“The Opera Ghost really existed…” Such are the opening lines of Gaston Leroux’s Edwardian homage to the Belle Epoque. Pregnant with mystery, romance, and intrigue, the words usher us into a world as fantastical as one of Hans Christian Andersen’s frosty fairy tales – as decadent as one of Oscar Wilde’s indulgent novellas, as Gothic as “Jane Eyre,” as romantic as Jane Austen.
A classic from the beginning, the story has a telescopic quality, starting with the 1907 burial of phonographic records in the cellars of the Opéra Garnier (a historical fact) and the discovery of a lonely skeleton wearing a gold ring (a fictitious invention), before plunging decades back into the winter of 1880-1881, and further back even into the narcotic reveries of mid-century Persia. By the time we are drawn back into the posh tedium of pre-war Paris, we are left as stunned and dreamy as an opium-eater wakening from a pipe dream.
But the question still remains: did the Opera Ghost really exist? Hundreds, if not thousands, of online “phans” have plowed through historical records, genealogies, and urban legends, hoping to prove that a disfigured genius named Erik called the cavernous cellars of the opera house his home. They point to Leroux’s deathbed confession that “it was all real,” and some even allude to conspiracies and cover-ups. The truth, naturally, is much more pedestrian. Leroux was himself a theatrical eccentric prone to melodrama and hyperbole – not unlike Erik – and after the transatlantic success of Lon Chaney’s 1925 film adaptation, he relished the idea of leaving this world with another mystery. The Palais Garnier has, in fact, never reported a ghost of any sort, and no skeletons were discovered when the recordings of Edwardian opera singers were sealed in the cellars.
But the Ghost lives on. Erik and Christine have achieved a literary apotheosis afforded only a few fictional creations – Holmes and Watson, the “Necronomicon,” Odysseus – wherewith they have become real to their readers (to some, literally), and achieved immortality. What is it about this book – written, to date, 109 years ago – that has captured imaginations with the same power as “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and “Wuthering Heights”? The answers lie in its archetypal agelessness: Beauty and the Beast is a story that we have been telling since “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” and the themes of cursed genius (Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”), endangered damsels (Andromeda, Persephone, Eurydice), guided journeys into the depths of man’s despair (Dante’s “Inferno”), and the redeeming power of love (Orpheus, Beatrice, Christ), have been with us since mankind began to record our myths.
We will discuss this further in just a moment, but what we must understand for now is that Leroux expertly plumbed the depths of human insecurities, values, and hopes to create a myth with all the grandeur and panache of Shakespeare or Homer. It still resonates with us because we relate to the rejected genius (even if we aren’t rejected; even if we aren’t geniuses) whose abilities are never respected due to the disfigurement of his body. Especially in an era where we are so conscious of body shaming, racism, and sexism, Erik’s banishment from the crème-de-la-crème of society – cavorting four stories above him in top hats and jewels – strikes us as authentic. As Leroux penned with a sigh, “Ah, yes. We must needs pity the Opera Ghost…”
LITERARY ARCHETYPES AND INFLUENCES
The novel may owe the profundity of its success to Leroux’s savvy ability to tap into our deep, psychic nerves – creating a masterpiece which is neither original nor surprising, but which replays an archetypal drama with which we as a species have been enthralled since the dawn of storytelling. Like the Paris Opera House – whose brilliant grandiosity is supported by a series of deep, dark cellars, as deep as the building is tall – Leroux constructed his tale on the legacy of archetypes that reach back millennia.
PERSEPHONE AND PLUTO. Perhaps the oldest, most immediately recognizable prototype for Christine and Erik is the myth of Persephone and Pluto. The blooming daughter of Demeter (goddess of the harvest) was unfortunate enough to draw the attention of the broody lord of the underworld, who promptly kidnapped her – dragging her under the earth to his subterranean kingdom. Outraged, Demeter launched the world’s first winter, which ravaged mankind until Pluto was convinced to share custody with the goddess: Persephone would be released for half the year (spring, summer), and return to her macabre husband for the remainder (autumn, winter) – hence the seasons. Another Greco-Roman model can be found in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: in many ways Raoul – boyish, handsome, and passionate – resembles the poetic Orpheus, whose love for the dead Eurydice lead him to charge the gates of hell in an effort to recover her from the clutches of (yet again) Pluto.
DANTE, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, AND FAIRY TALES. Dante’s “Inferno” – also influenced by the Orpheus myth – serves as the likely model for the relationship between Raoul and the Persian: like Dante and Virgil, the older man is not really among the living (the Persian leads a liminal life, haunting the opera just as much as Erik), and serves as a guide to the younger. Also like Dante and Virgil, the two plunge beneath the earth in pursuit of lost love, but are tripped up by the guide’s hubris before they are freed by divine intervention (angels in Dante’s case, Christine in Raoul’s).
