There’s just something inherently fascinating and creepy about people in masks. Perhaps you’ve read the Goosebumps book or loved the film The Mask. On the other hand, perhaps you’re thinking of a creepy masquerade ball or the emotionless, bloodstained visage of Michael Myers.
But there really is something extra horrifying about masks that it’s difficult to put our finger on. Imagine not being able to see the true face of the person looming in the darkness or meeting a ghoul who reveals who they really are by unmasking. See if you recognize any of the following characters and hope you never meet anyone like them on dark nights!
Japanese legend tells of a female ghost called Kuchisake-onna, who is the soul of a woman murdered by her jealous husband. This spirit has been blamed for many assaults and deaths since the 1600s. She stalks dimly lit streets and alleys for victims, covering her mouth with either a fan, handkerchief, or medical mask, depending on which version you hear.
She asks travelers two questions. First, she inquires, “Watashi kirei ?” (essentially, “Do you think I’m pretty?”). Then she removes her disguise to show her bloody mouth with the sides cut wide. She asks her final question: “Kore demo?” (“Do you still think so?”). If you affirm her beauty both times, you’ll only walk away with your face slit like hers. Otherwise, you’re dead.
Stories of Kuchisake-onna were told during the Edo period (1600s–1800s), but then she disappeared until the 1970s, when a rash of sightings even prompted a police investigation. Could Kuchisake-onna have been turned into hannya, a once human woman consumed by jealousy and transformed into a demoness?
Infamous murderer Ed Gein took the faces (in addition to other body parts) both from his victims and from graves so that he could wear them as masks. Some masks appeared mummified, almost dried out, while others were more carefully preserved, perhaps as Gein grew more confident in his methods of procuration.
A few had lipstick applied and looked more lifelike, and four had been stuffed with paper and hung on the wall of his bedroom, almost like hunting trophies. The rest were put into plastic or paper bags, one of which was found by Deputy Arnie Fritz when he was investigating the house. It was nestled in a decaying robe thrown behind the kitchen door. When he opened the bag and saw hair, he reached in to pull the contents out. When he lifted the mask to the light, he realized it was the local tavern owner, Mary Hogan, who had gone missing three years previously.
The Maori, who are indigenous to New Zealand, believe that masks, as well as other taonga (“treasures”), have spirits inside them that are tapu (“taboo”). Traditional beliefs also dictate that pregnant or menstruating women are tapu as well, so if they two should meet with something else that’s tapu, then a curse could be invoked.
This belief is so strong and deeply rooted in Maori culture that in 2010, the Te Papa museum in Wellington, New Zealand, which was exhibiting items of taonga, strongly recommended that pregnant and menstruating women should stay away. The contact between the sacred Maori artifacts and the women present could create a curse, as both the masks and artifacts and the women had negative wairua, or “spirits.”
In 1966 in Rio de Janeiro, the corpses of Miguel Jose Viana (left above) and Manoel Pereira da Cruz (right above) were discovered on Vintem Hill wearing business suits and lead eye masks. They were electronics repairmen from Campos dos Goytacazes, over 280 kilometers (174 mi) away, and their deaths remain a mystery to this day. As well as the lead eye masks, they were found with waterproof jackets, an empty water bottle, two towels, and a notebook.
They were last seen buying water from a local shop, and Miguel was reported to have been in a great hurry and checking his watch a great deal. All that the notebook said was that they should be at the agreed place at 4:30 PM, to swallow the capsules at 6:30 PM, and to “protect metals” and wait for the mask signal. They were found with this paraphernalia and wearing the masks, but their bodies were not well-preserved enough to discover whether they had swallowed poison. Why they would need lead masks that would protect against radiation, towels, and notes about metals is a mystery.
According to local legend, a mask was recovered at the property of a recently deceased gentleman who lived in Key West, Florida. It was said to have been stolen from an ancient tomb in Egypt decades prior. Psychics who held the mask reported sensing South or Central American energies. The caretaker of the gentleman’s estate said that he heard it was from a tomb, but he had assumed it to be Egyptian rather than from South or Central America.
The psychics thought that the pyramid they were seeing was probably an Incan or Mayan tomb instead, and when they held the mask in their hands, it was very cold but then suddenly became hot. It would numb their hands and send tingles up their arms as far as their shoulder. The most sensitive psychics wouldn’t touch it at all. While it is clear there is strange energy attached to it, it’s also possible that there is a curse, something not unheard-of when it comes to protecting sacred items from thieves or other enemies.
