The Scariest Thing

Sophie Paquette

On October 31, 2008, I am six years old and dressed as a mummy. My mom makes the costume, swaddles me in gauze: translucent fabrics stacked to create a new color, only opaque by superimposition. The costume unwinds through the night. The sun goes down and I am ghostly—transparent cloth trailing from my arms, slipping in and out of the streetlamps' thin light. When the costume catches on fire, my parents speculate this is what did it: some loose strand, caught by the open flame of a jack-o-lantern. They lay me in the grass. We wait for the sirens. The undressing is not like you might picture, one end of the costume held tight, my body spun like a top until totally exposed and the gauze an unravelled heap. Instead, a paramedic takes scissors to the costume and slices right down my chest. He peels the fabric away—so the skin beneath may breathe, so the cloth doesn't adhere to the closest, warmest thing. Spooooky. 


In the 1960 film Eyes Without a Face, when Dr. Génessier's daughter Christiane's face is seriously burned in a car accident, Dr. Génessier fakes her death in order to experiment on her, attempting to graft the skin from another living girl's face onto that of Christiane. Christiane is described as having a "large open wound where the face should be" but we are only allowed to see the back of her head, expertly turned away from camera in conversation. "My face frightens me," she says. "My mask frightens me even more." Only when she puts on her mask does Christiane finally turn toward us: doll-like, a blank simulation with blinking eyes. When Christiane sneaks to her father's surgery room, she finds the unconscious body of the girl whose face he plans to use as a donor. Christiane stands in front of the mirror and removes her mask. She hovers above the girl's body and cups her smooth, perfect face. Slowly, the girl wakes up—and we see what Christiane looks like, forty-five minutes into the film. The girl screams. 

For the surgery, the girl again sedated, Dr. Génessier leans over her face—only his eyes visible above the surgical mask. With a scalpel, he slices a thin line around the diameter of the face. He takes his forceps and lifts the skin. For a moment, we see beneath—latex, maybe, or chocolate syrup. He binds her. When the graft has healed, we find Christiane eating dinner. Oddly serene, eyes still wide, Christiane's new face has grafted seamlessly. "When I look in a mirror," she says, "I feel like I'm looking at someone who looks like me, but seems to come from the Beyond." After a week, the host rejects the grafted tissue. The skin appears disfigured, darkened. Her face must be removed. The mask replaced. 


In selecting a donor site, the doctor will look for a swath of healthy skin typically from the patient's thigh, upper arm, back, or abdomen. Skin is stripped from the donor site and reapplied to the burned region, the recipient site. They harvest the skin from my thigh and use surgical staples to join it to my arms, stomach, and neck. A collapse between graft and host. In the hospital, I am again bound with gauze, wrapped into unrecognizability. My swollen self squeezed into something too tight, an attempt at flattening. The undressing occurs in the tub, and, for this, I hate baths. At home, my mom soaks me. The donor site heals under thin tissue paper, and at every bath she must ease the scissors beneath the sheet and peel my thigh free. The process is painful: inching the paper back, reopening this rift. When she finishes, I sit in the cooled water. The taken layer on my thigh, a bright red rectangle, a large open wound where my leg should be: a spot where I am unsheathed and completely new. 


The 1990 film Darkman follows sympathetic scientist Peyton Wilder, whose career is devoted to the digital development of a new synthetic skin. He inserts two-dimensional photographs into his machine and, like a 3-D printer, a physical replica of his subjects' skin appears. A reverse compression: taking something flat and expanding the space it claims. When Peyton's face and body are disfigured by a laboratory fire, his mission gains urgency. Peyton roams the streets at night, cloaked in his tattered medical bandages, more mummy than man. He stalks toward his girlfriend, Julie, and grabs her shoulder. She turns, withholds a scream, runs. Like something undead, he growls after her: "It's me. It's me." 

For the rest of the film, we watch Peyton experiment and fail to create a permanent synthetic skin—to re-wear his own face like a mask. In the final scenes, Julie reassures him, "You'll make it work. You'll perfect the skin." He replies, "Don't you think I told myself that, night after sleepless night? It's just a burn, skin-deep, it doesn't matter. And if I covered it, hid behind a mask, you could love me for who I was inside." Peyton won't look at her. "As I worked on the mask, I found the man inside was changing. He became wrong. A monster. I could live with it now, but I don't think anyone else can." Peyton turns, caught in a pool of shadow so only his remaining normal eye is illuminated. He delivers the line—"Peyton's gone." 

