When I look back on my memories of trick-or-treating, all I can really remember is the strain of two bobbing peepholes. I only remember as much as those little beads of light. And yet, what horrors would cross them. Droopy-eyed Ghostfaces. The frenzy of a werewolf in red checkered flannel. A little skeleton with rubbery bones, lugging a bag of cavities up the street. All of these visions would leave me with the thought that if I were to plunge myself into the black of my mask, then the whole world would disappear with me. All of my fears would go kaput. But for all of this pretending, I still felt that I was me. I do not think any ordinary costume could ever satisfy me unless it crept underneath my skin.
And I do not think that I have ever outgrown this feeling. It does not even relate to Halloween. It comes from this secret thought that life would look so much better if I was not so afraid of the world. If I was not so stuck within my own head if I was not so “me”. Only then could I feel as solid and as substantial as all the people that surround my life. For they share an unspoken secret of living, and I will never know of it. I will go through my whole life without knowing as if some sort of fault remains in me alone.
Empathy only extends so far, and yet we have this TV special to extend the bridge a few planks further. The Goosebumps series premiere, The Haunted Mask, does not need much of an introduction. The very sight of it can fill just about any millennial with the giddiness of gray October mornings and Scholastic book fairs. But there are dimensions to this story that you may not remember in your candied reminiscences. Of course, as children, we like to think of horror as anything and everything related to the grotesque. And no question about it, R.L. Stine delivers with this story. Slimy, green mask with pointed yellow teeth and all. But what if the horror comes from something as emotionally potent as not loving yourself? What if all we really recall from this story is the mask and not one of Goosebumps’ most disturbing lessons about those unloved behind them?
For those unfamiliar with The Haunted Mask, the story begins one night before Halloween. We find out that Halloween is the favorite holiday season of one Carly Beth (Kathryn Long). Everyone knows about it. Chuck and Steve, her arch-enemies, know it. They all know how scared she is of everything. After all, scaring her is the easiest thing in the world. She cannot make it through ten minutes without jumping at the slightest of sounds. A tap-tap-tapping against her windowpane? For Carly Beth, it does not make any logical sense for it to be a tree branch, when the imaginary sight of an uninvited guest might do. But Carly Beth has had enough of all her fears. It is about time that she start scaring others for a change, even if it means getting her hands on the creepiest of masks.
I understand that this thematic idea about loving yourself is not original. But what sets The Haunted Mask apart from other children’s television is sincerity. Stine has stated in the past that he likes to separate the real-world from his stories. You will not find a single word about divorce or kidnappings in any of the Goosebumps books, but he does not do this to keep his readers sheltered, either. There comes a point when children must decide for themselves whether these scary fantasies are real. He wants children to see these silly stories for what they are: make-believe. And if he were to include real-life topics, then the lines between reality and fiction would be blurred. The horror would become real.
Although The Haunted Mask does not include any of these real-life horrors, it tiptoes the line. Not because Stine includes anything as morbid as cold-blooded murder, but that we can all relate to the childish panic of a girl like Carly Beth. She is shy, soft-spoken, and has a tough time speaking up for herself. She represents all that is painfully real for a child like her. And when the haunted mask latches onto her face, it essentially latches onto what is real. The fantasy of horror becomes blended with the emotional realness of self-hatred; a potent concoction of what makes horror so effective in storytelling.
Long gives this role her all. She balances the good graces of a scaredy-cat with the frustrations of something darker. But as audience members, we do not really see her faults. We see that Carly Beth is enough. Only she finds the faults within herself, and would much rather hide them behind something as ugly as a mask. A mask that also changes her own personality, her voice, her eyes, her thoughts. Carly Beth gets what she has always wanted, but at what price? We have all tried to act differently from ourselves. And yet, our efforts do not mean anything, we cannot escape from our own skin. It may sound as frightening as a mask stuck on your sweaty face, but I know that we all feel some connection to our private selves.
When we wear masks, we see the world with tunnel vision. It sounds so obvious, but rarely do we ever consider the thought that we are limiting ourselves to beads of light. Everything else has been lost. We have shrunken our perspectives to mere dots. But it does not have to always be that way. Pull your head from out of that flabby mask and look at the world anew. We may not have much of a Halloween this year, and yet we will always have ourselves to enjoy it. – Daniel Hrncir
The Haunted Mask is available on Digital HD and VHS.
The episode stars Kathryn Long, Colin Fox, Kathryn Short, and Brenda Bazinet.