I have this theory about Halloween masks. There’s a formula for what makes the mask spooky, and it’s simple: No teeth = spooky. Teeth = not spooky. This is not to say that all masks without teeth are spooky, but just that the spookiest masks I’ve seen are the ones without teeth.
We went to check out the masks at the Goodwill (famous for its Halloween displays), Walmart and Target. The main thing I noticed about the masks in these major stores with popular Halloween sections (we didn’t go to any Halloween specialty stores) is that they mostly represent zombies and other toothy creatures. Today’s trend is monster masks, and snarly carnivore teeth seem to be the common denominator and defining characteristic from monster to monster. They’re fun, these masks, but I don’t find them scary at all… the gaping, snarling or grinning mouths jagged with sharp teeth just don’t chill my spine.
Here’s a sampling of the masks I tried:
To me, the spookiest one is the toothless clown at the bottom right corner… and not just because it’s a clown. The mask on the opposite end of that row is also a clown, and that one’s not scary to me. It happens to have teeth, which I think kills the creep factor, though it is a pretty cool mask.
In contrast, take the vintage masks of yesteryear. I’m talking about the old-fashioned, simple ones, those plain, homemade masks that not only didn’t feature teeth, but whose mouths were often so brief that they seemed like afterthoughts… those masks of the “pillowcase over the head with eye cut-outs” variety. Those, I have to say, really kind of creep me out. There’s not much to them, and maybe that’s why they work. Less is more, as they say. It’s those minimized, close-lipped, atrophied or warped little mouths that give those masks that certain spooky je ne sais quoi.
And who can forget the mask on this child in the chilling Spanish film The Orphanage?
I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly not a vision I’d want to see standing at the end of my bedroom hallway! No teeth necessary.
Just to rule out the possibility that it’s the black-and-white photo effect at work, I examined my snaggle-toothed mask mosaic again as a black-and-white image to see if the absence of color would add to its spookiness.
Conclusion: the creepiest masks are the ones that don’t have teeth. It seems counterintuitive, but think about it… lack of emotion is scary. A closed mouth is a mysterious mouth. We don’t know what’s going on behind those lips, and the unknown is scary and unsettling. (The Mona Lisa would not be nearly as mysterious were she revealing her teeth.)
Only three of the masks I tried on didn’t have teeth, and my favorite was one of those: