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Basic Information

A mask is a piece of clothing (or similar) worn on the face. The purpose of such things is typically to conceal the wearer's identity, but other forms of protection are possible such as various kinds of armour masks or those worn for protection from the environment and including those designed to supply the wearer with breathing air (such as an SCBA mask).

Identity concealment is probably the most common and immediately obvious application - such concealment may be nefarious (as worn by a criminal to avoid identification), culturally licenced (as in a masked ball or carnival) or even mandatory (as in the requirements in some Islamic cultures for women to cover all or most of their faces in public). Licence may also encompass licentiousness - the masked ball and carnival both have at least overtones of debauchery, and deeper forms of depravity are much given to the wearing of masks. The masked benefactor is also a small satellite of this trope, similar in many ways to the criminal but wearing the mask to avoid the consequences of good rather than evil deeds.

Springing from this comes the idea of intimidation - the wearer dons a mask that, if nothing else, makes them an inhuman cypher even if the mask itself is not grotesque: this is at least as much a part of the masking of police SWAT and other counter-insurgency teams as protection and generations of warriors before them have taken to various battlefields with the masks of monsters and other horrors in an attempt to intimidate those they are trying to kill.

Ceremonial masks are also a definite trope - in many cases they are used so that a person can take on a specific ceremonial role, whether religious, secular (the executioner's mask being somewhere between this, identity concealment and intimidation) or blending the two (often in a "god king" despotism, the royal regalia will feature a ceremonial mask that conceals the humanity of the incumbent beneath the majesty of the office). Again, in some cases, intimidation may play a role1. The Roman aristocracy were also fond of preserving the death masks of their most illustrious ancestors (the imaginies mairorum) which were then displayed in the domestic shrine and used in family ceremonies. Shamanism and similar animistic practices also have a tradition of using masks in their worship - sometimes to present a familiar face to the spirits, sometimes to intimidate them and sometimes to conceal the shaman's personal identity. The mask can also allow the wearer to serve as a proxy - standing in for a god or other entity in some ceremonial role so a "temple prostitute" might wear the mask of the goddess to copulate with a worshipper on her behalf whilst a man wishing to gain spiritual merit by giving charity might assume the guise of a legendary donor figure2.

The masks worn in theatre and similar performances have a ceremonial aspect as well - normally where they are used, they represent a stock character, or at least a trope, that allows the audience to assume various things about a character. Some theatrical traditions may have a convention of ignoring unmasked people on the stage - allowing scene shifters, prop wranglers and others to move about in plain sight … and, for the more daring playwright, a character to become invisible simply by removing his mask. A clown's makeup, even if not a physical mask, still serves a similar purpose.

Masks worn as armour combine protection and intimidation into a useful package - whether the serene but humanlike faces of Roman and ancient near Eastern cataphract helms, the stylistic inhumanity of Saxon wargear or the savage grotesqueries of Japanese menpo. Even the owl like visage of a Norse "spectacle helmet" and the mail veils of medieval Iberia and the Middle East probably count. Presumably so would more primitive forms of protection. In most cases these masks trade a somewhat dubious armour upgrade for a significant loss of peripheral vision and so may be a lot more popular with heavy cavalry and infantry fighting in close order against opponents mostly to their immediate front. Very recently armoured masks capable of offering significant ballistic protection have been revived with examples on the market offering protection as high as NIJ Level IIIA - although like their ancestors they are not particularly practicable for infantry use and are most common amongst assault teams (especially in law enforcement/CRW) and exposed vehicle crewmen. Most of these masks are designed as accessories for a ballistic helmet. Other, fringe uses appear in the historical record from time to time, including experimental pieces tested in WW1 trench warfare and those worn by tank crewmen in the same conflict for protection against spall and bullet splash.

