Traumafessions :: Reader C.S. on The Phantom of the Opera

I, like many other people, like to think that I have always had a high tolerance for horror. “Not so,” says the Truth. And lo, the Truth hath spoken, but I’m being totally honest when I say there are very few things that have actually managed to frighten me to the point of H.P. LOVECRAFT-inspired insanity.

Case in point: THE PHANTOM OF THE MOTHERFUCKIN’ OPERA. Naturally, the B&W version.

I must’ve been about four years old—arguably the quintessential age for trauma. The mums and I were down in the basement watching TV, making a mother-daughter connection that only good TV watching can produce when…she turned the channel. And Sweet Allah eating breadsticks, there was LON CHANEY with his sunken eyes, sunken face, and absolutely FUCKED-UP nose. Forget the de-masking, the monster had already been revealed, and all I could do was sit there, scrunched up between my mom and an end-table, scared stiff. My mom didn’t notice anything—shoot, I didn’t notice anything: I couldn’t even shake from the fear. What made it even more terrifying? Sitting there, even when I remember there was no tangible reason for my having to stay there while my mom smoked her Benson & Hedges, reading the dialogue all calmly and quietly. I could’ve left; I could’ve taken my beloved Play-Doh with me and gone somewhere else. But no, I chose Hell.

I don’t remember how, but afterwards I put two-and-two together and associated the movie with the musical (that’s an especially scary thought, considering, y’know, ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER). Two years later, I heard the theme on the car radio while riding with my dad and I became nearly paralyzed with dread. After we got out of the car, it kind of tapered off into a sort-of dull, morose feeling. It felt like it settled into my shoulder blades and would never leave. My dad and I played Frisbee for a while, and I remember feeling so distressed because I consciously tried to get that feeling to go away and it wouldn’t. The song was stuck. The image was stuck. I was stuck. Frisbee couldn’t save me.

The worst part, for me anyway, was just how popular and recognizable THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was in its many incarnations. There was an NBA half-time show that featured the infamous duet between the Phantom and Christine. I couldn’t fucking believe it. All I could do was bury my little head in the sofa cushions and pretend to take a nap for what felt like HOURS before I thought it was safe. It was in THE MUPPET BABIES for Christ’s sake! Gonzo opens a door and BOOM, LON “THAT FACE” CHANEY. I gazed up at the ceiling long after it was over wondering who in the hell thought that was a great idea to broadcast on daytime T.V. It was one thing to be initially exposed to it, but to have it appear in the most unlikely of places? How much trauma can a kid take?

Over the following year, my fear of anything to do with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA tapered off dramatically. My friend actually burned the soundtrack for me a couple years ago, and I listened to it until I developed a low-tolerance for Broadway musicals. Now I see “THAT FACE” and have the inexplicable urge to get some piano wire and tie it around my face so I can look terrifying. I have been thinking about changing my vocation…maybe I should get into the movie biz? Be the next harbinger of nightmares and kindertraumas? “B.A. in Fucking Scary Shit” sounds better on a resume than “B.A. in Psychology.”

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VicarOfVHS (@vicarofvhs)
12 years ago

I think what makes Chaney’s makeup still so effective and surprising to modern viewers is the way it *moves.* I mean, most folks have grown up seeing THAT FACE here and there, so the reveal is nothing even approaching a surprise, but we’re so used to latex applications and cartoony CG, we just don’t expect the MOVEMENT that Chaney gets from the makeup, b/c it was after all his own face, just radically and painfully altered. Brilliant, and still packs a punch.

PhanWolf (@phantomwerewolf)
12 years ago

I love Phantom, my name kindda gives it away, and I can easily see how this would traumatize a 4 year old.  The chilling performance Chaney gives, it sends a shiver down my spine. Especially the pointing he does at the end of that clip there. So full of fury, makes me glad I’m not the focus of his wrath.

mickelodeon (@mickelodeon)
12 years ago

I watched this for the first time not too long ago (even the most tenuous connection to Sarah Brightman can make me do crazy things) and was rather disturbed by the makeup Lon Chaney’s got. No matter how gruesome today’s SFX can be, there’s just something much scarier with the simple approach. But watching Sarah Brighman, no, I mean Mary Philbin made me feel much better.