The figure of the faceless monster is common in horror and fantasy. You can find several variations in the Silent Hill movie series: the Armless Man and the Nurses, for example, whose heads appear scarred and fleshy but sort of mummified with no distinct features. There’s also the terrifying Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, whose oozing flesh obscures all but a few orifices—oh, and he stores his eyeballs in his hands. The new Netflix series Stranger Things has a faceless monster that lives in the Upside Down. Game of Thrones even has its own Faceless Men: assassins who can take on the faces of others precisely because they have no identities of their own; they are each “no one.” Their facelessness is more conceptual than visceral, and in this way they represent tricksters more than monsters, harkening back to a much earlier faceless figure: the Noppera-bō.
In Japanese folklore, a Noppera-bō is a faceless ghost that first appears to people as someone they know, but later reveals itself by wiping off this familiar face and unveiling a blank face. Obviously, the blank-faced man continues to be a frightening and resonant image, perhaps because it is a manifestation of the psychological uncanny—strange and familiar at once. Faceless men, monsters, and ghosts often have humanoid bodies and otherwise look like humans—sometimes even specific humans—but in their blankness, they are decidedly not human.
The faceless figure is so resonant, in fact, that it exists in the contemporary imagination as a real force. Consider Slender Man, the stretched-out and faceless internet meme that appeared in the news in 2014, when two teenage girls in Wisconsin stabbed another girl because, as they claimed, Slender Man told them to. The first of many stories and photoshopped images of Slender Man is credited to Eric Knudsen, though Knudsen acknowledges H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Silent Hill as sources of inspiration. Slender Man seems to embody our own capacity for evil because of his facelessness. As others have recognized, much of his power to frighten lies in his anonymity.
This special report brought to you by Emerald Issue contributor Rochelle Hurt.