The second post that I ever wrote for Madness Heart Press, way back in March of 2019, was a review of The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 10, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an excellent collection that is well worth picking up, and is the venue in which I first encountered a short story called “West of Matamoros, North of Hell,” by Brian Hodge. There were many top-notch exercises in horror in Best Volume 10, but “West of Matamoros” is the one that has stuck with me the longest – haunted me, you might say. In particular, I often think of one sequence in which a very frightening, violent fellow (I won’t spoil the story for you – you ought to read it for yourself) has a calm conversation with another fellow about, and I quote, “the mask behind the face.”
This morbid little turn of phrase acted as a sort of Zen koan to me over the last few years. This is no coincidence: “what is your original face before your mother and father were born?” is an actual koan, one dating back to the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. A koan is meant to be a lesson in nonduality, which is how I like to use “mask behind the face” – as a way to contemplate what I have written about here at Madness Heart Press as the “truth of meat.” After all, the most direct and simple answer to “what is the mask behind the face?” is the skull. This answer, however, implies a subsequent question: what is hiding behind the mask of your skull? While the biological answer is probably your brain, pondering the metaphor of face-as-mask-as-skull-as-mask is an inquiry about, essentially, your original face.
I’m hardly alone in my fascination with masks, faces, and all that is implied by the nonduality of the distinction. In Alan Moore’s well-loved masterpiece Watchmen, originally released in 1987, the mask/face conundrum is a recurring motif. One of the story’s central characters is Rorschach, a psychotic and nihilistic vigilante who wears a mask of ever-shifting black and white (another false binary within a false binary). Rorschach believes that his mask is “his face:”
Another character, Night Owl, has a dream in which he peels off his costume, then his skin – revealing another costume. This is followed by a flash of nuclear annihilation which strips this flesh-and-costume exterior down to the naked bones in the moment of obliteration:
Now, Alan Moore did not blunder into these variations on this motif by accident. Moore is deeply involved with – and versed in – ceremonial magick and has a wide-ranging knowledge of the esoteric. I would bet good money that he has encountered Zen’s “original face” and the concept of Maraṇasati (death meditation) as explored in Theravada and Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhism. Watchmen has been dissected from many angles, but to the best of my knowledge no one has explored the text as a treatise on nonduality. This is strange, because nonduality is essentially baked into any story about masks.
In 1978, nearly a decade before Moore’s Watchmen, John Carpenter’s Halloween marched into theaters as inexorably as Michael Meyers himself, racking up $70 million and transforming the raw material first mined by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas into a slick, deadly product that could be the subject of endless imitation and variation. Halloween’s totemic power was owed in no small part to Meyers’ mask – or “The Shape,” as it came to be called by Carpenter and others. The Shape is famously a William Shatner mask, painted white and with the eyebrows and sideburns removed, the eyes modified, and the hair teased out. It was selected specifically for its lack of emotion. I would argue that it also makes use of the so-called uncanny valley, an effect whereby something can be both too lifelike and not lifelike enough for humans to recognize as “exactly” human, eliciting feelings of revulsion.
I think that emotionless menace is why Michael’s mask has come to be so iconic, and why masks have been used so effectively in horror, even in the cases where they bear little resemblance to a human visage. From Leatherface to Jason, ChromeSkull to Ghostface, horror has made use of masks to lend murderers an inhuman, faceless aspect. But this is a metaphorical representation of a much more terrifying truth – the mask behind the face, if you will. In reality, it is not that killers wear a frightening, inhuman aspect. It is that their very inhumanity and monstrousness is masked by a face – a face that smiles, that says polite things and cracks jokes and, all too terribly often, chats up vulnerable women. These encounters sometimes end in brutality and another, subsequent koan: the terrible truth and finality of the grave.
Masks haunt us as much for what they reveal as what they hide.
A Baptism for the Dead
Historical horror set in the mountainous West, in a landscape of death and madness.