This post is in several parts and is long. So, get yourself a cup of your favorite beverage and settle in.
A. His Face
1. Lack of Nose
2. His Lips, or Lack Thereof
B. Skeletal Thinness
1. Low Food Intake
2. Nutrient Deficiencies
C. Erik’s “Smell of Death”
D. Erik’s Cold/Sweaty Hands
E. Finally, Erik’s Glowing Eyes
The description as given by Joseph Bouquet:
He is of an extraordinary thinness and his black coat floats on a skeletal frame. His eyes are so deep that one cannot see the eyes themselves. Indeed, all one can clearly make out are the dark holes, as on the skulls of the dead. His skin, stretched as if on the head of a drum, is not white, but a sickly yellow. His nose is so slight as to be unnoticeable in profile, and the absence of that nose is a horrible thing to see. He has only three or four long, dark strands of hair laid across his forehead and behind his ears.
Honestly, this is the best description that we get in the whole book. Monsieur Bouquet tells us not only about his face and thinness, but about his skin and hair as well.
The description when Little Jammes sees him in the crowd when Sorelli is giving her speech:
…a face so pallid, so dismal and ugly, with the deep black holes under the arched eyebrows, that the death’s head…
When he attends the dinner where the parting managers are conversing with the incoming managers:
…cadaverous individual (actually per TdM)…
…guest from beyond the grave…
Next we get a view of Erik when Raoul grabs hold of his cloak in the chapel at Perros:
At that moment, the shadow and I were just in front of the high alter and the rays of the moon, through the large stained glass window, fell right in front of us…I saw…a dreadful death’s head, which threw me a look where burned the fires of hell. I thought I was dealing with Satan himself even – and before this appearance from beyond the grave, my heart, despite it’s courage, failed me…
Then, we see Erik as he is Red Death at the masquerade ball:
The character was dressed in all in scarlet with a huge hat with feathers, on a head of death. Ah! The beautiful imitation of a head of death that was!
…but a skeleton hand…and the one, having felt the grip of the bones, the frenzied embrace of death…
Then, we get bits of description as Christine tells Raoul her adventure while they are on the roof, in the chapter Apollo’s Lyre.
First, when he first takes her from her dressing room through the mirror:
And then suddenly, in the dark, a hand was on laid on mine…or rather, something bony and icy…
She goes to scream again and Erik puts his hand over her mouth:
My mouth opened again to scream my dread, but a hand closed it, a hand that I felt on my lips, on my flesh…and that smelled of death!
She faints, then when she awakes, Erik is bathing her temples in cool water:
His hands, so light, smelt like death nevertheless…
He takes her to the boat and he watches her from behind the mask:
His eyes, under the mask, did not leave me; I felt the weight of those immobile eyes.
He tells her they will spend their time together singing, and he cries behind his mask just before leading her to the table to eat:
I looked at the mask with a tender expression. I could not see the eyes behind the mask, but this did not reduce the strange feeling of unease that one had to question this mysterious square of black silk; but under the fabric, at the bottom edge of the mask, appeared one, two, three, four tears.
Then, he reaches out to take her hand and show her around his house:
Then he stood up and handed me his fingers, because he wanted, he said, to do me the honour of showing me his apartment, but I strongly pulled back my hand and cried out. What I had touched was both moist and bony, and I remembered that his hands smelled of death.
Then, she snatches off his mask:
But these heads of death were immobile, and their mute horror was not living! But imagine, if you can, the mask of death coming to life suddenly – with the four black holes of his eyes, his nose, and his mouth – with the sovereign rage of a demon, no look out of the holes of his eyes, since as I learned later, you can only see his shining eyes in the deep night…
He comes at her grinding his teeth:
Then, he approached me, the awful grinding of his teeth without lips…
He shakes his head at her:
And, rising to his full height, his fist on his hip, waddled on his shoulders the hideous thing that was his head…
He grabs her hair with his:
…fingers of death…
He then helps her to scratch his face:
And he thrust them [her fingers] into the horror of his face…With my nails he plowed the flesh, his horrible dead flesh!
He tells her who he is that loves her:
Learn that I am entirely made of death, from head to toe…and that it is a corpse that loves you…but now that you know my hideousness…
He crawls into his bedroom and Christine thinks about what she has done:
…but my vision free of the thing. [Christine thinks when he closes the door behind him.]
You do not come back to lock yourself in with a corpse who loves you!
…the black holes of his invisible gaze…
Perhaps he should have been [the Angel of Music] if God had dressed him in beauty instead of dressing him in rot!
He begins to play Don Juan Triumphant:
…the abyss inhabited by an ugly man, it showed me Erik horribly hitting his ugly head…
Later, when Erik shows Christine his powers of ventriloquism, he describes his own lips:
Here, I raise my mask a little! Oh! a little only…You see my lips? What I have of lips?…
A little later, Christine describes what Erik did just before he went out to let her think for 5 minutes:
It is terrible! He is delirious and he tore off his mask and his gold eyes flamed!
