Kristen Houghton

The October Editor's Pick Writer is Kristen Houghton

Feel free to email Kristen at: kristen.houghton@outlook.com

Kristen Houghton

by Kristen Houghton

The monster rose slowly from the murky water. Throwing his head back he sniffed the air. When he located his prey, he reached one long, clawed hand toward the man and—

“Cut! Print!”

“Good to go, boss?” The director’s assistant put down the clapboard and looked questioningly at the man standing next to him.

“Yeah. We’re good. Let’s end it for today. Now, go get that fish suit off of him before he faints. He’s got to be dying in that gear.”

The assistant called for the head creature designer and he and his crew hurried over to get the actor out of the Water Monster suit he had been wearing for over six hours. It was his tenth day of playing the monster role in the film, The Encounter and the actor, Marcus Ward, was a real trouper about spending most of his days in that tight-fitting suit that absorbed water like a sponge, keeping him wet and cold for hours.

The design crew removed the suit methodically, careful not to damage the material or injure the actor’s skin. After the suit was off, the make-up people began toweling off the thick, water-proof horror make-up on the actor’s face and massaging cream into his skin. Finally, he was presented him with a thick robe and soft slippers and he gratefully settled into a chair.

“I don’t know how you do it, man.” The director walked over with a bottle of bourbon and two plastic cups. “I mean how the hell do you move, let alone act in that thing? And that make-up you wear!”

Marcus Ward accepted the cup of bourbon and took a long swallow. “Oh, I guess it’s just what I do. It’s a living. What I’m famous for anyway.”

It was true. Marcus Ward was famous for roles in which the audience never saw his real face. He was the man behind some of the most interesting creatures ever seen onscreen and a very sought-after actor for roles in movies as a murderous ape, a demon from Hell, and any of the myriad creatures in fantasy and science fiction movies. He was better than any CGI created characters. A creature designer who worked for LucasFilm told Marcus that computer-generated imagery can only be effective for a short time. “Marcus,” he’d said, “with all the advances in horror costume and make-up design available today, an actor stands up better to the scrutiny of viewers. You’re great playing any creature in film. You’ll never be out of work.”

The director finished his cup of bourbon and glanced at his watch. “What are you doing this weekend? I’m thinking of having some of the cast and crew over for a barbecue. Like to have you there if you can make it.”

Marcus shook his head. “Thanks, but I bought a ticket to go to an exhibition and auction at the Costume Museum in the valley. The exhibition is called Masters of Horror. Supposed to have the original costumes and masks worn by some of the best stage and screen actors in the horror genre. Dates back to the early 1900’s. Imagine that? They’re auctioning off the memorabilia for charity. Those old-time horror actors were incredible.”

“I’m betting none of those actors tops you, my friend. You’re the best.”

“What about silent film star Lon Chaney? My all-time favorite in horror. The man was brilliant.”

“Brilliant? Yeah. Also terrified of a mask from what I heard.”

“A mask? Seriously? I heard he didn’t like to wear a mask, he preferred to create his horror faces through make-up to portray his characters.”

“He did, yeah, big on that, but—there’s an old story that he wanted to use a mask in Phantom of the Opera. Seems that the heavy make-up he’d used in the movie London after Midnight had left him with a temporary case of acne. Anyway, on vacation, he saw this mask in a bazaar in Spain and became fascinated by it. Bought it from some gypsy who said the mask had been in his family for over a hundred years. Problem was, the mask was haunted.”

“Haunted? Come on! You can’t be serious.”

“Oh I’m serious. The story goes that during the filming of Phantom, the crew and fellow actors started seeing a change in the usually serious, easy-going Chaney. First, the good change—the acne from that old make-up seemed to go away after he began wearing the mask. But, then, after a few weeks of him wearing it on set, Chaney started acting strange, afraid, terrified really, of God only knows what. He said he heard a voice inside his trailer and had security check it on more than one occasion. They never found anything wrong. But that wasn’t all.

“People walking past his trailer heard him cry out numerous times, ‘No more! Leave me alone! No!’ He even brought a priest on set once and had him do some type of blessing ceremony. He wasn’t even Catholic so that shows you he was scared bat shit crazy of something.

 “During the filming, he told his director that every time he put the mask on, he had a hard time removing it—he didn’t want to take it off. ‘The mask! It calls my name! It is changing me. I am becoming the mask!’Funny thing was that after he stopped wearing the mask, his acne came back worse than ever.

“Anyway, acne or not, Chaney went back to his brilliant use of make-up to create the face of the Phantom. Some film purists will say that you can definitely see the difference from how his face looked with the mask at the very beginning of the movie but, I don’t know. Still Chaney was so freaked out by that mask that he hid it in a lead-lined box for the rest of the shoot. After filming was done, he told the costume property people to burn it. Said it was haunted and was looking for a face to steal. I doubt they burned it though. Probably put it in some storage unit.” He lit a cigarette and laughed.“Hell, if you see it at the museum, take a picture, will you? I’d love to see it myself.”

