One woman ponders the relative benefits of dyeing her hair black or buying a wig. After about 10 minutes' deliberation, she comes out with it: "You see, I'm going to be Olive Oyl . . . " Another woman purchases a long furry tail and then leaves. A man in a business suit tries on "Thug" masks, hunching his shoulders and making guttural noises in front of a mirror. "Whenever a recession hits, the costumes, the masks, the magic, all the entertainment gets better," says "Doc" Dougherty, in his tenth year of employ at Al's Magic Shop. "It just seems that people want to forget. And they don't care, they just spend the money." What does a mask mean to us? "There've been books written on the idea that the mind working behind a concealed identity is the key," says William Davenport, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in primitive art -- things like masks. "Other people have approached it from a purely theatrical standpoint -- whether it be modern theater or ancient theater . . . The mask is instrumental in getting across the idea." But it's a theatrical convention and not a relationship between the wearer and the mask. "Then there is the artist," says Davenport. "Hang it on the museum wall as a piece of sculpture." One of these artists is Erin Clark, who not only makes masks; she wears them. She acquired a taste for the masquerade early. When she was growing up, her two sisters and her parents held dress-up pageants. They lived on a farm -- horses and the like -- and whenever there was a Halloween party for one of the sisters, her father would dress as the headless horseman, gallop by on a horse and hurl a pumpkin at the house. Then, being the youngest in the family, she feels she was alone a lot: "I had to create characters or something . . . Amelia Earhart, Joan of Arc, Lady Godiva." She makes masks from feathers and sequins and, often, beaks. The first one she ever made, about three years ago, was styled after the owl mask worn by O in The Story of O. Now the masks she makes (for $35) are usually whatever people commission of her. "They'll give me a color scheme or theme -- a military mask, oriental, a bird." She's made Sarah Bernhardt, Marie Antoinette. "A lot of people are into bird masks. It's wild. They describe some sort of feathered thing . . . I get an idea of what this person should be. Sometimes I can tell by the voice. I haven't been wrong yet. . . It's really nice to be able to make something they want. They run immediately to the mirror. They are just sort of awed by their transformation." She goes to three or four costume parties a year. "I have been to enough to know that when people are in disguise they get really outrageous. If you took away the costumes and the masks, they wouldn't be as uninhibited," says Clark. "A friend of mine went to a party as Zelda Fitzgerald once. And let me tell you, I just couldn't believe how she carried on. She just did Zelda. She got really drunk." As for herself, she says, "If I believed in reincarnation -- well, whenever I went to costume parties I used to go as a flapper. I couldn't get out of it. I was just so overwhelmed by my ability to look like this. Nobody else could bring it off like I could. That went on for a long time. Then I was into 'vamp,' Theda Bara. "Now I have gotten into hero worship. The last party I went as a Valkyrie. I had a helmet with horns sticking out, a gold breastplate. I made the costume. "I have always wanted to be a Viking, but I didn't want to be just any Viking but a Valkyrie. She rides over the battlefield and claims t from responsibility, a sense of anonymity. We are so often defined by our roles. There are so many clear expectations of those roles. Wearing a mask is a chance to be anonymous, to step out of those roles. It's really just speculation, but maybe we like the loss of responsibility. "We know what happens when people are anonymous. But we don't know anything about why people seek out such situations. "There has been work done that shows when people are part of a cohesive group and they can't be identified, they are more likely to do something that is typically inhibited." In the case of aggression, Pallak says, "it partly depends on how a person achieves anonymity. For example, people dressed as Ku Klux Klan members are likely to be more aggressive. If you get them to dress in surgical gowns they are not more aggressive -- it's costume-specific." So don't expect a kid dressed as a Rubik's Cube to say "Boo." Mirella Belshe makes an entirely different sort of mask: a life cast. She wraps surgical gauze directly on the face -- leaving holes for eyes and nose -- and applies a dental paste that doesn't pull out hair. After six or seven minutes, the human subject is released. "Once I have a mask," says Belshe, "I shrink them, I distort them, I modify them. Then I cast them in bronze or do them in marble or whatever. I do it in a very relaxed way. Sometimes people think they can hold a smile for two or three minutes. But they can't. So I give them things to do, like chewing on the rubber tip of a pencil. It comes out