Finding Queer Longing in The Phantom of the Opera
There was no piece of entertainment that meant more to me as a teen than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Now, I want to be clear before we get into this that I’m talking about the stage show, not the movie that was made in 2004. That movie is bad and I don’t acknowledge its existence, and the height of my love for Phantom peaked long before they cast people that couldn’t sing in the film version of a musical with the word “Opera” in the title.
I still think about Phantom all the time and love it dearly. And yes, I know that the Phantom is a creep and toxic and all that stuff, but I still think the show is romantic and beautiful and the music is perfect. And the other day I realized one reason this story of an outcast who just wants to be with the person he loves resonated so strongly with me then and now: There’s a deep undercurrent of queer longing in the Phantom’s story.
Queerness in horror has a long, storied tradition and it exists for an extremely simple reason: For most of the 20th century, queer people were seen as monstrous, so we saw ourselves within Hollywood’s monsters. Many members of the classic pantheon of horror characters, like Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, and even the Phantom, were born in the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when society was changing and reckoning with transgressive forces, including sexual ones. These monsters were popular because they tapped into how deeply the mainstream feared things like people who weren’t straight men embracing their sexuality and anyone flouting society’s rules.
Erik (that’s the Phantom’s name, though it’s never spoken in the musical), resonates with this theme, maybe more than any other such character and in an extremely queer way when viewed from a certain angle. He’s exiled and ostracized because of his face, for who he was born as. He’s not a monster. He’s just a person deemed unfit for society, despite his artistic genius. He’s sexy in a scary way, and he’s dramatic AF. He lives under a theater, pretends to be a ghost, and has to literally mask who he truly is. That’s queer! And yes, it’s also a bit camp, which other versions of Phantom, including the 2004 movie, have leaned into, but I think there’s even more there.
Erik is a transgressive, ostracized character, who finds his comfort and glory in art. Just that right there makes him rife with queerness, but it’s really his story that spoke to me, and still speaks to me, as a queer person. Because The Phantom of the Opera, with all its gothic trappings and references to ghosts and monsters, is not truly horror; it’s a love story. That’s especially true of the musical, which has been marketed for decades now as “Broadway’s greatest love story.”
Phantom is the story of a person who can’t be loved as he is. Erik masquerades as a ghost and an angel to be close to the person he loves, and when he comes out, he’s rejected. We can even read the way that Christine unmasks him without consent (twice!) as a forcible “outing” and in some ways. You can’t blame him for being angry about that. And the conflict in the love triangle is not just between the monster and the “hero” in Raoul; it’s between a character who represents the sexual, liberated, transgressive, and scary positioned against a beacon of normalcy, the status quo, and heteronormativity.
Looking back on my teenage years, I was always torn between whether I wanted to be Christine (adored, applauded, with a stalker who would crush my rivals under a chandelier) or I felt like I was Erik. And some of that indeed came from my own queerness that I couldn’t even accept or name then. I identified with a guy who was an outsider, who couldn’t get the girl because of nonsense about bodies and gender and stupid rules that made no sense. Though it’s not my experience, I can even imagine how Phantom and the narrative of needing to become something or someone different from the body you were born with can also resonate for trans audiences, as well.
There’s, of course, thorny issues here, because there is a long and dark history of queer-coding of villains, and the conflation of queerness with monstrousness has hurtful implications. But in my mind, and I think at least in the viewpoint of the musical, the Phantom is not the villain. He’s an anti-hero, I would say, because, even though he does terrible things … he does them because he is lonely and has been abused by society and longs for redemption through love. And in the end, he accepts who he is and does the right thing by letting Christine go to make her own choice.
I think this queerness is also why I always wanted him to get the girl in the end. Because that was something that I, as a teen in the late ’90s, didn’t think I would get. If Erik deserved and received love, maybe I could too and so my early fandom experiences with Phantom, writing endless fanfic where that did happen, were in a sense no different from the queering of texts I would do later in other fandoms.
The Phantom of the Opera is a story that’s captivated audiences for over a century, and the musical in particular has run forever because it speaks to something in all of us, through beautiful music. It’s a story about loneliness, about the hope that our music of the night—that song which expresses our true beauty and self—will be heard and appreciated by someone else. I don’t think that’s a story that only resonates with queer audiences, but I think we can’t discount this element of the story and show as part of its enduring success.
I love The Phantom of the Opera and always will because when, as a teen, I couldn’t find a person who understood my loneliness (heck, I didn’t even fully understand my own queerness at the time), Erik was there, like my own ghost or angel of music and he did. And so, even when this show is trashed as the most problematic romance or when Andrew Lloyd Webber makes movies like Cats, I’ll treasure this story that saved me from my solitude.
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