Sunday afternoon, my mother did her “bag lady” routine. It was the third day of our 2011 summer vacation. The High School Reunion festivities were over, and around 3 PM we had a family potluck. Uncles and aunts, grandmother, cousins, my sister and brother in law, nieces and nephews (and a couple close friends) all arrived and we had meatballs made from ground elk, ham, veggies, chicken, homemade bread, and cake. We sat around in lawn chairs on this overcast (almost chilly) day and visited, laughing a lot, swapping stories and just catching up. My youngest cousin brought flowers from my recently-deceased grandmother’s yard, and we all occupied a space in time that was neither awkward nor particularly difficult. We belonged together.
It was then, someone decided we should line up the cousins for a picture. We’d done this since we were tiny. Tallest to smallest, the five grandchildren of Stanley and LaDeane Spurgeon would pose and smile for pictures. It happened every Christmas, sometimes in the summers. We hated the pictures, because they always seemed, in our childrens’ minds, to break up a day that could be otherwise better spent throwing rocks at one another, or playing Monopoly. But 30 years later, we all lined up, minus Rusty and Troy, who were unable to be at the potluck. We laughingly drew faces on paper bags and held them in their place in the lineup. A few people snapped photos.
Moments later, my mother appeared with a bag on her head. She had it somewhere in the house, all decked out in curls, she began a routine where with a high-pitched nasal, vaguely Wisconsin accent, she greeted everyone. My first reaction was to cower behind a few friends. I found it neither funny nor entertaining. It was light-hearted as she bantered with the crowd as “Bag Lady.” I couldn’t wait for her to remove the thing from her head and return as my mother.
OK. I’m over forty years old. Stuff shouldn’t unnerve me like this. I’m not fifteen, and she’s not doing this in a restaurant, on a table, in front of my friends. It’s not a reflection on me personally. So I was wondering why it bothered me so much. I came to realize it’s not her… it’s the fact she’s in a mask.
It’s true. Masks tap into a visceral part of the psyche and mess with our heads. It has something to do with a normal body and an “odd” head, according to a recent study.
Clowns do the same thing to me, and people in Tigger costumes. A deeper-than-conscious fear taps into me. There’s something about reading a face that we share as humans. We can see love in a person’s eyes, or desire, or anger, or happiness or hurt. We know how to respond to these emotions. When the ability to discern emotions disappears, we are left with nothing but body language and vocal cues to figure out the intention of the masked-creature. Now, if these things are gone, it unnerves us. I remember as a child seeing Ronald McDonald at the California State Fair. I was thrilled to see him but he just waved and smiled. He wouldn’t talk. He just shook hands and hugged kids. Of course they wouldn’t let him talk because McDonalds needed him to “match” the TV version of him. The perpetual smile was bad enough. The fact he wouldn’t talk was even worse. To my juvenile mind, there was nothing worse in the world than a perpetually-smiling, speechless clown.
Since ancient times, cultures have used masks to frighten away evil spirits, to face the unknown, and to cover the eyes or faces of the dead. According to some phobia studies, an estimated 20 to 30% of the entire population find clowns scary, or at least a little unsettling. The official term is “coulrophobia”, literally fear of stilt-walkers. Distended Daliesque limbs are also unnerving to many people, for some hidden reason.
I’m not alone. It isn’t just Brian’s weird fear. Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle says “Clowns are grotesquely painted, horrifying, mad people who come lurching toward us, threatening us, involving us… They know no boundaries… They scare us because they are most like us; they are adults who behave like children.”
My mother had an interesting observation, after she took the bag off her head. She told us she had performed as the Bag Lady at a community Halloween party. There were adults who wouldn’t come near her. Some children thought she was “more scary than the haunted house,” she laughed. What’s deep in us that even makes me fear the Oregon Duck? They move around, and I’m never sure of their motives. To cheer up the crowds? I’m not happy until that duck is doing 300 push-ups per game. It keeps it out of trouble, and keeps me from looking at its ugly permanently-affixed grin. Do you feel the same? Or am I just weird and alone in my creeped-outness?