“We’re all uncomfortable with our faces, we’re always looking for a better face,” says Slipknot percussionist Shawn “Clown” Crahan in a 2016 BBC2 episode of Artsnight. The episode addressed why certain artists wear masks. In Crahan’s case, this better face comes in the form of a rubber clown mask that, while having gone through several iterations over the years, remains his trademark, and is worn in conjunction with the same sort of plain coveralls that all nine members of the nu-metal band wear.
Crahan was interviewed alongside vocalist Corey Taylor, whose current mask is a plain two-piece prosthesis resembling the gaunt, haggard face of a geriatric. Like Crahan, Taylor sees masking as a form of authenticity: “Everyone who wears a mask, embrace it, because you’re not being somebody else. You’re being yourself.”
This is a bizarre sentiment. Performers usually wear masks for one of two reasons: to disguise their identities or to temporarily adopt new ones. I suspect Taylor was trying to argue that disguising one’s “true” self is an inherently human trait: the veneers we cultivate often become more authentic than what is beneath them. He’s certainly not to the first to make this argument. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “[L]et them only see us/ while we wear the mask”.
This interpretation of the persona as a sort of costume is at the core of Slipknot’s aesthetic, and while the band are not the first to incorporate masked characters into their shows, they helped carry it in to new millennium, an era that has already witnessed dramatic demonstrations of the fluidity of identity.
Historically, masks have been held to grant transformative powers to the wearer. Professor of Anthropology at SUNY Buffalo Donald Pollack argues that masks represent certain semiotic characteristics of identity; namely its fragility. “The mask is normally considered a technique for transferring identity, either through the modification of the representation of identity, or through the temporary… extinction of identity.” Masks permit us, among other things, to abandon our socially-constructed identities in favor of anonymity, a practice that seems to underpin the creative mission of bands like Slipknot: the performers are not trading one identity for another but are instead dissolving their identities altogether.
In a way, masking seems like a natural extension of heavy metal’s glorification of the grotesque. Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin employed the term “grotesque” as a catch-all for a satirical “exaggeration of the improper” — and from politicians to billionaire evangelists to skittish suburbanites, there has never been a shortage of people and institutions arguing about the impropriety of heavy metal. According to Deena Weinstein, Professor of Sociology at DePaul University and author of Heavy Metal: the Music and its Culture, the genre arose in response to the recession of the late ’70s, which, combined with the “stagflation” caused by the OPEC oil cartel, put a halt to the socioeconomic boom of the ’60s. In particular, the music appealed to working class youths whose struggle for identity in the wake of these events had, ironically, come to be their identity. Adopting elements of horror and Western mythology, heavy metal sought to address issues like suicide, depression, substance abuse, and the Sisyphean search for authenticity — all of which spoke to a generation struggling to find its niche in a world that had become increasingly apathetic to its concerns.
However, for many performers of this era, the impropriety was simply a reflection of the conditions to which it was responding. In the ’70s and ’80s, for example, performers like Alice Cooper, King Crimson, KISS, and Gwar donned monstrous getups as a way of augmenting their dark sound, allowing them to embody characters representative of the effects of Western conservatism. By doing so, they elevated their performances from unidirectional engagements in which audiences were little more than passive observers to active participants in what Bakhtin would call a “highly transgressive, playful retreat from, and inversion and debasement of, the totality of officialdom.” Heavy metal is inherently oppositional, although what it’s opposing often is unclear and tends to differ from band to band. Nevertheless, its message is almost always one of conflict between the speaker and some abstract adversary — the world, institutions of authority, etc.
To this end, Slipknot’s use of masks plays on the same latent fears that made these performers’ on-stage personas simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. These fears often include an anxiety produced by masks, commonly referred to as “maskaphobia”. Usually associated with children, this fear appears to derive from our expectations about how human beings are supposed to look and act. Masks subvert these expectations, which we find discomfiting. In this way it is similar to Freud’s theory of the uncanny, which focused on the feelings of fear caused by something that is both familiar and strange — clowns, for instance.
In 1970 Masahiro Mori, a Professor of Engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, took this even further with his theory of the “uncanny valley”. Mori posited that while we readily accept characters that appear entirely human and those that appear pointedly inhuman (e.g., cartoon characters), we are repulsed and terrified by those that seem almost human, as in the case of humanoid robots. To some degree, this is why masked figures evoke such unsettling emotions: masks warp a person’s appearance to something not-quite-human, and people who wear masks often behave in uncharacteristic ways. We recognize them, and yet at the same time there’s something distinctly alien about them.
In the case of Slipknot, these fears are compounded by the fact that, unlike bands such as Gwar’s Oderus Urungus and Paul Stanley’s Starchild, its members aren’t adopting new identities, but are instead extinguishing their identities all together. The masks themselves are arbitrary — they are not representative of specific characters — but their function is not arbitrary. Add to this that each member of the band identifies himself by a number 0 through 8, and it altogether calls to mind an almost Orwellian conception of identity, one by which the human being is reduced to a nameless thing.
In a culture that exalts individualism and non-conformity as virtues, this can be frightening. We associate loss of identity with loss of control. Consider Stanley Milgram’s infamous study, the Milgram experiment, in which participants were instructed to administer what they believed to be electric shocks to a partner in another room. In addition to the authority of the researcher giving the orders, the anonymity afforded by being in separate rooms enticed those at the secretly fake control panel to behave with more aggression than they would otherwise. Then there’s Edward Diener’s classic 1976 study which found that out 1,000 trick-or-treating children, those who wore disguises and/or were in groups were more prone to steal candy from strategically-placed bowls. From this, Diener coined the term “deindividuation” — abandoning one’s own self-awareness and becoming indistinguishable from others. In certain contexts, we believe that immersion into a crowd can render us unnoticeable, causing us to act out aggressively. Riots are a good example of this. “Morality is inversely proportional to the number of people involved,” says Dr. James Thompson, honorary senior lecturer in psychology at University College London, in reference to the 2011 riots in London. “When you have a large group that’s relatively anonymous, you can essentially do anything you like.”
This is what makes a band like Slipknot “scary”. It isn’t just the masks but what they represent — the dissolution of identity, and with it the loss of self-control. There’s a sense that anything could happen when they are on stage. With their masks on we have no indication of what the performers are thinking, feeling, or planning. The space between us and them collapses, so that they become us, the clamoring crowd. And as Milgram’s and Diener’s experiments show, strange things can happen when we experience anonymity. Fans of the band know who is hiding beneath the masks; they know that Crahan is the Clown, Taylor is the Demonic Geriatric, and so on. But they only know this on an intellectual level. Our gut suggests otherwise, and that’s usually where those dangerous decisions — like stealing candy — are made.
Slipknot, of course, knows this. They understand that deindividuation opens us up to be instrumentalized in ways that under normal circumstances might be unthinkable, and they recognize the simultaneous horror and excitement that comes from this. Moreover, they invite us to celebrate it, our capacity for violence, if only because it is an inextricable part of who we are.
It is possible to extend Crahan’s claim that none of us can truly know what we look like to our character as a whole: we can never know ourselves completely, what we are capable of if left to our own devices. We’d like to believe that the better angels of our nature would win out, but evidence tells us otherwise. This is why bands like Slipknot exist, to remind us of the inherent brutality of the human condition. But if heavy metal is an exaltation of the grotesque, then why reject those aspects of ourselves that make us uncomfortable? Perhaps instead we should Find a way to come to peace with them.