There exists an extremist religious order whose tenets espouse the rejection of vanity and self-interest - to achieve nothing less than the complete erasure of the sense of self, instead devoting oneself solely to the needs of others. This order's members adorn themselves with clothing that obscure even the slightest glimpse of flesh - and a mask, an identifying symbol of their devotion, which many believe is permanently sealed to their face.

The initial idea was inspired by Edward Norton's portrayal of King Baldwin IV in Kingdom of Heaven mixed with a little Darth Vader, so I want to say this mask is some kind of metal for now. What could be done (however painful) to permanently apply a mask like that? Assume the level of technology is mid-19th century.

Side note: not really sure what tags to put this under, so I'm adding a few that I think might be relevant. I'll add or edit them (if I can) if people have any ideas!

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    $\begingroup$ Should we assume the mask is jointed to allow the wearer to eat, or do they have some way around that restriction? (Or do they actually remove it, presumably in private?) $\endgroup$ – Cadence Mar 22 '20 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ What rate of success you are looking for? What % of patients should survive long-term with attached mask? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 22 '20 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask was based on the story of a man who had a red-hot mask placed onto his face so that it was seared onto it. A bit gruesome and certainly incredibly painful. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Mar 22 '20 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Halfthawed The Man in the Iron Mask was apparently based on a real prisoner who had a velvet mask on. See Wikipedia's entry on this. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Mar 23 '20 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi I was thinking more about simply poor airflow, precipitation, no possibility of cleaning, and constant rubbing of metal against skin. That alone should be enough I think, without even involving any potentially toxic metals. $\endgroup$ – Vilx- Mar 23 '20 at 13:25

10 Answers 10


It's not actually affixed to their face, people just think it is.

Simply put, anything that would break the skin on a long-term basis causes a large risk of infection. At the technology level you've presented, this would result in unavoidable death, especially since we're talking about something affixed to your head. This is why, in real life, companies that are researching cybernetic implants are designing their implants to work without breaking the skin once implanted. Additionally, by wearing something non-stop against the skin, you're trapping dead skin, bacteria, sweat, and similar things against the skin and increasing the risk of infection further - this is why soldiers have to regularly change their socks to avoid trench-foot, for instance.

So, rather than actually affixing their mask to their heads, just have them always wear their mask when they're publicly visible. They could remove their mask in private to bathe or eat, but whenever people see them, they're always wearing their masks, and that gives rise to a rumor that they can't remove their masks among more credulous individuals.

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    $\begingroup$ Considering that at times wearing the mask might be seen as being vanity and virtue-signalling (e.g. Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, et cetera), there may be circumstances under which the religion requires that the mask not be worn - but that you must also not declare your religious affiliation at those times. A sort of reverse-masquerade. Then the faithful would have active reason to encourage those rumours... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Mar 23 '20 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ Crossref to existing media: The Mandalorian. Your last paragraph literally describes the rule followed by the main character there. $\endgroup$ – masterX244 Mar 23 '20 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ All of these answers have been great--and some very gruesome--but I think this will ultimately be what needs to happen. The risk of infection, rotting flesh, lack of hygiene, etc., can't be ignored, and I don't really want to handwave it away with some magical solution or something. They could maybe wear a veil or cloth over their head instead, and wear the masks over that when out in public. $\endgroup$ – Vigilant Mar 23 '20 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Vigilant why not both? A black cloth will block the eyes from being visible in the eyeholes, while still keeping some semblance of eyesight for the wearer - and when silvered glasses come into fashion in the 1980s, your cult will adopt them pretty much immediately. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Mar 24 '20 at 14:42

Put the mask on before they're adult.

Simply put, have them grow into their mask. If the mask is properly shaped (like a ball with a hole for the neck), it will be impossible to take it off. If you do this while they are young enough, their head will adapt to the shape of the mask (Artificial cranial deformation).

At the time where you put it on, the head will be barely small enough to pass through the "hole" for the neck - and after they've grown enough, it won't be able to pass through again.

Medieval Helmet

This helmet would work, if the hole for the neck was smaller.

The mask can leave the skin unharmed, as there can be space left - just not enough for the head to be drawn out of the mask.


This could be a head.

