By Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Ph.D.
© Visionary Living, Inc. 2002
You open the door on Halloween and there before you stand the good, the bad and the ugly-fairies, superheroes, villains, creatures, monsters, even terrorists. You know them by their masks.
Halloween is an evening of fun and entertainment, and masks are essential to the party. But did you know that masks have a long history as a sacred and mystical bridge to other dimensions and worlds?
You’ve heard the adage, “you are what you eat.” When it comes to masks, you become what you wear!
Conceal or reveal?
Masks are ancient and powerful mediators between the worlds-the living, the dead and the spirit. We have worn masks from the beginning of our recorded history. At first glance it may seem that the main purpose of a mask is to hide and disguise, but actually it’s true purpose is to reveal what is hidden, and thus to transform.
We use the term “unmasking” to refer to exposing the truth. There are many stories about beauty hidden by masks of ugliness. The Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast are two well-known examples. In both cases, the hero suffers from his outer ugliness. People see only the superficial, and turn him into an outcast. He lives in an imprisoned world. The Phantom hides in the subterranean tunnels of Paris; the Beast is a lonely recluse in his forbidding castle. The true beauty of the ugly hero’s soul can be unmasked only by true love.
One might assume, then, that the hidden secret truth is more desirable than the mask, but such is not always the case. In Todd Browning’s 1931 film, Freaks, a beautiful circus trapeze artist consents to marry a dwarf who is madly in love with her. She doesn’t love him; she can’t even stand him. Her real intent is to murder him and get the fortune he has saved. At the wedding ceremony, attended by the other circus “freaks,” she cannot hide her revulsion and makes fun of them. The freaks vow revenge. They succeed in transforming her into one of them-an ugly “freak.” Her beauty has been her mask, and when it is taken away, it reveals the true ugliness of her soul.
In both types of stories, however, the end result is the same: we are shocked by what the mask hides, and thus we are transformed to see a truth in a powerful way.
A bridge to the gods
Ancient peoples understood well the power of the mask. Evidence of mask-wearing in prehistoric societies shows that masks may have been intended to magically transform the wearer in order to achieve or acquire something. Perhaps the first prehistoric masked dancer is the “Sorcerer,” a Neolithic-Age cave painting at Trois Freres in France. The masked figure is half-human and half-animal, wearing stag antlers and poised in dance-step. The image suggests a ritual for a successful hunt. His mask reveals and liberates the animal nature within the man, which would have enabled him to come into contact with supernatural forces or the spirit of animals and petition them for help.
Masks have been with us throughout our history in our rituals, liturgies, theater and folk art. The mask has been revered as a sacred object of power, a living thing that either has its own persona or represents the persona of another being. It enables the wearer to bring to life, and even become, the persona or spirit being represented by the mask. While the mask is on, the wearer is no longer completely himself, but shares his identity with that of his mask. He has freedom-and permission within society-to act differently, even outrageously. The transformation has its limits and controls: the wearer cannot go beyond the bounds of the mask itself, and is transformed only during the wearing of the mask. When the mask comes off, it’s back to “ordinary” reality.
The transformative power of the mask can be explained in Jungian terms. A mask connects its wearer to archetypal powers residing within the collective unconscious. The mask is a mediator between the ego and archetype, the mundane and the supernatural, the sacred and the comic. It connects the present to the past, the individual to the entire collective of race, culture, country-and humanity.
In cultures where the mask is treated with reverence, mask-making is a respected and skilled art. For example, in Bali, masks play major roles in rituals and performances. The masks are carved from wood. Before carving is begun, the sculptors meditate on the purpose of the mask, the persona in the mask itself, and the performer who will wear it. The performer also meditates upon the mask prior to wearing it. He may even sleep with it next to him in order to incubate dreams based upon its appearance and persona, which will inspire his performance to greater depth.
The challenge of the Balinese performer is to literally bring the mask to life-to make the wood seem elastic and capable of illuminating its fixed expression. Actors who have the gift to animate their masks are respected as “having taksu.” Taksu means “place that receives light.” Actors who have no taksu are called carpenters-they just push wood around the stage.
Good or evil?
In most cultures, masks symbolize beneficent spirits: nature beings, deities, the ancestral dead and the animal kingdom. North American Indians have used masks to represent evil spirits, over which the medicine men are believed to have power. Similar attribution is made in Ceylon.
Masks play important roles in religious, healing, exorcism and funerary rituals. Sri Lankan exorcism masks, for example, are hideous in order to frighten possessing demons out of bodies. Among North American Indians, bear masks invoke the healing powers of the bear, considered the great doctor of all ills. In funerary rites, masks incarnate the souls of the dead, protect wearers from recognition by the souls of the dead, or trap the souls of the dead.
In the West, however, masks have lost much of their sacred and deep symbolic meaning. Once, they were integral to Greek drama, both secular and liturgical medieval ceremonies, the Renaissance court masque, and 19th century mime and pantomime.
Today we see masks as entertainment props rather than as living things. We focus on the superficiality of masks rather than on the essence of what they represent. We look at masks as concealers rather than revealers. They hide flaws and ugliness. They also hide our true identity when we want to get away with something-criminals and vigilantes use masks to avoid being recognized.
Historically, the true intent of Halloween masks is to frighten. The practice of wearing masks and disguises stems from ancient beliefs that on this night the souls of the dead and unfriendly spirits walk the earth. It is desirable to conceal your true identity from them so that they do not follow you home. Masks also frighten them away.
In contemporary times, most of us are more entertained than frightened by scary masks. By wearing them, however, we may be reaching into the collective unconscious to express our secret, inner fears and shadow side. The masks let us reveal the asocial self-the monster within and also our deep fear of death. Halloween is one night when, through masks, the underbelly of human consciousness is permitted to be displayed without disapproval. The mask may even relieve some deep collective stress. We are able to face what we otherwise don’t want to see. As we party away in our masks, we may not be consciously aware of these strange dynamics.
We can learn a great deal about a person by the mask he selects. What is the message being sent by the mask? What is the mask concealing and revealing? Is a vampire mask a statement by a disempowered person for a desire to be powerful over others? Does the fairy queen mask speak to someone’s true thoughts that they are not as attractive as they wish? Or perhaps that they wish they had a magical power?
Our choice of masks may unconsciously reflect something moving within the deep currents of a collective consciousness. For example, in 2001 Osama bin Laden masks were popular. This popularity might have been more than just a commercial cashing-in on the terrorism attacks of September 11. Perhaps we were attempting to confront the evil we feel he represents, and to reduce its power to a comic, and thus more manageable, level.
Next Halloween, give some extra thought to the mask you choose. Remember that the mask reveals more than it conceals!
Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Ph.D., is the author of 30 books, including The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits and Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. Her website is www.visionaryliving.com