for his work with black metal band, Silencer. His work fascinates me and repels me. One day I will get my hands on a copy of Grishjärta, his book that is second only to The Pepsi-Cola Addict as my rare book Holy Grail. I have had a literal nightmare about him before, hearing the screams from his music as the soundtrack to something that horrified me in my sleep but that I cannot remember clearly. Nilsson, who is a reclusive man who creates very interesting ideas, is the subject of one of the stupidest online rumors currently out there. You see, on various list sites (Top Ten School Shooters, Top Five Intestinal Parasites, etc), lists devoted to the top crimes in metal music will mention Nattramn. There is a legend that Nattramn killed a child with an ax and was so insane he was sent to a mental institution for five years, then once sane presumably released to create some seriously disturbing music.
Nope. No records of a kid dying from ax attack in any Scandinavian nation and the killer going into a mental asylum.
But it gets better. There are some metal fans who, and I pray that they are very young and therefore have a reason behind such breathless stupidity, believe that Nattramn cut off his arms and replaced them with legs from a pig.
He is a recluse, it seems, the actual man Mikael Nilsson, and this identity may have taken on a life he did not intend, a mask others misinterpret or subject to explanations akin to urban legends. In the photo above, the outline of his face is somewhat visible, hidden behind the snug white mask, covered in blood. He is a sort of bloody blank slate upon which fringe-dwellers have written their own identity. Why would anyone really believe anyone could somehow replace his arms with pig limbs? Because it fits in somehow with their own world view, a combination of the human and the animal, a fusion of man and that which Hebrew texts consider unclean. A living cartoon of man and animal in one body. A desire to believe a man can savagely kill a child, replace his limbs with animal parts and still be permitted to live among us, unfettered by even the most basic of conventions.
That can be incredibly scary, knowing that even in your own darkness, even as you hide your face while you clearly state your intent, people may interpret your intent as they see fit because they cannot see your face. You cannot hide effectively if people don’t even understand who you are. Or perhaps that is the point. Nattramn has found a way of hiding under interpretation rather than literal masks.
There will likely never be a mask that will scare me more than this one. The Beast of Jersey, Edward Paisnel, wore this when he attacked and raped children.
A police officer is wearing this mask and the first time I saw this I felt actual fear. This is a nightmare in human form, and it shows the transformative effects of a mask that the eyes of the policeman modeling the mask for the court are rendered predatory and demonic to me. Just because they are behind that fucking mask. This marries the worst of Bellmer’s mask’s darting eyes and Michael Myers hiding behind a mask of humanity.
Edward Paisnel’s horror movie of a life will be discussed here at some point in the future. His role or lack of role in the “evidence” discovered in the debacle of an investigation into alleged abuses at the Haut de la Garenne boys’ home has been hard to piece together. The entire investigation and what was really found and what victims genuinely reported happened is even harder to run to ground. But one day we will discuss Paisnel here in depth because he was, in many respects, a perfect monster, with and without that fucking mask.