Fake Faces

Halloween is a time to watch horror movies, and I’ve been thinking about the film that terrified me the most ever. THE HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price. A morbid tale of a disfigured sculptor murdering people, to pass-off their wax-dipped corpses as his own sculptures.

MeltyFaced MurderMan from HOUSE OF WAX
Melty Faced Murder Man

A baby sitter allowed 7 year old me to stay up to see it on telly, reducing me to a quivering puddle. My parents had difficulty getting me to sleep when they returned, and for several nights thereafter, as I feared melty face murder man lurking in every shadow. The impression stayed with me for years. Fast forward a decade: Coworkers wanted to go see a 3D movie from the 1950s during a brief revival of 3D films. I balked on hearing it would be a screening of this film that haunted my childhood. Gaahh! I cannot remember what induced me to actually go watch this movie again, risking a pants-wetting terror-meltdown in front of my friends, but go I did.

Choosing an aisle seat, I steeled myself for a scaredy-cat skedaddle out the door, but was mystified to discover that even specific shots that had terrified 7 year old me were.. ‘quaint’ at best. Vincent Price’s mask of a normal-seeming face falling away to reveal melted hideousness underneath scared the beejeezuss out of me as a nipper, but as adult it didn’t even make sense. How had he fooled everyone that he was unscathed with a rigid wax mask?

I’ve often thought about the failings & exaggerations of memory (and written about it) but here I want to explore why that film got under my skin at all. Horror movies work by activating anxieties already present in the viewer, which animate the monster better than film craft ever can. Clearly I was haunted by the idea in this film – that something apparently normal & benign concealed the malformed & malignant. Upon reflection, there were many such ideas & images that unsettled me in childhood.

At around the same age I was rattled by the atom bomb worshipping cultists in BENEATH PLANET OF THE APES. They likewise appeared ’normal’ but removed masks to show mutated faces beneath. The doppelgänger robots in the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN/BIONIC WOMAN TV shows (the ‘fembots’, lampooned by Mike Myers) unnerved me too, as did robot Yul Brynner in WESTWORLD.  

Robo Yul Brynner from WESTWORLD
Robo Yul Brynner

I chuckle now at naff imagery that scared me as a child, but can still be unsettled by films using similar ideas. Films such as THE THING or ALIEN – where a teammate is actually an eldritch shape shifter or incubating an alien xenomorph. Here too, the apparently ‘normal’ masks the sinister, and deception is part of the horror. Maybe all horror films dramatise the anxiety that all is not what it seems. In countless DRACULA movies too, the Immortal Count has transformed a hero’s beloved. Even though they seem to be the person, they are actually undead. Humanness itself has been hacked. 

When something is near believably human, but not quite, it creates an uncomfortable feeling that may be instinctual. The so-called “Uncanny Valley”, first documented in research about human reactions to humanoid robots. We are not disturbed when humanoid robot design makes no attempt to look exactly human (a C3PO). However when the android looks more real, we can be repulsed by the deepfake human. Realdolls not withstanding, most people find almost lifelike human replicas to be off-putting.

Why do we have the fear of the almost human doppelgänger? Other animals don’t seem to have that instinct. After all, hunters have long duped animals with crude decoys of themselves, luring them to their deaths.. Clearly ducks have no fear of the doppelgänger duck, but humans have an aversion to the doppelgänger human. Why? It has been suggested that this is an instinctual fear of the human corpse, which kept us away from decay & disease. Others say this doppelgänger phobia may have developed a time long ago when homo sapiens was not the only hominid on Earth.


Maybe we have the instinct for sniffing out fake humans because we needed it.. Perhaps fake humans were used to lure us, just as human hunters now use decoy animals to lure real the real thing? Or.. perhaps this instinct developed at a time in our history when we humans had to spot doppelgänger, shape shifters trying to pass as human? Are those deep-fake non-humans still amongst us, even now? Running the world we live in perhaps.. It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it.. 


Mu ha ha HARGH!

