The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

What the Mask Wants

That’s a good mask you’ve got on. Scary.

But you want to be careful with scary masks. Just saying. Not that it makes much difference to you now, but still.

You think it’s just a piece of plastic, or something your dad helped you make with cloth and glue. But once it’s on you, it’s almost like a mask is alive. You know what I mean? Like it has its own ideas what to do.

Especially the scary ones, the masks that are practically snarling in rage or fear or hunger. They’re bad that way.

halfmaskYou look at a scary mask and think that’s not you, right? You’re a nice kid! Not like that mask, it’s horrible and hideous and awesome.

But snarling rage and fear and bloody-teeth hunger—you’ve got all those, of course you do. You just locked them up, way deep inside you, in a little closet. ‘Cause you’re such a nice kid.

But the right mask knows how to whisper through the keyhole of that closet. It stirs those feelings up, till you hear them banging on the doors down there, the hunger and fear and rage. Banging and banging and banging down there.

It can drive you a little crazy.

Let me tell you a story. Imagine it’s Halloween night—well, and it is Halloween tonight, of course. So imagine a Halloween like tonight.

A black-dark, chilly, leaf-skittering night.

And you go out, wearing your mask. A mask like mine.

First thing, near the end of your street, you see a low white creature, holy crap, a ghost, flying down the street, just impossibly fast, impossibly smooth. And your heart stops and starts, and you feel scared right down to the ground, because—could that be real?

But as the ghost flies past, you see running behind it is a dad, all dressed in black. He’s pushing a wheelbarrow, and some little kid in a long white sheet is sitting inside, flying down the road.

Okay, good one, you think, and your heart settles down.

Now the dark has wandering lights in it, and voices shouting, laughing. But because it’s so dark, you feel alone until the others are really close. Then suddenly the lights and colors are bobbing around you.

And when they see your mask, some little kids look scared, and grab their moms’ hands, and you feel great.

You see three Spidermen and two princesses. You see Iron Men and fairies. You see vampires and witches and cats.

You see a small girl in a long gray wig and long white dress, running through yards, crying “Dónde están mis hijos?”

You think, Pretty cool. Good Halloween.

You see a really little kid, like four or five, standing on the sidewalk, sobbing. His big sister is trying to get him to put his mask over his face, but he won’t do it. He stands there in his yellow nylon suit, the Frankenstein mask sitting on his head, its stretchy string cutting into the soft flesh of his throat. He’s terrified, crying, “Not on! No, not on my face!”

You don’t realize it, but that kid is smart.

Because you still haven’t learned: you gotta be careful with masks.

I was the one walking around, seeing all that, that Halloween night. I was only a little older than you are now, almost too old to go trick or treating.

And I was wearing this mask, that night. Wow, when I first saw it in the store. It made my heart stop-and-start, that feeling. Its awful mouth. The way the whole face is so horribly twisted, and frozen there, stuck in one moment of terrible time.

It felt like something that had escaped from that little locked-door room inside me, right? It still gives me that start-and-stop heart feeling, whenever I see it, after all these years.

Anyway. That first Halloween with this mask, I felt so alive. I walked through the black-dark night, loving every leaf-skitter, every distant shout and bobbing light.

But then when it got late, and the night sank into silence, things changed.

Because the thing is, I didn’t want to take the mask off.

Or it didn’t want to be taken off. One of those.

I still felt so powerful. I still felt so alive. And the mask told me I should walk through people’s backyards, so I did. It was super, super late. I checked out the toys and tricycles. I stole a swing on a tire. I pushed over a barbecue grill: bang, clatter. Charcoal and ash spilled across the grass. Lights came on inside the house. I ran.

It was fantastic.

This mask wanted me to move, wanted me to break things. It made me ring 3am doorbells, smash eggs against cars, trash people’s lawns.

Well, those are Halloween pranks, right? Not very nice, not very nice kid things to do. But not so bad.

But as the night wore on, as the dark got deeper, the mask made me to do much worse than that. Much, much worse. Things with fire. And things with blood.

I didn’t want to do those things. The mask wanted to.

And after a while, this little part of me said, No. No more blood. No more fire. I have to take this thing off and go home, and go to sleep, and forget this night, forget it ever happened.

Too late, though. Too late for that. Because the mask wasn’t on board with that. The mask was having too much fun. The rage and fear and hunger that mask had freed? They didn’t want to go back into their little closets.

And the mask wouldn’t come off.

It’s wasn’t stuck, exactly. Only without my noticing, it had started to fit my face so well, that .  . . well. It had become my face.

The mask was alive now. And the mask was me.

So the next time you choose a Halloween mask— you won’t, but let’s pretend—be careful. Because that’s what happened to me. You think this is a mask I’m wearing. But this is my face, now. Go ahead. You can touch it if you want, I don’t care.

And I’m not the only one. You wouldn’t believe how many of us there are, with our terrible mask-faces: the blood-dripping teeth, the mad twisted mouths, one eye bulging or dripping down the cheek.

People like us, we can only come out on Halloween, when everyone thinks our terrible faces are only masks.

Man, I love Halloween for that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone thinks that this axe I’m holding is just a prop, a costume prop.

Just like you thought that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone will believe that this old cellar is a haunted house, and it might be fun to visit.

Just like you thought it might be fun.

But you were wrong.

I’m sorry. Don’t cry. This isn’t what I want, you know. I don’t want this. The mask wants it.

Sorry. But that’s how it is.

This isn’t a haunted house, it’s an old cellar, and you will never leave.

And this axe is a real axe, ready to cut through your soft flesh.

And this mask, what you thought was this terrible mask: this is my real face.

And this twisted, raging, mad face: it’s the last face that you will ever see.

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4 Responses to “What the Mask Wants”

  1. Lucia says:

    Utterly creepy! An excellent story.

  2. Katherine Catmull Katherine Catmull says:

    hurray thank you! I love masks so much, AND fear them.

  3. Maryam D says:

    Ugh, this is AWESOME. Wickedly, creepily awesome, but awesome nonetheless!

  4. Katherine Catmull Katherine Catmull says:

    thank you!

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