Obama and Romney Halloween Masks and the Zoo

Who's afraid of Halloween masks of presidential candidates?

Posted Oct 16, 2012

Halloween masks of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are flying off the shelves this year. Why do we wear Halloween masks of presidential candidates? Is it to imply the candidate is scary and the prospect of them winning the election is frightening? Are we doing so to mock the person, or are we trying to convey the opposite, that we admire them?

Adults usually wear Halloween masks that convey fear, not admiration, which is why masks of Mother Teresa are rare and masks of Freddy Kruger are not. And yet, regardless of our motivation for doing so, by hiding our faces behind Halloween masks of presidential candidates we actually expose something quite personal--that we have a significant emotional investment in the person (whether our feelings toward them are positive or negative). 

As such, the popularity of a given Presidential candidate's Halloween mask might be an interesting (albeit unscientific) indication of how deeply they have penetrated our cultural psyche. Indeed, one Halloween superstore with over 1,000 outlets claims that sales of candidate’s masks have accurately predicted the outcome of presidential elections since 1996. That year, Bill Clinton masks outsold Bob Dole masks by 71 to 29 percent.

A quick check of their website shows that President Obama is currently leading the store’s Halloween mask scare-off by a significant margin. Such data should obviously be taken with a grain of salt as Mitt Romney is also being outsold by Bill Clinton (who has apparently retained his scariness to many people, despite not even being in the race).

Halloween Masks at the Zoo

While Halloween masks of presidential candidates are scary to some people, universally scary Halloween masks—ones that are scary to people of different cultures and even to animals--rarely come in the visage of political figures.

Or do they?

In one recent study, scientists went to a zoo to find out which Halloween masks scare animals as much as they do people. The ‘scariness’ of each mask was measured by the extent to which animals (especially primates) were hesitant to take food from an experimenter wearing the mask in question. The scariest masks (those that made animals most hesitant to take food from the person wearing it) were those with threatening faces (aggressive expressions, wide open mouths) or faces with a fear-grimace expression (lifted eyebrows, retracted lips, and exposed teeth). For example, vampires were rated ‘very scary’ according to the animals (as you might have guessed, the experimenters did not use masks of characters from the Twilight films), as was the mask of a big toothed, threatening Sewage monster.

Vampires and Sewage monsters aside, the scientists also needed masks that would serve as a control group. What kinds of masks did they choose for the task? Masks of presidential candidates! And while Halloween stores sales might indicate that Bill Clinton continues to be as scary as ever, zoo animals did not concur. They rated President Clinton's mask, ‘not scary’ (perhaps they were aware he was not running in the current election). Interestingly, zoo animals were far more scared by a mask of Al Gore (probably because he was smiling and showing teeth, which animals find threatening).

The bottom line is that when choosing a Halloween mask this year, give thought to whether you hope to scare those who share your political views (in which case, you should choose a political mask) or whether you hope to scare everyone (in which case you should choose standard monsters of the non-Twilight variety). And whichever mask you choose, it might be safer to stay away from the zoo...

Reference: Sinnott, J., Speaker, A., Powell, L, & Mosteller, K. (2012). Perception of scary halloween masks by zoo animals and humans. International Journal of Comparative Psychology. 25, 83-96.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

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