When it comes to horror tropes, few are more ubiquitous than the masked killer. Jason, Michael Myers, the Ghostface killer, Leatherface (I could go on): all these murderous madmen hide their face behind a mask, adding more terror to their already horrifying antics.
Of course, all of these movies play upon the surprisingly common phobia of masks, conveniently called maskaphobia. This fear of masks, which is linked to automatonophobia (the fear of humanoid objects) and coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) has several facets, but usually concerns the fact the wearer's expressions, mouth and demeanor is hidden from view. Meanwhile, the use of masks by criminals, strange religious organizations, and basically anyone who wants to hide their identity also adds to the fear factor.
With this in mind, and in honor of Halloween, let's take a look at historical masks which inadvertently could feature in a horror movie.
These medieval looking masks were in fact developed for the first tank battles in World War I and were designed to protect the operators from the various hazards of encasing yourself in an armored bullet magnet.
Although protected by armor that prevented most small arms fire, you'd probably prefer to be outside a tank than inside one. The environment inside was particularly unpleasant due to inadequate ventilation and fumes from the engine and weapon systems. Furthermore, although armored, tanks were notoriously unreliable and would become bogged down in muddy battlefields, making them juicy targets for artillery and mortars.
The masks, which consisted of metal eye guards, a leather face mask and a chainmail segment to protect the mouth and chin were, primarily designed to protect against shrapnel and lead paint splinters which would fly off the walls when the tank was hit by enemy fire.
The capirote certainly grabs attention, and that's partly the point (point, geddit?). The capirote was developed in medieval Spain and was primarily worn by both flagellants (religious extremists who whipped themselves) and prisoners condemned to death.
The massive pointy hood was also forced upon those who had fallen foul of the Inquisition, with its less than subtle shape drawing humiliation and ridicule from others.
Although many might assume the image above is the Ku Klux Klan, it is in fact a sect of Spanish priests called 'nazarenos.' It is assumed the capirote inspired the KKK uniform, but any actual connection is unclear.
Disney Gas Masks
Gas masks themselves aren't exactly nice to look at, but Disney's attempt to make these defenders against chemical weapons more palatable for kids hardly helped in that department.
Developed from 1942 onwards, the Mickey Mouse mask was created following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Fear of chemical attack gripped the nation, but regulation-sized gas masks did not fit young children. Disney stepped up to the challenge and developed a 1,000 of these masks in 1942.
The masks were devised as part of a 'game' to be played with children during a gas attack -- the idea being they would become adept at quickly and calmly putting them on. This is, of course, very commendable, but to our futuristic 21st century eyes, they can't help but look incredibly haunting.
Alexander Peden's Mask
Alexander Peden was many things, a teacher, a rebel, a 'prophet' and, apparently, a master of disguise.
Following the restoration of Charles II in England and Scotland in 1660, Peden suddenly found this branch of Presbyterian on the blacklist. Furthermore, King Charles dictated that all ministers must be government sanctioned. Old Alex had a bit of an issue with this, and took to the wilds to illegally preach to members of the newly formed Covenanter movement.
Because of this he became one of the most wanted men in Scotland and devised an ingenious disguise that wouldn't look out of place in Ed Gein's closest. The mask, in reality, is simply made of cloth, feathers and human hair, and amazingly it seemed to work for a while. After escaping from the authorities several times, Peden died a free man (albeit a free man in a cave) in 1678.
Deane Brother's Smoke Helmet
After witnessing a stable fire in England in the 1820s, brothers Charles and John Deane envisioned a piece of equipment which could protect firemen from smoke-filled environments.
With help of their employer, they patented the "Smoke Helmet" in 1823. It consisted of a copper helmet attached to a collar and length of hose which was supplied with fresh air. Several sketches and examples of the helmet exist, and each one looks like some kind of nightmarish alien/cult of Cthulhu formal wear.
However, in 1828 the brothers stumbled upon another application -- deep sea diving. With the help of a German-born British engineer Augustus Siebe they were able to create the first functional diving helmet, which proofed to be a huge success in salvage operations... and terrifying children.
No, this isn't the costume of a 17th century bird-based superhero, it is in fact the uniform of medical practitioners during the Great Plague of the 1600s.
The strange appearance is the result of the erroneous belief that the plague was caused by 'foul air.' To counter this, the 'beak' of the mask would be filled with herbs and spices which would 'filter' the air like a proto-gas mask. However, this made communication very difficult, so the plague doctor would use a 'wand' or staff to issue instructions. They would also often prescribe odd medicines, such as spiders, toads (which absorb air apparently) and even urine baths. The infected were also instructed not to think of death, but were instead advised to think about gold, silver and "other items which were comforting to the heart."
Of course, in reality, the bubonic plague is caused by flea bites that lived on the many rats in cities at this time. Ironically though, plague doctors were protected by their uniforms, but not for the reasons they thought. The mask came with a thick leather overcoat and gloves, which protected the wearer from flea bites.
The plague mask, perhaps thanks to its historical use, is certainly rather terrifying to behold. For example, it was recently used as the basis of a bizarre video which has gripped (and creeped out) the entire internet.
Like the capirote, Scold's bridles, or 'branks,' were developed to humiliate the wearer and were often reserved for scolding wives, gossiping women and suspected witches. The contraption, which was usually made of metal, featured a 'bit' (similar to that on a horse's bridle) with spikes that were inserted into the miscreant's mouth. This, of course, made it extremely painful or impossible to speak.
If this wasn't bad enough, the Scold's bridle would be locked into the place, and the wearer forced to walk around the town to be humiliated by their neighbors. The German version of the branks went even further, with ornate 'decorations' and even special whistles and bells which would make the wearer sound as well as look ridiculous... and creepy.