Halloween is a time for masks. You can dress up as who you want to be, or you can dress up to frighten or amuse. You can try on a new identity, at least for a night.
Disguises are powerful tools. In Victorian times, the upper classes used their masquerades to escape for a night the strictures of their society. Bank robbers use masks to gain anonymity to avoid prosecution for their crimes. Shamans put on masks to call down their gods. Is it any wonder that masks and other forms of disguise have appeared in stories from the time of the earliest fairy tales up to today?
The mask, literal or figurative, has uses and symbolism as varied as costumes in a Halloween parade. In the world of archetypes, masks and disguises are the province of the Trickster, the dual-natured, two-faced character. But sometimes the hero himself is the trickster. Think Robin Hood, disguising himself as an old tinker to win the golden arrow in the archery contest. Or Sherlock Holmes (just as mercurial, if far less merry), and the variety of disguises he adopts to foil criminals (or, in one case, nearly give a heart attack to poor Watson who thought his friend was three years dead).
Though far too serious to count as a trickster figure, Aragorn shows a dual-natured aspect, originally meeting the hobbits in the guise of Strider, the somewhat-disreputable-looking wanderer. On a more sinister note, Darth Vader’s literal mask symbolizes his hidden identity—masks within masks, it that case. The ambush he lays for our hero with that truth in the second act of the first set of Star Wars films is just a pale shadow of the impact on Vader himself when he realizes that the monstrous evil he thought to be his true nature was only an ill-fitting mask that concealed Anakin still within.
Often the masks are less literal. In my novel Ravensblood, Raven takes on the role of the dark mage to disguise his pain at being rejected by the Guardians and by society as a whole because of his ancestry. He plays the part so well that he believes it himself—until the conscience he suppressed for so long begins to crack the mask. Even then, he plays a part, acting his old role as confidant and right hand to William, the most dangerous dark mage of their time, while spying on him for the Joint Council who want to bring him down, and all the time denying the resurgence of his feelings for Cassandra, the former apprentice and lover he betrayed, as well as his growing friendship with Zack, her partner in the Guardians.
So, why are we all so fascinated with masks? A lot of it lays in the dramatic potential of having characters who are not quite what they seem. It puts the readers off-balance, and readers like to be off-balance. It’s fun trying to guess what might be around the next corner, and it creates tension that ever-important tool in the writer’s toolbox. Many mystery plots simply could not exist without characters with hidden natures.
More than that, though, I think the storyteller’s fascination with masks and disguises, and the reader’s love of such tales, stems from the desire to play make-believe, to imaging that we, too, could be other than we are. More, it springs from a deep-rooted need to understand, explain of merely cope with the duality of the people in our lives. We’ve all had at least some experience with this. It might have been the kid in grade school who you thought would be your BFF until we found out that she was talking about you behind your backs. Or it could be the man you married for love that turned out to be a serial killer. (For real, happened to a friend of mine. Know the warning signs of sociopathy, folks. But that’s a blog for someone else to write.) In real life, such things might never make sense.
That’s one of the reasons we need fiction. Stories may or may not have a happy ending, but if the writer has done her job, the reader will close the book feeling like the world, or at least the world between the covers of the book, has a ‘why’ that is answered by something more meaningful than ‘why not.’