Nearly every culture in the world has the concept of faceless apparitions. Stories of people seen at a distance who, when the observer comes closer, reveal that they have no face as they turn are relatively common. The idea of a ghost with no identity, no face that might explain who this once was, is much more terrifying than the ghost of a loved one appearing at the end of your bed. A ghost you know is a ghost you can, theoretically, understand or perhaps reason or bargain with. A faceless ghost, however, is simply a patch of pure dread painted on the canvas of the world.
Faceless phantoms come in all shapes and sizes. Faceless women seem more common in western ghost stories, while faceless men and children are a bit more prevalent in eastern stories, especially in Japan. However, there are faceless ghosts of all types in nearly all mythologies.
In Japan, one faceless spirit is the Noppera-bō (literally faceless ghost). These ghosts are actually pretty harmless, and simply enjoy scaring people. They will often start out looking like someone known to their victim, a loved one or acquaintance, and then, once the victim draws near, the features of the face will fade away until the face is a smooth oval. The ghost doesn’t actually harm the victim and will vanish soon after scaring them. It seems to simply feed off the fear it causes.
One of the most famous Japanese tales of faceless ghosts is the Mujina of the Akasaka Road. In the story, a young man is traveling the Akasaka Road to Edo when he encounters a sobbing woman knelt over on the roadside. He attempts to console the woman and offer assistance, only for her to turn towards him revealing she has no face. He runs from the frightening apparition for several miles before stopping to rest beside a soba vendor who has also stopped by the side of the road. He recants his tale, and when the vendor says nothing, he turns and sees that the man, too, has no face. He runs off into the night.
Japan is not the only place where such tales exist, nor are they limited to ancient folklore. In the lat 1950s, Hawaii was plagued by appearances of a faceless woman. On the island of Oahu, in the suburb of Honolulu known as Kahala, there was a drive-in movie theater called the Waialae Drive-In. It opened in 1956. A few years later, women began reporting that there was a ghost in the ladies restroom. The stories said that patrons would go in and see a woman standing at one of the restroom mirrors, combing her long black hair. She appeared to be a native Hawaiian, but as they got closer, they could see in the mirror that she had no face! In another story, a girl was in one of the restroom stalls and saw through the crack in the door that someone else had come in. They were looking in the mirror and she noticed that the visitor had no face. As she did, the spirit turned toward her and rushed to the door, slamming it hard, the smooth face pressed to the crack in the door. The girl screamed so loudly that people rushed in to see what was the matter. They only found the girl, terrified but otherwise unharmed.
The drive-in also had a strange phenomenon of fireballs rising from the ground and circling the lot several times, or exploding up against the screen. Possibly unconnected to the ghost, but still very weird!
The idea of a faceless phantom is also the source of the popular internet meme known as the Slenderman. The ghost or creature is said to wear a silk mask over a completely featureless face, or to simply have no face at all. Becoming faceless is often also seen as losing one’s identity, and such images were used in the movie The Matrix to describe Neo’s loss of identity when the Agents attempted to learn what he knew about Morpheus and crew.
Faceless phantoms are rarely dangerous, often only frightening people before disappearing. There’s no known prevention of such specters, and because there is usually no way to identify the ghost, it’s very difficult to understand what circumstances would lead to the creation of such a phantom.