Unmasking the Phantom: Romanticizing the Face of Horror

Phantom of the Opera Mask

Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, has been filmed at least a half a dozen times, turned into a very successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and used as inspiration for one of the most ubiquitous halloween masks (that many wear without ever having seen Lon Chaney’s makeup or even heard “Music of the Night”). Still, there’s something in the mask itself that is inarguably attractive. We hide our true selves — a self that, perhaps, only a lover or trusted friend can know. Not the self we are at work, or at a party. Carl Jung would say those are masks of the persona: the ego adapting to its circumstances. But the mask that hides a self that is something horrible, or something to be pitied (or both)?  That’s something different altogether.

In the gothic tradition to which Leroux’s novel belongs (along with all the adaptations that come later), the masked face is romanticized for that very reason. Is there a tortured man beneath the mask that needs only find love to be free? Or is there a fiend waiting for us.

THE NOVEL (1910)

Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

For Leroux, the mask as symbol is quite complex; in addition to having his phantom, Erik, hide a hideous visage, Leroux writes that “none will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom, or indifference over his inward joy.” We are challenged to confront that we all wear masks — not just the ghost of the Opera house that longs for the beautiful Christine.

The tale is familiar (well, to people like me it is): Erik hears Christine sing, and is captivated. But he knows himself to be so deformed that Christine will be repulsed by him. So he waits, secretly aiding Christine is her career. Minor characters are literally disposed of, and the main characters eventually find themselves at a pivotal moment when the mask will come off. Hideous boy will stand before beautiful girl, and all will be revealed.

But all what? Disgust? Pity? Overwhelming love?

Here’s the novel and its many adaptations differ.

In the novel, when Erik is alone with Christine — away from her suitor, Raoul (whom Erik has imprisoned) — he lifts his mask, revealing his deformity, and kisses her on the forehead. She returns his kiss. Erik then reveals that he has never received a kiss — not even from his mother — and is quite overwhelmed with equal parts sadness and joy. He tells Christine that he has never felt so close to another human being, and turns from wicked ways — releasing Raoul. Why? The novel makes it clear: he has been saved by love. Indeed, Leroux has him dying because of love at the end of the novel. Christine buries him, then takes off with the handsome Raoul.

THE SILENT FILM (1925)

Fifteen years later, in 1925, Leroux’s novel would be adapted to the silent screen by Universal.  Producer Carl Laemmle (who would later go on to produce both Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) for Universal) chose Lon Chaney — the man of a thousand faces — for the central role. And in a post World War I world where the horrors of war left mutilated men, it is not beyond reason to assume that Chaney based at least some of his makeup on the poor broken souls who had returned from Europe with faces torn apart by German shrapnel.

Noseless and lipless, with a sunken-eyed face that looks more like a skull than that of a man, Chaney’s phantom goes way beyond the novel with the extent of Erik’s deformity, and it changes the whole tone of the story. Despite Christine still getting the attention from the phantom that leads to he success at the Opera house, her fear — our fear — is real. This phantom illicits horror — or at the very best, our pity. And instead of Erik lifting his mask in an act of love, Chaney’s phantom is dramatically unmasked, by Christine, in one of cinema’s most written-about reveals.

Erik’s unmasking is not his own decision. It is sudden. It is terrifying. And it leaves Christine horrified on the floor. A captured Raoul — again, Christine’s suitor — can only be freed if Christine makes a choice of two levers. A challenge is made by Erik. One lever will free Raoul. One will blow up the Opera House. But there’s a catch: free Raoul, and agree to marry Erik.

The tension is palpable. The audience sees Erik as a true monster, and wants so very much for Christine and Raoul to be together. And that is what they get, in a sacrifice made by Erik. He tricks Christine. His intention was apparently to free Raoul all along, and escape the Opera House with Christine. Only he is thwarted by an angry mob who attacks him and throws him into the Seine. Christine and Raoul? They are seen on honeymoon at picture’s end.

It is curious to add that the filmmakers initially intended to preserve the original ending of the novel.  Scenes were filmed in which Erik dies of a broken heart at his organ after Christine leaves him. But the preview audience apparently hated this ending. They wanted the monster punished, and the lovers to be reunited.

Throughout the many adaptions — from Claude Rains in 1943, to Herbert Lom in Hamer’s version of 1962, to Brian de Palma’s bizarre Phantom of the Paradise (1974) — the stories change. Music becomes the true love of the phantom in some. Disfigurement at brith because a tragic encounter with acid in another. But the central theme beneath all is this push and pull between the beautiful chanteuse and the disfigured musician. Sometimes repulsion. Sometimes attraction. Always Romantic in the Gothic novel sense of the term.

THE MUSICAL (1986 — to the present day)

Phantom of the Opera musical
Phantom of the Opera musical

But outside of the novel, no version is more romanticized than the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — which manages to fuse so many elements of the tale told over the last hundred years. In the blending of outcomes, the best and worst case scenarios for poor Erik co-exist. Yes, he is hideous. But he is romantic. And despite Christine’s love for Raoul, there is a bond between her and the phantom — one that often finds its way, as with most musicals, into song — and a gift of a ring to Christine.

The unmasking has mixed reaction — at first fear, but it soon becomes pity. This pity leads to tenderness. And tenderness, to love. At the end, Erik realizes that despite his love for Christine, he must release her to Raoul. The rightful couple begin to escape Erik’s subterranean lair, but not before Christine decides to return the ring that Erik had given her as a token of his love. She finds instead a mob that has descended into the lair to kill the phantom. But as she lifts aside the cloak where she believes Erik to be, she finds only… a mask.

Masks play a central role in all adaptations of the Phantom of the Opera. Some are there for sudden horror (kill the monster!). And some are there for romantic imaginings (where did the poor tortured artist go?).