Well phrased clarification by @EveryBitHelps in a comment:

The mask itself doesn't have to be tiny tiny. Just the neck opening. Only once the kiddo has grown into the mask then they won't be able to take it off. The effort and hassle of wearing a mask that is too big for you while you wait to grow into it could be seen as a sign of dedication to the religion or training in self discipline etc.

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    $\begingroup$ So the whole cult has tiny heads? Do you ever write horror novels? And if not, have you considered it? $\endgroup$ – CaptainSkyfish Mar 23 '20 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ Well, if they can only afford tiny helmets, they will have tiny heads... Just considered it right now, but I actually prefer writing different stuff (programs). $\endgroup$ – LMD Mar 24 '20 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ The mask itself doesn't have to be tiny tiny. Just the neck opening. Only once the kiddo has grown into the mask then they won't be able to take it off. The effort and hassle of wearing a mask that is too big for you while you wait to grow into it could be seen as a sign of dedication to the religion or training in self discipline etc. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Mar 24 '20 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps Updating the answer to include your clarification. $\endgroup$ – LMD Mar 24 '20 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonsai_Kitten $\endgroup$ – Christopher Hostage Mar 24 '20 at 21:09

Use the jaw.

Dental fittings can be installed by pinning into the jawbone. The gums then heal around the pins/false teeth. If you tear out and replace all of the teeth in the upper jaw you could replace them with metal fixings, onto which the mask could (later once the mouth has healed) be affixed via the aperture of the mouth., Keep space between the mask and the face, and also allow for brushes to get in and clean the gums (oral hygiene will be vital), and you can have a permanent (as in can’t easily be removed) mask. Warning: there is a risk of drool.

Now, this requires methods of dentistry and medical grade metals that I think are unavailable at your technological level. Medical grade titanium is hard enough to make, and the pins would either cause large chunks of the face to go numb or be in constant agony unless done very well (seriously, there’s a reason dentists have to train for so long. The nerves in the face are insane). There’s also a very high risk of infection, but I think that’s pretty much a given anyway.

Oh, and don’t make the mask too heavy, or it could tear away, causing unfathomable trauma. I mean... eurgh...

But handwave away the metal and ignore the potential for agony (mad cultists, right?) and it’s vaguely plausible, if a touch disgusting.

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    $\begingroup$ That is a very gross and disturbing answer, and yet I have to upvote it for a creative solution! $\endgroup$ – CaptainSkyfish Mar 23 '20 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ To make it a little easier, it's not the mask itself that is embedded, but a wire/chain that is connected to the mask. Same result, less chance for a bumped head to result in a broken jaw... $\endgroup$ – ArmanX Mar 24 '20 at 22:53

You can rivet it on.

The mask doesn't need to be embedded in the vic^Wadherent's flesh in any way; in fact, for health reasons, it shouldn't be. However, that isn't required for the mask to be irremovable; it just needs to wrap around the head in such a way that it can't be removed. The rigidity of metal will help with this, as will the extent to which the mask is "fitted" to the face. If it fits well enough, you might only need a strap/band behind the head to keep it in place.

The easiest way would be to use rivets. The convert(s) places the mask over their face, then lie, face down, with their head in a specially shaped block such that the two tabs on the front piece of the mask sit over sturdy metal blocks. The back band is placed over their head and lined up. A heated slug of metal is placed through the aligned holes in the side tabs on the front and back of the mask. A rod-like metal tool is placed over the slug and struck with a hammer. The shape of the tool, and the blocks on the other side, cause the metal slug (still hot enough to deform) to mushroom outwards on both sides. (You can also have the rivet already mushroomed on one side, but this might make the process harder.) The resulting rivet cannot be removed except by cutting, and I'm not sure they would have had the technology to do that back then. (Even today, it would be dangerous to cut metal so close to the skull.)

Alternatively, there are other techniques known back then to join metal (soldering, brazing) that might be accomplished without killing the vic^Wadherent, though I'm less sure how you'd design your components to allow such a join.

Things will probably be a lot easier if you stick to the style of mask that only covers the eyes and nose. (No problems eating, for example.) This may or may not be irremovable on its own, but if you attach it to a collar with a band running vertically from the bridge of the nose to the back of the neck, it won't be going anywhere.

BTW, anyone wearing such a mask is going to have to watch their weight...

