If you’ve ever sat in an intensive care unit with a relative in an oxygen mask, you’ll know how inappropriately funny it is. It’s partly due to the facial distortion, partly the inhibited movement. The brain makes sense of the new geometries and extensions, translating the plastic nozzle and trailing pipe into something familiarly elephantine – an awkwardly constructed ancient beast, all wrinkly skin and pulsating veins.
Historically, masks as reproductions of a stock character, spirit, or fantasy figure have always been used to incite transformation. Mask-wearing celebrities Lady Gaga, Bjork, Fever Ray and Daft Punk still appeal today. We’ve not only come to terms with their facelessness, or more appropriately their many faces, we enjoy their inflated personas. Encountering them only as stadium demi-gods or digitally, several times removed, they may as well be fictional performers, or puppets, who we’d enjoy nonetheless for not being real.
When real people wear masks – friends, serial killers, tights-wearing vigilantes – what is most terrifying for observers is not the mask itself (anything will do) but the fear that in wearing the mask, the person has become someone, or something, else. While their face is hidden, they have broken their contract with you and the world. Normal rules do not apply.
The dehumanising element doesn’t come from the mask itself, although it helps, but from the observation of a body without a decipherable face. Frozen-faced characters – Christiane from Eyes Without A Face, Michael Myers in Halloween, the killers in Scream – can be horrific or funny and probably both.
Identifying faces has always been integral to our survival. Carl Sagan examined the benefits of our hypersensitivity to faces. We require only the most minimal of details to recognise faces from a distance and in poor visibility. We are also “hard wired” to see patterns in chaos, Jesus on a slice of toast, and the man in the moon.
This phenomenon, called pareidolia, causes us to see faces where there aren’t any. A 2009 study found that the nerve activation in the brain in response to objects incidentally perceived as faces occurs at a similar time and location to that evoked by images of faces and real faces. Furthermore, repeated presentation of new visual shapes that were interpreted as meaningful led to decreased activity in response to real objects. These results indicate that interpretation of ambiguous stimuli depends on similar processes as those elicited for known objects.
This mechanism is responsive to subtle changes. People are quickly able to identify a "face", analyse the "face-like" object, and determine the emotional state and identity of the subject – even before the conscious mind begins to process the information. Even the "stick figure face" – a few lines and a circle – can convey mood and intention. Sagan argues that this ability to recognise the motivations of a potential predator and pre-empt threatening situations with a flee-or-attack response earlier rather than later would have been beneficial to our earliest ancestors.
Still now, the face can be a comfort or a warning sign. The bridge between thought and action, it tells us what to do. It’s the first place we look when we meet someone for the first time.
The uncanniness of masks centres on the horror film moment, the moment at which our expectation of a face is derailed, when the man shows us a tumour where his face should be, or the little girl cannot turn to face us. It’s this nebulous grey area which masks occupy, the space between the reality and the expectation.
The mask, in its replication, replacement or removal of face, provokes a perpetual double take, drawing attention to our own duplicity. When faced with a fake face, we imagine the real face we cannot see, what lies beneath, and what lies beneath that. The uncertainty makes us think about what it is to be both a face and a mind, what makes a person. It’s a tension you can’t shake off.
The “Uncanny Valley”, a term invented by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, attempts to measure this tension. The hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, a human observer's emotional response to the robot becomes increasingly positive and empathic until at a certain point it quickly turns to strong revulsion. However, as the robot's appearance continues to become more like a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. The area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely human" and "fully human" entity is called the Uncanny Valley.
This follows Freud’s concept of The Uncanny, which describes those instances and objects which are both attractively familiar, but also uncomfortably strange, and our tendency to reject rather than rationalise such disconcerting events. The fact that eerily real-looking robots illicit this same response points to our dependence on human recognition and classification, but also suggest an uncertainty about our own make-up. While we can assume that other humans have similar thoughts, feelings and physical needs to ourselves, hybrid creatures are an unknown quantity, we cannot get the measure of them.
Of course, it’s a thorny road between humanity and hybridity. From prosthetics to pacemakers, we’re becoming very good at enhancing our identity with add-ons and modifications. We’re more sympathetic to hybrids who start off human and step slowly away, than those advancing in the other direction.
How we feel about our own composition is central to our well being. In 1941, American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley explored the concept of psychopathic fake selves in his seminal book The Mask of Sanity and in the 1970s, psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott developed Freud’s belief in the id and the ego into a simpler identity model, the “false self” and the “true self” and sometimes simply “self”.
Several of Winnicott’s patients were suffering from a sense of being empty, dead or "phoney". Despite an overriding feeling of being false to themselves, these patients continued to perform the "show of being real".
For Winnicott, the false self was what allowed a person to present a "polite and mannered attitude" to society and acted as a shield for the true self. Like the character Rorschach from the DC comics Watchmen series whose mask displays a constantly morphing ink blot, our faces only show as much as people want to see in them.
It’s comforting to believe in an authentic self, cocooned but actionable if summoned in the right way. That our real thoughts seem to be burbling away somewhere deep inside while, outwardly, our faces grin and bear it is a necessary part of existence. But in extreme cases, it’s paralysing.
Sometimes diagnosed as depersonalisation disorder, what feels like a severe disconnection from one’s self also results in a divorce from physicality. Recently documented by Jonathan Caouette in the award winning film Tarnation, the condition is a sort of locked-in syndrome in reverse. Sufferers are cast out from their material presence and all thoughts and sensations feel unrelated to their reality or environment. Life passes them by as if it were happening to somebody else. They cannot locate themselves beyond the mask.
Such detachment from all fixed points is disorientating but desirable for alternate reality junkies. LSD-induced trips, bending life and nature into unrecognisable proportions, bring on similar out-of-body experiences which connect users with some kind of truth, if not their true selves – whatever that might mean.
Isolated epiphanies aside, in what other more permanent ways can we capture the shifting perceptions of our insides? Artistic representations can shed light on what lies beneath. Lucian Freud’s portraits, many depicting the artist’s close friends and family, disclose invisible internal ground in their display of fleshiness. Freud paints, in his own words "a distinction between fact and truth”. Catching someone in a state of undress, de-clothed and disclosed, is rare. Here the flesh, a mask of sorts, stretches and trembles when worked up to these proportions. When given this much attention, marks and contours become signs of consciousness. Fleeting thoughts cast shadows, like clouds in a clear sky. In the portraits of his mother, observing her grief over the death of his father, or lying in her hospital bed, we see her emotional life has literally shaped the face, but also her introspection, and therefore the relation between the intangible and the body. Of course it’s still projection, but that’s about as close as any of us can get.
Image credit: Daehyun Kim