Carl Tanzler was a German immigrant who claimed that during his childhood, he received visions of his one true love from his ancestor, Countess Anna Constantia von Cosel. Despite getting married and having two children with a woman who did not look like his vision, he always kept the face of his true love close to his heart. In 1930, after he’d left his wife and kids, he believed he’d found her at last. While working as a radiologist in Florida, he met a young Cuban American woman Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. She was suffering from tuberculosis and died the next year.
Tanzler paid for her funeral and visited her mausoleum regularly. He was obsessed with Maria. In the dead of night in 1933, he took her body from the mausoleum and back to his home in a child’s red wagon. He put her skeleton back together using coat hangers, stuffed her with rags, and made her a wig from her own hair. She was dressed and put in his bed until, seven years later, following rumors of the desecration of her body, she was discovered by police.
While her body was covered with clothes, her face was a death mask of her former self, created by Tanzler, and was kept in his bed after the coroner had removed the rest of her body. Unbelievably, the statute of limitations had expired, and Tanzler’s case was dismissed out of court. He never faced trial or sentencing. Maria’s body was taken to a funeral home, where death tourists could view her before it was taken back to the mausoleum.
Edward Paisnel began assaulting victims in 1960 on the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands. Stopping short of murder, he would attack women and children in a long raincoat and a strange mask, and all the victims recalled was a strange, musky smell after he had sexually abused them. Paisnel also had access to a children’s home, La Preference, that was run by his wife. He would affect an Irish accent, would often tie a rope around the necks and wrists of his victims, and would drag them into a secluded area. They would be carefully selected and taken from their bedrooms after he had climbed through the window, abducted to a nearby field to be molested, and then returned to their homes.
As Jersey is only 119 square kilometers (46 mi2) in total, it is understandable how much fear he raised through his attacks—the rapist had to be someone everyone knew. His rubber mask was homemade and had black hair, and the tape he used to keep it on was later revealed to have marked his own face beneath. The mask was intended to conceal his identity but also to strike terror in his victims, people he abused until his arrest in 1971. Paisnel was sentenced to 30 years in prison for 13 counts of rape, assault, and sodomy.
Dennis Rader, also known as the BTK Killer (Bind, Torture, Kill), placed masks on some of his victims in addition to wearing a mask himself. After he had tortured and killed his victims (mostly women), he would later photograph himself in strategic poses, recreating what he had done as though he himself was the person he’d murdered.
Wearing their clothes and with a plastic mask of a woman’s face, he would take photographs of himself in his parents’ basement in Sedgwick County, Kansas. He would also travel to motels for the perverted photography sessions or go out into the woods. He was finally caught in 2005 and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2012, after watching the horror film Saw (2004), Fabian Kramer became obsessed with murder. Just a teenager at the time, he wore a mask as he killed his landlady, 82-year-old Hanna Litz. He stabbed her 50 times in her apartment. The movie depicts how two victims are tied up in a bathroom, and the only means of escape is to saw off a part of their own bodies. While this did not happen in Kramer’s murder scene, he is said to have watched the movie and become inspired to kill while wearing a gruesome mask, which was set up on a mannequin in court at his trial.
After he stabbed Litz, he phoned the German police, who found him attempting to revive her, saying he was an “ambulance man.” The bloodstains on his body told a different story, and he was arrested and sentenced after the mask and a yellow-handled knife were found in his apartment.
In 1985, Alex Mengel was pulled over by police in New York while he was driving with three friends. The officer spotted shotgun shells in the car. Mengel shot the police officer, who later died. A day later, Mengel abducted 44-year-old Beverly Capone in her white Toyota. She was said to have vanished after she was last seen going to her car at 8:00 PM that night. The next day, in a residential area near Syracuse, a 13-year-old girl said a driver pointed a gun at her and told her to get in. Thankfully, she ran away before he could shoot or force her into the car. She said he wore a disguise: a wig with long, black hair, lipstick, and a dress. She later identified Mengel in a police lineup.
A week later, the Toyota was spotted in Toronto, and a police chase ended when Mengel’s car skidded on the ice. Beverly Capone’s driver’s license was found in the car with Mengel’s face pasted over her photo. Police also found a wig with black hair in the vehicle, but Mengel denied knowing Capone and said he’d stolen the car.
Investigators retraced Mengel’s steps and found a remote cabin where Mengel had hidden Capone’s ID card. Her body was buried in a stone wall by the cabin. She had been stabbed in the chest and scalped. Her face had also been peeled off, and it is assumed that Mengel had used her hair and face as a mask to try to escape. He was charged with the murder of the officer and Beverly Capone, but when he was being escorted back from court in a police vehicle, he tried to escape and was shot dead.
Alexa is a writer and inventor of the Haiku, living in Dublin.