I

n 1978, John Carpenter wrote a little film you may have heard of called Halloween. The final scene in this groundbreaking film shows Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shoot Michael Myers (Nick Castle) five times before Michael falls off a balcony to what should be his ultimate demise. The camera then shows a cowering, deeply distraught and teary-eyed Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) ask Dr. Loomis, “Was it the Boogeyman?” to which he replies, “As a matter of fact, it was.” The scene ends with Dr. Loomis looking over the balcony at the ground below, seeing that Michael’s body is gone. His reaction is a mixture of mild surprise but also one that suggests he somewhat expects it. Laurie then proceeds to cower further, cry more intensely, and the ominous Halloween theme song plays while Michael, unseen, can be heard breathing through his mask in the background.

Halloween, and this scene specifically, had a deep impact on my life when I saw it for the first time at 8 years old. I was too young to understand why, but I felt it in my bones. The Halloween franchise also began my love affair with all genres of horror, but to this day, my penchant is still for the masked killers.

It wasn’t until I started studying psychology and human behavior that I began putting the pieces together of my love affair with these faceless villains. The deeper my studies went, I became acutely aware that to see ourselves, let alone others, for who we truly are can be an exceptionally visceral and unnerving experience. When I say, “who we truly are,” I’m not talking about our names, jobs, relationships status, and all of the other material things by which we typically identify ourselves. Rather, I’m talking about the self that we are beyond and beneath those things, which for most, is kept hidden and suppressed at virtually any cost.

Want to experience real horror? Try taking a moment to explore what it means to accept yourself fully in all your perfect imperfections, to take an honest, fearless look at your true self and stay there, acknowledging both the frailty and the glory in the same glance? This is something I’ve been working on for 20 years and still feel as though I have only begun to scratch the surface.

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper titled, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” which included his five-tier model of human needs. The intention behind this was to help better understand the motivation behind human behavior. Of course, as with anything in life, any blanket statement or model can be dangerous, as we’re all unique human beings, but overall, Maslow’s theory still holds strong.

The hierarchy begins with humanities’ basic needs and then progresses incrementally into deeper personal development. So, here’s the quick 101 of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

1) Psychological Needs (food, clothing, shelter, sleep)

2) Safety Needs (the feeling of security in the personal, emotional, and financial aspects of life)

3) Social Belonging (family, friends, intimacy)

4) Self-Esteem (recognition, status, respect, to be valued by others)

5) Self-actualization (to pursue and fulfill one’s goals in life)

Later in life, Maslow would add a sixth hierarchy: transcendence, which criticized his fifth hierarchy of self-actualization and believing that man’s highest goal should be that of understanding oneself in relation to the totality of life, from subatomic particles to the farthest reaches of the universe.

It’s at this point you may be asking yourself, why the hell am I reading about this psychology bullshit, especially on FANGORIA.com of all places. To those posing this query, or one of similar nature, I believe it’s imperative to have a basic understanding of our motivations in life. To not only understand the things that fuel our behaviors, passions, attitudes, ad infinitum, but more importantly, the why. And for film and literary nerds such as myself, I believe the horror genre is easily the most versatile and effective way (save, going to a therapist or other formal and professional routes) to get a glimpse into our deeper selves without having to sift through countless pages of tedious and monotonous psychology texts.

Looking back at Maslow’s list, social belonging and self-esteem rate highly on his scale. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with the desire for social belonging and self-esteem (though to be clear, Maslow refers to self-esteem from the perspective of cultivating it based on how others view us rather than how we view ourselves).

This is where the concept of wearing metaphorical masks comes in. Unless it’s Halloween, robbing a bank, or some kinky sexual shit (I’m not here to judge), we typically don’t wear literal masks. On a daily basis however, we wear many masks. A recent episode of the show Black Mirror focused on a fictional society that functioned based on social ratings given to us by others, which, in turn, dictated what we were and weren’t able to do in life (from renting cars, to attending social gatherings and such).

Unfortunately, this episode strikes too close to home for the era in which we live. We’re so worried and focused on how others see us. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our minds (mine included) are constantly plagued by thoughts like, “Am I good enough, thin enough, have a cool-enough job, house, clothes, appearance, demeanor?” As I wrote earlier, blanket statements are dangerous, so it’s not my intention to speak on anyone’s behalf, but if you were to take a few moments and explore those examples, or some of a similar nature, I believe you would be hard-pressed to honestly say you can’t relate.

So again, the masks. We all wear them. Whether it’s at work, or with family and friends, in social situations, essentially anytime we’re not alone and in our own company. And even then, when we are alone, we still have our super-rare, collector’s-edition style masks. The ones that if we’re lucky enough to find them after years of searching, we place them in a very safe and secure place, rarely allowing others, as well as ourselves, to see them.

