Cine-Ween: THE VILLAIN OF A THOUSAND MASKS

In early 1946, the town of Texarkana, Texas, was terrorized by a series of violent assaults and murders. Young couples parked at secluded lanes were accosted by a pistol-wielding figure – the first couple survived and escaped; the second and third were brutally executed.

Town stores sold out of guns and ammunition. Doors were locked at night. Hot-blooded young vigilantes would pose as parking lovers in the hopes of luring the killer in for execution. The crimes were dubbed “The Texarkana Moonlight Murders” – one of the first serial killing sprees to capture the attention of the American mass media.

Perhaps sensing that the parked cars they targeted were no longer so vulnerable, the so-called “Phantom Killer” changed their method. Some ten weeks after the first recorded assault, farmer Virgil Starks was killed – shot twice in the back of his head inside his home, by a rifle fired from outside his window. When Katie Starks came to check on her husband, the killer fired at her, too. Struck in the face by two bullets, which punctured her cheek and shattered her teeth, she somehow survived, and outran the killer to safety. Contemporary newspaper accounts of the killings cited by Wikipedia are filled with suspenseful morsels any horror movie screenwriter would sell their souls to imagine: “She ran to get a pistol from the living room, but was blinded by her own blood.” As a neighbor drove her to the hospital, she pulled out her own gold-filled tooth to pay. That’s a Final Girl of whom Jamie Lee Curtis could be proud.

No suspect was ever arrested in the case, though the likeliest culprit based on the evidence was a local serial criminal named Youell Lee Swinney, He was sent to prison for an unrelated offense in 1947, and the assaults stopped entirely. Part of the difficulty in identifying a suspect came from a detail described by the very first victims, the couple that escaped. The Phantom Killer, they said, was wearing some sort of white hood, like a pillowcase with eyeholes cut out. Any horror fan would instantly recognize this as the very covering first used by Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Part 2, before he discovered his preferred hockey mask. We will come back to Mr. Voorhees in a bit.

The cultural impact of the Texarkana case was reinforced by a sensational 1976 horror film made about it, called The Town That Dreaded Sundown. It was written and directed by cult independent filmmaker Charles B. Pierce, who had tapped into the myths and legends of his home in neighboring Arkansas to make his first feature, The Legend of Boggy Creek. Sundown was shot in and around the real locations of the crimes in Texarkana, and although city officials threatened to sue over a poster tagline that claimed “Today he still stalks the streets of Texarkana…” they now show the film every year at an outdoor screening near Halloween. Our fears become rituals.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown isn’t as famous as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which came out two years before, or John Carpenter’s genre-defining Halloween, which came two years after; but it serves as a vital evolutionary bridge between the two within the horror subgenre of slashers and masked killers. It is also, among its more famous peers, the closest to a depiction of such a killer based on actual, true-life details.

It points towards a fascinating discrepancy, too. Despite the enduring popularity of on-screen horror, and the parallel popularity for American audiences of true crime stories (see: half of all new podcasts,) the “masked killer” is, after the terror of Texarkana, essentially nonexistent among real-life serial murderers. Even the notorious monster Ed Gein, whose killing spree inspired Texas Chainsaw as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, was not known to be masked when committing his murders. His skinning and vivisection of corpses merely served his horrifying preferences in fashion and home décor. His sociopathy didn’t require a mask – you might say he didn’t see other humans as worth feeling any shame or fear in front of.

If the purpose of a horror film is to allow us to expel our real fear through a simulation, the assumption would then be that the genre would evolve closer and closer to reality. That the masked killer has endured suggests that it, specifically, fulfills a different desire than the purgation of fear in its audience.

And endure it does. An IMDB list of masked horror films contains 295 separate films – the criteria for inclusion is debatable; but the ubiquity of the trope among beloved films, franchises, and characters in horror is undeniable. The mask is a defining feature of Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise; giving a “face” to the haunting blankness of spirit described so vividly by Dr. Loomis in ways even the most deadpan of actors never could.

