A child is born, shunned by his own mother. He is brilliant and artistic, possessing skills untouched by even the greatest masters in many areas. Perhaps he is also insane, not relating to the human race. Eventually, he will come to be known as a ghost, haunting the world of normal people as he passes in and out of sight in one of the greatest centers of musical performance in the world. Passionate, he falls in love, and in jealousy he falls even further. This plot line has the potential to be studied in depth by sociologists, psychologists, historians, and artists on so many levels, exploring the child himself and the life and events that build around him. Similar to any number of ancient myths and fairy tales, this love story about an extraordinary outsider was first introduced as "Le Fantome de l'Opera" by Gaston Leroux, a French journalist in the late 1800's who happened upon bits and pieces of historical truths and superstitious rumors that were incorporated into this groundbreaking and originally under appreciated novel. Nearly a century later, after dozens of film versions of this classic tale had already populated popular and independent movie databases, one of the greatest horror movie directors of our time decided to take a stab at re-exploring this haunting character.
In 1998, Dario Argento released "Il Fantasma Del l'opera," an Italian remake of the Phantom story filmed in Hungary. Not an attempt to accurately transpose Leroux's novel into film version, nor an attempt to remake any of the previous films, Argento took many liberties with the basic plot elements known by Phantom fans. However, Argento nonetheless stayed true to the spirit and basic artistic essence of this tale. Argento opens his film with an abandoned child floating down the underground waterways of Paris in a basket, abandoned like the baby Moses. However, instead of being found by a loving human family or perishing by means of drowning or exposure to the elements, a colony of sewer rats pulls the child to land and cares for him. This differs from Leroux's novel, where Erik (later to be known as The Phantom) was abandoned by his mother emotionally, but remained in her home for many years past birth being kept confined and isolated. We are introduced to another significant plot difference as well; where Leroux's Erik is born with a severe physical deformity, Argento's Erik is physically perfect with smooth skin and flowing blonde hair, abandoned for some other unknown reason. Argento's Erik apparently grows up beneath the Paris Opera house, where Leroux's Erik is actually responsible for building it later in life, but in both versions Erik falls in love with a choir girl named Christine and pursues a relationship as her music teacher. Christine in both versions is young and innocent, and she is torn between her dark teacher and a young twit aristocrat. In Leroux's version, Christine is horrified when she unmasks Erik's face to reveal his physical deformity, whereas in Argento's film she is exposed instead to his family of rats and unorthodox species identification. Both tellings end with Erik sacrificing his own life in order to give Christine the freedom she believes she wants to be with the other man.
Erik's character has always been an outsider with minimal human contact, especially at a young age, and Argento's addition of bring raised by rats is an excellent homage to the fact that this character is a Feral Child. A feral child (also known as "wild children" or "wolf children") is one that has been raised with little to no human contact, whether that be through isolation and confinement, or actually having been raised by another species. While it has been speculated by some that Erik may have spent some time living with wolves after escaping from a freak show where he was put on display in an animal cage at a young age, Argento is the first to portray Erik as actually having been raised by animals. Other tales of feral children such as Tarzan or The Jungle Book have captured the imagination of the public and helped to popularize the academic study of this phenomenon.
In actuality, feral children do exist. Many hoaxes have been revealed over the years, but scientifically and academically studied and verified cases of such children are numerous and undeniable. Confined children may have spent years locked in a basement or attic with no socialization, or even in one media-frenzied case a girl was kept strapped to a potty chair for more than a decade. Isolated children are those who have been abandoned and managed to survive by their own means without assistance. Animal-raised children have been found in the care of dogs, wolves, ostriches, gazelles, bears, sheep, leopards, cows, jackals, goats, chimpanzees, and monkeys. Documented cases range from children running away from home at a young age to live with packs of wild dogs on the streets, or children lost in the jungle and taken in by monkeys living in trees, to adults found living in wolf dens hunting game with their pack and running on all fours. Human children can be raised by other animals quite successfully, growing into healthy and happy adults. However, these feral children generally do not consider themselves to be a part of the human race and never integrate into society properly. The character of the Phantom has always considered himself to not be human because of his strange appearance, and possibly because his mother who kept him confined told him he was not human, so it makes sense to extend this trait of the character to a further degree, having him consider himself not to be human because his companions and family have accepted him into the world of rats.
Argento's Erik lives a very isolated life, choosing to remain beneath the Opera House where he builds a home. He does not seek out the companionship of humans, although he is obviously fascinated with them, watching them from a guarded distance. He takes great care to avoid humans, running from them and even setting traps and barriers to ensure they are kept far away from his home. According to experts, Feral Children "don't learn to socialize, and don't want to socialize... By and large, feral children did not like human company and would go at lengths to avoid it." (Ward) This is certainly indicated in this character. Additionally, feral children take on the behaviors of the species that raise them. For example, a child raised by dogs will lap water from a bowl to drink rather than use a glass, and a child raised by panthers will hunt and eat raw meat for dinner rather than eat cooked and prepared foods. One feral boy raised by a certain kind of monkey had never drunk water and refused to do so even after being taken into human captivity because the monkeys that raised him obtained all needed water from eating juicy fruits in the jungle rather than drinking water separately. Feral children will develop walking on all fours, which may even change the shape of their bodies so that walking upright will never be possible. Instead of speaking in human languages, feral children will learn to speak as their companion animals do, whether that be barking, mooing, chittering, or squeaking. Many of these common developments are present in Argento's Phantom character while others are not, with varying levels of realism associated with each.
Erik is very quiet and reserved when he does make human contact. Rats are not loud or boisterous animals, being instead known for silence and stealth. Rats build tunnels and passages through walls to get from place to place and build their nests in holes found in the ground or in buildings. Likewise, Erik builds secret passageways all throughout the Opera House and builds his home deep underground, nestled in a corner of the basement. He travels through these passages quietly and largely undetected. He certainly shows signs of classic disassociation from the human race, with no sentiment for human life when none is deserved. A wild animal would strike against a hunter to save its pack or to defend its territory, and Erik does the same, killing the malicious rat catchers that wander the basements under the Opera House and killing others who come too close to his home and may expose his family to danger. "Feral children had little or no emotional control, and several would be subject to sudden fits of anger, made worse by the fact that they could exhibit particularly fierce or wild behavior. Some children were reported as having occasional fits of ferocity," (Ward) which is very accurate to the Phantom. It is known that blind children will develop particularly good hearing, and deaf children will develop better eyesight, and likewise feral children raised in animal packs will develop keener senses through the stimuli experienced there. Erik is shown…