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How the mask has played a starring role in movie history

Jochen Kürten sh
May 6, 2020

From the cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter to Zorro and other Marvel superheroes saving the world, masks have been a central accessory for many characters in movies.

Psychopathen im Kino Hannibal
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Hiding identities, misleading the viewer for good or evil motives: the mask has a long history in movies. And films crews and actors must wear masks on sets during the coronavirus crisis, it may only be the beginning for the facial covering. Is the mask about to take the spotlight?

During the silent movie era, masked heroes were commonplace and popular with audiences, whether in horror, crime films and even comedies. As "talkie" films came to the screen, some also featured facial coverings to great success. The 1929 movie The Iron Mask, starring Douglas Fairbanks, featured a swashbuckling mask-wearing hero. Another version based on the same story of a French prisoner by author Alexandre Dumas hit cinemas in 1939.

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A means of deception

Masks can be used as camouflage or to deceive others — even for the good guys. The hero is often portrayed as someone who, out of modesty, or because he has a blemish on his face, reaches for a mask before committing heroic deeds.

Perhaps one of the most successful early uses of the sort was in the 1920 film The Mark of Zorro, when sword-wielding vigilante protected the people of California in the olden days.

In the era of Marvel and DC Comics movie success, many superheroes have one thing in common: they wear masks while saving the world. Interestingly, few female characters, aside from Catwoman, are depicted wearing masks.

Film still, Anthony Hopkins  wearing a black Zorro mas
Anthony Hopkins starred as Zorro in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro Image: Imago/EntertainmentPictures

Then there's the dastardly villain who uses a mask to protect his identity. After all, a bank robbery without a mask is hardly conceivable.

The mask in horror films

Horror movies are particularly known for their mask-wearing antagonist. One of the highest-grossing films in this genre was Wes Craven's Scream, featuring a serial killer wearing a cheap ghost mask while on his rampage. Few can forget the antagonist of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface, who wears a mask made of human skins — perhaps one of the most frightening mask uses in film history.

In some cinematic scenarios, a mask protects a villain from getting close to the good guys. Hannibal Lecter, the murderous cannibal, for example, wears a mask to keep from biting those around him.

film still Halloween, figure holding a knife, bluish light
Halloween is a classic horror movie Image: Imago

Masks are also sometimes used to hide abnormalities, such as in The Elephant Man by David Lynch, which tells the story of a severely deformed man in late 19th-century London, or in The Phantom of the Opera, where the disfigured Phantom also uses a mask to conceal his face.

These days, the masks we wear serve as protection against the environment around us during the COVID-19 outbreak, or against air pollution. The same is true in some films, where masks are worn as a survival tool. In the 1931 Austrian film Comradeship, masks protect people during a mining accident rescue mission. Another film which hits quite close to home these days is Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, which describes a fictional pandemic that took place almost a decade ago. Naturally, masks play an important role in the film, just as they do in the world around us now.