MirrorMask, a story by Neil Gaiman and film directed in 2005 by Dave McKean, is a graphic fairytale of how a young girl, Helena, is forced to cope with her mother’s illness, which she does by retreating into her world of fantasy. One night, she wanders through a door and is stuck in a world where everyone believes she is the daughter of the Black Queen and responsible for the White Queen’s illness. When given the opportunity to glimpse into her own world through windows, she sees this Princess, named Anti-Helena in the credits, destroying her world. These glimpses help Helena realize many things about herself. In order to return home,Helena must face her shadow by finding the MirrorMask and facing the Princess with it. This raises the question of why one would wear a mask, specifically a mirrored mask, to confront the shadow. This film demonstrates that the mirrored mask, literally and figuratively, acts as a portal between the conscious and unconscious and as a tool for owning the shadow.
The shadow refers to aspects of oneself that are hidden in the unconscious during the course of persona development. On occasion, these aspects can boil to the surface and cause a temporary uncharacteristic outburst, or can cause long term personality shifts. According to Carl Jung, the shadow is a “moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscous of it involves recognizing dark aspects of the personality as pruent and real” (Jung 8). The contrast between Helena and the Princess illustrates this stark contrast: for every aspect of Helena that is light, it is dark within the Princess. Helena hones her creativity through art, whereas the Princess is destructive. The film highlights the relationship between the conscious and the shadow by emphasizing the striking ressemblance between Helena and the Princess: “Yes, you look like her, but you’re not her are you?” asks the White Queen’s Minister. Helena’s moral challenge is one we all face in our lives, that of owning the shadow and being conscious of how it affects decisions and relations between people. Before Helena enters her shadow world, she argues with her mother, who falls ill with an uncertain outcome. She blames herself for her mother’s illness, having allowed her shadow to temporarily control the situation.
The processes of “owning the shadow” and not allowing it to get out of control involves recognizing and honoring it. The confrontation between the conscious and the shadow is not a battle between hero and boon guardian, though it can manifest as such, but rather more of a truce. The conscious agrees to honor the shadow, and the shadow promises to behave itself. In the coming-of-age story, the hero does not fully defeat the shadow figure, but does come to an understanding.
Helena’s journey through her shadow world, which she created in her drawings and hung on her bedroom wall, forces her to confront the world she not only created in her drawings, but also within her unconscious. This world consists of neighboring Light & Dark kingdoms. The mythology within this world talks of a young girl who sat down one day and began drawing. When she ran out of room, she flipped the paper over and continued on the other side, thus creating the two kingdoms. Helena’s mission is to restore peace between the two kingdoms by finding the charm that will awaken the White Queen (her manifest desire to cure her mother). The Kingdom of Light knows that Princess Anti-Helena came for a visit and then the queen fell ill (her unconscious self-blame for her mother’s illness). The Kingdom of Dark accusses the Light of kidnapping. The Charm, as Helena discovers, is the MirrorMask, and by finding the mask she an awaken the queen, restore the delicate balance between the two worlds, and go home.
In stories and in mythic ritual, masks are often used to alter the appearance of an individual, either for a disguise or in imitation of a specific figure. In either case, this represents a supression of the individual ego in favor of an adopted persona. Masks help shield one’s identity, temporarily pushing traits below the surface. Whether the mask is temporary, permanent, or permanent but constantly changing, it provides a metaphor for the process of individuation as one pursues one’s own hero’s journey.
Masks play a large role in Helena’s life. Her father runs a circus, and both she and her mother perform alongside clowns, acrobats, and other performers. Helena’s teenage crisis extends from her desire to have a “real life,” meaning one in which she is valued for herself not valued as a circus performer, a stable life with friends with real faces. When she enters her shadow world, she finds that she is the odd one for not wearing a mask. Her friend, Valentine, criticizes her for not having a proper face, and the White Queen’s guards comment upon her changeable expression as they carry her to the palace. Valantine asks, “How do you know if you’re happy or sad without a mask?” Although masks are commonly used to hide one’s feelings, they become the means to understanding expression within Helena’s shadow world. This characterizes not only the opposite nature of the shadow world, but also the importance of masks in Helena’s psyche. Her life is marked by masks, always having to put on an alternate face for circus goers.
Because masks act as the keys to true expression between this world, a mirrored mask melds the expressions of both the mask’s wearer and of the outside person facing the mask, bringing them into each other. The MirrorMask also acts as a portal between the shadow and the conscious worlds. Its reflective properties force the shadow and the ego to look upon each other, forcing them to unite, before crossing between boundaries. When the ego wears the MirrorMask, the shadow is kept within the shadow world, but the opposite is true when the shadow wears the mask, allowing it to enter the conscious realm. Allowing the shadow to gain control, as Anti-Helena did, can lead to dischord in the consciousness and imbalance in the unconsciousness. Such dissonance distracts the hero, ourselves, from the archetypal journey, and one will have to spend time cleaning up the mess, in addition to atoning for mistakes.
A film like MirrorMask serves as a reminder that one’s worst enemy is often within oneself, and that Self must be confronted at some point during life’s journey. This does not mean that Helena has conquored all of her dragons and has become unified with the Self, but she at least now possesses an awareness. This insight gives one the ability to navigate the remaining mysteries of the unconscious. The journey is never complete, especially not after one task, but every success adds experience and wisdom to interpreting one’s life.
Jung, Carl Gustav. “The Shadow.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 9, part 2. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.
MirrorMask. Dir. Dave McKean. Perf. Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon. Jim Henson Productions, 2005.
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