Erik's Effects : The Phantom, the 'gesamtkunstwerk', and the monstrosity of spectacle
Erik, who is a real monster … is also, in certain respects, a regular child, vain and self-conceited and there is nothing he loves so much as, after astonishing people, to prove the really miraculous ingenuity of his mind’ (Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera) Virginia Woolf famously dated the origins of the modern sensibility to December 1910. This paper, using the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’ as its theoretical starting point, argues that Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, published in the same year, represents a distinct product of this sensibility. Enacting a compelling narrative of ‘monstrous’ unsettlement within mass culture, the novel — which continues to be critically neglected compared to similar literary horror classics — is one of the iconic monster fictions of the last century. The Opera Ghost, Erik, a grotesque social outcast, is a special effects artist on a grand scale, a fairground magician and inspired architect, as well as a torturer, assassin, and psychotic obsessive. Beneath the Palais Garnier ‘his artistic, fantastic, wizard nature’ creates a world of trapdoors, pulleys and costumes, of smoke and mirrors, of flame effects and water, creating a gesamtkunstwerk within a gesamtkunstwerk. His legacy is a troubled, prophetic and inexhaustible allegory of emergent modernity, in particular of mass media spectacle and shared popular fantasy. As charismatic as he is terrifying, as tragic as he is cruel, this beast in search of beauty — ‘built up of death from head to foot’ — seems to embody both the fear and the fascination of a complex mediated environment. Ultimately, perhaps, the spaces he inhabits offer singular perspectives from which to explore the conditions of the digital present, conditions in which – according to Douglas Kellner – ‘spectacle itself is becoming one of the organizing principles of the economy, polity, society, and everyday life’.