Masks can often evoke feelings of unease and fear in people. With the face concealed, visual clues as to what the wearer is thinking and feeling disappear, and we are left wondering about what lurks under the mask.
If that wasn’t bad enough, some masks are intentionally designed to be disturbing and downright scary, while others were made for benevolent reasons but unintentionally ended up being the stuff of nightmares. Here are my choices for 5 of the most creepy masks in history.
5. Alexander Peden’s Mask
This horrifying mask is thought to have been worn as a disguise by the Scottish preacher, Alexander Peden, and is made from leather, cloth, real human hair, and even once had false teeth attached to it.
Peden was a member of the Covenanters movement, which was the name given to the group of Scottish Presbyterians who signed the National Covenant in 1638, which was believed by them to be a contract between the people of Scotland and God. The covenant refused to accept the King as head of the church, believing that only Jesus himself could hold this position, and rejected the church hierarchy of the day, which was run by bishops, believing that all ministers should be appointed by the congregations they served.
Unsurprisingly, the Covenanters made some powerful enemies, and Charles I and his successor Charles II were displeased with this movement of people who wanted to remove the king as head of the church. A bloody period of religious persecution known as ‘the Killing Times’ was the result, as government troops hunted down illegal preachers who were members of the Covenanters movement. Under new laws, illegal preaching was punishable by death, and many were executed or transported to the colonies.
Alexander Peden became the most well known of these illegal preachers, and as such was the most wanted man in Scotland. It was under these circumstances that he took to wearing the mask in an attempt to hide his identity from government soldiers. He lived a life on the run, sleeping in caves and preaching at makeshift pulpits in secret locations all over Scotland. His reputation and ability to avoid capture made him something of a legend, and he some followers even began calling him ‘Prophet Peden’ believing that he had the ability to predict the future.
But why would a man of God wear such a creepy and unholy looking mask? An alternative theory regarding the mask is that it was actually used as a decoy. Somebody younger and faster would wear the mask in order to attract the attention of soldiers sent to capture Peden. When the soldiers attacked, the decoy would wear the mask, which was anything but discreet, and use it to lure them away from Peden.
Peden’s luck eventually ran out though, and he was captured in 1673, and spent several years in prison. After release he was due to be banished to America, however the American captain of the ship which was supposed to transport him was sympathetic to his plight, and released him. Peden spent his final years on the run, before finally dying in 1686, but his infamous mask is still on display in Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland
4. The Plague Doctor Mask
With its unnerving bird like beak and dark inhuman eyes, this is probably one of the most well known examples of a creepy historical mask, but surprisingly few people know its purpose and origins.
The first known epidemic of the bubonic plague occurred in the 6th century, however the most infamous and well known outbreak happened in Europe in the 14th century, when up to 200 million people died, which is thought to be as much as 2/3 of the continents population. In fact the plagues of the 14th century were so bad, estimates suggest that the worlds population did not recover back to pre black death levels until the 17th century.
Such high levels of death caused by plagues could destroy a towns economy, and so plague doctors became highly prized and valuable, as few others were brave enough to attempt treatment of the sick. In fact in one example of their value, plague doctors were kidnapped near Barcelona and held for ransom, which the city actually paid in exchange for their release.
The strange mask and uniform that plague doctors wore wasn’t just for show, and there was a detailed but flawed reasoning behind it. At the time it was believed that diseases were spread through foul smelling putrid air, and that those in close contact with the sick could protect themselves by purifying the air they breathed. The long beak shaped mask would be stuffed with strong smelling herbs and spices, which was thought to render the poisonous air safe to breathe. The rest of the suit consisted of a heavy waxed overcoat which would be tucked into the mask, a wide brimmed hat, and a cane. The cane would enable the doctor to examine their patients without having to touch them, and the overcoat was though to lock out the putrid air.
In a strange twist, the suit may have actually provided some protection, although not for the reasons it was originally designed for. The suit and mask was likely to have kept the fleas which spread the disease away from the skin of the doctor, however the same could not be said for the patients they were supposedly treating. The arrival of plague doctors would usually spell doom for the local population, and they may have done more harm than good, unintentionally spreading the disease via their plague covered suit wherever they went.
The doctors themselves rarely had medical training, and the profession often attracted charlatans who would try to sell the sick fake cures and treatments. In fact one of the their main tasks was not just to care for the sick, but to grimly record the number of plague deaths in an area for the public records.
Despite their protective mask and suit, the plague doctor survival rate seems to have been low, and in one recorded example, of eighteen doctors in Venice, five died of the plague, twelve went missing, with only one left to carry on his duties.
