Halloween Haunts: The Power of a Mask George Wilhite
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, or at least a tie with Christmas. You can’t beat the latter for spending time with family and friends, the gift exchanges, the way it brings out cheer even in years of tragedy and pain. But, as I’m sure is true for many of my peers who have become horror writers, my personal affinity has leaned towards October 31.
My father and I spent many late nights watching Creature Features, a late Saturday night show in the California Bay Area. Bob Wilkins hosted two old movies, some classic, some cult or schlock, and in between interviewed cool guests and provided wry commentary.
These are my earliest memories of indoctrination to the macabre. Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and EC comics rounded out a childhood of this stuff and as I grew a little older my Dad took me to Hammer films and other low budget gems nobody else in my family wanted any part of.
I came of age in the late Seventies and that meant new classics to be found soon at the local drive-in. Horror permeated my being as an adolescent and young adult in one of the last golden ages of horror films. Carpenter, Cronenberg, Craven and Romero were all releasing their now classic films.
So, Halloween became a kind of annual culmination of all this fandom. My fellow aficionados conducted our own marathons on VHS or subjected ourselves to the mercy of what the local channels chose to show.
And then there were the costume parties. A few Halloweens in a row, my group of friends got on a kick of trying to outdo each other in the costume arena. It was never my thing really. I didn’t want to spend all the time planning it out, putting on the make-up and such. In other words, I was lazy.
Even though I did not participate in the madness of the costume craze myself, I did appreciate the results of my friends’ experiments. Something that specifically struck me in my observations at these parties (a writer is always a spy, right?) was a phenomenon I call the Power of a Mask.
Masks are huge in horror films of course, especially those of the Eighties. Jason’s hockey mask, Michael’s creepy as hell white expressionless one. Pennywise ruined clowns for anyone not already over them after John Wayne Gacy’s exploits. But I began to realize in “real life,” among my partying buds, masks had a power as well. These partiers weren’t transformed into serial killers or psychotics, but it was intriguing to notice that people act differently when they’re behind a mask, particularly behind a mask or costume that allows them to wander a party anonymously.
Masks allow us to change our personalities, lower our inhibitions, perhaps makes us bolder in expressing our fondness or hidden loathing of others. This sounds like a conceit as I write it now but reflecting back I do remember that was the case. I observed it many times. Alcohol often provides this same kind of catharsis, to be sure, but at those costume parties the masks seemed to amplify this tendency.
This observation got creative juices flowing later also and I began to have some of my existing characters don masks. I began to notice a significant change in their behavior, thoughts and spoken words that I would have never attributed to them seemed to suddenly make sense, and not just to service the story.
I decided to write something more specific along these lines. A story which centered on a woman learning a secret about her husband. The initial discovery would seem odd but not necessarily a major betrayal of trust. But as she dug deeper, things would get out of hand.
Around this time, a friend came back from a trip to Mexico and brought me a gift, one he thought “looked like something I would like.” It was a small wooden carved mask, painted in vibrant colors, a nice enough souvenir I suppose, but it was also – and this was what my friend meant by his comment – positively hideous, part human, part bird, a creature of mythology I assumed, and it was casting a sardonic creepy smile.
“Love it!” was my response as I accepted it, and I guess I did in a twisted way. I placed the thing in front of me as I started writing, discovering the secret of this deceitful hubby. I began to riff a bit with that fact that it was a profane mask, and for some reason I rearranged that to “Masque Profane.” Then I decided his secret has not a mask but a masque, a secret annual event on Halloween he had attended without his wife’s knowledge. From there, I was off to the races.
Below is an excerpt of the finished tale “Masque Profane.”
This story was included in my self-published collection On the Verge of Madness and this excerpt is from the revised version included in my latest collection published by Horrified Press, Rota Fortunae. The title suggests the tarot card The Wheel of Fortune, and the tales collected here all deal with chance encounters, uncovered secrets, sudden realizations that someone you thought you knew was hiding behind some form of mask, actual or figurative.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: George Wilhite is giving away a copy of his horror collection On the Verge of Madness. Comment below or email email@example.com with the subject title HH Contest Entry for a chance to win.
George Wilhite has been an aficionado of horror since the days of his youth spent staying up late watching “Creature Features” with his father. Poe, Lovecraft and King were his steady diet throughout adolescence and early adulthood. His thesis for his Master’s in English at Sonoma State University included a psychological analysis of the horror film spectator. He is the author of three horror story collections and over a hundred published tales in print and online anthologies. To find out what he is up to and more about his work, check out his blog, “Long Intervals of Horrible Sanity,” at: http://georgewilhite.blogspot.com.
You can learn more my published works at my blog “Long Intervals of Horrible Sanity” at: http://georgewilhite.blogspot.com
You can purchase Rota Fortunae directly from the publisher through Lulu at:
Read an excerpt from the story “Masque Profane” from Rota Fortunae
Life can undergo dramatic change by something that initially seems insignificant.
In my case, that profound insignificance was the delivery of a single piece of mail.