Like any good horror fan, we have a vast collection of masks that we’ve accumulated over the years based on our life experiences. Some of these masks are still in good condition and relevant, while others are old and nothing more than clutter. Yet we keep them because of outdated paradigms we hold onto. It’s terrifying to let others see who we really are, if for nothing else, out of the fear of rejection. It can be even more terrifying to take an unflinching look within ourselves at the raw emotions, memories, traumas, and straight up shitty life experiences we’ve endured. For most, we hide from these because they’re incredibly unpleasant to acknowledge and sit with, so people turn to drugs and alcohol, unhealthy eating habits, empty sex, compulsive shopping, and binging on video games, TV shows, and movies. Let me be clear that I’m not here to lecture anyone, and that none of those things in moderation are bad or wrong (unless it’s crack or heroin, because that shit is obviously whack). It’s when we’re using them as a means of aversion, which is to say escape from our emotions and feelings, that they become a problem. We’re so desperate to be liked and accepted that many of us compromise our integrity and authenticity and put on whatever mask the situation calls for just so we’ll fit in.

There’s also another reason people wear masks, which is because sometimes they’re so out of touch with themselves that they have no idea who the hell they actually are. One of the most important and influential films in horror history is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). It’s a dark, disturbing, and macabre look at life in rural Texas, with its main protagonist named Leatherface. Leatherface is a cannibalistic man who loves his chainsaw just as much as his handcrafted masks made from human flesh (something loosely inspired by the real-life story of serial killer Ed Gein, whose acts of violence were exceptionally more vicious).

Unlike the aforementioned individuals who wear their metaphoric masks to fit in, Leatherface obviously doesn’t give a shit about that. He was however, very uncomfortable in his own skin (no pun intended), because he had no idea of who he was in the world. He was severely abused growing up in every way imaginable, hence, his creation of various masks to represent what he believed represented his various states of being. (In the original 1974 film, Leatherface wore three different masks. Each had its own name: "Killing Mask," "Old Lady Mask," and "Pretty Woman Mask.")

Leatherface is portrayed as a villain in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre but I believe if you look deeper at his character, he’s a scared human being (hence hiding behind the mask). When he kills, it’s in obedience to his family’s orders out of fear, rather than malice. In 2000, there was a documentary released called Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth, that was very difficult to find. That is, until it was included in the 2006 DVD set of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 2-Disc Ultimate Edition. Within the documentary, Gunnar Hansen, who played the original Leatherface, is quoted as saying, “He is the most powerful character in the film, physically. He is the most violent of the characters in the film. He is also the most frightened character in the film.”1 And later, Tobe Hooper, the film’s writer, producer, and director says, “He’s a big baby. Inside the movie, he freaks out because he doesn’t know where in the hell are they coming from. Where are all these people coming from?”2

I’m aware that killing people who peacefully come onto your property because they are lost is an extreme example, and the majority of those reading this aren’t killers. But it is a fun way (well, hopefully for those reading this article at least) to show how we can both act, and react, in life when we’re not in touch with our true selves and are constantly wearing masks either to fit in or hide behind because we don’t know our inner selves.

And therein lies one of the countless beautiful aspects of the horror genre — its ability to address virtually any topic whether metaphorically, abstractly, straight on, or sometimes, even inadvertently. David Cronenberg (writer and director of The Fly) said, “I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.”3 I believe Cronenberg couldn’t be any more accurate in that assessment. Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung referred to what Cronenberg was postulating as “Shadow Material,” which are the life experiences and emotions that we’ve suppressed into our unconscious.

This is important to be aware of because aside from wearing our masks, while we think we’re in conscious control of ourselves during the day, scientific studies tell a different story. While the percentages may vary slightly depending on the study you read, it’s been shown that up to 98% of our daily actions, reactions - essentially the way we behave in the world - is based on the unconscious material that is deeply ingrained in us. There’s a wonderful academic paper written on this topic called “Our Unconscious Mind” 4 by John A. Bargh, who is a professor of psychology at Yale for those interested in researching the topic.

So why do we wear our masks? Because, like Leatherface, we, too, are afraid, just in different ways: afraid of rejection, afraid of lack of security, afraid of not being valued by others, all things Maslow addressed in his hierarchy of needs. The masks we wear are based on a lifetime of experiences and they’re not all bad. We would certainly be doing ourselves a favor, though, of becoming more mindful of the various masks we wear throughout the day and take time to explore why we’ve put them on in the first place. Are they really necessary in that moment? Sometimes they will be, such as while disciplining a child if you’re a parent, or if you have a meeting with your boss at work, but overall, the majority of our masks are fear-based and unnecessary.

The more we become aware of this, the more we learn about ourselves, and this affords us the opportunity to become more in tune with our own beings. To celebrate the infinitely unique, strange, wonderful, and creepy selves that we truly are. Now own that shit like it’s your job (because it kinda sorta is).

 

Notes

1. Gunnar Hansen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 2-Disc Ultimate Collection (Dark Sky Films, 2006)

2. Tobe Hooper The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 2 Disc Ultimate Collection

3. Cronenberg on Cronenberg (Faber & Faber Publishing, 1997, Ch. 4. First published Jan. 1, 1992).

4. https://acmelab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/our_unconscious_mind.pdf