The medieval artistic trope of “Death and the Maiden” (utilized in works such as G. A. Burger’s “Lenore” and Schubert’s eponymous quartet) is clearly recognizable in Erik’s death’s head and Christine’s virginal beauty, not to mention the very obvious parallels to “Bluebeard” (which Erik himself references), wherein a ghoulish man with a secret room filled with bodies marries a nosy coquette (gory hijinks ensue). The story is also immediately recognizable in the French fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast,” wherein a virtuous girl’s love is capable of piercing through the bitter spirit of a lonely eccentric, horribly deformed by an enchantment. “The Princess and the Frog” uses the trope of the spell-breaking kiss, as do a bevy of European fairy tales.
THE ENGLISH GOTHIC NOVEL. The modern era furnished Leroux with plenty of models, also. The Gothic novels popularized in England were rife with abductions of virginal ingénues, grotesque hermits with equal quantities of shrewdness and lust, helpless male heroes tossed about by their own passions (and desperate to save their beloved from the machinations of her vulgar kidnapper), and wise, eccentric (and often exotic) guides who teach the hero to channel their passions. They are also almost all dominated by architecture and edifices: English Gothic novels almost always were set in and around a grandiose, stone building (manors, castles, abbeys, monasteries, prisons, forts, churches) not unlike the Palais Garnier. Novels like “The Monk,” “The Mysteries of Udoplho,” “The Castle of Otranto,” and “Uncle Silas” were likely inspirations to Leroux.
THE NOVELS OF VICTOR HUGO. Perhaps his three biggest influences were a trio of late Victorian novels written about tragic romances, hidden motives, and secret identities. Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs” tells the story of Gwynplaine, an Englishman whose face has been gruesomely mutilated by a Glasgow smile – giving him the appearance of wearing a perpetual grin. Like Erik, Gwyplaine is made an outcast for his disfigurement, but comes to love a virtuous woman whom he hopes will humanize him with her acceptance. Gwynplaine has an easier row to hoe than Erik: his beloved is blind, and – without being able to see the savagery of his mutilation – supposes that her suitor must be a very happy man. Their story – in typical Hugo fashion – has a far grimmer ending than Leroux’s, however, with the girl being exiled in an act of careless corruption, and Gwynplaine committing suicide after watching her die in his arms.
The second major influence also comes from Hugo: “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Both stories tell about a grotesquely disfigured musician who dwells, ghostlike, in a Parisian wonder of architecture. Both men are “handled” by an older, authoritarian male (Hugo’s villainous Frollo and Leroux’s former chief-of-police, the Persian). Both fall in love with a young, foreign girl who has become a local sensation (the gypsy Esmeralda, and the Swedish Christine). Both abduct them in their respective third acts, taking them into the heart of their eccentric abodes (Quasimodo taking her to the top of the cathedral to save her; Erik taking her to the cellars of the opera to keep her), and both have romantic rivals who are aristocratic Parisians (Captain Phoebus and the Viscount de Chagny).
In the end of both novels, workers repairing the respective buildings find a deformed skeleton, giving credence to the legends. There are many more similarities, but these are the most notable. As an aside, the silent film actor Lon Chaney Sr. would become most famous for three roles from French novels: Quasimodo, Gwynplaine, and the Phantom of the Opera.
TRILBY AND SVENGALI. The third novel – the clearest model of all – which most influenced Leroux was Geroge du Maurier’s “Trilby.” Wildly – almost fanatically – popular at the time, the novel is a relic today due to its antisemitism, but in the late 19th century, everyone was reading “Trilby.” It told the story of the beautiful Irish singer of the same name who moves to Paris to experience La Vie Bohème. Perhaps more of a Carlotta than a Christine, Trilby frequents Bohemian cafes and dance halls, poses for artists, and is the rage of the bohemian set.
The most influential subplot of the novel is surprisingly a small episode in the novel, but became its most famous feature, and formed the basis of Christine’s relationship with Erik. The villainous Svengali – a hypnotist and musical genius – sees potential in Trilby, who is tone-deaf, and decides to entrance her in order to fashion her into the world’s greatest diva. Few “phans” of Leroux’s novel are aware that in the original French, Christine was described as being a relatively weak singer (the 1911 English translation excluded several comments that express this explicitly): she wasn’t tone deaf, but was said to sing like a door-hinge before Erik’s tutoring. Like Svengali, Erik decides to form Christine into a sort of musical Pygmalion: turning a so-so chorus girl into a prima diva.
In “Trilby,” Svengali’s fiendish machinations (he is implied to have carnal intentions for Trilby) fail when he has a heart attack during one of her performances on the London stage: like Carlotta, her voice suddenly fails her and she is booed off stage. Although Leroux transforms the cigarette-smoking, wine-slurping, nude model, Irishwoman into an emotionally-judicious, level-headed, chaste Scandinavian, the insidious effect of Erik on Christine is utterly carnal: as I will point out ad nauseam in my notes, Erik’s power of Christine is unquestionably meant to be read with a sexual subtext. She is described as going into ecstasies and raptures during her performances, swoons with a flushed face after her first triumph, and constantly horrifies Raoul with the eroticism of her euphoric singing. Some of these details were omitted from the popular 1911 translation, but I have returned them to their proper place.