So, in the end what we have is:
- A death’s head, or skull, with deep-set eyes
- No nose
- Tight, yellow skin
- Very little hair
- Very thin, skeletal
- Smell “of death”
- Yellow/glowing eyes – when you can actually see them, that is
- Thin lips
- Cold, and sometimes damp, skin
II. What Could Account For This Group of Symptoms?
First, we know that Erik is human, so anything that explains how he looks must in fact be something that human beings can experience. Second, several of the symptoms can be explained by the same cause, so I will endeavor not to state too much overlap.
Straight up, I’m going to say that his lack of nose was a birth defect of unknown origin.
This is not the only time this has happened; there is a girl named Cassidy who was born without eyes or nose. 1
Doctors describe Cassidy’s condition as a rare birth defect of uncertain cause…
Christine says: “the awful grinding of his teeth without lips”. Then, later, he says: “You see my lips? What I have of lips?”
Obviously, he has lips. One cannot form language properly without them. And, since Erik was such a good singer, we know he was able to speak clearly. So, even though Christine says he doesn’t have them, he certainly does.
However, he admits that they are very thin. So, when Christine explains how he is looming over her, grinding his teeth, I believe she didn’t see his lips because he was grimacing. This would pull the thin lips he does have back over his teeth, which at a quick glance could be seen as no lips at all.
Next, his deep-set eyes, and skeletal thinness I believe come from three causes:
- Natural propensity to be thin; I’m sure we all know people like that.
- Low food intake; more info on that below.
- Nutrient deficiencies; this may also account for some of his other symptoms.
Erik didn’t eat a lot. There are four places in the story where this is specifically mentioned:
- When he attends the farewell dinner for the managers.
- When he sets out a meal for Christine.
- When he talks of working on his opera.
- Christine reiterates this to Raoul when she says he [Erik] is working on his opera while she and Raoul caper about the opera house.
In the first instance he is probably not eating because he is only there to make his presence known. In the second instance, he doesn’t want to remove the mask in front of Christine. After she sees him, she never mentions eating again. He may never have eaten in front of her, and probably ate very little if he did. Although I’m pretty sure he enjoyed food occasionally as the Persian says that Erik was a lover of fine wine.
When it comes to the third and fourth mentions, this could be likened to the expression “working around the clock.” While this refers to not stopping to sleep or work on anything else, it doesn’t literally mean the person did nothing else. They had to stop at some point to use the bathroom at the very least. And, usually, they grab a bite to eat while they are working. Now, Erik may not have eaten for hours as he was working, but he could not have literally worked for weeks without sleeping or eating.
The kidneys are always working, so even if he wasn’t drinking anything, he would have need to stop when his bladder got full.
While he could have survived that long without food, as Ghandi did, he would have had to drink some water. If he had neither food nor liquid, he would only have survived 10-14 days. We know this because that is how long it takes someone who has all sustenance removed, or who chooses to end their own life. 2
Further, lack of sleep leads to:
progressive and significant deficits in concentration, motivation, perception and other higher mental processes… 3
This same source states:
Other anecdotal reports describe… unmedicated patients with mania going without sleep for three to four days.
It makes sense that Erik would experience as period of mania as he was composing, but losing concentration, motivation, etc. would be a detriment to his creativity.
So, he must have slept as well, even if not for very long.
Which brings us to a man:
- Who doesn’t eat very much.
- Has periods of little sleep.
- May have an untreated mental illness.
All of which could certainly explain his extreme thinness. And, as you get thinner, you face also thins, which would emphasize his cheekbones and brow ridges, making his eyes look even deeper set.
Also, he worked in an opera where there was much makeup easily available. There is nothing to say that at times he didn’t enhance the effect of his eyes, like when he dressed for the masquerade ball.
It’s not a stretch to say that eating very little could cause you to lack certain nutrients in your diet. And, just about all Erik’s symptoms could be explained by this alone. Nutrient deficiency can lead to:
1. Jaundice, which causes skin and eyes to yellow. 4 This is how Joseph Bouquet describes him.
2.” …pale, dry, scaly skin; hair loss” 5 Others describe him as pale/pallid; Dry skin also often appears tight (or at least mine does).
3. Body odor 6
As described above, his smell could have been related to malnutrition. It could also have been related to the dampness where he lived.
A literal “smell of death” could indicate:
- The body does in fact have parts that are decaying, such as a limb with gangrene.
- The body as a whole is breaking down.
In the case of number 2, those whose nose is sensitive enough to smell this percular order report the individual dies within days. 7 Erik is clearly not at this level of illness, so it is highly unlikely that he literally smells of death.
However, it is quite possible he smelled due to his proximity to a large body of water. As I was investigating this, I came across two interesting discussion boards.
- On the first, the original poster wasn’t sure if the smell in her bathroom was a dead animal in the walls, or something to do with the plumbing. She described it as: “musty, moldy, something indescribable.” This shows that it is easy for us to confuse the two. 8
- On the second, 9 the original poster had a smell that she described as: It’s not sewer gas, or a natural gas smell, not a dead/dying animal smell… I don’t know what it is, but it’s in that family of smells…” She says it’s not a dead animal, but it is in that family of smells. Further down in the discussion she says:
My husband went under the house and saw that the drain bucket for the condensation coming from the furnace had tipped a bit, I guess settled into the ground, so the pump indicator was on the higher part and was not sensing that the bucket was full and the pump needed to go on… therefore the bucket was overflowing and there was a puddle of water collecting on the vapor barrier sheet.
