Myth: During the 1880s a mysterious masked man – living in a secret, underground lake – wreaked havoc on Paris’ opera house.
Gaston Leroux’s famous 1910 novel, which was later adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, tells the story of a Swedish soprano at Paris’ opera house, the Palais Garnier, who becomes the obsession of masked ‘phantom’ supposedly living below the building across an underground lake.
While there has never been any documentary evidence of any masked individual living under the Opéra, there were several spooky rumours about the building that now houses the Paris Opera Ballet, and some parts of the novel were actually inspired by fact.
There was indeed a chandelier crash that killed one person, and this, coupled with rumours about a ghost at the venue, gave Leroux the inspiration to write his story.
Another source of inspiration for the journalist-turned-author was the very real presence of an underground water tank below the building.
Though there is no subterranean lake or island in the middle that might be hospitable to a phantom, there is a huge below ground water cavern that still exists to this day.
When the Opéra was being built in 1862, there was an excess of groundwater in the process. In response, Garnier incorporated it into his design of the building, hoping for it to also be a water source that might be available to put out a fire if necessary.
Nowadays, the underground lagoon is a place firefighters go to learn how to swim in the dark.
You can even get a glance of what the phantom might have seen by clicking HERE.
And if you’re looking for classic French literature that does have real people in it, try Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers – although large parts of the story are fiction, there really was a musketeer named D’Artagnan, while his companions Porthos, Aramis and Athos are also based on real musketeers – Isaac de Portau, Henry D’Aramitz and Armand d’Athos et d’Autevielle.
This article is part of our August series looking at popular myths and misconceptions from French history.