On the face of it, Halloween is a fun and innocent ritual that children look forward to — a chance to don masks and costumes with permission to walk the night and tell jokes for a reward of candy. It’s the only time of the year children are allowed to take candy from strangers — a practice forbidden by parents on any other day. Though All Hallow’s Eve has origins that spring from the ancient and dark Paleopagan days, it was the Christian church that eventually sanitized it, and left it easy pickings for the greeting card and candy industries to make it cute. And profitable.
My own memories of Halloween are good, but slightly sullied by my experiences of being reliant on whatever mask my parents would buy for me at Andrew’s Drugstore, just a block from our house in North Carolina. I was fortunate, I guess, as I always got a mask, but never a full costume. It seems the only masks my parents would buy me were the cheapest, preformed plastic masks made by man. One of these plastic monkey heads or pirate faces had to set my parents back no more than 15¢ in those days. I remember the masks displayed on racks, separated by villain or character and so tightly vacuum-packed it took sharp fingernails just to peel one apart from the other. With eye-holes that were perfectly round and inevitably too far apart for a seven-year-old face, I tried to make the best of the evening, eventually figuring out that people would give you candy whether you had a mask on or not.
For this Halloween, I am happy to share with you not only my own memories, but those of others — a selection of snapshots of everyday people in masks. And while most of these people are likely celebrating Halloween, many are not. With the earliest picture dating to the last decade of the 19th century, these anonymous pictures have found a permanent home in my orphanage for abandoned, vernacular photographs. I actually have a few hundred images of people wearing costumes or masks, a favorite subject when digging through flea market bins or bidding on eBay. You’ll find most of these pictures to be rather mysterious and spooky, but I like them that way for their storytelling power. These are photographs where context is forever lost to time, leaving us with fill-in-the-blank histories with no right or wrong answer. It leaves us with your interpretation being just as valid as mine.
A very strange little bride conjures Diane Arbus. c. 1950
Modern day rocket man prepares for a night out. c. 1955
Early photoshop, c. 1935.
You have just moved in—and these are the next door twin boys. c. 1955.
Probably one of the creepiest clown photos I have ever found, c. 1940.