These unsettling hooded masks may conjure up images of the KKK or a cult poised to begin an unwholesome ritual, however they are actually part of a Spanish Catholic celebration that takes place during Easter.
The pointed hat has long been associated with stupidity and in medieval times was worn by clowns and jugglers, and more recent times was used as a dunce hat. Because of this connection pointed hats became used as a way to punish and humiliate. Criminals would be forced to walk the streets wearing pointed hats, while crowds of people pelted them with rotten vegetables and yelled abuse and insults, and during the inquisition, pointed hats with hoods would be placed on the condemned, marking them for their crimes and attracting ridicule from others.
The pointed hat concept was soon adopted by those wanting to perform penance for their sins, and people who wanted to earn forgiveness from God began walking the streets wearing pointed hoods which have since become known as the capirote. The tradition still survives to this day, and at various times during holy week celebrations, people from across Spain will wear the pointed hoods and partake in one of the processions, which can involve hundreds of people wearing the ghostly masks, many carrying wooden crosses or candles, with the more extreme even beating and whipping themselves.
A variety of different colours can be seen, with each colour belonging to a specific church, and the hooded masks, while appearing somewhat disturbing to outsiders, provide the wearer with a way to protect their identity. The individual can atone for their sins without being seen by everyone watching, however upon completing the procession, they can finally remove the capirote, proudly revealing their faces.
While foreigners might instantly associate the capirote with the KKK, they are not connected in any way, however it does seem likely that the KKK might have been inspired by the capirote when they were designing their uniforms. Although benevolent in nature, if you stumbled across a group of people dressed like this heading towards you one night and didn’t know what the capirote was, you would be forgiven for turning around and heading in the opposite direction…
2. The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, fears of further attacks on the U.S spread through the nation, and so contingency plans were drawn up to deal with potential future attacks that could come in multiple forms.
One of the biggest threats lay in the possibility of a gas attack on the civilian population. If preparations were not taken, the results of a gas attack on an unprotected population would be devastating. The urgent problem planners faced was that there were no masks designed to fit children, as gas masks had previously been designed for use by adults.
The answer to this problem was the Mickey Mouse gas mask, which was designed to specifically fit children aged between 18 months and four years old, and was also given the appearance of the well known cartoon character in the hope that it would encourage children to wear the masks, as increased wear time would likely result in increased survivability. The Mickey Mouse design was also intended to make gas masks appear less scary, thus taking the fear out of any potential gas attack, however judging by these photos, I’m not sure this aim succeeded.
Other comic book character themed masks were planned depending on how successful the Mickey Mouse mask proved, and several other nations involved in the war developed their own children’s gas masks, and groups of school kids practicing wearing the various unsettling masks became a common sight.
The Mickey Mouse masks stands out from the crowd as the creepiest though, with its soulless looking eyes and frozen expression, however its estimated that only around 1,000 of the masks were ever produced, and it has since become an extremely rare and expensive collectors item.
1. Japanese Noh Mask
Japan is well known for producing some seriously creepy urban legends and ghost stories, but their tradition for telling dark stories is not a recent development, and actually stretches back for hundreds of years.
Noh masks are exquisitely crafted props that are used in traditional Japanese opera and theatre performances, and have become highly prized and expensive collectors items. The masks themselves are crafted from cypress wood with intricate skill, and when complete are usually only worn by the main actor. The masks are usually used to depict the elderly, men, women or ghosts and demons, and due to their fixed expressions, take considerable skill and subtle movements on the part of the actor to portray emotion.
What makes the masks creepy is the way in which they are carved. Depending on the angle the mask is held at, the face appears to change its expression. By tilting the head, the actor can create the appearance that the masks expression is changing, making it seems as if it is actually alive. Slightly tilting the head upwards will produce a smile, making the mask brighter and happier, while tilting downwards will change the expression to that of a frown, giving the mask the appearance of sadness or anger.
In fact the noh mask even has its own creepy urban legend associated with it, with some believing that the mask absorbs the negative emotions of its wearer, becoming more alive as it absorbs more emotion. The owner becomes addicted to wearing the mask, and finds it more and more difficult to spend time without the mask on. In this way the mask is able to continue feeding on the wearers emotion, and slowly and painfully begins to cause the wearers flesh to rot, until finally killing them, when the mask will then seek out a new owner.
So those are my choices for 5 of the creepiest masks from history, let me know what you thought was the creepiest and which masks you would have included in the comments below, and I’ll see you again on the next video.