as if you are smiling. There is nothing more terrifying than a forced smile." Her masks are lovely even in the gauze stage, before the next step when they are filled with clay. Every one is different, as different as faces are from one another. She splits them to show the profile, puts them in a box with little sculpted feet, or welds a half-face into the crux of a folded stand of bronze -- so that reflected it becomes a perfectly symmetrical face, which would otherwise be an impossibility. "My fascination," she says, "is to see how people react. Until you have seen your own mask, you have never seen yourself in three dimensions. Until you actually peel this mask off their faces -- their reaction is, It doesn't look like me; it looks like my father. I've always looked like my mother." Sculptors see things differently: Faces are landscapes to them. They see past hair and other superficialities to the lines, the structure of the face. Belshe did a mask once for a six-year-old girl who wanted to give it to her father as a present. As the sculptress tells the story, the girl had a little brother, and at 11 that night the mother called, distraught. She said her boy had been crying; he wanted a mask of his own. "Well, that's silly," said Belshe, "they are exactly the same!" "No. They don't look anything like one another," said the mother: "She has blond hair and he is dark." "Why, yes they do," said Belshe. "Their bone structure -- they have the same cheekbones, the same nose." "That's impossible," said the mother; "they are adopted." The next afternoon, Belshe recalls, the mother phoned back. She had talked to the local adoption agency, which checked the records and told her that they were indeed brother and sister. The mother told the sculptress something else: The couple had adopted the brother later, and the little girl had been jealous, she seemed so unhappy. But discovering that they were brother and sister, the parents were sure they had done the right thing. People want their faces cast, Belshe says, "for the simple reason they w you are not happy with yourself. I have had many people cancel appointments many times for absurd reasons -- my pet alligator bit me, and so on. They are afraid of what will turn up." Nancy Cusick delved further. Her encounter with masks three years ago was a self- revelation. She and eight other artists launched a feminist art group and, after a false start at a group collage, they hit upon mask-making. When each plaster shell of a mask was finished, the women painted them with self- images. One face was glamorous, another looked like a robot. One had pinpoints for eyes. One woman made three, herself as a baby, a young woman and an old woman. Cusick, a collagist and former director of Washington Women's Art Center, fashioned two masks after the myth of Persephone and her mother, Demeter. She especially wanted to explore the mother-daughter relationship because her extended family at the time had five generations of women. "You really get into the character," she says. "I felt I was part of the myth I was using. . . I can see where an actress could get into a role just by dressing like the character. You become that person in a way. It does change your feeling of identity -- it extends it, at least for the time being." But making the masks didn't satisfy the women's group; they had to wear them outside. "Our first venture into the world with these," recalls Cusick, "was into a supermarket in the Kensington area. It happened to be around Halloween, that made it more plausible. We went walking in the supermarket, putting on the masks and taking pictures of each other. It caused a lot of surprise." The next time, they dressed in complete costume and went to Glen Echo Park. Another time they visited the Zoo. "The reaction of the people was most fascinating," says Cusick. "Some were surprised and delighted and went along with it, and others thought we were a little off the wall. Some are really put off by this sort of thing." It is not, she adds, something you'd want to do alone. "It was an extremely freeing experience for all of us." Cusick found it to be an important stage in her artistic development. It wasn't really therapy, says Cusick. "It was public play. We went out in public and were children again. When we wore the masks we were free. It was serious play. In some ways that's what art is about." But the anthropologist looks at masking from a more objective and scientific point of view than the artist. "A lot of garbage is in people working out attitudes," says Professor Davenport. "This came out of the psychoanalytic period: the idea that one could act out personality with a mask and do things one couldn't otherwise do. "Most of the masks that anthropologists see, when the mask goes on the people are constrained by performances. You can't do much with Hamlet," he says. The ceremonial masks of many countries can be seen in museums around Washington. The walls of the Museum of African Art are covered with them: a mask with a bush cow's ears and a crocodile snout, used by members of a men's