While some readers play the same “Game” that fans of Sherlock Holmes play (believing or pretending that the stories were true and based on historical models), a cursory attempt to verify any of the events in Leroux’s novel will quickly disappoint those who hope to uncover a historical ghost (the Palais Garnier actually has no rumors of resident ghosts despite its age). But a slightly more cynical investigation will actually render some surprising results: most of the characters have historical analogs, even including some of the novel’s events.
THE HISTORICAL PARIS OPERA HOUSE. Let us begin with the main character: the Palais Garnier. Like Hugo’s Notre Dame Cathedral in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (originally titled “Notre Dame de Paris”), this Gothic novel rarely veers away from this central setting, and uses its architecture, design, and floorplan as a psychological metaphor (rising nearly a dozen stories in the air – beautiful and elegant – but built on a foundation of six dark and secretive cellars). In truth, the Palais Garnier does sport an underground lake, although it is most accurately called a water tank or cistern – a dark lair used to collect the swampy runoff of Paris’ boggy soil, which hampered the excavation of the cellars during construction. Other than romanticizing this claustrophobic pool, Leroux’s descriptions are fairly accurate.
And yes, there is a Box Five, the door to which sports the considerate placard: “LOGE DU L’FANTOME DE L'OPERA” (“box of the phantom of the opera”). Built by architect Charles Garnier, the building’s construction lasted from 1861 to 1875 – briefly halted by the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune – and it remains a stunning example of Beaux-Arts, Second Empire, and Neo-Baroque architecture.
Construction costed a staggering 36,000,000 francs (almost $100,000,000 in 2018 currency), and when it finally ended, the 1,979-seat Palais Garnier was – and remains – the most famous opera house in the world. You can read more about the history and dimensions of the Opéra Garnier in an 1879 essay from Scribner’s Magazine called “The Paris Opera House” (first printed in de Mattos’ 1911 translation, and frequently included at the end of most copies of “The Phantom of the Opera”).
THE HISTORICAL PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Rumors do exist that Erik has a historical counterpart: there has been some suggesting – though poorly documented – that Erik was partially based on a little-known architect named Eric Vachon. Vachon, it was said, participated in the building of the Palais and suffered from porphyria (the skin disease that most commentators blame for Erik’s deformity). The legend holds that while construction was underway, he asked if it would be possible for him to build an apartment in the Palais’ bowels. When Garnier absolutely refused, Eric disappeared and was never heard from again… A fun urban legend, though almost certainly false. More likely than not, Erik is merely a literary collage of Svengali, Beauty’s Beast, Gwynplaine, Quasimodo, Pluto, and various villains from English Gothic novels.
(WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PHANTOM'S FACE?) While the character of Erik may be fictitious, his enigmatic disfigurement, musical brilliance, and wildly dynamic personality may all have medical explanations. So what was the cause of Erik’s ghoulish face? There are many things which could have contributed to Erik’s deformity, although some of his traits (e.g., his glowing cat’s eyes) are scientifically improbable.
Fans of the novel and its derivatives have pointed to a number of conditions including a ghastly combination of cutaneous porphyria (the so-called “Vampire” disease) and congenital syphilis given to him by his infected mother (possibly alluded to by the gaudy furniture which he has inherited from her). The syphilis argument has good ground to stand on (Edvard Munch’s macabre painting “The Inheritance” (the painting above) shows a version of what Erik’s infancy may have looked like: a Victorian woman in mourning clothes cradles a green-skinned baby with dark eyes and a chest oozing with sores).
In my opinion – one shared by at least a plurality of commentators – the most accurate diagnosis is that Erik suffered from Gunther Disease (nicknamed the “Vampire Disease”), a form of porphyria. This metabolic disorder (also called congenital erythropoietic porphyria) is caused by a genetic hormone deficiency and – like all porphyrias – results in the accumulation of natural proteins in the blood and bone. These chemicals leave victims horrendously sensitive to sunlight (which would be eased by Erik’s subterranean lifestyle), which causes their skin to blister, scar, fester, and eventually seem to rot away from the bone.
Untreated patients who do not avoid the sun will look very much like a rotting mummy: their eyebrows, ears, cheeks, lips, and noses will easily develop painful ulcers that grow infected, scar over, and steadily eat away at their faces. If you Google images of Gunther disease, you will find images that closely resemble Leroux’s description: lipless, noseless individuals covered with ulcerated, patchy skin – their eyelids stretched tight and inflexible so that their eyes peek out of small, dark holes. By living in sunny India, Iran, and Turkey – even with a mask – Erik only acerbated his illness (causing more ulcers and infection), until his nose, lips, eyelids, ears, jowls, and scalp had all but rotted away from his skull, leaving a scarred patchwork of infected flesh.