The mask may change – the murderer in Terror Train cycles through a series of them as they kill their way through a costume party. Or the mask may be a constant while the people under it prove changeable – the series of killers in the Scream franchise perpetually adopt the guise of Ghostface as an overt attempt to leverage the narratives of horror films to project their pain onto others. The mask may feel inseparable from its wearer, as it does with the traveling family of murderers in The Strangers. Or it might be a conscious signal of transition out of everyday life and into the killing mode, as the maliciously-empowered hooligans of the Purge franchise don them in anticipation of their one-night license to spread mayhem.

In all these variances, it is the combination of mask and murderous impulse, apparently, which is fulfilling the desire of the subgenre’s audience.

The enduring success of the Friday the 13th franchise, I believe, gives the lie to the idea that audiences only want master-plotted cinematic universes planned to the last detail. Continuity-wise, it is a hopeless mess. However, as a ritually-repeated campfire nasty responsively adjusting to its audience’s tastes and desires one movie at a time, it is a wild success. Pamela Voorhees gave way to Jason, and Jason evolved beyond a strong but vulnerable human psychopath into an unstoppable, hulking zombie, forever reenacting the same killing spree with a fresh batch of victims.

This didn’t happen because it made narrative sense, it happened because the producers paid attention to what elements connected, foregrounded them in the next edition, and discarded the rest. Jason is a narrative device and a one-off pop-up scare in the first movie; he is a conveniently available replacement killer in the first sequel. By the sixth Friday the 13th, the movie itself is billed as his celebratory return after the disliked fifth movie where a Jason impersonator did the killing. He has become something other than an antagonist; rather an antihero whose successful killings we enjoy, up to a point. His rival in 80’s horror, Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, similarly evolved from genuine terror with limited screen time to a “play the hits” legacy band coming back year after year for another tour. We were more excited to see him than any of the briefly-living characters around him.

It must be that watching the monster play their familiar pageant, even with Jason Voorhees long dead and his reanimated body stomping around like a stabbing automaton, is what provides the fulfillment for the audience. It is in the repetition that new details get tried, tested, and adopted or rejected.

This sort of crowdsourcing is as old as the storytelling tradition that shaped ancient mythology – a story isn’t told once, but iterated until it reaches a state that most satisfied the culture it is told in. This is true for both the horror genre in macro and Jason Voorhees in micro – he didn’t try on the hockey mask until movie three; but try imagining him emerging from Crystal Lake to kill without it now – he’d seem downright naked.

“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is the seminal and oft-cited study of mythological narratives that influenced the Star Wars franchise and countless offspring and imitators. It speaks of a protagonist like Luke Skywalker as the innocent and unblemished vessel for our dreams and ambitions, whose universal needs resonate with ours, inviting us to identify with them, to project into the gaps left by their incompleteness as characters.

What then, do we want of our Villain with a Thousand Masks? Jason Voorhees is, at first, expressing frustration and rage over the murder of his mother. Gradually, in his more zombie-like form, he becomes an avatar of sheer, brute persistence, playing his role with a sense of duty we can nearly admire, if not at least respect. One wonders if he even remembers his mother by the time he’s stabbing teenagers on a spaceship centuries in the future. He has gone from serving his own motivations to obliging ours.

It begins to make sense if the mask isn’t about the killer’s motives, but about providing outlet to the needs of the audience. Is a masked killer a sin eater, performing a ritual that releases our unexpressable anger, the darkest potentials in our ego’s need to be recognized and respected as important and memorable? Or are they, as critics of the genre might claim, a pied piper filling us with toxic desires that lead us into antisocialism and desensitization? Is the promise of lethal mischief addictive, or are we seeking a safe way to quell an appetite that was always there? That line is a dangerous one, but the danger is at least a little exciting. It’s the hand held near the flame.

A crucial clue to me is a difference between Joseph Campbell’s hero, who must leave home in order to earn their ascendance before returning, and the strong connection of masked killers to the place that birthed them. Our cultural story of Jason tethers him to Crystal Lake, just as Michael Myers has Haddonfield, just like the real-life Phantom Killer had Texarkana; that canny movie poster tagline claiming he still “stalks the streets”.

As the nightmare flip side to the universal hero, the masked villain is not defined by taking a journey (even Jason’s lamentable evening in Manhattan). He is defined by already being here, among us. Deep down we know he’ll always return, but the survival of one resilient Final Girl is enough to give us release and relief.

For now.

Nicholas Thurkettle
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