Last night, my sister Christine and I went to see The Phantom of the Opera at a local professional theater. Everything about the performance left me awestruck. Colorful costumes, elegant dances, powerful voices, elaborate scenery, fire special effects, haunting music – it was one of the best plays I have ever seen.
However, the story leaves me feeling conflicted and frightened. Usually, I stick up for the downcast, if unkind, characters. Snape and Draco from Harry Potter, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, the monster from Frankenstein, and other such characters fill me with pity. Instead of shying away from them, I long for someone in their story to reach out and show them kindness.
Thus, one would assume that I love the Phantom. After all, he has led a life filled with discrimination, hate, and deep hurt. How would he know to treat others with kindness and respect? Yes, he kills and threatens those around him, but was this not what society taught him to do? Should the viewers not pity and empathize with him?
But part of me pulls away from his haunting character. Despite his agonizing story, he leaves me looking over my shoulder with fear and seeing gleaming eyes in the dark. The part of the Phantom’s character that bothers me the most, I believe, is how he plays with Christine’s mind. Not only does he kidnap her several times, this man pretends to be different voices in her head such as her father and his angel of music. This level of haunting and luring turns his character into a devoted stalker.
Perhaps the reason for this disturbing me so much is because it reminds me of how mental illness can work. A voice in your head (usually not auditory but still real) whispers about a darkness that is safe and alluring but cold and life-draining in reality. Depression leads you down to its underground cavern as well while reminding you of its power. Anxiety creeps up on you, watching you always, and frightening you away from others who try to help. PTSD screams for you to choose between its ugly but known face and the handsome, frightening world of others. Eating disorders hiss that you are useless without them and beg for you to remain with them. Bipolar leaves you flying on a high of trying something new before slapping you across the face back into the darkness. Most of all, they all leave you feeling pursued, followed, and violated. Although you long for them to leave, something about mental illness can be alluring and seductive.
Thinking about this made me even more interested but repulsed by the role of the Phantom. I wish that I could fully understand him and his purpose. Is he a tragic hero or a monstrous villain? People seem to love his character, and yet I remain shaking in my seat as his words remind me of the my own demons. When you think about him in this light, does it make him seem worse or better? Overall, I enjoyed the show last night, but these questions continue to trouble me.