Behind the Mask

When Allan was a teenager and I was a little kid, he held a Halloween party in the cellar. We didn’t have a basement in Milledgeville; we had a dirt-floored room under our house that had to be accessed through an external door: a cellar. While the teenagers rocked around the clock down below, one of my friends showed up at the front door with her mother. Mom came to get me, and I followed her into the living room and stared at the costume with wide eyes. Everyone could see that I was afraid, and so my friend cried, “Look, Cheryl! It’s me!” and ripped off her mask. I screamed and ran back to my room. My mom could never get over the fact that I was more afraid when she showed her real face than when her scary mask was in place.

Even though I went trick-or-treating all through my childhood, that fear of masks stayed with me. I was so relieved when the rest of the world finally admitted that clowns are really creepy. We all share that uneasy feeling when the smiling face that you see is not the real person underneath. It is a nightmare sensation that blurs reality and illusion and renders you powerless to keep yourself safe.

When I started working in the children’s department in a library, the kids’ reactions to puppet shows fascinated me. Even though they could see the librarian walk behind the puppet stage, or even when she held a puppet on her lap and they could see her mouth move, the puppet show kept them simultaneously thrilled and terrified. I’ve had more than one child plead with the puppets, almost in tears, trying to help them out of their little fictional problems. Occasionally, a child had to be carried out of the room because they became so distressed by puppet antics. The kids know that the puppets are not real, but the line between reality and illusion is so thin sometimes, and the inability to hold onto it upsets something deep in our psyche.

When I was a teenager in New Jersey, my boyfriend was friends with one of the employees of Great Adventure amusement park. One day, we had the special treat of going “backstage” to see the workers transform into their park characters. Our friend stepped into a gorilla suit, laughing and chatting all the while. Hours later, after riding roller coasters and having a blast, we saw him heading toward us through the crowd. My knees went weak and nausea began to roil in my stomach. I tugged on my boyfriend’s hand. “Let’s go somewhere else.” “But don’t you want to see him? He’s heading this way, and he’ll probably goof around with us and make people laugh.” I knew if he caught up with us, I might faint. Even though my mind told me that a friend was underneath that mask, my body couldn’t escape that fight or flight reflex, which was definitely tuned to “flight.”

Fast forward twenty years, and my husband and I were spending a leisurely Saturday afternoon in lovely Clarkesville, Georgia, drifting in and out of the many antique shops in its quaint little downtown area. After a couple of hours, we stepped out of yet another peaceful store and almost walked into a KKK member in full regalia. I stifled a scream. They were on every corner, handing out flyers in their white robes and hoods, but with their faces exposed. I had never seen a KKK member in person before, and I didn’t even know that they still existed. So many thoughts swirled through my head, and even though our car was just on the other side of them, I asked my husband to take me in the opposite direction. I was already knocked flat by the costumes, which were a symbol of pure evil. Why did they feel confident enough to show their faces? Why weren’t they ashamed? David put his arm around me and said, “But we can get to our car a lot faster if we go this way. They’re not going to hurt you.” True, but I’d never get past them on these noodle legs. Again, that confusion of two people existing in one body: the friendly local insurance agent and the dangerous madman encouraging others to join him in his acts of hatred. How can they both be the same person?

When we choose a mask, are we concealing or revealing? It’s fun to try on another identity for a while, to escape our boring routine and be a fairy princess instead, or to defy our powerlessness and put on a superhero outfit. Perhaps a gorilla suit allows someone to run around and make people scream and laugh, and lords and ladies might hide behind simple black masks to engage in naughtiness, as did the revelers in Much Ado About Nothing. No one, however, puts on a white hood to be silly; it’s far too revealing, and is meant to be so.

C.S. Lewis’ favorite of his own works was Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in which he shows that we all have expectations of people based on their appearance, and how the distortion of those appearances can cause the wrong response, which is perhaps unfair, since we do not always control the way we look. So which is out of joint, the appearance or our reaction?

We await the day when we have our true faces, and all will be revealed.

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