In the end, it is the use of the mask — and the unmasking — that addresses our own extremes of attraction and repulsion. The persona projected by those behind masks can be quite attractive, and we can easily fall in love with the man or woman behind the mask. But in our subconscious minds, there may always be the question of what is that same man or woman hiding… and why. We become suspicious while at the same time intrigued.

We flirt with what is captivating, while fearing being captive.

And masks are rarely literal.

 

In Defense of Tin Machine

Tin Machine
The Sales brothers, Reeves Gabrels, and David Bowie in 1989.

The undeniable genius of David Bowie has often been attributed to his ability to never rest on his laurels. Often referred to as rock’s chameleon, he was able to constantly reinvent himself over five decades with numerous, elaborate tours, a handful of films, and over twenty-five studio albums. Yet one period of his career is often seen as a misstep by fans and critics alike: his late eighties / early nineties turn as front-man of the band Tin Machine.

With guitarist Reeves Gabrels and Soupy Sales’ sons Tony and Hunt as its rhythm section, Tin Machine allowed Bowie to surround himself with an organized noise far from the studio polish and lackluster lyrics of his other eighties’ outings. Out of the gate with the raucous release of their first single, “Under the God,” the project couldn’t have come at a better time in his career. Casting off the safe and often silly Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), the eponymous Tin Machine (1989) had an attitude and edge that had been missing from Bowie’s music for quite some time.

But many in the press were not kind. “A quickly tiresome rich man’s plaything,” wrote Dave Ferman from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Sit down, man, you’re a fucking disgrace,” ended Melody Maker’s review of 1991’s (admittedly less than stellar) Tin Machine II.  Mark Coleman, in the Rolling Stone Record (later “Album”) Guide rated both Tin Machine records two and a half stars, noting that “[the] albums are long on thunder and short on actual tunes.” He didn’t even bother to mention their third release, the abysmal live Oy Vey, Baby from 1992.

But Bowie didn’t seem to care about the critics, and would insist that the public would eventually come to love Tin Machine. “We’ll be listening to the first album in a few years and re-evaluating [it],” he said in a 1993 interview with NME. By then, tastes had turned. The world had heard Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, and grunge had taken the rock world by storm. But Tin Machine? It just never caught on.

One could argue that Tin Machine was just a few years ahead of its time. “We were grunge before it became a thing,” said Reeves Gabrels in a 2017 interview (http://www NULL.davidbowieworld NULL.nl/david-bowie-news-of-the-world/david-bowie-a-look-back-at-his-90s-era/); curiously, he recalls a story where Tim Palmer, producer of Tin Machine’s two studio albums, told him Pearl Jam was listening to “Heaven’s in Here” (the opening track on Tin Machine’s 1989 debit) during their time working on Ten (which, along with Nevermind and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, is seminal grunge from 1991). Palmer would mix Ten, and it’s not a stretch to say that a similar (but more mellow) tone can be heard when the guitar lick on “Heaven’s in Here” is played side by side with the up-tempo “Evenflow.” Just as Bowie had claimed to be influenced by the Pixies during this time (and, most likely, other, harder, alternative bands of the period), those same bands were Bowie fans. It’s musicians feeding off of other musicians — as musicians always have and always should.

Why then the vitriol for Tin Machine if it was an influential late eighties precursor to a movement that transformed the nineties? Perhaps the public at large still wanted the clean-cut man in a bright yellow suit who sang “Modern Love” just six years earlier — not this new man in black covering Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” They weren’t ready for a scruffy white duke fronting a four-piece. They couldn’t handle the stripped-down skepticism of a religious experience in a song like “Bus Stop.”

By 1993, Tin Machine imploded, most likely due to sales — sales of the albums, and/or Hunt Sales’ increasing drug addiction. It didn’t matter. Bowie was ready to move on. He would wed Iman, release Black Tie White Noise (a return to his softer side), and eventually find his way to his next inspiration: drum and bass, electronica, industrial rock, and Trent Reznor. The latter would help reinvent Bowie’s sound through his next two albums: Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997). On both, Reeves Gabrels would play.

In an interview from 1997 (https://www NULL.electronicbeats NULL.net/from-the-vaults-david-bowie-i-am-he-who-quotes-i-am-the-sponge-that-absorbs/), Bowie would be asked about Tin Machine, and his perspective is telling. Tin Machine was first and foremost, a band. A rock band. Not a solo endeavor. It was “a return to the embryonic fundamentals of rock music, simply in order to clear my head for a while,” he said. Why? “In order to breath life into my being as a musician again.”

Whether or not Tin Machine was among Bowie’s better works is immaterial. It was a chance for the artist to rediscover the “fundamentals of rock music” that he had lost somewhere along the way in the early eighties.

Bowie would go on to produce five more albums after ’97’s Earthling, taking a long deserved ten-year break from music after 2003. He had suffered a heart attack, and while not the primary reason for removing himself from the spotlight for a decade, it was reason enough to spend more time with family, enjoying a simpler, quieter life.

Some will say that his final two works, The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016) are among the best albums he ever made. The latter would be unlike anything that came before, prescient in its themes of mortality, but all the while musically adventurous — heavily immersed in the language of jazz with Bowie displaying a vocal range that is at times, sweet and sullen, and others, staccato and almost cruel. It was sheer brilliance.

He would succumb to liver cancer two days after his 69th birthday — the day Blackstar was released.

Known for having famously once said “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring,” David Bowie has moved on from this world. But he has left us with a catalog that will be discovered and rediscovered by many generations to come.

Among those discoveries deserves to be Tin Machine. It may have been many things, but it was never boring.

 

 

By Christopher Michael Davis