I knew Jeff for three years before we married. Although we chose not to live together first, we were inseparable from the moment we met. When you are that close to a man, tied up in and wrapped around all parts of his life, it seems crazy to think he could possibly have any secrets. So, seven months into our marriage, on October the twenty-second, when the letter with the strange writing scrawled on it arrived, I gave it little regard. I simply sorted it out with Jeff’s other private mail and opened the rest.
As I relaxed with a cup of strong coffee, fumbling through the usual mundane assortment of bills and junk mail, my mind was fascinated by the snow falling lightly outside, the first of the year. It was not heavy enough to stick to the ground, but any snow that early in the year was noteworthy. A writer by trade, I always took note of such events. Normally such a happenstance would spark the necessary creativity to lead to a day of intense writing. Yet for some unknown reason, I had not written a word that day. Clearing my mind, and allowing the caffeine to work its wonders, I shook off the enchantment of the snow and resolved to get some work done. I knew Jeff would be home, like clockwork, in exactly four and a half hours.
I was leaving the kitchen when I saw the letter again, on top of Jeff’s stack of mail, taking note of its curious border. Along the edges of the envelope were bizarre figures and symbols, like some form of hieroglyphics, and as I gazed at the peculiar correspondence, an intense longing welled up within to open the letter. Jeff had some strange friends from his college days, I knew, so it was easy enough to pass the letter off as some sort of gag, another private joke only he would understand. That explanation was sufficient for me to leave well enough alone and head to my office.
An hour later, I sat in front of an empty computer screen with the continued writer’s block. Why fight it? I shut down my computer, allowing myself the occasional afternoon to relax in front of mindless television or read magazines, just let my mind go. Hopefully the juices would flow the next day. Though I am my own worst critic, I knew this must happen to all writers once in a while. It never entered my mind that the unexplained letter had caused the block. I was not consciously aware of its presence again until I went into the kitchen for one last cup of coffee.
After that second look at the mysterious envelope, I spent the rest of the afternoon convincing myself I must have been ill or spaced out from drinking too much coffee on an empty stomach. There had to be some explanation to dispute what my eyes were positive they saw occur among those hieroglyphics. Every ounce of my sanity told me this had not occurred, that those figures did not move freely about the surface of the paper as though alive. It was simply impossible that, as I stared at them, they reformed and spelled out a discernible word–my name!
The front door opened and Jeff entered our home once more, filling the room with his dominant presence. When he arrived, I transformed from semi-famous and almost financially independent mystery writer to doting wife. I usually enjoyed the dual role, but that day his appearance snapped my mind back to reality and away from the letter. Something within resented that, for I wanted to solve the mystery at hand. Couldn’t he be even ten minutes late just once? But once again “Rhonda, love, I’m home” was answered by “in here dear,” and I tried to repress the oddities of the day to play out my expected role.
The enigma of the letter was not diminished by Jeff’s reaction to it. Removing what looked like a card more than a letter from the envelope, he glanced at it and placed it back in the envelope with no recognizable change in facial expression. I causally asked him about it and he simply said it was a brief word from Steve, one of Jeff’s weirdest friends, a thirty five year old still living with his mother and spending all his spare time with online gaming. That explained it well enough.
The next day, the agony of writer’s block was lifted. I wrote furiously, in that zone where you never once backtrack, even when you know your lousy typing is making all kinds of errors, because you don’t want to lose your momentum. All this more than made up for the previous day’s deficiency. I had written more than twice my usual daily amount of pages by just after noon, and decided to reward myself with a long relaxing walk. The crazy fall weather that year had fallen in the opposite direction — October twenty third could have been a day of early midsummer. I was eager to greet the day, once again assured I would finish my book on time.
Walking down the driveway with renewed vigor, the subject of Jeff’s mysterious mail was all but forgotten. However, when I reached the street to begin my walk, I just happened to look at the garbage can Jeff had dragged out for its weekly collection. I was only scanning to my right, but then focused for an instant on the item that was lying atop the heap of that week’s waste—the letter.
I felt paralyzed. My heart palpitated and my temples throbbed as the unsolved mystery of that infernal letter weighed down upon me. As I stared at the curious border, those same strange hieroglyphs became reanimated, dancing about to an unknown and unhallowed rhythm. I heard a voice calling out to me, softly and seductively, as my name formed again upon the envelope.
That whispering and inviting voice in my head, I removed the envelope from the trash. Another voice within me told me not to do this. I was invading Jeff’s privacy. But then the other, more convincing voice, reminded me that if Jeff wanted the envelope’s contents kept private he would not have disposed of it so carelessly. I opened it and inside was an invitation that read:
Same Time and Place
Regrets Only Need Respond.
Below that simple message was a strange image that resembled–of all things I can think of to describe it–some kind of Tiki one buys in Hawaii as a gift to that person that already has everything. While that was the first worldly referent that crossed my mind, this figure seemed far more sinister as I stared at, evil perhaps. Its face was twisted in a grotesque expression, and the longer I looked upon it the more profane and hateful it seemed, as though capable of an intense violation from some hellish place that existed on the other side of that thin piece of cardboard.
As I felt the envelope slip from my hand, I realized it indeed was possible to know someone nearly four years and not know all their secrets.