Masked villains have become the absolute staples of slasher horrors. To think, for years, we only had that white flappy rubbery mask Michael Myers likes to wear, and Jason’s (eventual) hockey mask that I’m going to say definitely smells like old feet. Can you smell it? God, I can smell toe sweat just thinking about it. 

New Line Cinema

The smell might get you before the machete does.

Lucky for us, the 21st century has been bursting not only with more horror movies but also with more (and scarier) horror masks. But what exactly makes a horror mask work? Why are some scarier than others, and why am I now thinking Myers’ mask smells like chalk and that sack mask in The Strangers used to have corn in it?

Weird. Anyway, here’s what I think makes horror masks work, other than the bizarre olfactory cues.

Horror Mask Must Have: Unexpected Element

When you think Horror, you don’t think of happy, smiley people. You think screams and distress and maybe two people having a quickie in a barn or something, but that’s about the happiest folks in a slasher are going to get. Which is why this is one of the scariest masks we’ve seen to date:

Universal Pictures

They totally just did it in a barn.

Smiling masks are legit some of the scariest masks in horror movies. Further evidence includes this one from Smiley that's got some … other things going on that are also quite off-putting:

MIJ Productions

We can’t put our finger on it…

Then there’s the mask from Happy Death Day. This mask is not only smiling, but it also resembles a freaking baby. It might be taking the unsettledness a bit too far that it becomes distracting rather than engaging, but still — it's pretty creepy.

Universal Pictures

Boo! I need a nappy change!

Another great way of unexpectedly eliciting the creeps from us: Animal masks. Especially animals you’d expect to be harmless. Like the Night Owl in Stage Fright:

Entertainment One

There are these creepy masks the kids wear in Pet Sematary (sure, they're not killers, but this might be the scariest scene in the entire movie):

Paramount Pictures

And then there are these maniacs sporting Furry masks in You’re Next:

Lionsgate

You’re Next director Adam Wingard said he took a cue from John Carpenter’s Halloween mask — that was a William Shatner/Captain Kirk mask reshaped and painted white — and simply “ghostified” a couple of pre-existing masks for his own movie. 

Horror Masks Must Have: The Grotesque Factor

This point is adjacent to the surprising and unexpected element we’re looking for in our horror masks, just more outlandish and more macabre. Keeping with the animal masks, consider the pig mask from Saw:

Lionsgate Films

A farm animal, one that's mostly harmless, but not this mask. That is one killer looking pig, quite literally. There’s also the macabre wolf mask donned by Mark Duplass in Creep:

Duplass said they found the werewolf-type mask by simply searching obscure websites online because obscurity works. Zany and macabre works. The Purge movies might not be everyone’s favorite horrors but they sure are filled with creepy-looking masks that are over-the-top and hard to miss (or forget). The creators of these masks looked at everything from faceless photography to what happens when you distort people’s faces to surrealist imagery.

Of course, that Smiley mask also works under the grotesque banner because it’s clearly made from some kind of flesh-looking material. It’s the same reason why Leatherface is one of the scariest masked villains of all time.

Horror Mask Must Have: Dark Eyes, Emotionless Face

Big pits of black emptiness for eyes. That is why Jason from Friday the 13th’s hockey mask just isn’t as scary as this: 

Compass International Pictures

Jason’s round little eye holes actually look hilarious the more you stare at it. 

Paramount Pictures

It would probably be real easy messing with his sight by just switching on a disco ball.

But there’s more to those black sunken holes that make Michael Myers’ mask look so menacing. It’s the contrast of those dark and empty voids with the white slate of nothingness that is the rest of the mask. By making it all white and almost devoid of texture, the mask becomes emotionless and incredibly frightening. 

We see it work here in Mike Flanagan’s movie Hush:

Netflix

And we also see it with the sack man in The Strangers:

Universal Pictures

Of course, the first time such a white mask was used was back in 1960 with the French horror film, Eyes Without a Face:

Danny McBride — who co-wrote the new Halloween reboots/sequels — nailed what makes these masks so incredibly creepy: “There’s something scary about someone committing those kinds of violent acts with no emotion at all, and that’s what that mask does. You project things that frighten you onto that mask.” 

Some facial features are necessary, though. You got to have those huge dark eye holes, for instance. It’s why Urban Legends: Final Cut’s weird fencing mask failed miserably to make an impact:

Sony Pictures Releasing

Horror Mask Must Have: Simple Yet Solid Material

This is why the Scream mask just isn’t the scariest of them all. Sure, the bendy shape can look frightening at first, and no one would like to see that mask inside their house at night, but look at it for long enough, and Ghostface soon becomes a melting shape of cheap plastic. That's because it is cheap plastic, and that shiny plastic look takes away from the menacing vibe we get with some of the other masks.

Dimension Films

Also, Ghostface mostly looks like he’s more shocked seeing you than the other way around.

We’ve already mentioned the fact that Leatherface has an obvious creep advantage with the fleshy parts of his mask(s). But consider those characters with sacks over their heads, because there’s something profoundly dark about those masks. Maybe it’s because head-in-sack is associated with kidnapping and torture. Maybe it’s because a person can literally suffocate and die in one. So seeing a killer, just nonchalantly sporting one while making others feel scared and threatened is a chaos that crawls in under your skin.

Also featured in The Strangers movies is another spine-chilling material that seems to work with slasher masks: Porcelain. Even clay works well — whatever gives a mask that thick look. Whatever makes it look heavy, like it could break. Why? Because dolls. People are just in general really freaked out over dolls.

It’s why even comedy slasher mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon had such a frightening-looking mask.

Anchor Bay Entertainment

And there are those dark black eye holes again…

Zanandi is on Twitter.

Top Image: Universal Pictures

Join the Cracked Movie Club

Expand your movie and TV brain--get the weekly Cracked Movie Club newsletter!

Tags

Forgot Password?