Halloween Extravaganza: Karen Runge: The Mask & the Guise

As I write this, a long, black velvet dress hangs from the curtain rail here in my studio. It’s vintage, freshly steam-cleaned, and it fits like it was stitched for me. I got it at an antiques store a few weeks ago for almost nothing, knowing it was mine the second I saw it—never mind that I’m going to struggle finding an occasion to wear it. I’ve already named it my Morticia Adams dress, because it has that look: all slink and gothic flair. When I was a kid I wanted to be just like Morticia Adams some day, and that’s one childhood fantasy I’ve never quite grown out of. You might say this is the perfect Halloween dress: straighten my hair, go heavy on the makeup, and I’d be set. But the snag is, the town I currently call home is on the more conservative side of things, and Halloween doesn’t get much love round here. Dress up? I get enough suspicious looks just wearing full black on a random day out. (I’m not even trying to be scary, mister. Seriously. Mwahaha.) So my new favourite ‘never-wear’ dress sits on its hanger where I can admire it from my desk, breezing down my wall, its delicate darkness in full spread.

But I’m not here to talk about dresses. Not exactly. Because whether we’re in a place that celebrates Halloween or not, it isn’t difficult to recognise the joy that it—or any kind of pageantry, really—brings. There’s something thrilling about stepping into the skin of another being. An Other being. A being, surreal or unreal, we would never otherwise dare or dream to imitate. There’s magic in Halloween’s many wild and wonderful flavours. Be what you want, Halloween says. Be a beast. A fairy. An angel. Be a celebrity; a well-known character. Homage or caricature. Your own worst nightmare. Anything goes. While the fun is in the dressing up, the display, there’s also something much deeper going on in disguise: the way we take to it, delight in it. Blondes go for black wigs. Cackling hags hand out candy bars. Cute little kids in zombie masks nag everyone with the question: Am I scary? Am I scary? Am I scary? Halloween gives us permission to delight in fear, and to celebrate fantasy. Here we greet our worst collective nightmares with open smiles. Dracula pours our drinks while we catch up with the our old werewolf friend. Obi-Wan cracks cheesy jokes while Rapunzel regales us with office dramas. The Mummy is asking for horror film recommendations, and Tinkerbell wants to play The Monster Mash. I’ve been to these parties. I’m sure you have, too. Notice anything? We’re all ourselves—and we’re not ourselves. In our costume, we lean into the theatrical, and it sets us free from our usual blanket personas. There’s something very telling about that.

It didn’t all start just as games, though. Look back far enough, and you’ll see Halloween is as much about fear as it is fun. The modern remnant of this shows in how, at this time of year, people who don’t usually ‘like’ horror will revel in a few scary stories along with the rest of us. Traditionally, this is the time when the darker sides of the unknown are explored and celebrated instead of denied. The original pageantry of Samhain (practiced throughout Europe in pre-Christian times) was for people to disguise themselves as the undead. The change of season into darkest Winter, they believed, was a time when the veil between this world and the Underworld was at its thinnest, setting ghosts and ghouls and demons free to roam the streets. If the living wanted to survive the night, they had to dress to fit in. Cue the black robes and death masks, the fake wounds and the black-shadowed eyes. Cue the tradition of preparing sweets for whoever comes knocking—in hope that offering Treats will bribe against being Tricked. This idea of using disguise as a tool for survival isn’t only evident in Paganism—cultures across the world have used some form of dark dress-up at some stage of their history. Representing ourselves as something scarier than what we truly are has always been common practice, in and out of esoteric scopes. We’ve been doing this stuff for over 9000 years, one way or another. Take a look at Ancient Roman war masks, the masks Ancient Azteks used to cover the faces of their beloved dead. Battlefields, ceremonial circles, funerals. Every time we don a mask, we do it to step closer to something we would normally feel too weak, too vulnerable, or too human to approach. Disguise gives us the courage to face the beasts.

Even if we scrub the makeup and ditch the costumes, masks somehow remain an essential part of being human. Every day of our lives, on some level or other, we will pretend to be something we’re not. We’ll fake a mood, we’ll suppress our doubts, we’ll hold ourselves back and hide our thoughts. This is why we smile when we shake someone’s hand for the first time—whether we’re genuinely happy to meet them or not. This is how we are able to tell lies, big and small: From “Thanks, I love it!” all the way up to “It wasn’t me.” By pretending we are someone who acts, thinks or feels as we do not, we pass through society with less fear of negative repercussions. This isn’t necessarily about being a bad person, either. We are social animals, after all, and deep in our primal minds there’s an undying belief that exile might mean death. So we tell our white lies and we pick our sides, and sometimes we fool ourselves and others, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes that matters, and sometimes it’s just the normal course of daily life. The point is, we’ll do it without thinking. The point is, sometimes we really need our masks.

