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The Face Behind the Phantom's Mask
by William Max Miller

Copyright 1999 by W. M. Miller

    Many horror fans cite the unmasking sequence in Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera as one of the most horrifying scenes in film history. Robert Bloch, whose writing of Psycho alone qualifies him as an expert on the subject of chills, claimed that this scene profoundly unsettled him, and David J. Skal (in The Monster Show) described the sudden revealing of the Phantom's twisted visage as a full-frontal assault on the audience tantamount to an act of rape.
    Chaney's consummate artistry with make-up partly explains such strong viewer responses. Lacking the foam latex appliances and other sophisticated props of today's special effects departments, he managed to fashion a face possessing a maximum potential for terror, and his performance exploited this to the fullest. But even though his Phantom's sunken eyes, distorted nose, jutting cheek-bones and deathly white pallor convey a disturbing skull-like gruesomeness, these features alone fail to completely account for the soul-wrenching reaction felt by viewers when the mask concealing them comes off.
After all, horror films depict an infinity of fearful faces and every fan becomes aware of how an initially terrifying countenance loses its impact after repeated viewings. Jack Pierce's Frankenstein monster, which once caused people to faint in the aisles, now looks positively benign, and the other Universal monsters seem as familiar as relatives at a family reunion. (Well, maybe at my family reunion...) But innumerable showings of The Phantom of the Opera still fail to dampen the shock waves that thunder through an audience when Mary Philbin pulls the Phantom's mask away and the awful, naked face of Erik bursts forth like a psychic thermonuclear explosion.
To understand how Chaney's unmasking sequence manages to retain its force while other scary monster scenes slip into banality, we have to look beyond the grease-paint and mortician's wax into the very soul of the Phantom himself. His motivations and emotions, projected so masterfully in Chaney's sensitive performance, elicit a sympathetic response. The loneliness of the Phantom's existence in the dark cellars and secret passages of the opera house, from where he longingly gazes at the beautiful people as they enact their lyrical romances on the stage, strikes a deep chord in viewers. We identify with his yearning to share the tortuous corridors of a hidden, personal world with another human being.
    When the Phantom succeeds in wooing Christine through the looking glass into his private wonderland, we relive a familiar and sometimes painful memory: our first date. Undoubtedly, this is Erik's initial attempt at establishing a significant relationship, and the air itself seems to tingle with a vital anticipation, part hope and part dread, that we've all felt when taking our first awkward steps toward love. While Chaney's malformed Romeo ferries Christine across the canals of his underground Venice, one can sense the tension rise. Everything must go perfectly during this first amorous venture! Such a thin line separates success from failure, and as the Phantom walks the razor's edge between ecstasy and heartache we tremble with him on the edge of the abyss.
    Things go well at first, and the precarious web of romantic artifice woven by Erik seems to ensnare Christine. The lady spends the night, and the Phantom's confidence soars. Don Juan is feeling triumphant indeed, and he gives voice to his joy by playing the pipe organ. We, too, have heard this music and felt the happiness that inspires it. And at this dizzying peak of elation, which the audience shares completely with the Phantom, disaster strikes! Reality rends the delicate veil of illusion as Christine unmasks Erik and all his beautiful fantasies of love come tumbling down.
    Too much disclosure! The worst possible catastrophe that could befall a self-conscious person on his first date! We all understand what it's like to be embarrassed, humiliated, sick with shame. We all know what it would feel like to have our greatest flaw exposed to the gaze of the person whose acceptance we most desperately desire. These are the terrible emotions etched across the Phantom's face when the mask comes off, and this explains why his features stun us with such lasting effect. We suddenly behold the horrifying face of a misshapen man who also appears to be violently horrified himself.
    Poor Erik! Look closely at his expression the next time you watch the unmasking scene in The Phantom of the Opera. It isn't anger, hate or menace which distorts his features in that split-second when the mask first disappears. Overwhelming horror alone animates those widened eyes and gaping mouth; the stark, utter horror of a person who realizes that his most cherished dream is destroyed forever. We see the face of a man to whom a calamity has just occurred, and, because of a very primal instinct, we viscerally experience the same dreadful emotions that he feels.
Chaney's skill extended far beyond the realm of make-up into the domain of pantomime. Raised by deaf-mute parents, he early learned to wordlessly communicate inner sentiments with an uncanny clarity. He understood human nature very well, and realized that people instinctively respond to the look of fear. Chaney knew that he could alarm people simply by looking scared himself due to the same innate factors that cause a herd of deer to panic whenever a single buck raises his white tail in response to danger. When Erik's mask came off he didn't just strive to appear frightening. Chaney also managed to look convulsed by gut-wrenching emotions himself, and this does more to jolt the audience than any amount of grotesque grimacing intended to overtly terrify. It brings the process of viewer identification to a devastating crescendo in which we and the Phantom unite through a bond of shared emotion, and closes the circuit between audience and actor in a way that reverberates with intensifying waves of raw feeling. Seeing the Phantom's uncovered face horrifies us because he is so horrified by being seen.
    Chaney's handling of Erik's character skillfully prepares us for this moment by progressively building on our sympathies. We become the Phantom as we share his loneliness, his desire for companionship, his nervous anticipation while leading Christine into the underworld, and his joy at her temporary submission to his advances. Thus, when she rips his mask off and shows her revulsion, we scream with Erik as much as we scream at him. We know how he feels because we ourselves have experienced dashed hopes, burning shame, and painful rejection. This ultimately explains how the unmasking sequence in The Phantom of the Opera retains its ability to shock even after seventy-six years of constant reviewing. Chaney's portrayal remains unsurpassed because he makes the face behind the Phantom's mask become our own.

--William Max Miller

Copyright 1998 by W.M.Miller

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