In the first few weeks home from the hospital, my own skin surprises me. A habit: holding my hands in front of my face to study the blisters and shiny scars dotting my fingers. My hands look bubbly, strange. This is the scariest thing. At six years old, the only comparison I can think to draw is to those of a witch: warty and calloused claws. I look down and I look down. Aaaah!

For a year after the injury, I have to wear compression garments under all of my shirts. The garments are a meshy material, too tight. An attempt at flattening—a way for the graft to hew closer to its host. I am always dressed in layers, wearing several skins. For my seventh birthday, I ask to spend a day without the compression garments. This is all I want. I expect to feel free, normal. But instead, on the bus and in class, I become hyper-aware of the way my body touches itself—the pleat in my arm with a bent elbow, my folded stomach. No matter how straight I sit, how still, my skin meets itself again and again. My scars look swollen, huge. People ask to see them. I hold out my arms. Lift my chin. Mummy unmasked. And when I return the next day, again compressed, I harbor a secret love for my garments. They hold me. They make me small. 

Cropsy, a summer camp caretaker burned in a prank gone wrong, is the villain of the 1981 teen slasher The Burning. We watch Cropsy watch the kids: his gaze, filtered through some predator vision—hazy around the edges, complete with a low drone. When two counselors sneak away, skinny-dipping, Cropsy watches. The girl gets out. She can't find her clothes—but we see Cropsy's sinister perspective, each of her layers strung from the branches. We stalk her as she stumbles, naked, through the dark, until Cropsy kills her with his big evil scissors. The teens are picked off like this: usually at night, usually making out, usually nude. Three pairs of teens undress in the woods, and Cropsy follows all of them. We never see him—always in silhouette—until the end of the movie, when he steps into the light, mouth mutilated in a permanent scream. The camp hero fights and kills Cropsy, burning his corpse. We end on this image of Cropsy, burning for the second time, and fade to a new set of campers, all around a fire. One of the counselors repeats Cropsy's tale. "His spirit lives in this forest," he says. "A maniac, a thing no longer human." The kids hold their breath. 


In third grade, compression garments cleanly off, the boy sitting beside me says I look like Freddy Krueger. I don't know who Freddy Krueger is but I know enough to imagine a monster. I don't mind. He will be the only boy to ever "ask me out" so at least I look like something. 

I learn, a few years after my hospitalization, that my grandmother had originally offered herself as a donor site—that she had wanted to fly down to the hospital and share her skin. That she didn't want them cutting into me. When my family recounts this story, they laugh. My grandmother didn't understand that donated graft tissue usually comes from a cadaver. She didn't consider how strange she might have looked, grafted onto six-year-old me, her own skin decades older. Silly Grandma! The story, though, always scared me: the image, maybe, of my own grandmother, morgued—or the idea that something separate from myself, something dead, could grow into my skin and live there. 


In 1985's After Hours, Paul spends a lot of his night with Marcy trying to uncover her secret: her roommate alludes to knowing some women who are covered with scars "head to toe. Horrible ugly scars." Paul recalls his trip to a burn ward as a child. "The nurse gave me a blindfold to put on, told me to never take it off." Snooping around Marcy's room, he finds burn ointment and a book titled Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of the Burned Patient.Paranoia eats at him until he decides to leave. When Marcy later overdoses and Paul finds her dead, he pulls away her blanket, revealing the tattoo on her inner thigh, the smooth curve of her back, her naked body—but never the scars. This is the scariest thing.


At fourteen, I have mastered the art of dressing and undressing. Before leaving for school, I spend an hour in the mirror. I stack the clothes. I study my new silhouette, suck my gut in. In the mirror, I flatten. I unwind each layer and stand bare. I begin again. A new habit: prodding at my ribs, cupping my arms, trying to feel beneath the skin, muscle, fat. I imagine this other body moving beneath my own, this fossilized self small and bound by so much excess me. I want to cut her from my stomach. To seek host beneath graft. At soccer, I watch the other girls sit in the grass after practice, push their socks down their calves and massage the imprint of their shin guard. On the swim team we fit into our suits like second skins. Between sets, I leave the pool and go to the bathroom. I shell the suit, work the wet fabric from where it adheres to my stomach. I breathe. 