DID THE PHANTOM HAVE A PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDER? His trademark genius combined with flights of passionate obsession and crippling self-loathing may also have medical – or rather psychiatric – explanations. Some commentators have argued that Erik’s supernatural musical intuition may point to high functioning autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome: while lacking the ability to tactfully navigate social encounters, he is armed with a savant-like acumen for musical, architectural, ventriloquistic, and engineering innovation. In an era before the autism spectrum was understood or appreciated, Erik’s loneliness would only be compounded by his uniqueness.
His emotional violence – pitching effortlessly from sadistic rage to masochistic shame – may also point to manic-depression, explaining his monomaniacal obsessions (which may also owe something to the fixating traits of Asperger’s Syndrome) with Christine, music, and revenge, as well as his apparent sexual sado-masochism (he is equally aroused by torturing people to death, and by hurling himself at Christine’s feet, acting like a “dog” and a “slave,” and begging her to do “whatever” she wants with him).
THE HISTORICAL RAOUL. Despite attempts of amateur sleuths to uncover a model for Raoul de Chagny (including one suspicious genealogical “discovery” which produced three de Chagny brothers named Raoul, Philippe, and… Eric (le gasp!)), no parallel stories have so far been found. The trope of two brothers run to ruin by the influence of a woman below their social station is, of course, entirely archetypal in fairy tales, the Bible, and Shakespeare to mention a few. Even Raoul’s polar expedition in search of survivors from a lost ship is utterly fictitious.
THE HISTORICAL CHRISTINE. Far more fertile historical ground can be found in the character of Christine Daaé. Her Norwegian surname – pronounced “doe” in Scandinavia – likely comes from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Wind Tells of Valdemar Daae and his Daughters.” Christine’s first name, personality, biography, and traits are probably borrowed from the Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, who signed her name “Christine.” Nilsson’s biography squares up with Daaé’s in many ways. Both were born to farmer peasants in rural Sweden before transforming into international opera sensations. Here is a tidy summary of their most obvious parallels: Nilsson’s family was forced to leave their home due to poverty, moving to the southern hamlet of Skatelov (compare to Christine’s fictitous hometown of Skotelof) where she began singing with her father at church, accompanied by his violin.
Constantly poor, their family traveled throughout Sweden, singing at festivals where she was discovered by a judge at the Ljungby fair (compare to Christine being discovered by a professor at the Limby fair), whereupon – like Christine – she was sent to Gothenburg for formal education, before (another parallel) moving to Paris where her patron was one Made Adelaide Valerius-Leuhusen (compare to Christine’s Madame Valerius). She was renowned for her honey-blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and the supernatural sublimity of her singing.
Both women sang the Queen of the Night, Donna Elvira, Marguerite, and Ophelia (of which Nilsson’s Marguerite and Ophelia became the gold standard idealizations for the role throughout the 19th century). Her bitter rivalry with Adelina Patti (the likely model for Carlotta) usually pit her as the victim and Patti as the villain. Finally, married the Count de Casa Miranda and became a countess.
THE HISTORICAL PERSIAN. The Persian – a character much maligned, included in only two film adaptations and two stage adaptations out of dozens – was based on a historical figure – a Persian exile named Mohammed Ismaël Kahn. The son of an ambassador to Britain, his father had been killed in a riot in Bombay. He fled the Middle East at some point, subsisting on a British government pension and living – like Leroux’s Persian – in the Rue de Rivoli.
He was an eccentric figure who excited local interest with his long beard, strange astrakhan cap, and odd manners. The following is an excerpt from Maurice Allem’s Daily Life in the Second Empire: 'There was an old man, dressed in a sort of long black coat which enveloped him to his feet, his face unchanging, which descended a large white beard. It was surmounted by an astrakhan cap on top, to which he did not remove even in the theater.
'By night we always saw him at the Theatre-Italien or at the Opera, still motionless, silent, attentive, unless he was alseep. Such a character excited curiosity. Columnists in search of subjects chronically were eager to know who he was, what his name was, where he came from, what he was doing in Paris. One was learned that he came from Persia and his name was Mohammed Ismael. It was believed that he lived richly on an annual pension of one hundred thousand francs he received from England on account of him doing an act of treason against his country. So it was said, but no one could prove it. The writer's with their curiosity satisfied treated it the same as the misery of the sphinx. It was, in any case, he was one of the picturesque faces of Paris at the time. He only was said to have disappeared towards the end of the Second Empire, in 1868, brought down by a stroke.'
THE PHANTOM'S PERSIAN PATRONS. And before we leave Persia, a few words might be said about Erik’s first patrons – the Shah-in-Shah and “little sultana” who introduced him to the world of torture and murder. Almost certainly – if we are to read this reference historically – the “little sultana” would be Jayran Khanum, Forough al-Saltaneh, seventh wife of Nasser ed Din Shah, the Shah of Persia during most of the Late Victorian Era (more on him later). One of 80-some wives, Jayran was unquestionably Nasser’s favorite – often called his “soul mate” – and was known for going against the grain of Persian culture. Mongolian by descent, she was not quite little, and would not have matched what we would consider conventional standards of beauty: obese, mannish, and endowed with a plush, black uni-brow.
