How a hockey mask became so scary

Originally Published: October 29, 2009
By Rick Paulas | Special to ESPN.com

  • Check out images of some great NHL goalie masks in our photo gallery
  • The most recognizable piece of sports equipment was never used in an actual game. Unless you consider mass murder a sport.

    [+] EnlargeDerek Mears
    Jason Merritt/Getty ImagesDerek Mears, who played Jason Voorhees in 2009's "Friday the 13th," poses with the goalie mask prop.

    The first time I noticed it was as I walked through the local video store, a preteen-ager not yet worried about catching glimpses through the doors of the adults-only section. Then, I was more focused on the forbidden allure of the horror aisle, fascinated by the terrible images on the back of the VHS boxes: buxom girls in tattered clothes screaming, chain saws glistening, bloody machetes about to strike. These weren't production stills, they were portals to hell. And every so often, you could catch sight of the demon causing all the wreckage: a bulking man in a hockey mask.

    Jason Voorhees.

    (Ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma!)

    Iconic props are a requisite component to horror movie franchises. Peripheral characters come and go so quickly that filmmakers need a visual shortcut to let audiences know that, yes, this is a "Freddy" movie or a "Jason" movie or a "Chainsaw" movie. Freddy Krueger had his glove of knives. Leatherface had his chain saw. Michael Myers had his whited-out Shatner mask. Pinhead had his, well, head of pins. But none of those symbols has reached the level of pop culture saturation like Jason's hockey mask.

    "When people think of a hockey mask, they think of Jason over a player at this point," said Brian Collins of the Horror Movie A Day blog. "It's the go-to reference for nonhorror movies. When [filmmakers] want to talk in generic terms about a horror movie, they put a guy in a hockey mask." But as Drew Barrymore found out in "Scream," the killer in the original "Friday the 13th" wasn't even Jason. So when was the mask actually introduced?

    "You got to remember the history," said Larry Zerner, the former actor now entertainment lawyer who played the (as you'll see) pivotal role of Shelly in "Friday the 13th Part 3." "The first one [1980], there's no Jason. The second one [1981] had Jason, but he was in that potato sack. At [the time of 1982's Part 3], he's only been in one movie. He's not become 'Jason.'"

    To give you a quick up-to-speed on Part 3's plot: A group of kids go to Camp Crystal Lake, have sex, smoke pot and get murdered by Jason. However, this time there are two variations on the formula: 1. The movie was shot in 3-D, which meant the filmmakers hilariously threw every possible object (clothesline poles, yo-yos, snakes, eyeballs, etc.) toward the camera to take advantage of the extra dimension. And 2. Shelly, the precocious prankster of the bunch, arrives at the campsite with a hockey mask. Comedian that he is, Shelly dons the mask while leaping out of the water to grab a fellow camper's leg. It's at this specific moment (just after 56 minutes in) that America is first introduced to this icon of horror. Moments later, Shelly walks into an old barn, is dispatched of quickly by Jason, and the rest is cinematic history. So who is to be given credit for the cultural phenomenon?

    "Success has a thousand fathers," Zerner said. "But the story I've heard is that Marty Sadoff, who was the 3-D supervisor and a big Buffalo Sabres fan, was the guy who said 'the hockey mask.'"

    Sadoff confirmed this during a panel discussion at the 2007 Screamfest LA Film Festival. "The day of the makeup test, we didn't really know what Jason should really look like," Sadoff told the crowd. "We had to come up with some kind of makeup test in 3-D. I had a hockey mask there and I said, 'Why don't we put it on and see what it looks like?' I only wish I had registered the hockey mask [as a trademark] because every Halloween, that's all I see!"

    [+] EnlargeRoger Crozier
    Denis Brodeur/NHLI/Getty ImagesPerhaps Roger Crozier, who played with the Buffalo Sabres from 1970 to 1975, helped inspire Jason's mask.

    It's not shocking that an off-the-cuff idea like this ended up becoming a vital part of the franchise -- these movies weren't exactly planned out to the smallest detail.

    Now's probably a good time to note that the "Friday the 13th" movies aren't very good. (It's no coincidence they're the basis for the worst Nintendo video game of all time.) In the realm of horror franchises, it's near the bottom in terms of quality: The "Nightmare on Elm Street" series at least had some outrageous special effects, and the "Halloween" series started with a genuine masterpiece. In fact, the hardest part of researching this article was sitting through the first eight films. By Part 4, I was watching in fast-forward, slowing it down only to catch brief performances by Corey Feldman because, well, he's Corey Feldman.

    But despite this inferior quality, the "Friday" movies prospered throughout the '80s. The first eight grossed more than $184 million, and the mask still sells during the Halloween season. "Customer demand is really there for Jason," said Katie Chiovatero, marketing specialist of online costume company BuySeasons.com. "The mask always sells. It's a consistent seller because it's classic horror."

    But what type of mask is it? Marc Poulin of ClassicMask.com defines it as a "hybrid of sorts between a Fibrosport Elite style and a Cooper plastic street mask." It would have been used in the late '60s and early '70s, but "by 1974-75 would have been obsolete due to masks that covered the ears and more of the top of the head."

    Not that Jason would have needed the extra protection, seeing as he was dead for most of the series. (I think. Again, these movies didn't focus too much on "plot.")

    Whatever the specifications, the main reason it was able to scare audiences was simply that it was a mask. They work perfectly in horror movies because any audience member -- whether it's a full-grown adult or an easily frightened preteen at a video store -- can project his personal fears onto what's behind it. It's the classic less-is-more theory: You always can think of something more disturbing than what the filmmakers can show you.

    During our conversation, Collins told me about a "Friday" knockoff movie called "Final Exam." ("Friday" was the horror movie equivalent of the band Korn: not very good in its own right but, more importantly, the inspiration for even worse things to come, such as Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach.) It followed the same formula as "Friday" with a slasher killing good-looking teenagers, but with one key difference: The guy wasn't wearing a mask.

    "He was just some thug-looking dude," Collins said of the far less successful movie. "That just shows how strong the mask is as a symbol. It's elevated [Jason] above the other guys that had more gimmicks to their appearance." Then Collins remembered the other part of Jason's costume that certainly didn't hurt his ability to frighten audiences for nearly three decades. "But I guess he had the machete, too."

    Yeah, having the machete helps.

    Rick Paulas is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who has previously written for ESPN The Magazine, McSweeney's and Vice magazine. He can be contacted through his Web site, rickpaulas.com.