Perhaps rightfully so, the live-action television adaptation of the famous R.L. Stine children’s horror books, Goosebumps, has become quite infamous for its next-level cheesiness and inability to provide even the most minor of frights to children. Quite the issue when your key demographic can’t bring it upon themselves to react as intended, but there is one episode that I will always remember as being among the most unsettling.
Here, the episode’s main point of terror came from a freaky, realistic-looking mask that main protagonist and perpetual scaredy-cat Carly Beth steals from a run-down Halloween store to make Halloween night her night to scare. The tables are turned when the mask, appearing to act on its own volition, sticks to her face and gradually begins transforming her body into whatever creature the mask is, even slowly changing her personality.
Mind you, Goosebumps has covered and streamlined all kinds of horror, from werewolves to aliens to plant monsters and everything in between. But this one episode of a little haunted mask (appropriately titled The Haunted Mask) just struck different with me compared to the other episodes. Not that it didn’t have that children’s entertainment cheese that the others contained, but The Haunted Mask tapped into something that scares most people more than we’re willing to admit; a style of horror that feels sorely overlooked despite its relatively common aura.
We’ve seen a minor resurgence of it in recent years, including A24’s cursed dress thriller In Fabric, the Hulu horror film Bad Hair, the French jacket crime comedy/character study Deerskin, and most recently with the newest Shudder original at this point of my writing, Slaxx. The emergence of clothing horror, tapping into the idea of the clothes we wear signifying a deep-rooted problem that could very well kill us if we’re not careful, has gone mostly under-the-radar in the vast field of horror that audiences sift through nowadays.
Though the subgenre is not explicitly supernatural (that being the case with Deerskin), there is often a supernatural aura to the atmosphere of these films. The stories often concern pieces of our clothing – ranging from weaves and small additions to outfits to entire dresses negatively affecting their respective owners – seemingly acting as sentient beings hellbent on causing harm to those around them. Sometimes the clothes are fully to blame, other times the guilt is on the owners for falling under some wicked type of influence spurred from the clothes themselves.
When approaching the subject matter with a logical viewpoint, it comes off as quite silly and easy to mock. Inanimate objects turning against their owners is nothing new in the entertainment world; Child’s Play became a franchise jumping off of a similar premise. Those movies, popular as they are, have this comedic edge that prevents them from truly diving into the horror of a killer doll slaying unsuspecting people. At first sight, it feels laughably harmless and forever stuck in the world of B and C horror land.
But a concept as outwardly silly as “haunted” or “cursed” clothes has bled over into mainstream horror on a consistent basis, often serving the purpose of defining moments of transformation or expressing the loss of control. Human beings live life attempting to keep the flow of life firmly in their control, micromanaging our everyday thoughts and interests like buying our favorite foods, maintaining the hobbies we enjoy, and of course keeping our sense of fashion consistent and to our liking.
But when we lose control of these things and they begin to act out of free will or even betray the norms we’ve set up, it starts to feel overwhelming, right? As though our very identity is at attack when we no longer have any control over what we wear or what to choose regarding any facet of our lives. The Mask series depicts this to a tee, with the aforementioned mask offering new temptations at the cost of the wearer losing their own humanity in the process.
Even in the watered down live-action adaptations of The Mask, it still possesses the ability to completely change the wearer’s personality and make them act out of the mask’s desire. The Haunted Mask plays around with this idea in a kid-friendly bite-sized episode format, but the phenomenon has stretched far beyond facial wear and even the horror genre in general.
As infamous as it is, Spider-Man 3 earns some redemption points by depicting clothing horror on a more sci-fi level with the symbiote affecting Peter Parker by loosening his darkest inhibitions and becoming an abusive and cold-hearted shell of the man he was. And yes, I do realize that the whole “Emo Parker” deal plays heavily into this, but in terms of a film genuinely playing around with the concept of one’s own clothes acting on free will and negatively influencing the wearer, Spider-Man 3 essentially nails this.
Our clothes hold such importance to us not just based on how we think we’ll look to others in public, but how we see ourselves. It is as much about how we think we’re communicating ourselves as it is about how we might appear to the public. So when our own clothes refuse to go along with our plans and begin to actively antagonize us on a direct level, the lack of control or knowledge on what to do makes for an intriguing horror concept that has been buried by years of trends and scarce additions to the subgenre.
But the last several years have seen filmmakers traveling outside of the creative box and crafting horror stories rooted in more and more outlandish premises, clothing horror being one of them. With this also came a sly subversion of the subgenre’s formula, switching from metaphors on the loss of control and humanity and becoming cases of literally living fabrics of clothes antagonizing the wearer and any who dare get near.