Her husband was a great fan of photography, and there are many pictures of her on the internet if you care to look. Jayran was outspoken and intelligent, reportedly, and enjoyed masculine pastimes like horse riding and hunting. Although there is no record of her committing the murders that the Persian ascribes to her, she was known for her eccentric tastes, masculinity, and prowess with firearms. Interestingly, she was “a singer and dancer of humble origins” much like the women on the list given to Madame Giry, rising from a peasant background to “permanent wife” of the Shah (all of his other wives were classified as “temporary wives,” or concubines). In 1860 she died at 25, and is rumored to have been poisoned by jealous courtiers.
THE HISTORICAL OPERA MANAGERS. Historically, the manager of the opera in 1881 was Auguste Vaucorbeil, a composer and businessman, whose reign lasted from 1879 to his 1884 death, and he bears virtually no similarity to Richard or Moncharmin. It has, however, been suggested that they were modeled after a single person, representing two distinct sides of his character. The man in question was the very first manager of the Palais Garnier – a man noted both for his wild moods and for his tone deafness. Hyacinthe Olivier Halanzier managed the house from 1875 to 1879. Like Richard, he was infamous for his violent temper and insecurities, and like Moncharmin, he was secretly ridiculed for his lack of musical literacy and amateurism.
THE HISTORICAL CHANDELIER ACCIDENT. The most famous historical model for “The Phantom of the Opera,” however, is a minor catastrophe that is far less sexy, less catastrophic, and more sad than Leroux’s rendition of it. The accident of the chandelier would have left dozens dead, but its real-life inspiration had only one casualty. This is based on several incidents, the most famous being the 1896 event when a counterweight fell from the chandelier, striking a female concierge in the head and killing her. On May 20th the audience at the Palais Garnier were watching a performance of the opera “Helle.”
Approximately at 8:57 pm, an electric flash and a burst of smoke came from the chandelier: a short in the system quickly melted through the wires holding the weights in place, sending them plunging below. Half a dozen people were injured by the heavy metal disks that rained from the ceiling after a frayed cable released the weights into the fourth tier, but 56 year old Madame Chomette (who was seeing an opera for the first time) was the only casualty. The massive disk pulverized her head and splashed blood over her daughter’s face. Stunned, the girl wandered through the audience, seeking her mother, who was found crushed into pulp beneath the iron weight.
3. LITERARY INTERPRETATIONS, ANALYSIS, AND SUBTEXTS
Interpreting “The Phantom of the Opera” has not been a task frequently undertaken by serious scholars. It – like many literary masterpieces that bear the name “horror” – has been glossed over in many universities as a maudlin melodrama. And yet, especially as the Lloyd Webber musical steams ahead in popularity after thirty years, scholars ignore such writing to their peril. Clearly the narrative hits a deep, collective nerve with global readership, and there are a variety of literary traditions which could bring clarity to the mingled sense of romance and unease that draws millions of readers, bloggers, viewers, and artists to revive it each year.
FEMINISM. Feminists will surely be interested in Christine’s strength and cunning; her ability to navigate two emotionally stunted men; her subversion of Victorian expectations of women by being career-minded, brave, authoritative (once shocking Raoul by gripping his arm with unsuspected strength), and level-headed; her sexual openness and expression (despite being a virgin, she takes great, solemn pleasure in the unquestionably autoerotic thrill that music provides her); and her solving of problems with feminine solutions (her maternal acceptance of Erik – rejected by his biological mother; her sisterly indulgence of Raoul’s neediness; her lover-like pacification of Erik in his dark moods by appealing to their common passions).
MARXISM. Marxists will also take keen interest in the story’s dismissive treatment of wealth and status. Early on in the novel, Leroux warns the reader that all of Paris are wearing masks (it’s just what Parisians do, he ruminates) – a comment that comes to bear at the romantic masquerade scene where social hypocrisy is satired openly. Leroux also has Raoul reject his aristocratic roots in order to be with Christine (whose low rank would cause her to be social anathema as a wife of a count), has his older brother (a cynical playboy who regularly beds the head ballerina but scoffs at Roul’s crush on Christine) drown in Erik’s traps, and casts Erik as a revolutionary terrorist hellbent on blowing up the opera house while it is bristling with men in top hats and tails and women in ball gowns and jewels. Leroux’s constant references of the communists during the Paris Commune also spice Erik’s lair with a historical atmosphere of revolution, anarchy, and egalitarianism.
PSYCHOANALYSIS. The tale seems, at its very roots, to have a sort of psychoanalytic symbolism. The Opéra Garnier itself serves – like Poe’s House of Usher, Bloch’s Bates’ Motel, and Hugo’s Notre Dame – as an architectural metaphor for the human mind. Mounted by the gilded lyre of Apollo – god of artistic idealism, order, and beauty – the rooftop of the structure can be read as mankind’s public façade: the realm of the parental Super-Ego, the source of self-control and decorum, an exterior fit to draw approval and acceptance.