Phantom of the Opera? My agent just got me the Phantom role in a Netflix re-make of the movie. Now I have to see if that mask is at the museum. If it is, I’m going to buy it.”


The museum was filled with the usual curiosity-seekers and those who like anything that has to do with the macabre. Marcus walked through at a leisurely pace and stopped at the section called Ghouls and Ghosts: Actors and Their Costumes. An eager museum employee stood near the exhibition.

“These authentic?” asked a woman near Marcus. “Actually worn by the actors?”

“Yes, ma’am. They’re the real deal all right.”

The woman continued. “If I may ask, how were you able to obtain these costumes? Aren’t they usually kept by the studios? I mean why put them up for auction?”

“It’s for charity ma’am. The studios donated them and all proceeds go to charity.”

Marcus examined a moth-eaten costume purported to be worn by Christopher Lee as Dracula. He turned to the woman, smiled, and explained that the employee was only half right. He told her that the studios have to get rid of a lot of old stuff that’s kept in storage to make room for the newer items. “Sadly, most of the time, the old costumes are thrown in the trash. Donating them for charity is actually a good way to preserve them.”

“You know your stuff,” said the employee, impressed. “Are you looking for anything special?”

“I’d like to see the masks from horror films, especially any worn by Lon Chaney.”

The Wolfman, yeah we’ve got the original.”

“No, not Lon Chaney, Jr. His father, Lon Chaney, the silent film actor.”

“All the older masks and costumes are over there, in that corner,” the man said pointing to a dimly-lit area. “Some are supposed to be from the silent film era.”

As Marcus walked toward the corner, he felt a tingling in his face, almost as if someone was tickling it with a feather. The tingling seemed to intensify as he got closer to the area where the masks and costumes were.


He turned but no one was near him. Funny, he could swear he heard someone call his name.  Shrugging, Marcus approached the display cases containing old Hollywood horror treasures.


It was his. The mask worn by Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera was actually his! What an incredible legacy to own. What a find for him. Maybe, just maybe, if it’s not too unwieldy, he could wear it in the re-make of the classic. He made a mental note to watch the DVD of the old movie when he got home. Get some tips from a master like Lon Chaney, see how he did it.

His hand patted the cardboard box that contained the mask. He considered the fact that no one had even bid on it, except for him, and was amazed. The price he paid was an astonishingly low $24.

The cashier made a face as he wrapped tissue around the mask and searched for a box for it. “I get the creeps just touching it. It’s scary, really hideous.”


Hideously beautiful, thought Marcus and turned to look behind him to see who was calling him. No one was there. He shrugged again and waited while the cashier taped the box close. His face tingled again—this time it felt like tiny paper cuts.


Once home, he opened the cardboard box that held his treasure. My God, what a piece of artwork the mask was! It was light—he figured it was less than half a pound. He was curious about the construction. What is it made of, what material was used for it? It was hard to tell. It looked so realistic, a real, if ugly, face. The cashier was right though. It was scary. Marcus smiled. It was perfect. The tingling feeling on his face became stronger and his skin felt hot. Probably some ingredient in that make-up he wore yesterday. No trying the mask on tonight, not with this feverish feeling in his face. Marcus put the mask on his dresser. He went into the bathroom and filled the sink with cold water. His face plunged into the soothing chill of the water, he didn’t hear—



Early dawn light pouring through the open curtains woke him. The burning feeling in his face had gone away, replaced by the paper cuts feeling. Damn make-up, I’ve got to check to see what’s in that stuff. Hope I’m not getting allergic to it. That’d be the end of my career for sure. He put some cream on his face, which soothed it a bit, and went to start the coffee maker. Two cups of coffee later he took a shower. Standing at the sink to blow-dry his hair, he began to whistle with anticipation. He couldn’t wait to get dressed and try on Lon Chaney’s mask.


The mask was still in the box and, as far as Marcus could see, absolutely pristine. If what his director had said about it being over a century old was true, whoever had sold it to Chaney had taken excellent care of it. Carefully he lifted it out of the box. What is this made of? It truly looked like bone and skin. Human bone and skin. As frightening-looking as it was, it was artfully done, an incredible technique. Who had created this?

A burning feeling similar to a bad sunburn began on his cheeks and slowly moved up to his forehead. He went to turn on the air-conditioner. What is happening to me? Am I coming down with something or is it a reaction to that new make-up? Damn! He went to his room for some face balm.

“Marcus, Marcus!”