21 thoughts on “Fake Faces”

  1. I’m terrified and entertained equally lol kudos sir . A wonderful Halloween scare to think about as I toss and turn in my bed Hahaha

  2. As Kevin RIchardson’s deep-fake body double living in the uncanny Silicon Valley, I’m just a lot more interesting and predictable than the “real” (cough + eye roll) Kevin Richardson. Nuff said.

  3. Great analysis as always Jamie..now you should watch a double feature of the 1956 & 1978 versions of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ !

  4. Thank you, James, for putting that HORRIFIC TERRIFYING ABSOLUTELY NIGHTMARISH BLASPHEMOUS ICKY CONCEPT into my poor defenseless brain (still, the ability to sniff out humanoid decoys looks like it worked, evolutionarily speaking.)

  5. Nice write up James!
    My memory of a childhood scary film was from French director George’s Franju’s « Les yeux sans visage » about a plastic surgeon father stealing the faces of young women in an attempt to graft then onto his disfigured daughter. I think I Pedro Amoldovar used the film as an inspiration for his film « The skin I love in ». Checking out it you can. I thought it was terrifying as a child.

    • Hey Daniel, great to hear from you! Yes, that film is super famous, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, I think it is known in English. I may have seen it around 40 years ago. I certainly remember some of the imagery, but have to check it out again (it might be on HBO MAX). Thanks for commenting!

  6. For you, it was “House of Wax”, for me, it was seeing Corman’s “A Bucket of Blood” at age five or so, that scarred me for life. Artist’s success comes from murdered victims, hidden in sculptures. The idea of the victims of horrible murders, being displayed to an unknowing public was utterly horrifying to me, and would lead to a lifelong fascination with the whys and wherefores of criminal psychology, and sociopathic behaviors. But I went into the animation profession, instead.

    I think it was a clever, if inevitable denouement to the recent HBO “Westworld” series, that SPOILER ALERT the ultimate ai finally shuts itself down, defeated by the acknowledgement of it’s own self-destructive humanity. To be human, in that narrative, is to be doomed to self-destruction, which looks like exactly what we are.


    • You nailed Granger. The scary-faced bad man murdering people was what horrified me as a child, but now that I’m older it’s the corpses used as artwork by an embittered artist angle that creeps me out. I’ll have to track down BUCKET OF BLOOD. I wonder if Corman was influenced by HOUSE OF WAX? It was likewise influenced my a movie from the 1930s MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.

  7. The movie that I had to stop watching before the end when I was little was ‘The Cat and the Canary’. It had me bolting up the hallway at Barney St to my bedroom and into my bed under the covers practically without my feet touching the floor for many a month.

    The Doctor Who story line with the blank white faces under people’s real faces got to me too, for much the same reasons you’re talking about

    • I’ve not see THE CAT & THE CANARY and will have to track that one down (Bob Hope is pretty terrifying!) I almost mentioned some Doctor Who plots, because they often have monsters that appear normal. One that scared me as a kid was TERROR OF THE AUTONS where sentient plastic takes over any plastic object, including store mannequins which come to life. In that story the plastic monsters try to make lifelike copies of real people, and the way you can tell is that the actors have a creepy plastic look to them (a makeup effect, I imagine). Can you remember the specifics of the BLANK FACE adventure you mention? Was that a Tom Baker story, or from later on?
      Thanks for commenting, Victoria!

    • The Cat & the Canary version I watched was the 1979 British one.

      I wish I could remember the Doctor Who story line. I remember it had Sarah Jane in it, because the most terrifying moment was when Sarah Jane herself got the blank face treatment (unless it was all a figment of my imagination….)

  8. Howdy James!!
    Lovely piece. Great drawings too!
    You’ve really hit on something here with your ideas. The hard-wired aspects of ourselves must go waaaaay back.

    Hope we can get together for a beer one day.


    • Hey Phil! Yes, we are living in the 21st century, with tiny super computers in our pockets, but internally we still have the instincts of those vulnerable nomadic tribes-people.

      I hope to visit the UK sometime, not sure exactly when, but when it happens you’ll be among the first to know!

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