  • $\begingroup$ "The resulting rivet cannot be removed except by cutting, and I'm not sure they would have had the technology to do that back then." Handsaws existed back then. It'd just take a long time to cut through metal. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Mar 24 '20 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ Trying to get metal to the point of melting without also melting or at least extremely damaging flesh is not very feasible. Solder is pretty easy to melt, yet I have scars from that, including one spot that removed all the layers of skin before it got cold enough to stop burning me. In the time frame the OP talks about, antibiotics weren't very prominent and a religious order likely wouldn't use them as they are "witchcraft", or some such nonsense, so severe infection would be completely unavoidable and death likely. $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Mar 25 '20 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ That's a problem of convection and insulation. Asbestos might help (remember, they won't know about the bad effects yet), or maybe wool (or even just leather), or just pouring a lot of water over the metal while you're working. In general, though, you're right that my alternatives are probably more dangerous than riveting. That said, people (and cattle, but they have thicker skin) have been surviving branding for a long time. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Mar 25 '20 at 16:47

I have heard of an experimental procedure in the 19th century as a means of fixing dentures. This was done by drilling into the top of the skull, and fixing a threaded rod through the head from the top of the skull through tho the roof or the mouth, where the dentures would be fixed.

Similarly I have heard a story of a man who I a workplace accident had a metal rod blasted through his head from his chin through the top of his skull. The man miraculously escaped death as the rod went perfectly between the two halves of the brain, with minimal damage to either.

(apologies, I am struggling to find the documentation for my examples, I'll try and update later)

The point is, the same principle can be applied when fixing a permanent mask. A skilled doctor can fix a rod through someone's skull as a base, and perhaps at less vulnerable spots add support for this (below the eyes for example). This will quickly become a permanent part of the skull when (or if) it heals. Removing this can be excruciating, if not impossibly dangerous.

  • $\begingroup$ That'd cause a big risk of infection. There's a reason why modern research into cybernetic implants is all looking at ways to make the implants work without breaking the skin. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Mar 23 '20 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ @nick012000 oh yeah I completely agree. This would be incredibly dangerous, with the success rate much lower than one would like. But that is besides the point. $\endgroup$ – Plutian Mar 23 '20 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ @nick012000: the mouth has some special properties when it comes to things poking through the surface. Not sure about the roof of the mouth, but the gums seem to be OK with the existence of teeth. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Mar 23 '20 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidMulder I disagree, one could see this ritual as a sign of their devotion. The fact it could be lethal just adds to the sacrifice people are willing to make for others. Also I don't think the lethality will be a majority, especially if this has been practiced for a while, one does not have to be an advanced brain surgeon to avoid hitting the brain lobes. $\endgroup$ – Plutian Mar 23 '20 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ The man with the rod you are referring to is Phineas P. Gage, and the rod went through his left frontal lobe. At first he seemed miraculously unimpaired, as if that part of the brain did nothing. Eventually people noticed his personality was altered, and he lost his sense of morals, giving a better idea of what that area actually holds. As far as the denture thing, I have not heard of that, and it is so creepy I don't know if I want it to be true or not true! $\endgroup$ – CaptainSkyfish Mar 23 '20 at 17:31


Numerous small surface piercings in the skin provide anchor points for the mask. The weight is distributed across these piercings, so they don't need to be large gauge, just numerous.

Technically, the mask and piercings are occasionally removed so that they can be cleaned, elsewise these priests would get horrible infections all over their head/face. But this would be an infrequent and private occurrence.

As an added bonus, even sans mask, all those metal bits hanging off their face would be pretty gnarly looking, especially in a culture that was otherwise unused to facial piercings.

  • $\begingroup$ This is very similar to what I was thinking in regards to the OP's question. I was thinking straps around the head would hold the weight of the mask, while the mask could be secured to the face using sub-dermal implants. The implants basically have threaded bolts that would be able to stick out through holes in the mask and the mask is secured by screwing a nut onto the bolt. This would then allow the removal of the mask for necessary medical reasons and cleaning, and could also allow for refitting should the shape and size of the person's face change. $\endgroup$ – R. McMillan Mar 25 '20 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @R.McMillan I had considered a strap as well, but felt that it went somewhat against the 'flavor' of the original question. Really, the skin of the face may be too elastic to work as a permanent mount point, but I thought this was close enough to be handwaved away in the name of artistic license. If there were some method of reliably permanently rendering them bald, that would open up the back of the skull for additional mount points, but I couldn't think of a way to do that. $\endgroup$ – Iron Gremlin Mar 25 '20 at 23:41