The face balm wasn’t working and he called the head make-up artist on the film to ask what was in that new monster make-up she was using.

“Nothing that is harmful to the skin, Marcus. In fact, these ingredients are pretty pure as compared to the old stuff we used to use. What’s the problem?”

He told her about the burning and the tingling feeling. She said it sounded to her as if he had been bitten by a spider. “Happened to my brother a few years ago. Bitten on his cheek. His whole face swelled up. Were you outside?”

Marcus admitted that he had been in sitting his garden a couple of nights ago to relax after work. He told her that he hadn’t felt a sting or a bite.

“Yeah, my brother didn’t feel anything either and we had to really look hard to find the bite mark. It looked like a tiny freckle.”

She told him to carefully check his face for even a tiny little mark. Then she gave him a recipe for a healing facial that had helped her brother, told him to make a paste of it, and apply it. “Keep it on for a couple hours. Believe me it helps.”

After creating the facial and layering the stuff on his face, Marcus popped a pill from a med his doctor had given him when he’d badly injured his foot a few years ago. The bottle was almost full. Marcus had only taken a couple of the pills because they made him feel groggy and light-headed, not a good thing for an actor. But the pain and burning on his face were enough to cause him to risk taking the pill. What the hell, he was only going to spend the afternoon watching the original Phantom of the Opera.

He lay back on the couch, drinking water, the thick medicinal facial goo, concocted from coconut milk, turmeric, and Vaseline, smeared all over his face. It, and the painkiller, seemed to help, at least a little. The tingling feeling of paper cuts wasn’t so bad and the burning was much more bearable.

Lon Chaney was at his gruesome best as the Phantom. What a magnificent performance! Marcus’s trained actor’s eye looked hard at the actor and was able to spot the subtle changes his director had mentioned when Chaney stopped wearing the mask and started to use only make-up to create the hideous face. He smiled and watched Chaney at work.

But—what the hell is that? He looked closer, pausing the old film at various frames. There was something strange about Chaney’s look in the frames at the beginning of the film as opposed to the ones in the rest of the film. The odd thing was that when Chaney was wearing the mask, his eyes had looked—different, strange. And there was something else about his eyes. Marcus couldn’t think of the word to describe the look.

The pain med was beginning to make him feel a bit woozy. He sighed, paused the DVD, got up to make a sandwich and grab a cold bottle of seltzer from the ‘fridge. Turning to go back to the living room, he glanced out the kitchen window as he heard an annoying noise. His neighbor was having his trees pruned. The grinding sound of the machinery made his jaw ache. Great.


Back on the couch, he restarted the film, and downed the seltzer and sandwich. The act of chewing, and the sound from that pruner next door, seemed to make the paper cut feeling intensify. Shit! He debated taking another pain med, finally deciding that he needed it to, at the very least, take the edge off the discomfort he was feeling. He popped another pill and then looked carefully at Lon Chaney’s face. Very carefully.

That look, that look when he was wearing the mask. It was odd, very odd. Marcus felt sleepy—the pills were doing their job. He closed his eyes and just before he fell asleep, he remembered the word he would use to describe Lon Chaney’s eyes when he was wearing the Phantom mask. The word was, was, damn it, the word was—fear. Fear! The eyes of the Master of the Film Macabre, who had certainly terrorized many audience members in his time, had himself looked absolutely terrified.

The film ran on to its end.

“Marcus! Hear me. Marcus!”


“No! Not my—,” Marcus woke up, startled, around 10:15 at night, his face burning and feeling raw. He felt like hell. At first he didn’t know where he was. It was only when he saw the glimmer of the kitchen night light that he remembered falling asleep on the couch while watching The Phantom of the Opera. Those damned pain meds! Should have remembered how strong they were. He slowly sat up and shook his head as if to clear his mind.

Random thoughts began to filter through the fading haze of sleep. Mask. Fear. Lon Chaney. Eyes. Fear. Eyes. Fear. What the hell? He needed to watch the film again. He stumbled into the kitchen to get some ice packs from the freezer. His face felt as if it was on fire. Holding the ice packs to his face, he walked back to the living room, sat down, and began the film.

He paused the movie several times and also played it in slow motion. There! There it was—that look of fear in Chaney’s eyes. He wasn’t looking at anything, that look of fear came from within his own mind. Marcus fast forwarded the film stopping when it was midway through and Chaney had substituted make-up for the mask. He squinted hard. The make-up looked a lot like the mask. Marcus knew it was make-up though, but damned if Chaney didn’t do one helluva job re-creating the frightening mask.

Next, Marcus focused on Chaney’s eyes. The look of petrified fear was absent when Chaney used make-up. In its place was the mercurial look that Chaney displayed so well with all his characters. No fear, nothing but professionalism and good acting.