The highly underrated A24 gem, In Fabric, takes the literal approach with a beautiful, blood-red dress that causes immense pain and suffering for whomever is unfortunate enough to try it out. This includes miserable single mother Sheila, washing machine repairman Reg and his fiancé Babs, and a deceased model who apparently perished after trying on the alluring dress. Despite it being a wonderful and appeasing dress on the outside, it ironically instigates ugly tragedy everywhere it goes.
In an interview with Vulture, the writer-director of the film, Peter Strickland, commented on what he wanted to communicate regarding the dress and its power over its wearers. “I think clothing is inherently haunted to some degree.”, he states when asked how the story first started in his head. “Once it’s been worn by someone it contains its own power, whether it’s the power to disgust you, the power to turn you on, or the power to make you cry.”
In Fabric was Strickland’s attempt to tell a story of characters “ruled by clothing”, and it’s this idea that has made stories like The Haunted Mask feel incredibly visceral, despite being made for children. It’s also this idea that has thrived beyond In Fabric and well into the 2020s, with Bad Hair telling a similar story of a piece of clothing being haunted and harming those that come across it, this time in the form of a weave worn by Anna, an assistant at a television station known for featuring many Black artists.
She acquires the weave in an attempt to fit in with the station’s change in direction, substituting her natural Afro-textured hair with that of a commercially appeasing weave. Anna selling out results in the hair slowly taking her over, appearing to feed on human blood and growing hungrier by the minute. Unlike In Fabric, the cursed weave aims to possess its wearer rather than outright kill, though it certainly will if it feels compelled to.
The social commentary regarding the destruction of the Black aesthetic would’ve been enough to justify a compelling feature film, but the addition of clothing horror gives it a unique twist that makes the use of the subgenre feel warranted. The characters are ruled by clothing, as Strickland would put it, and Bad Hair adds to the argument that haunted clothes can be a useful creative tool for engaging and purposeful stories, in addition to being a fun and self-aware facet of horror slashers.
The clothes themselves don’t even need to be alive in the technical sense to make for effective clothing horror, as demonstrated in the 2020 French dark comedy, Deerskin. Made from the director of Rubber, Deerskin plays on a different wavelength, replacing deadpan surreal comedy with a small-scale study of Georges, a lonely man who decides to abandon his work and home life and leave for a small village, buying an expensive deerskin jacket along the way.
Once he wears it, Georges suddenly gains a newfound confidence and thinks himself to be a unique individual for wearing such a prized jacket. His confidence gradually turns into arrogance, leading him to acquire a new goal in life: become the only man in the world to wear a jacket. And he desires to achieve this goal through any means possible, even if it means turning into an unexpected life of crime.
The deerskin jacket is not overtly supernatural here, but its unusual aura leave Georges compelled enough to speak to it and mimic the Jacket’s responses in return, almost like a second identity. Going back to Strickland’s words on clothing horror, we have a case of a middle-aged man being completely ruled by a piece of clothing that isn’t even alive the way that the red dress and weave were in In Fabric and Bad Hair. The power of the jacket needs no sentience, with Georges projecting his innermost desires onto it, lending his own power onto an expensive article of clothing.
Clothing horror doesn’t necessarily have to limit itself to supernatural stories and Deerskin proves that wholeheartedly. The subgenre transcends bonkers and hyperealistic settings, showing enough versatility to work in a lowkey French horror-comedy like Quentin Dupieux’s jacket odyssey. Much like horror in the broadest sense, clothing horror’s wheelhouse is vast and brimming with untapped potential.
But with Slaxx, the newest addition to the subgenre and the latest exclusive from Shudder, we can see that clothing horror continues to thrive as its own versatile and sprawling niche. Though Slaxx presents itself as more of a straightforward, fast-paced comedy with some horror elements in it, the idea of people being slaves to the power of clothing remains as strong as it did with the red dress. And the weave. Along with the deerskin jacket. Nestled up next to the haunted mask.
Reducing these stories to the simple idea of “clothes killing people” undermines the hard work put in to present each of these stories as one-off tales unto themselves. Despite similarities regarding the toxic power of clothing and body image, each of these examples operate on their own separate wavelength and contribute to a subgenre that always feels as though its on the cusp of breaking out, yet never comes to it.
But the power of clothing and its ability to communicate stories of different tones and meanings is something that ought to be explored more in the film world. Stories are at their best when they take a facet of life taken for granted by everybody and flip it on its head, and while clothing horror may feel like a mild subversion at best, I think the freedom given to us by the power of the internet to consume a wide array of stories can do wonders with films, books, and shows about the clothes on our backs. Are we wearing them, or are they wearing us?