Contorted into absurd and exaggerated expressions, pronouncing certain facial features and minimizing others, and obscuring the genuine, masks have a way of transforming the individual beyond recognition.
Strange as they are, where would masks be most commonly used? And to this I would say: The theater, of course! While most modern dramas have discontinued the use of masks in favor of the wide array of facial expressions the human face has to offer, there is a certain eerie appeal in masks in their permanence. Specifically, while the human face is a dynamic surface which continuously shifts in order to express emotion, the mask remains grotesquely twisted in the same one, forever unchanging.
Because of that very permanence, masks have the ability transcend the actors that wear them and represent more abstract principles, such as rage, happiness, grief, fear, and envy. Indeed, the individual wearing the mask becomes less of a person and more of an idea, making him more potent and formidable in the eyes of the audience.
Quite honestly, the inspiration for this post came from Batman. Having just watched Batman Begins and Dark Knight, I was struck by the immense fear, respect, and awe Batman was able to command not only from the citizens and thugs of Gotham City, but also from viewers of the film. I can just imagine moviegoers’ initial reactions to Batman’s presence on screen: Wide-eyed from surprise, awe, and fear, men and women clutch their large-sized popcorn for dear life. Who is this mysteriously masked vigilante who vaguely resembles a giant bat? Why does he roam Gotham’s streets at night when he could just go in the day? What does he stand for?
Of course, if one had merely watched the exposition of the movies, he’d already know the answers. But that wouldn’t stop viewers from getting a little jolt every time Batman flashed on screen. It is also important to note that Batman in costume is far different from Batman out of costume. When Batman takes off his mask in exchange for his posh business clothes, he is none other than Bruce Wayne, wealthy millionaire and playboy. Without the mask, we see his familiar, human face and are reminded of his vulnerability, his flaws, his insecurities, his humanity. While I must say that a profoundly human protagonist is often easier to understand, Bruce’s familiar face does not allow for the same awe, fear, and respect that Batman inspires
When Bruce dons his pointed, obsidian, and perpetually-angry mask, he becomes more than just a man avenging his parents’ untimely death. He becomes a symbol of justice, power, and quiet authority. He becomes the Caped Crusader. He becomes the Bat. He becomes the Dark Knight.
In essence, one cannot understate the powerful and transformative nature of masks. Don’t believe me? Just ask Bruce Wayne.