Coming originally from author Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera is a staple story that many could discuss without having ever read the book or seen the films. It pervades our time with its narrative of love, loss, and suffering. Many may simply view The Phantom of the Opera as a simple love story. Three hopeless lovers caught in the classic triangle. But this story is so much more than that. It is a story of not only surviving abuse, but overcoming it.
One may assume that the abuse survivor here is Christine Daae, the young woman who is caught in the wiles of the Phantom. Yet, while she does survive a terrible ordeal that is abusive, she is not the person of interest in this observation of the story as one of overcoming abuse. The Phantom himself is the abuse survivor. Let me explain.
The Phantom was born with a facial anomaly, and it started his life immediately on a path of rejection and abuse. He described himself in one scene as having his mother’s fear and loathing. We also see that early on in his life, around the age of twelve, he is an unwilling sideshow in a circus, where is facial difference is the subject of ridicule and and torment. He is beaten by his captors, and treated with below human dignity. The severity of his situation is not unique to this story alone. Thousands of children suffer in like manner, to varying degrees, all over the world. The study of the effects of this on the minds and well being of children has lead to recent revelations on what is called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or CPTSD. Even long after the abuse is over, the survivors of this abuse continue to register in their brains that the danger is around them. Triggers of all kinds can lead to dysregulation, violent outbursts, and more. Seeing the life given to the Phantom in his early youth shows he was afflicted terribly, and made to feel he was unlovable, a monster, even evil.
As the Phantom matured, he remained isolated. And it is this isolation that continued the abuse long after his former abusers were dead or gone. The greatest abuse, however, isn’t physical. Many studies have shown that emotional, psychological abuse does greater damage and is harder to heal from than any other abuse. The Phantom lead his whole life believing he was unlovable. Even when he was protected by a young Madame Giry, who gave him asylum in the opera house, he was not shown affection. Given that he continued to wear a mask throughout his life, it is even possible that Madame Giry reviled his appearance, perhaps even encouraged his wearing of the mask.
The mask is a symbol of hiding. It is to cloak your true self, either to hide wrong doing, or to blend in, or become something you are not. Over time, the Phantom, believing the lie that he was a monster, became one. He acted in violence to get what he wanted. He claimed Christine was his. This narcissistic behavior is a reflection of who he believed he had to be to be accepted. It was a plea, a call to be heard, to be human, if even only as a villain in another person’s story.
The turning point for the Phantom, where he learns the truth, is when Christine is his captive, and he threatens to kill Raoul unless she stays with him. It is the Phantom at his most monstrous. Yet even with all that hate, Christine still shows him genuine compassion. Compassion is something he has never yet known. But it is what he has been missing. The Phantom, a survivor of decades of abuse, isolation, and loathing, had never known that even with all that was wrong in his life, he was still worthy of human kindness and decency.
It isn’t Christine that frees the Phantom from his cycle of abuse. She only opens the door by showing him compassion. In the end, it is the Phantom who saves himself. After years of abuse, he is finally met with the one message his mind had never been given: that he was loveable, as he was. That he was enough. Overcome by this emotional release, he lets both Christine and Raoul go. He is seen next, singing a somber rendition of “Masquerade,” as he regards a toy which recalls his lost childhood. He is sad not because of what he lost with Christine, but because of what he never had as a child. This moment is a reflection of his true self. He is unmasked, both physically and emotionally, and finally free. In this scene, he is crying at the release of those years of pain. He is himself for the first time. He lets go of who he became to survive, and is once again the twelve year old boy who longed to belong in the world. He is free.
As the film closes, we see that many years later, the Phantom is still alive, and likely living a normal life. This is shown by there being a ring and a rose left at the grave of the now late Christine; these were items he had held on to as reminders of his love for her. She showed him his first experience with true compassion. And from that, he was freed to lead a life not as a monster, but as a man.
Abuse manifests in many ways. But escaping the pains of it requires personal growth and serious effort. The process is painful, but the freedom is worth it.