It’s polar opposite is the lower cellar of the backstage where – instead of beautiful Apollo – a deformed freak show escapee reigns with equally unchecked power. And yet, like Apollo (creativity through precision) Erik is a master of art and inspiration (creativity through rebellion). Erik’s subconscious kingdom is the land of the Id – of impulse, desire, revenge, hate, repressed longings, secrecy and deception, rebellion and destruction.
(JUNGIAN DUALISM) Between the two extremes – idyllic, public Apollo and grotesque, private Erik – is the stage: the forum of the Ego – Christine – who must choose between indulging in forbidden passions, or ascending to lofty ideals. Christine is conflicted in that her love of Erik is in his apollonian inspiration: to her he is Apollo – the Angel of Music, the muse of her art. But she knows that he is capable of brutality, that he would demand a subterranean existence away from the moderating forces of society, and that (like the equally manic Raoul) his love is an all-consuming fire that threatens to overwhelm them both. The stage acts as the symbol of public life which must be acted according to the wishes of the Id below and the Super-Ego above: a tightrope walk between passion/impulse/self-care and duty/restraint/other-care.
Christine clearly struggles between doing right by Raoul, Madame Valerius, and her career, and giving in to the highly erotic raptures with which Erik fuels her art. The story ultimately concludes that if you give the Id an inch, it takes you below the earth as an eternal prisoner. Chrstine only manages to free herself by doing what Carl Jung would have advised: she countenances her dark side – Erik – by accepting it with a holy kiss. This gesture is not one of submission, but of acceptance, and after embracing her shadow self, she is able to return to the earth. But she cannot continue as she was: by accepting her Erik-nature, she has likewise banished herself from singing what Erik dismissively terms “opera music.” Now she must flee to the wild North, where she will sing wild music in privacy – far from the stage of public performance.
(FREUDIAN UNCONSCIOUS) Another psychoanalytical relationship exists between Erik’s Id and the Persian’s Super-Ego: the Persian (dutiful, responsible, ethical, judgmental, watchful, and disapproving) follows Erik’s activities with the same studious concern that Freud claimed the internalized parent monitored the actions of the selfish Id. This is why the Persian is constantly tricked by Erik but never killed: they are two denizens of the unconscious – both ghosts in their own manner – and like the Id and Super-Ego, selfishness routinely trumps duty, but duty always manages to crawl back rested and restored, ready to dump shame on its sneering head.
(EROTIC SUBTEXTS AND ANALOGIES) And speaking of shame, there is also the elephant in the room to speak of: sex. Anyone who has seen a stage or screen adaptation of this novel knows that sex seeps from the pages just as surely and as subtextually as it does from “Dracula” or “Frankenstein.” One commentator described Erik himself as “a walking phallus” who frightens people with his vulgar sensuality. Raoul is certainly very uncomfortable with Christine’s autoerotic raptures – fits of orgasmic euphoria that she experiences when she sings for Erik – and she herself is open about Erik’s spiritual union with her, claiming that “his spirit entered mine and breathed harmony down my throat.”
Just before the unmasking scene she finds herself lost in ecstasy watching Erik play the organ with lover-like vigor. Her actual reason for removing the mask is not to see his secret. In a line removed from the most common English translation (1911), she claims that she “needed” to watch his face “which was unquestionably being transfigured by the ecstasies of eternal art.” In other words – like many lovers – she was drawn to watch her partner’s sweaty face contorting in the pleasure-pain of climax.
Like “Trilby,” much of Erik’s villainy has to do with Victorian male uneasiness with the female orgasm: Erik not only encourages Christine to enjoy herself (so to speak) – he teaches her how to reach new levels of passion, how to experience heavenly pleasures that transcend her mundane experiences. Symbolically and literally, Erik coaches Christine in self-love in a manner so captivating and exciting that millions of “phans” continue to consider the story of the skull-faced, stalker wallowing in a swampy dungeon to be the sexiest, most arousing romance in print.
(RELIGIOUS ALLEGORY. Of the critics who have made the decision to treat Leroux seriously, a number of them have read the novel as a moral allegory (though not necessarily a moralistic one) with Christine featuring as a Christ-figure (an archetype whose voluntarily suffering redeems a collective curse). The name alone attracts much attention (Christine or Christine is indeed the feminine version of the male name Christian) as does her strange transformation after kissing Erik.
To begin with, Christine is deeply concerned about Raoul’s rash impulsivity, as he doesn’t appreciate Erik’s cunning (not unlike the Biblical narrative which constantly features the Children of Israel as ungrateful, impulsive, faithless, and overwhelmed). When he is finally captured by Erik (who, like Lucifer, is a fallen angel associated with complicated beauty), Raoul is considered irrecoverable: nothing could sway Erik’s cold heart – no amount of pleading or reasoning – because (as in the Garden of Eden) Raoul has broken the rules, and the rules demand a sacrifice.
