From a tender young age, I recognized man's cruelty to his fellow man. I hurt profoundly when children were ridiculed by other children because of their physical appearance.
Skinny and physically awkward, I did not fit in at school. I was unhealthy, my eyes were too big behind thick glasses, and my complexion was too pale. I rarely played with other children, and chose to remain indoors while the neighborhood kids played kick ball and hide-n-seek, and thus I was nicknamed, "the mole."
Shy, and afraid to speak unless spoken to, a result of my step father's constant haranguing me to "shut the hell up," I became a quiet, lonely and introspective child. Adults encouraged me to smile...but I saw little to smile about, and escaped into a world of fairy tales and fantasy.
My preteen years remain shrouded in family secrets and my step father's escalating alcoholism. His negative influence poisoned the entire family, and I sought further escape through books, movies and music.
I gravitated to musicals and movies from the 30's 40's and 50's, often staying up late into the night, watching old black and white horror films...like Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong. I was sympathetic to these monsters, perhaps relating personally to their outcast stories.
The first time I saw the Lon Chaney silent version of Phantom of the Opera, I was about eleven. I was frightened, but equally fascinated by the masked Phantom, the movie's man/monster, whose name was Erik. The film's tragic conclusion left me in tears, wishing that Christine had saved him from his fate.
Later I came across the colorful film adaptation starring Claude Rains, and I developed my first crush on a movie character. His voice floating through the mirror enthralled me, and the melancholy melody he played on the violin was unforgettable. I thought him so handsome in the mysterious mask, and was captivated by his efforts to win the trust of the young opera singer.
Finally in my mid-teens I discovered that I could sing...and my love of performing was a further identification with the Phantom story. For 10 years I studied classical voice, playing leading roles in musicals throughout high school and my early 20's, where I finally received the attention and acceptance I craved.
In the early 90's, my husband and I attended an LA based performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical, starring Michael Crawford. I shall never forget the first commanding chords played on the dark organ, as the gold and crystal chandelier rose above the gasping audience. When the Phantom first appeared in the mirror, I forgot everything else around me; the audience, the auditorium, they all receded into the mist when he beckoned Christine from behind the glass.
Dressed in elegant tails and black opera cloak, he gracefully prowled across the stage...the half-mask erotic and spell binding. As an adult woman, I immediately recognized the sexual pull of this Phantom, and I sat breathless as the tragic story came to life through Webber's soaring music. The performance was hypnotic and deeply sensual, but for me, the drama resonated beyond its Victorian romance and beautiful score.
The Phantom is a man of superior intellect and artistic intelligence, who because of a hideous facial deformity, is denied acceptance and love. He is forced to remain on the outside looking in, and can never know the warmth of human touch. His soul is twisted, his psyche damaged through his self imposed isolation in the opera house cellars, where he exists as a shadow, a ghost...a haunted creature to be feared and obeyed.
But the Phantom is no monster. He is only a man who desires to walk unmasked in the daylight, who craves someone to share his music, his heart and his body. Underneath the skin, Erik longs to be loved, just like the rest of us.
In December of 2004, as I sat enthralled by Joel Schumacher's film version, starring Gerard Butler, I was once again awash in the flickering light of an old black and white television, where a lonely little girl wept real tears for the Phantom of the Opera.
My own story, however, will have a happy ending, because despite my emotional and physical scars, I found true love and a deep abiding faith in God. As I mature, my own need for masks and disguises diminishes and I am learning to love myself for who I am...as alas, poor Erik never could.
Paisley Swan Stewart