The antagonist force of 2019's Us is a nation of second faces and split selves. Their weapon of choice: scissors. Cutting, doubling—this is the scariest thing. The villain brother Pluto behaves as half-boy, half-dog, wearing a gauze mask over his face for most of the film. Only eyes, nostrils, and mouth visible, the rest of head is covered with thin fleshy material, a seam running between his eyes and dividing his skull in two. Jason, his character double, similarly spends several scenes in a plastic Wolfman mask, teeth bared. When the two boys sit together in a closet, the unsheathing occurs: Jason, pulling back his monster mask to unveil the boy beneath, and Pluto, peeling away the mesh to reveal something even scarier: the bottom half of his face, disfigured by burn scars. Jason gasps. When Jason eventually kills Pluto, it is in this way: both boys masked, Jason leading the villain against his will into a fire. Pluto's small body collapses in the flames. We watch him burn.


To hew means both to cut or split, but also to adhere or conform to. A contranym: a word with two opposite meanings—acting as its own antonym. I lose weight until my body starts pulling from my bones, muscle, until I stop menstruating for twenty-three months—and then I have to gain it all back, and more. I lose and still I lose. Typically resisting treatment, people with eating disorders play both victim and illness—doubling as thing healed and sickness fought. Any time my mom believes I am no longer her daughter, she says, That's not you. That's the disorder talking. As if I bifurcate. Like there is some second face I wear, like my head spins slowly on its axis and reveals my evil self. I have been my own antonym and I have hewn: the skin is taken from my thigh so it can be reapplied to my arms, neck, stomach. I grow back into my body.


In Girl, Interrupted, Polly is in the psychiatric hospital for lighting her face on fire at age ten. While in the book it is specified that she has been diagnosed with Schizophrenia, in the movie, only her burns have trapped her here. We watch Polly dragged screaming into the hallway, "My face! My face! I'm so ugly!" Her scars serve as an interior illness externalized, a visible dehumanization. 

In the 1989 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, Robert Englund (of Freddy Krueger fame) plays the Phantom. Typecast as nightmare. Englund's Phantom covers his burn scars with a skin mask, grafted from the faces of his victims. 

Batman character Harvey Dent only transforms into his villainous alter-ego Two-Face after half of his face is disfigured in an acid burn. 

Deadpool's Wade Wilson wears his iconic red mask to hide the facial burns he describes as looking "like a testicle with teeth."

In House of Wax, a sculptor badly burned in a fire fashions a wax face to wear for the rest of the film (and, post-burn, kills many people). 

In Halloween: Resurrection, Michael Myers is set on fire and presumed dead until revealed alive in the morgue, mask burned into his face. 

The Skin I Live In. Faceless. Face/Off. The Man Without a Face

While scars and facial disfigurement are common conventions of horror, there is something about the burn, the skin graft, that inspires its own breed of fear. In an interview for Refinery29, director Francis Lawrence tries to articulate what drove him to include skin grafting technology in an infamous torture scene of 2018's Red Sparrow: "There's just something about the idea of a very thin slice of skin getting peeled off that just gets under—no pun intended—but really gets under people's skin." Maybe it is the reminder that we can be disassembled. That underneath there are bones and those bones mean nothing. That we could still live with this underbelly exposed, with our skin peeled back. A burnt face remains a face. Sophie graft is Sophie host is Sophie dressed is Sophie undressed is Sophie with skin is Sophie skinned is Sophie scarred is Sophie scared is Sophie big is Sophie small is Sophie bones is Sophie


We shed approximately 600,000 particles of dead skin each hour. Over a pound of skin every year. By seventy years, an average person will have lost over one hundred pounds of skin. When I lose weight, I wonder where it goes. How something that once existed in me, on me, can so simply leave. I wonder how much my body remembers. Sitting on the bathroom floor I repeat rituals I haven't pursued in over two years. For the first time since fifteen, again I lose. I never know when this drive will return—or how easily my body will shape back into its old rhythm. This is the scariest thing. In the final moments of Eyes Without a Face, Christiane escapes her father, free but still masked. She takes the birds from their cage and releases them. The birds follow her outside, flapping around her pale, spectral figure. She lifts her arms, benevolent spirit, guides them into the night. The grafts on my right arm once lived as a single unit, one scar, but in eleven years have become two. My inner elbow, an ungrafted chasm between them. Even my own skin has begun this practice of adhering, pulling apart. I cleave, and I cleave.