Other protective masks include those worn against cold and heat - whether outdoors or indoors in workshops and foundries - and those that remove dust or fumes from the air - notably the gas mask and its civilian relatives, but including things as simple as a scarf worn across the face against desert sand. Further masks protect the face - and often the eyes - from hazards of light and other radiations (such as the welding mask worn against both the glow of the torch arc and the risk of spatters of hot metal). This category would also include those masks which provide a positive supply of clean air and/or oxygen - such as SCBA masks, line fed breathing gear and those masks that deliver pressurised air or pure oxygen in a medical context. Some governments now have supplies of Doomsday Hoods that protect against a variety of airborne dangers during a disaster or emergency.

The death mask also bears mention - essentially a cast of the face of the deceased, taken at the point of death and used in funeral ceremonies, as a memento or for other culturally defined purposes.

There is also the metaphorical idea of the mask - the concept of the secret identity and false front, or the "game face" of a professional distancing himself from his personal opinions to do his job.

Masks made entirely or partially from wax may blur the line between clothing and makeup - these will typically be part of a disguise intended to conceal the identity of the wearer and/or to cover up some facial deformity or disfigurement.

See Also


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • The David Morris Fabled Lands gamebooks had the whole "theatrical mask" convention used as the basis for (at least the aristocracy of) a nation. The royal court only acknowledged the presence of appropriately masked individuals with maskless slaves roaming about unheeded.
  • Sword and Sorcery Press' Shattered Lands meanwhile turn the idea of Carnival … albeit an overripe version with a strong admixture of corruption and horror … into something approaching a nation, where the masked Momus (also known as "The Jack of Tears") rules the Blood Bayou at the head of an exultant court of the insane, the deformed and the downright undead.
  • The contrast between the face of the king and the person of the king is played (mostly) for laughs (and a little bit of fridge horror) in Terry Pratchett's Pyramids.
    • It may also be possible for an usurper to go unnoticed (a metaphorical version of this happens in Interesting Times).
    • If the mask is a magic item, it may apply its own effects, such as supernaturally enhanced authority and/or placing a geas or outright possession on the wearer.
      • Possibly it acts as a "default minimum competence" for rulers - if they are weak it hacks them, takes control and rules in their place, if they are strong enough to resist, it serves them as an advisor instead.
  • Several of Bernard Cornwell's Dark Ages characters muse or remark on the visual effect of a full face war helmet on the image of the wearer in an era where open faced helmets were still the norm.
    • A magical mask might well help to inspire fear in the wearer's enemies…
  • for players of Kingdom Come: Deliverance the armoured face masks worn by the Cuman mercenaries provide the protagonist with a number of opportunities to infiltrate enemy positions.
  • The gas mask is a frequent staple of horror, supplying faceless villains since about 1915 … presumably some of that was cultural memory of the Great War, but even today it makes for a decently creepy critter.
  • Consider a culture in which covering the face is the apogee of female modesty, to the extent that it is more shameful to appear clothed but unveiled than to be naked apart from the veil. Parts of the modern Middle East are apparently not far off that, some fictional cultures (e.g. Vendria from the Conan tales) make it explicit. Apply this to both genders would also not be much of a stretch.
  • In shamanistic practice, it is not unusual for celebrants to re-enact the exploits of a god, culture hero or other legendary spirit to attract their blessing, or enact a ritual hunt or battle so that the spirits will assist them in the real thing. For these ceremonies, masks are extremely common, with participants wearing a stylised mask to represent the character that they are playing - whether a specific god or hero, a generic enemy or even an animal. Such a mask is essentially a ritual tool for the tradition that uses them.
  • There's also the old trope of what looks like a (usually grotesque) mask turning out to be someone's actual face. This could be played for comedy ("Oh, there's no way anyone could be that ugly, take it off already"), horror ("your plague victim costume is in poor taste"), or various other ways.
    • The Red Death hears you … as does the King in Yellow.
    • There's also that IRA bomber from The Punisher who blew his own face off and now has to wear a plastic mask because the skin won't grow back.
    • Actually, dodgy plastic surgery could well justify an "face looks like a mask" … or some similar trip into the uncanny valley.
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