Christine enters as a Christ-figure in that she freely, voluntarily offers herself in Raoul’s stead. Surrendering herself into Erik’s power, she fulfills his need for vengeance and satisfies the demands of justice. Her kiss on Erik’s death’s-head recalls Christian doctrine that after dying on the cross, Christ “descended into hell” and “conquered Death.” Christine also appears to have been a prisoner in the cellar for roughly three days (the time Christ spent rotting in the tomb before resurrecting), and emerges more or less transfigured (she is compared to a nun, is seen reading a religious tract, and is dressed in saintly white). Biblical characters who have been resurrected or encountered God are often changed somehow: Moses’ face glowed, Christ was unrecognizable, and Paul was blinded.
Christine’s act of sacrificial love of Raoul/Humanity (and open-hearted acceptance of Erik/Lucifer) breaks the curse of Erik’s suffering: he returns his stolen money, frees the lovers, nurses the Persian, puts his affairs in order, and dies in peace. Leroux’s message here need not be read as a religious sermon as much as a philosophical meditation on the redeeming powers of charity, acceptance, and mercy.
4. FILM AND STAGE ADAPTATIONS
The novel has been adapted to stage and screen countless times, most famously in 1925 and 1986.
LON CHANEY SR. The first was the silent film starring Lon Chaney Sr. – an adaptation which, despite being almost a century old, remains the most accurate of any interpretation. Chaney’s famous makeup has continued to be unsurpassed in its depiction of Erik’s skullish deformity, and may have been designed to resemble actual sufferers of porphyria. The film’s most noteworthy feature, the makeup was designed by Chaney himself and was – like Karloff’s in “Frankenstein” – a secret until the film was released. Skeletal with bulging eyes, a receded nose, jutting teeth, and thin, stringy hair and an expression which swings from misery to demonic rage, Chaney’s visual interpretation of Erik is en pointe, even if the plot portrays him as an unredeemable fiend. Modern audiences may struggle to appreciate this (partially) black and white silent masterpiece, but it cannot fail to communicate the mood of Leroux’s source material: the glamour which is a façade; the elegance which hides a horror; the beauty on the stage who acts as a transmitter for the beast in the shadows. No film version since 1925 has so effectively expressed the core irony of Leroux’s novel, and it remains the closest adaptation to date. Although the ending – complete with a chase scene, torch-wielding mob, and a last minute rescue – is more melodramatic than need be, it follows the characterization, plot, and mood of the novel more accurately than any other adaptation.
CLAUDE RAINS. The next version that attracts notice – one of the last Universal monster films – was released in 1943 and starred Claude Rains. An absolute scrambling of the plot, it introduced the oft-repeated misconception that Erik was disfigured by acid: a brilliant violinist is going blind but hopes to publish a concerto before he is fired from the Paris Opera orchestra. In a moment of nearly slapstick confusion, he accuses a publisher of trying to steal his manuscript (he isn’t; it’s being played by Franz Liszt in the other room), kills the man, and is attack with etching acid by the publisher’s mistress. Crawling back to the opera, he plots his revenge. At the same time, he continues to pay for expensive singing lessons for a young soprano who is heavily implied to be his illegitimate daughter (introducing some touches of incest). This version remains influential but is not terribly good: rushed, clumsy, unbelievable, and dull, it has too much 1940s glitz and not enough Gothicism. A wartime film, it is simply too “nice”: a humorous subplot involves a policeman and tenor vying unsuccessfully for the career-minded Christine, a grandfatherly Franz Liszt adds nothing to the plot, Erique’s transition from dark seducer to secret father make him needlessly pathetic, and the whole sparkly look of the film makes it feel more like a Technicolor musical than a tale of erotic horror.
HERBERT LOM. This was corrected powerfully twenty years later by the 1962 Hammer Film version starring Herbert Lom. While it also perpetuates the idea that Erik was disfigured by an acid accident in his adulthood (and makes a great deal of bizarre tweaks to the plot), it is successful in conveying the Gothic glamour of Leroux’s novel. Set in Victorian London, it follows the gruesome revenge of Professor Petrie, who was thought to be killed in the fire that destroyed his musical manuscript. During the conflagration, the composer attempted to douse the fire in water, but accidentally threw etching acid into his face. Gruesomely disfigured, he is rescued from the sewers by a psychopathic dwarf who acts as his lackey and enforcer. This version introduces the idea of an asymmetrical mask: although it covers his whole face, it is only pierced by one eyehole (his left eye being destroyed). A grisly study in class, corruption, and evil, the film is typical of Hammer productions in all the best ways: queasily gory, scandalously sensual, and decadently Gothic, where Claude Rains took Leroux’s source material to the level of candy-coated musical, Herbert Lom sinks it (literally) into the dank sewers of decay and corruption.