The flip-side to all this is we might not use our masks only to approach the beast. We might make use of them to be the beast. Studies have shown that when a person’s sense of personal identity is muted, they are far more likely to commit a crime or do something terrible they would never consider as themselves. Think: the anonymity we feel in a crowd. In our cars. What this means in mobs, how this cradles road rage. Think avatars and monikers, and how they enable online bullying. Alter-egos, pseudonyms. How they help people say unspeakable things. On another level: uniforms. There’s a reason why a soldier won’t hesitate to follow orders the way he might if dressed in his favourite jeans. And there’s more than one reason why the hangman never shows his face. Masks make it easier for otherwise good people to do bad things. It’s not so much what we’re capable of as it is what we can make ourselves capable of. The data is there, and it’s terrifying.

Like pretty much anything else in this world, balance is essential. When people tell you something like ‘My whole life is a lie,’ what they’re really saying is their mask is smothering them. They won’t be happy when they say it, either, because beneath all those layers the soul is starting to suffer. The trick in our daily disguise is not to subvert the self so much that anything essential is lost. Wear one mask for too long, and odds are it’ll start sticking itself to your face. The beauty of Halloween, maybe, is it makes wearing a different skin a thing for us to celebrate. It let’s us be genuine about being disingenuous, and—almost paradoxically—offers us this without the stress we find in more covert forms of deception.

As for me, in my tiny, sweet-dream town, I’m bare of Halloween parties, of the thrilling remnants of the Samhain my European ancestors took so seriously. The werewolf currently lives in another city, and Tinkerbell and me haven’t spoken properly in years. But it’s still Halloween, the veil is thin, and I’ve got my Morticia Adams dress looming on the wall. If there’s no occasion to wear it, I might have to make one. Or why worry about being appropriate? A dress, in a way, is its own kind of mask. Especially a dress like that. I might slip it on and do my grocery shop tomorrow. And maybe go for a cappuccino after. Be Morticia for a day, and shamelessly fulfil a childhood dream. Why not? And who cares if the locals stare? It’s not like I’m trying to scare anyone. Seriously. Mwahaha.

Karen Runge is an author and visual artist in South Africa. She is the author of Seven Sins: Stories from Concord Free Press, Seeing Double from Grey Matter Press, and Doll Crimes from Crystal Lake Publishing. Never shy of darker themes in horror fiction, she has been dubbed ‘The Queen of Extreme’ and ‘Princess of Pain’ by various bloggers and book reviewers. Jack Ketchum once said in response to one of her stories, “Karen, you scare me.”

Doll Crimes

‘It’s not that there aren’t good people in the world. It’s that the bad ones are so much easier to find.’

A teen mother raises her daughter on a looping road trip, living hand-to-mouth in motel rest stops and backwater towns, stepping occasionally into the heat and chaos of the surrounding cities. A life without permanence, filled with terrors and joys, their stability is dependent on the strangers—and strange men—they meet along the way. But what is the difference between the love of a mother, and the love of a friend? And in a world with such blurred lines, where money is tight and there’s little outside influence, when does the need to survive slide into something more sinister?

Seeing Double

A trio of expats living in Asia form a tenuous bond based on mutual attraction, sexual obsession and the insatiable desire to experience the deadliest of thrills.

As their relationship matures, the dangerous love triangle in which they’ve become entwined quickly escalates into a series of brutal sexual conquests as they struggle to deal with lives spinning out of control and the debilitating psychological effects of mental and physical abuse.

Known for her distinctive brand of unsettling fiction, author Karen Runge is at the top of the modern horror game in this, her premiere novel. Seeing Double is a beautifully evocative and stunningly dark coming-of-age exploration of human sexuality and the roles of masculinity and feminism, polyamorous relationships, social and psychological isolation, and the humiliation of ultimate betrayal.

Seven Sins: Stories

A mesmerizingly dark imagination fills this collection of seven stories that explore a multitude of sins, both familiar and deadly. Love turns to lust. Crimes escape punishment. The ordinary turns strange. Women take control – or lose it. Blood flows, flesh ripens. And throughout, people, good and bad, find themselves in the inescapable grip of desire. 

Karen Runge’s fresh voice resonates with those of the masters – Atwood, Oates, Mantel, King, and other writers who look bravely into the darkness and write unflinchingly about what they see there. With these disturbing but undeniable stories, Runge makes her dazzling first mark as a writer – one with a brilliant future ahead.

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