Episode 145 – “The Masks”

Death has always been a central concern of philosophy, and it is one of the most central topics in episodes of The Twilight Zone. If, as Epicurus noted, our own death is not a state we can experience, we can, and often do, imagine what the state of things will be after our death. So the “twilight zone,” Serling’s name for the realm of the imagination, is a natural place for death to reside.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” explored the realm of the imagination of a person approaching death, a person just moments away from no longer possessing an imagination. The circumstances did not allow Peyton Farquhar the luxury of considering what life might be like after his death for others. In “The Masks” Jason Foster is dying, but he’s known this for a long time, and though he is now near death, he is intensely focused on what Samuel Scheffler has called “the afterlife,” the life of others after one’s death.

Scheffler calls attention to the extent to which our values presuppose that the world will continue as it has been after our death. We each recognize that human and other animal life spans are finite and will come to an end, but as has been the case, deaths are staggered, and the death of any one person is followed by the continuation of the life of many others. Scheffler makes this point by suggesting that what we value would be significantly altered if we suddenly learned that the world will be destroyed in 30 days by a collision with an asteroid. In that possible world, which Scheffler calls “the doomsday scenario,” we would likely lose our interest in our intellectual projects, are artistic endeavors, and even in our relationships with one another. Much of what we value would lose its point, and our lives would be significantly diminished.

“The Masks” provides support for Scheffler’s position, not by presenting a doomsday scenario, but rather by having us observe the final hours of Jason Foster in the presence of his family.  Foster’s concern for the future presents a philosophical puzzle. He knows that he is not going to be part of that future. So why should he care about it? Normally, this would not be a puzzle. Parents usually are concerned about the well-being of their children and other people they are close to, and they often take steps to insure that their financial support, for example, is in place after their death. Wills are legal documents that direct actions to take place by others, on behalf of the deceased. Foster has already prepared a will which does provide for his children and grandchildren, and that is not what concerns him as he approaches his end.

What concerns Foster is the recognition of the truth about the character of his daughter and her family, by the members of that family. Foster’s final act is to force his family to recognize their flawed characters, their moral failings. He does this by requiring that they wear masks that represent “the antithesis of what the wearer is.”  One mask represent greed/avarice/cruelty, another represents cowardice, another insolence and vanity, another dullness and stupidity. Of course the mask don’t represent the opposite of the wearer’s traits, but their actual traits, in Foster’s view. The masks are to be worn until midnight. When Foster dies, at midnight, the family discovers that the masks don’t come off. Put differently, they recognize that the old man’s characterizations of their personal and moral failings is enduringly accurate.

Why was the exposing of his family’s vices of such importance to Foster? It’s clear that revealing these flaws will not change anything after he dies. What does Foster achieve with this act, and it it something that we should approve of?

First, Foster’s condemnation of his daughter and her family is on target. Collectively they represent a a virtual catalogue of vices, cemented together by smug self-interest.  Perhaps what Foster objects to most is their smugness and lack of insight into their own faults. Clearly Foster has criticized them in the past, but to no avail. Now he’s found a way to drive the point home, namely by changing how they appear to others. He’s rendered transparent what formerly they were able to keep under wraps, their greed, cruelty, vanity, insolence, and  stupidity.

Foster’s daughter and her family would like nothing less than to keep the truth about their relationship to her father hidden from the rest of humanity. Foster, in contrast, wants nothing less than to have the truth revealed for posterity. This tells us something about how truth and morality are related. The virtuous champion the truth. The vicious see truth as their enemy. In the case of Foster’s family, the donning of masks is what unmasks the truth.

Further Reading:

Scheffler, S., 2016, Death and the Afterlife ,Oxford University Press, (cited in “Episode 75 – The Midnight Sun”).

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