Friday, January 24, 2014

Justine in the mask... by William Seabrook

A friend from the internet recently sent me some pictures related to a project she is working on, and inadvertently gave me a few more pieces of a puzzle I've been trying to solve for close to 20 years now. I've mentioned William Seabrook before, and have been wanting to do a series of posts but have had a hard time summarizing all the many thing's I've learned about him. For now, let's just say he was an adventurer and writer with a definitely pervy streak, and an interest in bondage and sensory perception. At one point, he commissioned a sensory deprivation hood which was molded to a cast of his model's (subject's?) face and head. 

The intention was to block out all light and muffle outside sounds - to truly put her into a sensory deprived state for hours on end, in the hopes of exploring the altered states of consciousness that would result. 

The first (and only) image of this hood I had come across so far was the one immediately below which appeared in an article in the Fall 1994 issue of Body Play and Modern Primitives Quarterly magazine, published by Fakir Musafar. (Note: I've colorized the image to match what I think it might have looked like in real life.) 

Justine in the mask (colorized).
I had never seen anything like it, and wanted to know who made it, and how. Did Seabrook make it himself? Who came up with the design? For years I couldn't find anything else out about it. 

The additional pieces of the puzzle are the following photos my friend sent, which I had never seen before: an alternative shot of the front, showing the face turned slightly more towards the camera. 

New alternate view of front of hood.
And the one that literally made me come out of my chair: a rear-view showing the lacing and under-arm straps buckled to the rear. Holy s***! I couldn't believe my eyes... After countless searches online, and after reading every book by Seabrook (and about him) I could get my hands on, here was the holy grail I had been searching for. A rear view, giving me a pretty complete visual description of the whole mask. 

Based on the fact that the bra(?) straps aren't visible in the images below, it looks like the photos may even be from a completely different photo shoot. 
Newly discovered photo showing front and rear view with detail of laces and strap buckles.
The passage that describes the hood is to be found in Seabrook's 1940 book Witchcraft Its Power in the World Today. A few excerpts:

The mask we finally devised was partly my idea, and partly hers (Justine's)...

After we'd planned it, made a couple of sketches, and decided what we wanted, we went to see the best glove-and-leather expert I happened to know–at Ambercrombie and Fitch's.*

They were a bit British about it, lifted their eyebrows since it had no precedent, but not too highly, since I'd bought a lot of African equipment–and thought it might be done. The cost, however, if they did it, what with a mold of the young lady's head to work from, what with trial and probably error–might be pretty steep. They weren't passionately desirous of undertaking it at any price, and suggested that some less expensive leather-worker who specialized in theatrical costuming might be found who could do it just as well, and at a lower figure. I took their always excellent advice, and we were given the address of an elderly Italian named Sinatra,** who limped a little and had a shop of his own with half a dozen workmen in a converted brownstone house on West 47th street, east of Broadway. He was interested, precisely because it involved the making of something which had never been made before, and in a week or so turned out a beautiful, skilled, craftsman-artist's job. 

It was made, on his advice, of soft, smooth, glacĂ© kid. We experimented first with suede, but (believe it or not) any suede which was soft enough and light enough provided not to be completely lightproof. The smooth leather, on the contrary, was as lightproof as a sheet of lead. 

The mask covered Justine's entire head, following all the contours of her face, and, when laced tight in the back, fitted smoothly and tightly as her own skin. The only opening was a slit for the mouth, which followed the lines of her lips, and through which she soon learned to breathe, deeply and steadily. 

But now that it was done, and she began to wear it, she went through periods of hating it and fearing it, because it accomplished, as she said, too completely, the things we'd hoped it would.

Instead of producing the ordinary effect of blindfolding, or of closing the eyes, her eyes, wide open inside it, stared in utter blackness. Sense of smell was blanked, since there were no holes for the nostrils. Sense of hearing was dulled, and the tactile sensitivity of her cheeks (normally feeling warmth, coolness, air currents, when a window was opened or closed, when she was merely blindfolded) was likewise blanked. It shut her off–as completely as a conscious mind can ever be shut off–from everything outside. Often, in what came close to panic, she could not tell whether I or anybody was in the room at all, whether I might be close beside her, or whether I had gone away and left her there totally alone. It was like being back, she said, "in the womb of time." And it was more than she bargained for. There were times when she hated and feared it, and would have torn it off if I hadn't kept her hands always tied or chained, well away from her face and head. Eventually she became accustomed to it, gave up "fighting" it, let it "take her," as she said–and ended up liking it. She wanted to be in it whenever she could, even when I might have to go away and leave her all day alone, as I occasionally did. †

* Remember, this is in the late 1930s, when Ambercrombie and Fitch's was (according to Wikkipedia) " elite outfitter of sporting and excursion goods, particularly noted for its expensive shotguns, fishing rods, and tents."
** (!)
 - Never a good idea to leave anyone unattended in a hood. Ever! 


  1. Thanks! Seabrook was a true entrepreneur. As I see it, he left a mixture of real experiences and fiction. It's really a thrill to read, but some details are not plausible. You cannot wear a tight hood over a long time, if you're only able to breathe through your mouth (unless some teeth are missing :-). The strain on your jaw would be unbearable. At least to my experience. Never the less: keep up your splendid bdsm-archaeologi!

  2. I saw these pictures, and my first thought was: I know this hood! I saw exactly these pics about 25 years ago in a catalog from Kastley, a now defunct manufacturer of fetish and bondage gear. Franzk4300's comment at your update post confirms my suspicion, since Kastley illustrated its catalogs very economically with pictures pilfered from other vendors. The catalog I remember had definitively a lot of drawings by Robert Bishop, and Bishop worked for Centurion during the seventies. Now I know the background story of the hood whose pics impressed me deeply long ago. Thx. *hat tip*

  3. Amazing story and amazing hood, I'll keep tuned to see if one comes to life.