MICHAEL CRAWFORD. Almost fifteen years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber introduced the most influential adaptation since Lon Chaney. His 1986 musical was written with Sarah Brightman in mind (his wife at the time), and starred Michael Crawford in the title role. Luscious, Gothic, sensual, and psychologically complex, it downplayed the horror by introducing the iconic half-mask, but succeeded in sounding Erik’s notoriously complex psychology in a manner more effective than any previous adaptation. While it may be accused of hyping up the physical sexiness that clearly never existed between Leroux’s characters, it succeeds translating their spiritual eroticism into a visual and lyrical medium. Perhaps the greatest criticism – from a purist standpoint – is Lloyd Webber’s lionization of “the Phantom” (he is given no name) into a sort of emo genius who is clearly better for Christine than the foppish Raoul, but who is abandoned in an emotionally conflicted moment of coquettish betrayal. Readers of the novel understand that Erik is a genius, but also a tremendously manipulative sociopath, and that while Raoul is hardly less emotionally stable, Christine’s choice is natural. But the musical is truly a different animal, and although it may boost the eroticism a wee much, it is only working with the very genuine sexual subtexts that Leroux planted in his novel. Thirty years later, the musical remains the novel’s most influential adaptation.
ROBERT ENGLUND. The next notable version takes the imaginative horror of Hammer to whole new levels – probably to its detriment. Released in 1989, the Robert Englund (Freddy Kruger) version combines elements of “Faust,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and other slasher films to make the goriest interpretation of Leroux’s novel ever produced. A modern day New York singer is transported back to the 19th century by a falling sandbag after reciting an aria written by the Phantom. It seems that she is the reincarnated Christine, who is libidinously pursued by the psychopathic composer whose song she was singing. This is no fatherly Claude Rains: Englund plays a fanatic musician who sells his soul to the devil for Robert Johnson-esque talent. The devil, however, takes his face away as his due, leading the grotesquely mutilated Erik to commit a series of murders by which he constructs a mask of human flesh. Stomach-churning gore, gas lit nightmares, and clichéd atrocities ensue. If you enjoy 80s and 90s style slasher films, this might work for you, but it is stripped of the sublimity, sensuality, and redemption that have kept Leroux’s novel in print for over a century.
CHARLES DANCE. The following year, a miniseries starring Charles Dance reeled the tone way, way back to something even less Gothic than the Rains version: a sort of fey, Baroque, romantic treatment that plays up the story’s “Beauty and the Beast” origins. If the 1989 version was the most horrific adaptation ever made, the 1990 miniseries is among the least horrific. For one thing, we are never shown Erik’s face (although the grey-green makeup around his eyes leads us to suspect that it is somehow lizard-like). His love for Christine (perhaps one of the better cast Christines out there) is primarily motivated by her resemblance to his mother (who died in childbirth, but not before smiling at him – the only time he received a smile without his mask on). Released while Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was in production and in the same year that the eponymous TV series was on its final season, this “Phantom of the Opera” is more fairy tale than Gothic novel (for one thing, he makes an cringe-inducing appearance in a puffy-sleeved shirt, silk vest, and straw boater hat). Although he does commit murder off-screen, the emphasis is on his sad relationship with his dead mother and his need to be loved. An interesting, but impotent rendition that stands at the opposite extreme of Englund’s needlessly brutal version.
GERARD BUTLER. The most recent adaptation worth mentioning shares its reputation with its source material: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical. The film has proven to be divisive in the “Phantom” community, attracting strong opinions from both sides. Directed by Joel Schumacher, the 2004 production starred Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum and received Lloyd Webber’s blessing and collaboration. If the Broadway/West End musical was criticized for sexing up the story of a 60-something sociopath stricken by a festering skin disease, Schumacher’s version raised even more eyebrows with the lantern-jawed Phantom whose deformity attracted comparisons to a bad sunburn and had the feeling of being an afterthought. Indeed, Schumacher highlighted the glitz and glamour of the Belle Epoque while downplaying the Gothic elements, and many fans objected to the leads’ vocal prowess. This being said, few have had the gall to critique the spectacular vision of the film – a visual feast with a sensual appetite – or the imagination of its vision. Probably the most influential film adaptation since 1925, Butler’s Phantom will remain second only to Chaney’s for the foreseeable future of cinema.
Dozens of movies, a handful of musicals, and several ballets later, “The Phantom of the Opera” continues to haunt us with his hellish fate and his heavenly spirit. Erik represents the zenith of duality: ingenious but insane; sublime in spirit but grotesque in body; respectful of Christine but brutal towards Carlotta; protective and tender but destructive and cruel; heroic but villainous; perfect but flawed – the Angel of Music and the Phantom of the Opera. He serves as the manifestation of all mankind’s virtues and vices – our love of art and spiritual beauty; our horror of otherness and physical blemish – he suffers (or as Leroux suggests many times, is “martyred”) for his uniqueness, and we can’t help but simultaneously identify with the sufferer and the persecutors.
We have at some time in life been rejected and done rejecting – we have been judged and have judged – and we experience this novel almost concurrently from the perspectives of the vengeful Erik, the conflicted Christine, and the frustrated Raoul. Operatic in its characterization, Homeric in its drama, and Shakespearan in its pathos, regardless of whether a maimed genius ever roamed the cellars of the Opéra Garnier, he – and the woman who “loved him for himself,” who redeemed him with her acceptance – continue to roam our daydreams and our nightmares.
You can find our annotated and illustrated "Phantom of the Opera" HERE!