Jason Voorhees returns, again, to slay teens at Camp Crystal Lake in the latest installment of the venerable "Friday the 13th" slasher film series. This film is not another sequel (which stopped at eleven, in case you're counting), but instead a "reboot," a re-introduction to the character. This makes sense, since most of the new film's cast was in kindergarten when the original film screened in 1980, and by now Jason would be threatening teens with his walking cane instead of a machete.

But what makes Jason Voorhees one of most popular and scary characters in horror films?

It's not his rich emotional complexity, since he has no personality and has been played by many different actors over the years, mostly large stuntmen.

No, a big part of the answer lies in the character's image: Jason Voorhees's mask, modeled from Detroit Red Wings goalie gear. Though the iconic mask didn't appear until the third film (Jason's face is only seen briefly in the first film as a child), it became the character's trademark.

Masking reality

In film, often the face of evil isn't a face at all; it's a mask. The most popular villains and killers in movies have masks on:

  • Leatherface, the giant crazed butcher in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" series, wears a mask made of human skin.
  • Michael Myers, the slasher from the "Halloween" franchise, wears a pallid mask based on William Shatner's face.
  • In the gory "torture porn" series "Saw," the killer Jigsaw often wears a grotesque clownlike mask.

While the mask as character device is most common in horror films, it appears in other dramatic genres including science fiction (anyone heard of Darth Vader?).

Psychology, not accuracy

Though wearing a mask makes the villains scarier, it would also make them far less efficient killers — especially, if, like Jason Voorhees, your face and eyes are disfigured to begin with. It's amazing he can see at all, much less hurl hatchets through the air, striking his terrified prey in near-darkness with deadly accuracy. It should be easy for the scared teens in slasher films to stay alive, all they'd have to do is stay in the masked slasher's obstructed peripheral vision — that, and don't go in the dark room to see what that noise is!

Why are masks so menacing? It has to do with psychology and the fear of anonymous death. For many people, the idea of being murdered by an unidentifiable stranger for no reason is more terrifying than being killed by someone you do know, and for some good reason.

Our brains are specialized for recognizing faces; we identify each other by our faces—not our elbows or hands. A person's face provides a wealth of information; within seconds of seeing a person's face we immediately know much about him or her (including gender, age, disability, race, etc.) and can fairly accurately guess much more (economic status, emotional state, overall health etc.).

Information is a form of power, and film director want the victims—and therefore the audience — to feel powerless against the masked horrors of their films.

Benjamin Radford is a part-time film reviewer and managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.