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Left Your Window Silver White: Jack Frost & Winter Wonder

While many of us often refer to Old Man Winter this time of year — and can picture him as an older man’s face imposed on a cloud, blowing in the cold air of the season — few know much about Jack Frost. At least much beyond him “nipping at your nose” in Robert Wells’ and Mel Tormé’s classic “Christmas Song” of 1945. As a personification of winter, he shares with the “Old Man” control over ice, snow, sleet and the like, yet he is often depicted as younger, spritely, and more playful than other harbingers of cold weather. Indeed, he seems to enjoy using his powers to delight children most, and represents a more magical view of winter than his curmudgeonly elderly counterpart.

His origins are sketchy. Whereas the “Old Man” can be traced to various deities — most notable the Greek god Boreas, or even the Celtic Oak King— not much is written about Jack before the early eighteenth century. Though traceable in some form to Scandinavian folktales, he seems to have, at least partially, originated in Britain where “Jack” was a common slang word for “man.”

Jack Frost by Thomas Nast

The first illustrated cartoon of Jack Frost is thought to be a political cartoon published in 1861 in Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast depicts a “General” Jack Frost freezing out the malaria that was spreading during the American Civil War. Curiously enough, Nast was also famous for creating the image of Santa Claus that we’re familiar with today.

Hannah Flagg Gould’s mid nineteenth century poem “The Frost” is perhaps the first to feature a mischievous being who leaves beautiful ice paintings on windows, although Jack is never named.

Not long thereafter, late nineteenth / early twentieth-century Scots writer  Gabriel Setoun (a pseudonym of Thomas Nicoll Hepburn) pens what it perhaps the first poem explicitly about Jack, appropriate entitled “Jack Frost.” (https://allpoetry NULL.com/poem/8607297-Jack-Frost-by-Gabriel-Setoun-) It is here that much of the folklore seems to coalesce, presenting facets of the character that would become associated with him long thereafter. Ice painting on windows, yes. But more.

“The door was shut, as doors should be,” begins Setoun. “Before you went to bed last night.” Yet mischievously, “Jack Frost has got in…
and left your window silver white.”

In some of the earliest oral traditions, Jack is a painter who not only colors windows white, but paints frost on grass, even fall colors on autumn leaves. What Setoun does is expound and expand upon the magical qualities of Jack’s work, as the frost he paints on panes transforms into wondrous things.

The window pane of the poem shows “castles towering high” and “knights in armor riding by.” There are boats, palm trees, butterflies, and even cows and sheep.

For, creeping softly underneath
The door when all the lights are out,
Jack Frost takes every breath you breathe,
And knows the things you think about.

He paints them on the window-pane
In fairy lines with frozen steam;
And when you wake you see again
The lovely things you saw in dream.

Here there’s a clear contrast between the “Old Man” who seems little more than a stern bringer or storms, and Jack, a painter of sorts whose frosty art is transformative — the stuff of dreams.

Other writers would add to the legend, including Margaret Canby’s “Birdie and His Fairy Friends” (1874) where Jack leads  winter spirits to help children as King Winter, like the “Old Man,” is nothing but cruel. Even Helen Keller made her own version of this story, in 1891, entitled “The Frost King.”

It’s in Charles Sangster’s “Little Jack Frost,” however,  published in 1875, that Jack Frost is first seen running around playing pranks and nose-biting. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), takes the nipping further (attacking “scores on noses and ears and toes.” Santas Claus seems to like Jack, but isn’t particularly happy that the mischievous sprite teases children.

Dozens of writers follow and build upon the tradition over the next hundred years. With each iteration, his character serves a particular theme, and, as would be expected, tone follows.

Jack Frost by Stan Lee in Timely Comics

None other than Stan Lee brought him to the comics in 1941. Early in his career with Timely Comics, Lee created a Jack Frost who was more villain than prankster — or at least an anti-hero much like the Hulk which Lee would go on to create year’s later when Timely became Marvel Comics. Lee’s Frost was a young man who mysteriously wandered out of the Arctic with no memory, and the ability to wield wintry precipitation. “Because of a misunderstanding with police, he is accused of murder and becomes a wanted criminal.” The rest pretty much writes itself!

From comically dark to outright depressing, Jack serves many masters in twentieth century art.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s heartbreaking “First Death in Nova Scotia” (https://writersalmanac NULL.publicradio NULL.org/index NULL.php%3Fdate=2003%252F02%252F08 NULL.html) (1965), for example, the death of a small cousin leads the poet to imagining how Jack Frost might dress the body. Laid out on a table in a makeshift funeral following what would appear to have been a hunting accident, a boy “all white, like a doll that hadn’t been painted yet” would be the perfect canvas for Jack. He is evoked by the poet as quasi-savior — if only he could bring color (and life) back to the boy. “He had just begun on his hair, / a few red strokes, and then / Jack Frost had dropped the brush / and left him white, forever.”

Here, Jack cannot work his magic. Like an open hand, Bishop’s words slap us into the reality of cold, cold death.

William Joyce’s Jack Frost

On a much light note, Rankin Bass did a take on the character in a 1979 Christmas Special (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Jack_Frost_(TV_special)), but (with the exception of a really bad horror film from 1997 (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=oICtgsoSi6c) and a handful of other terrible “family” movies) it’s with the recent and popular Guardians of Childhood series by William Joyce that Jack Frost as a character has really come back into popular culture. Tailor-made for a pre-teen audience that craves adventure from characters that were once only folktales that parents told their children, Joyce’s Jack Frost was even the subject of a change.org petition to be included in Frozen 2 (https://www NULL.change NULL.org/p/jeffrey-katzenberg-the-walt-disney-company-dreamworks-have-jack-frost-from-rise-of-the-guardians-appear-in-frozen-2-as-elsa-s-love-interest).  Far from folktale, Jack has the potential to become a film franchise.

Like most characters who come to us from ancient oral traditions and varied cultures, Jack Frost can, and does, take on many forms. But stories of him never stray far from stressing his youth and colorful nature during a time of year that is otherwise cold and grey. He is the antithesis of “Old Man Winter,” and in that contrast is the heart of his nature — a cold hand but a warm heart wrapped in a positive spirit that should be shared this time of year when winter blues can get to even the best of us.

Waking to ice on the window, snow on the car, and rock salt on the streets, we should stop to appreciate the delicate beauty of something as simple as oft-overlooked ice crystals. For Jack Frost’s brush put them there, making the otherwise stark reality of winter a more magical time of year.

 

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, Universal would adapt the novel to the silent silver screen.  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.

MONSTER OR MISUNDERSTOOD MAN?

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.

Still, the filmmakers initially intended to preserve the original ending of the novel.  They filmed scenes 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.

REMAKES AND MIS-TAKES

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. Except, perhaps, in DePalma’s work, where the Gothic gives way to Glam.

THE MUSICAL (1986 — 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

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?).

Masque of the Red Death
Masque of the Red Death

Some masks are even there to further hide the true persona — or perhaps remind us all that despite love or terror, death awaits us all. In many adaptations, Erik attends a ball dressed as Poe’s Red Death. His mask is invariably a skull. Memento Mori. The reminder that life is fleeting, and that we all must die.

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 held captive.

And masks are rarely literal.