The truly spooky aspect of The Phantom of the Opera, in my opinion, is Gaston Leroux’s meticulously created setting. He carefully blended fact and legend to create a Palais Garnier that took the opulent opera house to a level of dark, atmospheric terror. While the majority of the action in the novel takes place inside the Paris Opera House, the upper and lower portions of the building are diverse enough to feel like two separate locations. The majority of the cast operate in the brightly lit, heavily decorated, elaborate upper portions of the building. The backstage area is a loud, busy locale filled with dancers, singers, scene changers, and other employees necessary to a well-run theater; however, a hint of darkness creeps into the well-traveled areas. Narrow hallways leading to dressing rooms are inefficiently lit by gas lamps, sending flicking shadows dancing across the walls. The superstitious cast members look over their shoulders in fear or hope of catching a glimpse of the mysterious Opera Ghost, who has become type of bogeyman for the youngsters in the corps de ballet. Huge set pieces create mazes both on and below the stage, which can hide all manner of horrors, and, like any proper theater, there are numerous trap doors opening the upper realm to the dark world below.
The lower levels of the Opera House are presented like the opening to the underworld. The cavernous cellars do not always have even gas light, and entering them requires candles or lanterns to guide the way. They also provide access to numerous passageways between the walls, allegedly built during the Fourth French Revolution to allow prisoners to be transported to the dungeons without public scrutiny. These forgotten walkways allow the Phantom to travel unseen throughout the opera house and protect his interests in all things. The bottom reaches of the structure house a subterranean lake that guards the secrets of Erik’s hidden home with a mysterious siren that drowns all who attempt to cross the lake uninvited. His dark home contains a steam-heated torture chamber designed to drive the occupants mad with heat and thirst, a goth’s dream room draped in black and containing a coffin bed, a music room, and an eerily normal room designed for the pleasure of one Christine Daae. It is a world devoid of sunlight and illuminated solely through flickering candles, and its king is the corpse-like, mysterious, genius, and quite possibly mad Phantom.
Gaston Leroux never intended the Phantom to be the romantic character he has morphed into over the past hundred years. Erik is described as a living corpse, a death’s head, having eyes that glow in the dark, and having a hole where his nose should be, and several other unflattering phrases throughout the novel; however, Erik’s true horror comes from his character rather than his unfortunate appearance. His actions toward Christine show that he is an obsessive manipulator who is willing to use a young woman’s chronic depression from her father’s early death to control her emotions. While his masquerade as the Angel of Music benefits her initially, Erik is not teaching the young singer out of any desire to help her; he selfishly wants to build a bond between them, so Christine will feel obligated to him in the future. And, how did the Opera Ghost learn of the Angel of Music to begin with? Leroux presents it as a Scandinavian folktale that the Swedish Christine shared with her father as a little girl. Clearly, Erik spied on her substantially to have learned of her dying father’s promise to send the mysterious angel after his passing. As the story progresses, he also kidnaps Christine for training in his dark underworld home, demands that she avoid romantic entanglements/marriage if she wants to continue her lessons when he learns of Raoul, and threatens to sacrifice everyone in the full Opera House in a deadly explosion if the object of his obsession will not agree to marry him. This list doesn’t even touch on his behavior toward the managers of the opera, the other singers, Joseph Buquet’s horrific death, and the infamous incident with the chandelier crashing into the audience and killing patrons, because Carlotta was given the starring role over Christine. Ultimately, the young heroine feels pity for Erik, but she is also desperately afraid of him, because she has learned that his moods can change as quickly as the wind.
Some Phans may decry my destruction of the much-beloved musical and story as terrifying horror rather than a tale of painfully unrequited love; however, I do not see Erik as a tender hero suffering from the heart wrenching pain of a love that could not be. I see him as a sinister, almost sociopathic figure lurking in the shadows, desperate for his revenge on a world that has rejected him. If you have never read Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera or watched one of the old black-and-white versions of the story, I strongly recommend giving them a try. They may not cause the adrenaline rush and burn of more modern thrillers, but the chills will stick with you like an invisible blanket for days.
*Photograph courtesy of Vikram K. Mulligan, copyright 2008-2013