Marcus glanced at the sliding doors leading to his small backyard. Who was calling him? His neighbor? “Is someone there?” he called getting up and walking over to the doors. He flipped on the outside lights and peered out.

There had been one incident last year, where a crazed fan had somehow gotten his address and actually climbed the wall that surrounded Marcus’s property. She’d made it to the sliding doors and was calling Marcus’s name, swearing that Marcus was the Devil incarnate and that she had to kill him. The police had come, the woman was arrested, and was now confined to a psychiatric hospital. They’d told him to get a good security system but he’d never done so. He looked out again. No one was there.


Did someone get into his house while he was asleep? Had that nutcase escaped from the hospital?

Dizzy and disoriented from the pain meds, Marcus walked around his living room trying to locate the person calling him. No one there.

“Marcus! Come to me.”

The voice seemed to be coming from the bedroom. Marcus grabbed a fireplace iron and slowly went up the short flight of stairs to the bedroom.


In the doorway of his bedroom, Marcus paused. There was no one there. He checked the closet, under the bed. No one. Everything just as it always was, the only new item being Lon Chaney’s mask, sitting in the cardboard box on his dresser. He stared at it. The paper cut feeling and the burning on his face were gone. He wanted more than anything to put on the mask.


Marcus went toward the dresser. He must put on the mask.He had to put it on.

“Yes, Marcus.”


They found him on the floor of his bedroom, wearing the mask and screaming, “Help me! Please help me!” When he hadn’t shown up on the set for a couple of retakes, his director and the head make-up artist went to his house. She’d told the director about her conversation with Marcus over the weekend, concerning his face and her suspicion that he had been bitten by a spider. “The venom in some spiders can cause really bad reactions. We should check on him.”

They called an ambulance and as he was being taken to the hospital, an EMT attempted to remove the mask. She struggled, used a medicated gel to loosen it, and finally got it off. Marcus’s face was covered with tiny bleeding cuts and looked badly sunburned. The EMT began to clean and soothe the skin as much as possible. Marcus screamed and screamed. The EMT left the mask on the gurney as it was being wheeled into the ER. Ugly thing, she thought shivering. Really disgustingly ugly!

At the hospital, the Emergency Room doctor picked up the mask to move it onto a side table, then paused with it in his hand. He looked at it for a long time. “Wow, can you believe this?! It’s real.”

“Real? What do you mean, ‘real’?” asked the EMT as she helped transfer Marcus to bed. “It’s a wooden mask with leather covering.”

“No, it’s not wood and leather. Oh no, not at all. It’s made from human bone and skin. It’s a well-preserved face!”

“Jesus! A real human face? Human skin and bone?”

“That’s what it’s made of—it’s the real thing. Wonder what they used to preserved it to keep it in such perfect condition?”

“Throw it away, Paul. It’s disgusting.”

“Are you kidding? I’m taking it home to show my wife.” As he turned his attention to Marcus’s face he spoke over his shoulder to the EMT. “Hey Leslie, you know what? I’ve just gotten a great idea. When I get home, I’ll go into the garage, put on the mask, then go ring the front door bell, and wait until my wife opens the door! It’ll be a blast.”

“It’s a good thing you’re a doctor. She just might have a heart attack if you do that.”

The doctor began scratching at his chin. The EMT looked at him closely. “Looks like you’re getting a heat rash, Paul. Put some powder on it.

“It sure feels like it,” he said scratching harder.“I’ll get some talc from the nurses’ station.”

“Have fun with that mask.”

The doctor smiled and waved as he walked toward the supply room. His face felt hot and tingly. He’d wash his face, put the talc on. He’d be just fine. As his nails scratched his cheeks and forehead, he thought about tonight. Wearing that mask will be fun! I can’t wait to put it on.


Kristen Houghton is the author of nine novels, two non-fiction books, a collection of short stories, a book of essays, and a children’s novella. The first four books in her best-selling series, A Cate Harlow Private Investigation, are now available in a boxset. The series has been voted one of the top five mystery/thriller series by International Mystery Writers. She is also the author of the Horror Book Club award-winning Quick-Read, Welcome to Hell.

Her latest book, Lilith Angel, was released in April, 2019. “Her parents are vampires, her boyfriend’s a werewolf, she has untried witchy powers of her own—but teenager Lilith is just trying to live a “normal” life and pass advanced calculus! Life can be difficult for the otherworldly.”

Kristen Houghton has covered politics, news, and lifestyle issues as a contributor to the Huffington Post. Her writing portfolio includes Criminal Element Magazine, a division of Macmillan Publishing, Hartford Woman, Today, senior fiction editor at Bella Magazine, interviews and reviews for HBO documentaries, OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and The Style Channel.