The mask is a storytelling device that obscures a wearer’s identity, while highlighting his or her psychological predicament — masks have a rich history of symbolic meaning in fiction.
Masks are often incorporated into stories as a visual metaphor, or a literary device, giving physical form to the unseeable: mental imprisonment, dehumanisation, trauma, psychological anguish, shame, spiritual emptiness, social alienation, and disconnection. The mask is a retreat from the social space, allowing a character to hide in plain sight, and to believe they can function within society, either by repressing their feelings of loss or by creating a consciously constructed persona.
There is a difference between voluntarily donning a mask, and being forced to wear one. A hero might choose to wear one to hide his or her identity, thus empowering them to dispense justice anonymously, which means they can live an otherwise ordinary life without unnecessary attention. The superhero characters Batman, and Spider-Man, wear masks when they’re in superhero mode, but not in their normal lives. Superman doesn’t have a mask, as such, he wears glasses and assumes the persona of a shy reporter to avoid attention. The mask of Zorro allows him to fight corruption and treachery, while simultaneously living a respectable private life away from recrimination. The audience identifies with the common man, and his unrecognised strengths — as if there is something invisible holding him back in life. He needs an alter ego to turn him or herself into a superhero. The Guy Fawkes mask in V For Vendetta is used as a political statement as well as a way of evading CCTV surveillance, and the clutches of a police state. It’s a badge of membership and a statement of belief.
A character such as the imprisoned man in the iron mask (from one of the many versions of The Man in the Iron Mask), is forced to wear a mask to obliterate his identity and remove his existence from the world. His incarceration is a living punishment, forcing him to endure permanent injustice.
Sometimes a mask is used to cover up facial disfigurement; the physical injury acting as a metaphor for an inner or spiritual damage. Darth Vader's mask in Star Wars gives his character menace and mystery. Who is he? What is he? We learn that he has lost his humanity — the mask symbolises this dehumanisation: his face, what remains of it, is hidden in darkness, disfigured like his soul. He has turned to evil. The mask literally conceals the person he once was, now those around him can only see the machine-like visage in front of them. In the Phantom of the Opera (1909 – 1910), a man is reduced to the spectre of a ghost-like presence, hiding behind a mask to conceal his disfigurement — and a truth that he is unable to endure. Darth Vader and the Phantom are negative representations of people with facial disfigurement, characterised as dark and violent or creepy and unable to live harmoniously within society. In Predator a technologically sophisticated combat mask provides adaptive camouflage, and conceals the face of a monstrous alien hunter, a creature incapable of pity or mercy. The Borg in Star Trek have technological adaptations and mask-like covering to their faces, accentuating their dehumanised, machine-like existence.
In The Mask (1961), the wearer suffers from a psychedelic affliction, something akin to a bad LSD trip. The man in the iron mask is imprisoned in a cell, and forced to wear a mask to hide his identity: what is a man without a face? The answer suggests that he is no one. Locked behind a mask literally means a loss of face, and a loss of identity. For a character with a destiny and a rightful place in the world — that has been unfairly stolen from him — this presents a protagonist with something for an audience to empathise with, and goal for him to fight for: to restore justice.
Sometimes a mask does more than allow a character to operate incognito: it acts as a magical portal to a new world. With a mask, the protagonist is able to operate in a space outside of his ordinary environment. In Eyes Wide Shut a grounded doctor wears a masquerade mask, which allows him access to a bizarre world of ritual and temptation; a place where the elite indulge in their sexual fantasies without shame or remorse. The mask that Stanley Ipkiss wears in the film The Mask (1994) turns him into a comically animated superhuman. Becoming The Mask enables him to develop as a character, and to become what he needs to be to win over the romantic interest. In the end, he must cast the mask away so that he can reconnect with himself — to become an improved version of the person he really is.
The horror mask plays on anonymity, and the creepy incongruity of strange or ‘fun’ masks that have been subverted from their original context. The mask in Halloween creates anxiety about the mysterious killer prowling around a town. The concealed face of the psycho in a hockey mask, in Friday the 13th, turns an apparently ordinary sports item into a terrifying icon of sadistic death. And, Hannibal Lecter's muzzle, in The Silence of The Lambs, accentuates his twisted lack of humanity: physically turning him into a menacing presence. In these cases, the obscured face of the murderer turns him or her into a dehumanised monster.
Sometimes a mask represents a protagonist’s deep emotional need to deny their pain (usually a trauma of some kind, or a catastrophic injury). In Vanilla Sky the mask is a sign that something has gone wrong in the protagonist’s world. Rorschach from The Watchmen has an ever-changing Rorschach Test inkblot that appears on a special fabric across his face, begging the question: what do you see? And: what does he understand about himself? It suggests a history of psychological trauma.
Masks are usually a ‘red flag’, a danger sign, but they also allow characters to operate anonymously, or to take on a persona. Wearing one can be a symptom of a previous trauma, or the catalyst for a new event (plot line) — either pushing the character into darkness, and spiritual oblivion, or to self-discovery and empowerment.