A Modified Scold’s Bridle

enter image description here

Scold’s Bridles, also called witch’s bridles, were cruel punishment/torture devices used on mostly on women, originating in the 16th century. Please note that I do not condone the use of such devices, even in history; I am simply explaining their usage as a sort of illustration. They were publicly humiliating masks the people had to wear, due to being suspected witches because of ‘scolding’ in public, or ‘gossiping’ and ‘rioting’. A spike embedded into a ball near the tongue would pierce into the tongue when the wearer attempts to speak or eat, making such actions impossible. It also could be a metal piece pressing the tongue down instead, causing it to be very difficult to speak coherently.

The Virtue Mask

It is difficult to imagine joining metal to the face as there are frankly too many biological consequences, but instead your mask can be a sort of scold’s bridle. These masks have the advantage of being able to be put on whenever one joins the religious order. There would be spikes on the back of the mask, which would not hurt the user when they put it on, but when one tries to remove it, spikes pierce into the back of the head, so effectively, it stays on. In mask form, it would look similar to the following, but have spikes that extend the opposite way, for when the user tries to remove it (from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure): enter image description here

The public can see how the mask is attached, so the mask is like a symbol of virtue, representing a sort of lifetime dedication to their cause, rather than the humiliation associated with a Scold’s. Just please change the mask design into something more plain, otherwise the public would be absolutely frightened instead.

If spikes are too much, instead, the mask can be two metal halves (like a helmet), and be melded together after being placed around a person’s face. Or, it could be a mask welded with metal straps on the back of the head.

The mask should be slightly larger than the person’s head, to prevent the welding heat from searing the person’s face forever, or it could be nearly face fitting searing a vertical scar into the side of their head forever as it is welded on (shudders). If your story is to feature deserters often, and the religion is extremist even in extremist religions, I would say the form fitting mask would be ideal. Otherwise, the large mask (more like a helmet) may be nice, serving as a symbol of the religion.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the idea of a mask with spikes angled so that they only pierce you when trying to take it off, rather than put it on (fish hook style) is a pretty elegant solution. $\endgroup$ – CaptainSkyfish Mar 23 '20 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ @CaptainSkyfish yup, I will clarify that in the question too. $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Mar 23 '20 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, the spike helmet seems it would be possible to doff with just a pair of metal sheets between the spikes and the skin. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Mar 24 '20 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak It’s a part of the symbolism, and constant pain that they would have to endure. $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Mar 24 '20 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak if the mask doesn’t work, they can just weld a helmet around the face, as given in the alternate part of the answer $\endgroup$ – Enthus3d Mar 24 '20 at 15:03

(...) a mask, an identifying symbol of their devotion, which many believe is permanently sealed to their face.

That's not really a mask. Those guy are just really ugly.

Seriously now, you've gotta irritate and multilate the flesh, making it so that the whole skin is wounded and looks like rust (kinda like this). Then paralyze the facial muscles. Those guys will only be able to swallow preprocessed food, but that's softcore in comparison to other crazy things people did in the past for their beliefs.

  1. Make the helmet as two halves that join together with nuts and bolts.
  2. The helmet has some openable small windows for performing hygiene and allowing room for hairs and a beard grow up out of the mask.
  3. Make sure that the mask is tight enough in the neck to make it impossible to be removed pulling it upwards without separating both parts. But obviously, not too tight to injury the user.
  4. Weld the nuts and bolts.

Then, the mask can be removed only by breaking up the nuts and bolts. This actually happens once in a while for allowing full hygiene, treating wounds, cutting hair or simply replacing an old mask with a new one if/when needed, however this requires the aid of someone else and will take at least a couple of minutes (at least if we want the subject alive, of course).


You could probably, with enough practice, create a method to drill curved spikes into the wearer's head without hurting the important parts too much. After the spikes have healed a little you could just weld the mask onto the ends. Yeah it'd be painful, but that's could be part of becoming one with the whole. The curved spikes would make sure to anchor the mask, it'd take a bit of breaking and tearing in order to remove the mask and the victim probably wouldn't survive the blood loss given the technology.


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