Reflections on "The Phantom of the Opera"

Bernice Hill reviews Joel Schumacher's film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "The Phantom of the Opera" and maps the concentric circles of experience of the wounded child within the wounded man.

Reflections on “The Phantom of the Opera”

by Bernice H. Hill 

Do Jungians get more pleasure from movies than most people? Picture this: on an early winter’s morning, a cloaked woman moves slowly through a timeless cemetery. Mist drifts through the stark black trees, intermittently revealing the snow capped mortuary statues. Huge winged angels emerge silently, to be then obscured and replaced by shrouded saints, each frozen testimony to some departed spirit. The woman slips quietly down the path until she finds the crypt of her father; a crypt engraved with the family name “Daae,” (pronounced “die”). Now there is symbolism: a young woman caught in the death of her father-daughter projection!

The psychological and spiritual themes in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s recent film “The Phantom of the Opera” offer a descent journey into the psyche and lay bare for us the core of the human soul. Weber’s Opera is an adaptation of a Gothic love story written by Gaston Leroux, first published in 1911, and set in Paris in 1890. There has been a significant translation of the work from that time. No longer a simple tale of a monster preying on an innocent young woman, it now strikes a resonance in the modern psyche. It has become the biggest selling cast album of all time and seen in eighteen countries by over eighty million people. The indisputable evidence of its popularity is its planned enshrinement in Los Vegas as a permanent show.

One of the reasons’s for this dramatic interest can be found in an observation made by the film’s producer, Joel Shumacher. He notes that oddly enough today most people identify with the Phantom and his profound struggle to redeem his darkened soul from isolation. This is surely a sign of our times. And those with a Jungian “eye,” will recognize in the story, the emergence of the Self in its path of maturation, explored from both the male and female perspective.

Two dramatic threads intertwine here. One is the theme of the masquerade, the mirror and the mask. Masks allow us to hidden; to be liberated from our subjectivity; to play ribald or dangerous parts; yet paradoxically, they cover our underlying yearning to be known. The other thread in the play is our age-old struggle between Eros and power, a struggle that reflects our contradictory nature, our growth or our demise. These themes hang in the doorway of this play like the familiar facemasks of comedy and tragedy.

In Paris, at the turn of the century, many were taken into the Opera Populaire, to live in its endless room and vaults. At the height of its popularity, over seven hundred and fifty actors, tradesman, carpenters, ballet instructors, and performers found sanctuary there. Here is where our story unfolds and we find Christine, a young, innocent girl, orphaned after the death of her father and being trained as ballet dancer. Here also, hidden away in the theatre’s catacombs is the Phantom, a man who had escaped as a teenager from a freak show where he had been displayed, and tormented. His face has been horribly disfigured; in some reports, by a mother who had tried to abort him with caustic fluids. Driven to desperate rage, he had strangled his abusive master, and escaped the cage where he had been kept like an animal.

The unseen Phantom, a genius of music, has privately tutored Christine through the years. She has clung to the Phantom’s voice as her surrogate parent, believing him to be the fulfillment of her father’s dying statement that he would send an Angel of Music to look after her. It is the Phantom who now occupies her mind; he has become the next feature of her animus projection.

The film opens when Christine is called to take the stage, replacing the willful diva, and her marvelous voice catches the attention of the theatre’s dashing patron, Raoul. The resulting passionate struggle is for Christine’s heart, and perhaps her soul. In the end the Phantom (as the dark force) is doomed to lose her to the heroic Raoul and we learn that she becomes Raoul’s wife and mother of his children. The last shot of the film however, focuses on a dark rose, tied with the black ribbon and silently placed on her grave by the Phantom. This leaves the audience with a sense of the pervasive presence of this mysterious figure.

Jung wrote very little about music. In the few places he did speak of it he viewed it as expression of the higher aspects of the psyche, a form of alchemy. The music in this film is powerful and haunting, infusing an alchemical fire into the crucible of dark and unconscious relationships.

It is the interaction between Christine and the Phantom that holds the archetypal core of the story. The Phantom, his disfigurement covered by a white mask, wants Christine to know who he really is. We all, in our hearts want to be seen and loved for who we truly are. Indeed we cannot become human without being first “seen” and cared for by another. The Phantom, with his past violent rejection by his mother and the world, is now cornered by a paradox. The mask, which has been his protection, now becomes his trap. With Christine’s emergence unto the stage of life the fantasy, which had sustained them both, is crumbling.

The Phantom shows Christine his dark world; she grasps his obsession with her, sees his face and becomes terrified. She flees to Raoul who provides her with comfort and assures her of safety. Raoul may act as her first boyfriend, but Christine looks to him as a father to provide the security she needs. It was a script known to please those living in earlier times and their sentiments on traditional marriage; a modern audience, however, may expect more.

The Phantom, anguished by this turn of events, plans to trap the pair by staging an intense play. In this, as Don Juan, he calls forth Christine’s maturing sexuality. It is clear to everyone, even to Raoul, that Christine is deeply drawn to the Phantom, beyond the power of a spell, but as a full woman on a sexual and soul level. The music underscores this emerging alchemy. Yet, it is Christine who at the last minute, checks herself, turns abruptly and unmasks him. He, in his wrath at her betrayal, brings down the great chandelier over the assembled audience and disappears with Christine down “to the black dungeon of his despair.”

We sense that Christine has felt truly torn between the dark animus of the Phantom and the bright animus of Raoul. In psychological terms, this tension in Christine’s inner world would be necessary for her to break free from her fixation on her father and the Phantom as a spirit force. It would be essential before she could enter the place of greater individuation, awareness, and choice. 

The final scene plays out this struggle. The Phantom threatens to kill the pursuing Raoul unless Christine chooses him. Christine confronts the Phantom, adult to adult. “It is not your haunted face, I fear; it is in your soul the true distortion lies!” When he insists she make her choice, she gathers her courage, moves slowly to him and shows him with a kiss that his greatest burden, his deepest aloneness, can be touched, at least once. Her second kiss, comes not from the duress of the situation, but from a woman who deeply understands the man that he is. The Phantom is undone. His primal wound and the great need for power it has engendered, melts. His sense of endless isolation has been “seen”, if only for the briefest of time. He releases both Raoul and Christine. He whispers through his tears: “Forgive me; forget this; leave me alone; take the boat…”

Why Jungians would find this so satisfying is that the Phantom, the shadow in each of us, wants to believe that no matter how far we have sunk, or how misbegotten we have become there will be salvation. The surrender of “power” to “Eros” lies as a basic truth within our heart. We recognize the profound shift that has occurred within the Phantom. We understand the great distance that he has had to move to express it. Having felt the love of the essential feminine the door to his deepest Self has opened and he has come know its requirement for compassion!

The last time we see the Phantom is with a music box, speaking softly to himself almost as a young child in play: “masquerade, paper faces on parade…” On the top of this box is the figure of an organ grinder’s monkey banging together a pair of cymbals: the final comment on the carnival of life? We don’t know what happened to the Phantom, but the presence of the dark rose on Christine’s grave suggests that his love for her persisted over a lifetime. It causes us to reflect on the concentric circles of experience of the wounded child within the wounded man. Perhaps, that explains our connection to him in our own long journey for love and wholeness.

Biographical Note

Bernice Hill, Ph.D. is Jungian Analyst in private practice in Boulder, Colorado. She is a member of The Inter Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, the IAAP, and a senior training analyst with the C.G Jung Institute of Colorado.

Article published: Quadrant Summer, 2005