October 29, 2012
It wouldn’t be Halloween without masks. Jokers, scary clowns, gorillas and, when the presidential election converges with Halloween, tricker-or-treaters in presidential candidate masks (the Nixon mask never gets old) come out in all their anonymous glory.
Pop culture aside, masks have been around for thousands of year. In fact, the oldest preserved mask is about 9,000 years old. That said, it’s assumed that masks were made centuries and centuries prior. Used for ceremonies and rituals, decoration, camouflage, entertainment (comedy and tragedy drama masks, of course), sport and protection, they’re handy, multipurpose accessories worn to mourn the dead, celebrate festive occasions and fight in wrestling matches.
But on Halloween, they’re worn to frighten, caricature, mock or disguise. The transformative quality of masks is particularly striking when donned by innocent-looking children. It’s always been that way. In fact, looking at old black-and-white photos of unnamed children in unknown locations posing in their Halloween costumes and masks is creepy.
No matter if Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck is obscuring their faces, the children, and the photos they inhabit, feel ghost-like, removed and haunted. For the most part, that can be attributed to the masks concealing their smiling faces. But for others, their stoicism is puzzling.
What are they thinking? Expressionless and blank in their masks, they are seemingly lacking the childhood joy we associate with the holiday. If they knew just how zombie-like they looked, would they still wear them?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.