The Phantom of the Opera and The Voice of Mental Illness

Christine and I at The Phantom of the Opera

Christine and I at The Phantom of the Opera

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.

20 thoughts on “The Phantom of the Opera and The Voice of Mental Illness

  1. 80smetalman says:

    Not trying to be Sigmund Freud here but I think you identify the Phantom with all of the struggles you’ve faced in your life. That’s why he has that effect on you.

  2. slesser1013 says:

    Anna, I love this post. Phantom is one of my favorite broadway shows and enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. I think its also important to mention christine’s role in this as well. Her lonliness of missing her father and even raul made it possible for the Phantom to have his power over her.

    • Thanks! Christine’s role is indeed important in the show. I would love to delve more into what fueled her decisions throughout it.

      • slesser1013 says:

        Just what I know about clinical psychology as well and my own self, we can’t say Christine was a victim here. She wanted the love she probably never received from her father or maybe even her mother too. When she went to the opera house she let the phantom control her by doing everything he wanted so she could receive that love. She tried to break free and succeeded at the end when her and Raoul left. If you even look at some of the words of the song “all I ask of you” she even says, all i want is freedom, and you always besides me because she doesn’t have that love in herself. She needs others to fulfill that. Phantom does just that for her but obviously in a very maladaptive way.

        • Wow, those are great observations! I agree that she was searching for love and thought that the Phantom might have given it to her. Thinking of her as finally free at the end is a very hopeful way to view the play. Missing her mother as well adds an interesting layer to the show.

        • Anna Bethlehem says:

          In regards to her father, they do say she had a close relationship with him and that she and Raoul used to love listening to him play the Violin.
          Though I’ve read the original book so I think part of that may come from there… 😛

  3. Cheryl-Lynn says:

    I saw this movie many times growing up and was repulsed by the Phantom (I was a youth then); In 1997 I saw the musical in Toronto and wept for the Phantom and his songs make me very sad. Nothing is black and white in life. I did not like his manipulation but that was the behaviour I did not like but I felt much compassion and empathy for him.I find in stories, books, plays, movies you can see them many times in your life time and depending where you are in your life, you may interpret some things differently. Your Mental health condition does not define you in any way…love who you are, you are an amazing person whom I truly admire. I am learning much from your generosity here. Cheryl-Lynn

    • Yes, he is certainly more than just evil. Part of the haunting element of the play is that the Phantom has some wonderful characteristics and deep pain. One cannot just long for his downfall without feeling some pity. My studies with literature have indeed taught me how everyone interprets things differently. Thank you so much for your kind words!

    • slesser1013 says:

      Cheryl-Lynn, I enjoyed reading your reply You’re right nothing is black and white and alot of Phantom’s behavior’s probably had to do with the pain he felt. I see why u have compassion and empathy for him. I also agree with you that a mental health condition does not define anyone for who they are. Everyone has positive strengths and features that will carry them through.

  4. Cheryl-Lynn says:

    Reblogged this on Stop the Stigma and commented:
    How many of you have perceived the Phantom differently over your lifespan? My last musical in 1997, I wept for the Phantom…what are your thoughts?

  5. harmoneestar says:

    I really do think 80smetalman hit the nail on the head. You understand his plight and illness as do I. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some form of autism. I could really understand him and feel for him, connect with him on a more personal level.

    • That makes a great deal of sense. You are very insightful.

      • Harmonee Star says:

        I try 🙂 As I have stated on Phantom videos on YouTube, I truly believe Christine loved Erik but naturally was a bit frightened of him. Any sane person would be. But I think she just chose the easy way put by going with Raoul. She completely disregarded Erik and dropped him by the wayside. She could have changed him by her presence, showed him that there is someone who does care for him. I think the 1990 mini series shows that really well 🙂

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