The best horror films grasp the fact that there’s nothing more frightening than NOT seeing what or who is after you.
This can classically be seen in the unintentionally late reveal of the shark in Jaws. We all knew it was a shark, even a big shark, but it wasn’t until the final scenes of the film that we actually got to see the beast completely because all through the filming, the robotic prop, nicknamed Bruce, couldn’t hold up to the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, we were teased with a dorsal fin, shadows in the water, or often no sign of the shark at all except for the erratic movements of a swimmer under attack or blood in the water. We could ‘see’ it, but not really SEE it.
A counterexample to this is how fright is disarmed when it is revealed comes from the 90s pseudo-horror Signs. In. this film the aliens are reserved for some time, building tension and suspense, but then, a video of the aliens is captured on TV and audiences everywhere stopped being afraid at all.
The slasher films, Halloween and Friday the 13th brought masked killers into the mainstream in the 70s/80s showing us that seeing a mask is not seeing a face and we’re left with the familiar, but the unknown.
Masks come in all types, from Leatherface’s homemade creations to Jason’s goalie’s mask to the latex and greasepaint of the Terrifier.
A personal accounting of the most effective masks is listed below in no definite order.
The ghostface killer from Scream. Not a bad outfit for a killer and completely necessary for the plot, but not especially frightening.
Jason (Friday the 13th part 4). Iconic. Not the first time he wore this mask (part 3), but after he came back with the mask for the second time, still bearing the mark of the axe from the previous film
Jason (Friday the 13th part 2). Simplicity
The Phantom from The town that dreaded sunset. Like Jason’s from Friday the 13th part 2, simple, but effective.
Two sentence Horror Films: Hide. The blank-faced masks worn by this short’s two killer seem to play homage to Alice, Sweet Alice(1976). But it is as much their mannerisms as their masks that make these two scary.
The Strangers. Again, blank faces hide the feeling of the killers who torment their victims simply to watch them struggle and die. There’s something particularly creepy about being stalked by the two doll-faced girls.
Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Gruesome and curious: what was he hiding from? We’re given more information in the sequels, but in the original, we just have a freak in a mask in the middle of nowhere Texas.
Michael Myers (Halloween). The ultimate blank face, a whitewashed William Shatner mask with enlarged eyeholes. Like Leatherface, we could ask why Michael wears a mask – everyone knows who he is, but it is Halloween, so he must just enjoy the spirit of it.
Honorable mention goes to the happy faces of the Purge, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Terrifier, and the white mask from Hush (truly a shame that he didn’t keep this one on throughout the film.