At the unofficial kick-off of my Halloween season, I talked with one of the actors of Phantom Creep Theatre, the New York City based horror-hosts whose live shows at Coney Island were the highlight of my first summer as a resident of Gotham. The actor performs as one of the many puppets and costumed characters. His real first ‘appearance’ before a live appearance came at NecronomiCon, where he took the role of Dr. Frederic Wertham in the joint-Phatom Creep Theatre/Silver Scream Spook Show performance at the Eldritch Ball.
We were spitballing ideas of characters and the actor spoke about how he would be more comfortable in front of a viewing eye if he was ‘in costume,’ wearing a mask, makeup or prosthetic that obfuscated his face.
I don’t think this admission was unusual and I didn’t take much of it when I heard it then. But, considering how he was a commanding personality, both as a Phantom Creep character and during his show-stealing performance as Dr. Wertham, hearing that turns my head now.
Halloween affords a time for people to don guises that, as the ill-spoken Halloween song by Dead Kennedys suggests, allow someone to be “themselves.” But I think the mask allows someone to be someone else.
I see the masking as one of two roads. I can take on the persona of the mask, of the costume. Adopting this guide, this costume allows someone to reach their ideal concept of themselves. Those who engage in extreme body modification (implants, in particular) are getting closer to their ideal physical self. I admit that I think there are are elements of a body dysmorphic disorder in these efforts, I can’t stand in the way of someone taking steps in being happy when they look in the mirror.
And I know there are people who are at their most happy when they are wearing a costume because this costume, usually a character of their own creation, is the person they see themselves as when they look into the mirror. While it’s a tragedy that they person isn’t comfortable with their own skin, it’s a triumph when they can finally feel like they are finally who they think they’re supposed to be.
Similarly, the second path of masking, this mask allows a person to be anyone but who they are. Whereas the first path of Masking allows someone to adopt an ideal personality, this second path allows a person to void themselves of their personality. It’s how some might indulge in substances to stop thinking. He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
While this might appear of a way of ridding the body of the personality, this might be an act of self-preservation, as in the case of the Phantom Creep Theatre actor, who would want to secure his default/normal/everyday/real personality away from Phantom Creep Theatre. When that actor adopts the appearance of a demon, an ape-man, a giant robot or a litany of additional creatures, he is, while masked, not the guy who goes to his neighbor’s summer BBQ or to your birthday party. He can compartmentalize, and by removing the immediate visual connection between who he IS and who he’s pretending to be, there is a safe buffer between the two. Who he IS remains safe from who he is pretending to be. The actor is safe from the role, and any possible repercussion for the actions of that Robot Monster who threatens the passerby out on the street with his Calcinator Death Ray.
Ultimately, we all wear masks. I wear one every day. I’m wearing one right now as I write this post as ‘Strange Jason.’ I wear a mask on Monday when I go into work, where I’m less vulgar and more friendly (an amplified version of my personality.) These aren’t false personalities, but modified lighting and make-up to look appropriate for the staging. Lon Chaney could easily modify his appearance with little or no makeup. And now, we do that every day.
(Embedded in this post are two songs by The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, which were played on repeat as I wrote this post.)