Save Point: Catherine

Last month my husband and I saw a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. It’s a musical we’ve both loved since childhood. Unusually perhaps, I grew up listening to my 6’7” grandfather singing joyously along to a record of the soundtrack featuring Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford. I’m much more familiar with the first act than the second because he seldom flipped the record over. He preferred the more poignant numbers to the flashy ones—I have many memories of him growing misty-eyed to “The Music of the Night” in particular—though I suppose it depends on your definition of flashy. “Masquerade” is flashy, as is “The Point of No Return.” But “The Phantom of the Opera,” with its literal smoke and mirrors, is hardly subtle either, and this was another number that inspired strong feelings in him. I suppose it would be more accurate to say Granddad preferred the sequences where Phantom appeared in a specific light.

I think watching my grandfather’s reactions to (and performances of) these songs, as well as the story they weave, informed my own emotional relationship with the musical. I sympathized with Phantom himself because my grandfather sympathized with him—because the record so infrequently turned over, leaving Phantom ominous but heartbroken rather than raging and murderous. In my childhood home, Phantom was a fearsome figure, yes, but more a tragic figure. We knew Christine would go with Raoul. But we grieved for the lonely, tormented Phantom. I saw a production my junior year of high school and still fully felt invested in this narrative. Glossing over the vile acts he commits, I read Phantom as misunderstood. His story didn’t have to go this way, I thought. He held a certain allure. I’ve heard adults describe the effects of David Bowie’s Goblin King on romantic awakenings during their teen years, despite his being a villain: people call Jareth brooding, enigmatic. This was how I felt about Phantom—so long as the record didn’t flip.

Watching the play in its entirety as adults, my husband and I had a slightly more cynical view. We still loved the music. The costumes. The passion. But, over beers after the show, we expressed a few reservations. “Everyone…in this entire story…is trying to control Christine!” I observed. It had never dawned on me before. “The Phantom…is really violent!” my husband added. We both agreed, “And dramatic!” And on the one hand, yes, that is the point of the play. It is a Gothic story. In the tradition of Gothic literature, it runs on heightened emotion. But as we continued this line of conversation, we imagined the days, months, and years following a fictional scenario where Christine goes with Phantom instead, leaving the stable and predictable Raoul behind.

“They’d have all those awkward new-relationship moments,” I said. “Imagine the moment when one of them first has B.O.”

“Imagine them splitting up chores in the underground lair.”

“Imagine one saying to the other, ‘You have got to pick up your socks! And this dip has been expired for a month!’”

We laughed, but the more I thought about it, the more questions this scenario raised for me. In addition, the conversation steered into suppositions about a gender-swapped production of Phantom and how mainstream audiences might respond to two assertive women making bold advances on a somewhat pliable man. While it’s easy to boil Phantom down to the classic (and tired) “bad boy/nice guy” scenario, I think it’s a little more complicated than that, though admittedly, I may be wrong. To me, Phantom is intriguing because it’s more than just a love story (or a horror story); the drama also hinges on Christine’s conflicting desires about art, ambition, and career. And while I can think of some stories that rearrange the ubiquitous and well-worn love triangle trope, pitting the stock characters of the “good girl” and the “bad girl” against each other, I was startled to realize I couldn’t think of any that simultaneously explore other facets of that tension. Until I briefly considered Catherine.

A 2011 puzzle platformer with RPG elements, Catherine is a strange game to say the very least. It tells the story of a man in his 30s named Vincent who has been dating a woman named Katherine for years. Their relationship is steady but, in both their views, stagnant. Katherine wants to get married in the hopes of adding momentum; Vincent isn’t sure. Then he is seduced by a (literal) succubus named Catherine, and Freudian hijinks ensue. Vincent’s nightmares make up the puzzle aspects of the game, with bosses representing everything from his fears of potential fatherhood to his anxieties concerning his own duplicitous nature.

I can’t really say that I liked this game. But while its repetitive structure, objectifying tendencies, and stereotypes about both men and women were more than once eyeroll-inducing, its symbolic treatment of emotional insecurities held my interest enough to finish its short run. Much has been written about this bizarre game. Of interest to me here are its endings.

Throughout the game, players make certain decisions that funnel them into one of nine conclusions. In some, Vincent ends up with Katherine. In others, he ends up with Catherine. In yet others, he ends up single; in one of these, he even saves enough money to buy a solo commercial ticket into space. And I have to say it did surprise me that Vincent’s fate branches this way. I think I expected the typical story arc where normalcy is restored in the end. I didn’t believe the game would allow for Vincent and Katherine to break up. I expected the upholding of the lesson arguably lingering in the subtext of Phantom: that the protagonist cannot descend to the underworld with the succubus, the opera ghost. That protagonists, even antiheroes, must gravitate toward whatever circumstance will grant them a “normal” life.

Optional endings that disrupt this formulaic path stand out to me, if only for their novelty. I’ve always wondered why that opening scene of Phantom¸ where Raoul bids on relics from the opera house at an auction set decades in the future, is so pointedly melancholy. Of course, the most obvious interpretation is that Raoul and Christine have lived a happy life together but that now, Christine is deceased. However, I like that the play leaves that mystery open, and I’ve imagined scenarios where Christine rejects the advances of both suitors and charts a new course for herself. Seeing Vincent move to the underworld to be with Catherine is jarring. Seeing him acknowledge that both relationships are dysfunctional and go into space is equally surprising—again, at least to me. A few articles frame the tension at the heart of Catherine not as a choice between “good” and “bad,” but a choice between order and chaos. The same, I suppose, could be said of Phantom. It’s startling, in the case of the game, to see chaos win.

It amuses me to think about Phantom doing laundry, or Catherine the demon picking up paper towels. But the fact that these images feel so incongruent gets at the larger question: How sustainable is mystique? How sustainable should we ask it to be? Phantom is partly compelling because he is left chaotic. It interested me that the audience rose and gave a standing ovation, at the performance I saw, for the Phantom alone. He is the figure people line up to see. But why? Because he maintains mystique? I suspect few people would actually want to be in a relationship with Phantom, or with Catherine. But do their stories give audiences a space to admire, symbolically, the chaos they represent?

And what happens, then, in a story where the protagonist does pursue that relationship? What are we to imagine happening to Vincent five or ten years down the line? Can a human live with an opera ghost? A succubus? Can we allow these types of characters to evolve past archetypes? Or does tempered chaos lose its appeal? Would audiences still romanticize Phantom if he leaned in with garlic breath? Left the fridge door open? If Catherine had spinach in her teeth?

I want to embrace a world in which people are allowed to be complicated. Not just kind/cruel complicated or generous/selfish complicated, but mysterious/quotidian complicated. And because the quotidian is so, well, quotidian, I feel this last one is less glamorized than most, both in stories and in lives. I want to allow for the resurgence and regression and resurgence and regression of mystique—something regarded as circular and variable rather than a quality that can’t be regained once lost. While Phantom frames its mysterious character as unviable, Catherine offers a few endings where the protagonist and the avatar of chaos actually try to give it a go—not just for a fling, but in the long run. The game has problems. I don’t deny that. But its refusal of the notion that the only “good” ending is one that didactically restores order struck me as unique.