There are some holes in the sheet, since the sheet goes around the central support beams, and cannot touch the furnace, so some water had found its way to the ground (that is a good thing, otherwise there would have probably been more water) Anyway, the collecting water was definitely part of the smell.
If the smell is related to the lake, it is probably on his clothes. He is said to wear evening dress, which included a coat with long sleeves. When he puts his hand over Christine’s mouth, he naturally would bring his cuff, and sleeve, close to her nose. She would certainly be able to smell an odor from his clothes when they are that close to her nose.
Similarly, when he is bathing her temples, he would be passing his hands and clothes close to her nose.
Again, the idea here is to enhance the idea that he is somehow a “living corpse” by making him cold and moist (probably along the lines of slimy).
But, really, these two observations can be easily explained.
- He was nervous. He had abducted Christine, and certainly he would wonder how she would react. Many of us experience feeling cold, especially our hands, when we are nervous. Or, we can get sweaty palms. And, when really nervous, we can have both at the same time. (That is such a weird feeling!)
- Christine explains to Raoul that when she entered the dark corridor behind her mirror that her fingers slid over wet stones. This indicates that the area was at least chilly, even though she doesn’t expressly say so. Having stood there for some time, Erik could certainly have gotten a bit chilled himself.
- Many people are naturally cold. My grandmother, for instance, feels the chill acutely, and has her whole life. She has cold hands most of the time. Other people have the same problem, especially if they are thin.
There are several times in the descriptions in Part I where it is stated that one cannot even see Erik’s eyes. Whether it is because they are hidden behind the mask, his eyes are so deep-set, or because you can only see them at night, the fact remains that they couldn’t be seen.
The one time they apparently can be seen is in the deep night when they glow. I believe there are several things that need to be pointed out:
- When Christine is in the boat with Erik, she says the only illumination is the blue glow, which would make it really dark. Yet, she isn’t able to see his eyes glowing.
- In low light everyone’s pupils dilate, and it could be very easy for Erik’s deep-set eyes to appear as simply black holes.
- Anyone who has seen him without his mask has been horrified at how ugly he is and averted their gaze. Under those circumstances, are they really looking deep into his eyes to examine them? Very doubtful.
So, there are several times when Erik is seen in low light and glowing eyes are not mentioned. The only time it is really mentioned is:
- When Raoul sees the “eyes” on his balcony, which probably wasn’t Erik.
- And when Erik tears off his mask and glares at Christine.
It is my belief that Erik had mild ocular albinism and that accounts for this trick of his eyes.
- The most obvious characteristics of albinism are pale skin, pale or white hair, and light eyes; however, the form of albinism called ocular albinism only affects the eyes. While Erik is described as pale, what little hair he has is described as dark. Therefore, his albinism is limited to his eyes, and does not affect the rest of his body.
- Gaston Leroux says himself in an aside:
Some albino men, who appear to have rabbit eyes in the day, have cat’s eyes at night, everyone knows this!
- There was a boy in China who was said to have eyes that glowed in the dark. This part of it was a hoax, but there was a doctor who weighed in on the issue:
Adam Hickenbotham, an optometrist and clinical researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, contacted us to say he believes Nong has a mild case of ocular albinism. This would explain the boy’s lightly-pigmented irises, and would also cause him to have a lower than usual amount of pigment in his retinas. This would make them appear slightly reflective, and would cause Nong to have difficulty seeing in bright light. 10
- Given that Erik’s eyes don’t really appear to glow in dim light, whenever someone sees them, they could certainly be the slight reflection that Nong is said to have.
- For Erik to have the same affliction that Nong has, he would also have to have light colored eyes.
- Well, as I said above, in low light his pupils would be dilated and his irises would be hard to see.
- Also, if you weren’t really taking the time to look at him closely, you wouldn’t notice the lighter colored irises.
- Finally, when Erik tears off his mask and glares at Christine, she probably isn’t looking deep into his eyes either. Certainly, catching a glimpse of light colored eyes could cause her to say they are golden. Combined with the passing of light over his eyes that would make the reflection effect kick in, it is even more reasonable that Christine would describe Erik’s eyes as “golden.”
So, there you have it. Erik is skinny and malnourished, with a rare birth defect and ocular albinism.
- NY Daily News ↩
- Scientific American Article: How long can a person survive without food? ↩
- Scientific American Article: How long can humans stay awake? ↩
- Vitamin B12 Deficiency & Jaundice ↩
- Signs of Vitamin Deficiencies in Your Diet ↩
- BODY ODORS AND THEIR MEANING ↩
- Does death have a smell? General Nursing Discussion ↩
- Discussion titled: Something dead or plumbing? Original link (no longer active): http://askville.amazon.com/dead-plumbing-Smell-musty-moldy-indiscribable-smell/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=66372099 ↩
- What is that SMELL ?! ↩
- Does China’s Cat-Eyed Boy Really Have Night Vision? ↩