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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.

 

The Awful Smell of the Dead: WWI and the Frankenstein Monster

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror
Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror

It has been one hundred years since “the war to end all wars” ended. And in his new book, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Wasteland-Great-Origins-Modern-Horror/dp/1640090932), W. Scott Poole explores how the carnage of the first world war gave birth to the modern horror film.  “The horror created over the last few decades owes so much to ideas that appear in the films made by veterans of the Great War after 1918,” writes Poole. “Armies of the living dead… vampires… murderous slashers — all these appear in the work of the directors of the First World War era.” As does a re-imagined version of the Frankenstein monster made popular by Universal Studios in the nineteen thirties and forties.

The seeds were planted early after the armistice. German directors F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang — who both fought in the war — introduced horrors of wholesale slaughter (Nosferatu [1922]) and mechanization (Metropolis [1927]), respectively. Even actors like Bela Lugosi, who served in the Austro-Hungarian army, knew well the horrors of WWI. It most certainly had to have an effect on their work.

Cesare, the somnambulist
Cesare, the unwitting “soldier”

The argument is not new. Film scholars like David Skal for some time now have noted that traces of post-war trauma can be seen in the silent films of the nineteen twenties.  Perhaps the finest of all German expressionist films of the silent era, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), was, reputedly, directly born out of the war; the script, written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, has been argued by some writers (like Jon Towlson in his Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Subversive-Horror-Cinema-Countercultural-Frankenstein/dp/B01FGIZPF0)) to have come directly from the authors’ embitterment with the military and distrust of authority after World War I. This distrust comes across directly in the film as Cesare, the somnambulist (a symbol of the unquestioning soldier) is controlled by Caligari (the authority) and made to be a murderer. Janowitz, an officer in the war, would have experienced the carnage first-hand. He would later become a staunch pacifist. For his part, Mayer feigned madness, and argued with an army psychiatrist that would eventually declare him unfit to fight in a war that Mayer deemed “criminally insane.”

Letters from the front show just how terrible the war was.

“We wear our respirators because of the awfull (sic) smell of the dead,” wrote one British soldier (http://www NULL.nationalarchives NULL.gov NULL.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/rail-253-516-fww-letter-1-111 NULL.jpg). French Corporal Louis Barthas — in notebooks (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Poilu-Notebooks-Corporal-Barrelmaker-1914-1918/dp/0300191596) that have been recently published in English — recalled “the disagreeable tic-tac of machine guns,” that turned men “into marmalade.” And a German medical officer, the novelist and poet Hans Carossa, recounted (https://www NULL.independent NULL.co NULL.uk/news/world/world-history/history-of-the-first-world-war-in-100-moments/a-history-of-the-first-world-war-in-100-moments-carnage-in-the-carpathians-i-thought-he-was-dead-i-9466931 NULL.html): “Turning round, I looked down on the dying face of a man of about 30… through a grey cape which covered his breast a slight vapour was rising… under his torn ribs, his lungs and heart lay exposed.”

With reports like these, was it any wonder then that men who returned from the war were unable to escape the images of mangled bodies and corpses piled high in the mud?

Director James Whale, certainly, drew upon his experiences in the war. Captured on the Western Front and having spent time in a German prisoner-of-war camp, he was the first man to direct the great anti-war play, R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’’s End (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Journey%27s_End). In his autobiography, Sheriff said of Whale’s production that “through innumerable small details, he [Whale] had given it a touch of crude romance…” and that “above all it was real,” adding that “any man who had lived in the trenches would say, “This is it. This is what it was like’.” Whale would go on to make the lead character in The Old Dark House (1931) a cynical WWI veteran. In 1937, he would direct The Road Back, the story of German soldier trying to return to civilian life.

But Whale is best remembered — and rightfully so — for Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In talking to Publisher’s Weekly (https://www NULL.publishersweekly NULL.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/77499-a-century-of-screams-pw-talks-with-w-scott-poole NULL.html), Poole directly makes the connection between the piles of bodies a soldier would have seen to the imagery used in Whale’s Frankenstein.

“One of the things that’s important and generally forgotten in terms of soldiers’ and civilians’ experience of World War I is that there probably had been no other time in history when human beings had been exposed to such a large number of dead bodies for extended periods of time. This is an aspect of the trenches on the Western Front that every soldier’s memoir talks about. It’s a very direct experience that some of the iconographic horror images of the 1920s and the 1930s—probably most famously James Whale’s Frankenstein—deal with.”

Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)

Whale’s work has been viewed using the prism of the first World War before — most notably by Christiane Gerblinger in James Whale’s Frankensteins: Re-Animating the Great War. (http://www NULL.cineaction NULL.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/issue8283sample NULL.pdf) And bloggers like Kimberley Lindbergs (http://streamline NULL.filmstruck NULL.com/2013/09/19/in-the-trenches-with-james-whale/) have picked up Gerblinger’s argument and run with it. Lindbergs, in particular, goes out of her way to show side-by-side comparisons of digging in the trenches juxtaposed with Frankenstein and Fritz looking for bodies in the cemetery. It is a relatively effective argument, considering that it is know that Whale used leftover sets from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in Frankenstein.

The basic premise is this: that the Frankenstein monster played by Karloff is so radically different from the creature described by Mary Shelley because he was shaped by the events of the Great War (and, to a lesser extent, the Great Depression).

But can we presume that Whale intended for the the implication to be there? Certainly, Whale’s imagery of bodies on operating tables, and overcrowded and unkempt graveyards add to the argument. It is the medical establishment — the doctor — that makes monsters. It is the doctor that holds in his hands the power of life and death. It is easy to make this argument: compare Frankenstein’s lab with the surgical hospitals of the first World War. They are both theaters where bodies are stitched back together.

But this is all conjecture, and somewhat of a leap from experience to screen as there is no real evidence that Whale intended the comparisons between his monster and the soldiers of the Great War.  Whale himself only once even barely referenced the war (in an off-hand remark delivered in his inimitable style), saying “A director must be pretty bad if he can’t get a thrill out of war, murder, {and] robbery.” Indeed, Whale seemed to treat the war as any other influence on his life. Arguably, his homosexuality is a major theme to be explored in works like Bride of Frankenstein; butthe sub-text of the war just really isn’t there.

Why then do authors like Poole, Skal, Gerblinger and Lindbergs insist there is a connection?

WWI facial reconstruction
WWI facial reconstruction for wounded soldier Eric Wallace

Like a wounded solider, the monster bears the scars of battle. His face is a patchwork reconstruction. His voice has been silenced. His rebirth — coming into being as if coming back to civilian life — is fraught with rejection and suffering.  Skal and Poole both point out that, owing to advances in medicine, WWI was the first war in which men didn’t automatically die of their wounds. Disfigured men — like Universal’s vision of the Frankenstein monster — would walk the streets alongside of “normal” people. Their daily struggle? Acceptance — not pity. Much like Frankenstein’s creation. It is us who see the resemblance most clearly.

The answer, then, may lie in the makeup of the monster itself. In Shelley’s book, the creature was assembled from the better parts of bodies; by her account, he was somewhat attractive, with long black hair and haunting eyes. Sure, there was something not quite right about him — an unease that comes from all dopplegangers — but the monster that Mary Shelley created could not outright be called repulsive. Nineteenth century stage plays moved the needle a bit more toward the grotesque — with Edison’s early 20th century monster (https://www NULL.ihorror NULL.com/watch-this-restored-frankenstein-short-film-from-1910/) going to almost comical extremes. But there’s somethings special about the Karloff incarnation that not only shocked audiences, but made them sympathetic to the plight of the monster. A powerful combination. And one that can be attributed to the collaboration of Karloff himself, Whale, and the master makeup artist Jack Pierce.

Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce
Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce

In a 1967 interview with the fan mag For Monsters Only (http://jack-pierce NULL.blogspot NULL.com/2015/02/jack-pierce-in-monster-magazines-part-1 NULL.html), Pierce said he spent 3 months researching “anatomy, surgery, medicine, criminology, ancient and modern burial costumes and electrodynamics” before doing any sketches for the monster. Since Frankenstein wasn’t a skilled surgeon, Pierce figured that the scientist would opt for the easiest way to insert a brain into a corpse’s head. He came up with the neck bolts because Frankenstein was supposed to use electricity to bring the monster to life (unlike the alchemy of Shelley’s novel). Scars abound because of Frankenstein’s lack of finesse with sutures.

WWI introduced much that would become the stuff of nightmares: terrible machines (given form in Lang’s Maschinenmensch?); sickness in the trenches (the “disease” brought by Murnau’s Nosferatu); and men programmed to be murderers (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). But it’s most lasting effect — on the world and the films that reflected it — was the overt display of horror that comes from one of the more visceral aspects of battle. Disgust. Despair. Degradation. Disfiguration. And the awful smell of death.

More than any other terror to emerge from cinema, Whale’s, Karloff’s and Pierce’s vision of the Frankenstein monster — so far removed from its literary roots — captures the real-life horror that was the first world  war. Why? There is no cold machine. No fangs of a vampire. There is only the sullen eyes of a disfigured thing that was once a whole man. Someone easily mistaken as a victim of war.