“You shall see with your own eyes just what kind of thing true darkness really is,” Igos du Ikana in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
What comes to mind when you think of a horror game? Is it something recent, like Outlast or Resident Evil: Village? Perhaps it’s something more niche, like the indie World of Horror RPG, or Call of Cthulhu. What do you find if you reach further back, into your childhood? For many people, names like Silent Hill or Diablo immediately pop up. I myself spent many an hour crawling through the dungeons of the latter, trembling in fear at the Butcher’s call for fresh meat. Even so, that terror was fleeting. As my skill grew and I mastered combat with the Lord of Terror himself, the fear faded. Instead, the game which struck the most fear in my young mind, the one whose horrors I can still revisit today as if for the first time, is perhaps a controversial choice: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Released in the year 2000 to critical acclaim, Majora’s Mask revolves around the efforts of protagonist Link to save the world from a threat of apocalyptic proportions. Yet like Janus, the game wears two faces. On the one hand, it is a bog-standard tale of adventure, heroism, and virtue. But dotted throughout are moments of horror which seemed tailored to the anxieties of my ten-year-old self.
The Terror of Transformation
Early in the story, the antagonist Skull Kid accosts and robs our hero Link, taking from him his magical Ocarina of Time, and his loyal steed Epona. Upon chasing Skull Kid down, the former turns Link into a Deku Scrub using the powers of the titular Majora’s Mask. The Deku are a race of plant life, composed of shrubbery with wooden skin. In this form Link’s powers are limited, and his appearance monstrous, relative at least to his own flesh and blood.
By the time I first played Majora’s Mask, I’d known a number of people with severe infirmities which limited their mobility and, in some cases, their personal autonomy. Their control over their own bodies, the thing which allowed them to navigate their way through the world, had by birth or circumstance been taken from them, whether in part or in whole.
As a boy with so little in the way of coordination and physical strength that I often had to solicit aid to complete simple tasks, my fear of experiencing that loss was palpable. The idea of a hostile force inflicting that wound upon me as simply as turning a light switch kept me up at night. Needless to say, it was a great relief when Link returned to his original form, and in time, mastered the art of mask transformation throughout the rest of the game. Even so, the horrors of transformation did not end there.
A fear which could not be relieved, and one which still unnerves me to this day, was the presence of the infamous Happy Mask Salesman, who tasks Link with returning Majora’s Mask stolen from him by Skull Kid.
From the moment he first appeared, the Happy Mask Salesman was a disquieting presence, with his mocking giggle and his clown-like grin of enthusiasm. Though he served as an ally throughout the game, teaching Link the song of healing and returning him from Deku Scrub to his original form, there always seemed to be something foreign about him, something I couldn’t place. He was the sort of adult one would warn their children about in the era of stranger danger.
This impression was only exacerbated when, shortly after teaching Link the song of healing, the Happy Mask Salesman flies into a rage, going wide-eyed and shaking Link furiously upon learning that he failed to recover Majora’s Mask in his first battle with Skull Kid. This leads into his exposition on the evil nature of Majora’s Mask, and the dark powers it holds. As a child, I could not articulate what about that disturbed me so, but revisiting the topic as an adult the reason is clear: Why would such a “Happy” person seek to possess a mask of such profound evil?
If we are fortunate enough as children to have good parents, we look to them for all manner of things. They are guardians, providers, teachers, and role models. At a certain age, our parents may as well be superheroes, persevering against all odds, shrugging off the slings and arrows of fate, doing whatever it takes to ensure our wellbeing. For many, our first true brush with mortality is upon our parents’ death. That moment forces the brutal recognition that the clock is ticking for us too.
It is in this way that a seemingly minor encounter, a one-off in the larger story of the game, took on a great significance in my youth. Later on in the game Link enters a house and upon approaching a closet it bursts open and a Gibdo, a mummified enemy with the ability to immobilize Link in battle, and a number of weapon resistances appear. As Link readies to do battle, a young girl named Pamela intervenes, running in front of the Gibdo and proclaiming that he is her father, demanding that Link leave and forget everything he saw there.
As it turns out, Pamela’s father is a scientist of the supernatural who transformed into a Gibdo upon searching a series of caverns infested with them. Fortunately for Pamela and her father, Link is able to play the song of healing and return him to his human form in the same way the Happy Mask Salesman did.
When I was a child, this transformation of a beloved figure into a monster terrified me. It played not only upon the body horror already present in the game, but it begged a question. What if something happened to my parents? What if there was no one to come along and save them, and by extension, me?
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
For all the existential terrors in Majora’s Mask, that which was starkest was also the simplest. It was a primordial fear, a fear of the dark. In Ikana Canyon, home to Pamela and her father and subject to an infestation of various undead, the ruins of a fallen kingdom exist, and Igos du Ikana, the skeleton king second only in fame to King Leoric from Diablo, is their ruler.
While the boss battle with Igos is a notable encounter, it is not what burned the character into my mind. Upon reaching the king’s throne room, the curtains draw as if possessed and shroud Link in darkness. Outraged at Link’s insolence in bringing light to Ikana, Igos promises to show him what true darkness is and a pivotal moment occurs, one which cemented Majora’s Mask in my mind as a horror game forever.
Igos and his guardsmen laugh. Their monstrous skeletal faces laugh, their heads bounce about on their spinal cords like bobbleheads. Looking back it’s a moment which may seem comical, but as a child, their distorted dimensions and malicious cackling in the pitch black was no laughing matter, it was an image that stayed with me even into adulthood, and one that immediately comes to mind when the question of “what scared you as a child?” arises.
To many, Majora’s Mask is more a sword and sandal romp of an adventure than a journey through adversity and terror. But while our conception of a game may not change its essence, it can change our experience of it. Majora’s Mask is many things to many people, but to me, it will always be the game that inspired in me a lifelong fascination with horror in all its forms. Terror, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.