secret society in western Guinea. A shoulder mask used by the Baga people represents Nimba, goddess of fertility. From Liberia there are masks of forest spirits with frightening teeth and jaws, the beard on one made of shotgun shells. There are masks danced only by women and dan masks that entertain or judge village disputes -- simple, dark and lovely or ominous male faces. The Museum of Natural History exhibits a fierce Japanese warrior mask frozen in a formidable grimace partly cloaked by a formidably stiff mustache. There are Chinese lion masks pupils. Rick Hill, museum director at the Native American Center for the Living Arts in Niagara Falls, New York, says that these ceremonial masks are "still in pretty popular use among Iroquois in the United States and Canada. They are sacred things and it's hard to get an answer about them." And, he adds, "the Iroquois prefer it to be called a medicine mask. 'False face' is a derogatory term." There are two types: the wooden medicine mask and the corn-husk mask, which represents the people who taught the Iroquois to hunt and farm. "They come back once a year," says Hill, "and tell us prophecies about the future. They are also used in individual curing ceremonies. "It's one of the strongest elements of our traditional culture that remain as part of our daily life. In fact, we are trying to get some of the masks returned from museums so we can use them. The old ones still have power to them and they need to be taken care of. If they are not used, it can have a negative impact on our communities. . . "It's hard for a non-Indian to understand. They are medicine masks and that's just what it is. They act on the mind as well as the body. These things are sacred. We don't worship them, but we use them and share in whatever powers or abilities they have." Whether self-revealing, ceremonial or merely artistic, there is a mystery to masks. They're as universal as language and probably almost as old. And they're not restricted to the ceremonial life of certain societies. You need only walk outside to see our modern masks: the beard on one man's face worn to make himself look older and wiser, sunglasses for concealment, heavy makeup, a tan. On a woman's hat, a veil stands for a certain reserve and aloofness, and on a bride, modesty. This time of year, the football helmet is going out and the hockey mask and ski mask are coming in, along with all those masks for Halloween. And what are they all about? Where Professor Davenport grew up, Halloween was "all trick. . . But the masks seemed to fit into the idea of how we did it out West -- they concealed you when you put out the lights and played tricks on the schoolteachers. . . "I can't really in my mind figure out Halloween. That itself is a real anthropological puzzle. The history is okay, we can trace that. But what's the appeal? What perpetuates it? It's separate from formal religion. . . "The symbolism in it has shifted so dramatically. I was in a shop the other day and there was nothing there of the traditional masks any more. Now it's Star Wars, all contemporary or TV or movies, and that tells me something. "Really, nobody gives a damn about the tradition of it being associated with ghosts and souls and All Souls' Eve." Among the shelves of faces, the rogues' gallery at Al's Magic Shop: "Clowns, Dracula, horror things are still very popular," says Al Cohen, owner, pointing out the masks we can expect to see a lot of this Halloween time. "Star Wars. Coneheads. Women like witches. You would think it would die," he says. "But it won't." Nixon still sells, but Reagan seems to be out ahead. Al makes up the names on their labels: RAY-GUN, TRICKY DICK ($19.95), DUKE (John Wayne, $16), HARRY FAT, SEA HAG, DIE- ANN (bloodied face, stiffened tongue sticking out). Heads in eternal screams, a shrunken one with lips sewn shut, half-faces (LIZA, MARILYN, JUDY, $19.95) with just the upper jaw -- you supply the rest. And D.O.A.: "This one was new this year. Some were so gruesome I couldn't order them. Chest wounds with the ribs showing, brain damage. You know what else is selling well? The whips from 'Raider trick-or-treating. Last year he was a gorilla. "When anybody puts on a mask here," Doc says, "they take on a whole different personality." One customer, named Bud, he says, "used to put on a monkey mask and go outside and hang from a tree branch. He'd grab people and bring them into the store." But, Doc says, "I never wear a mask. A lot of people are hiding behind a clown or hiding behind a character because they feel that as themselves they don't do these things -- go out and do wild sorts of things. The lampshade technique: you know, life of the party, you put a lampshade over your head." Professor Davenport blames Freud for interpretations of masks that smack of "meaning." "That's what the psychoanalysts were after. . . There is something appealing to be able to do something for the moment not revealing oneself. One can be public and private at the same time." "A guy wanted an adult baby carriage," says Al. "I told him we just sold out."