Whether you prefer the 1925 movie featuring Lon Chaney, the original Broadway production, or the 2004 Gerard Butler remake, there’s no question that the chandelier crash scene is one of the most iconic moments in The Phantom of the Opera.
Though such a scene may seem improbable, author Gaston Leroux took inspiration from the Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier, for his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. That includes some of the more fantastical moments, from the chandelier to the underground lake.
Though there’s no island in the middle for an opera house ghoul to inhabit, there is a fairly large body of water underneath the Palais Garnier. After ground was broken for the opera house in 1861, workers and engineers were stumped by the water that continuously bubbled up from the ground they were trying to clear. In the end, they simply worked around it. In 2010, Pierre Vidal, curator of the opera house’s museum and library, told The Telegraph that workers eventually gave up trying to pump the site dry. Instead, they built a huge stone water tank to house the displaced water.
The tank is a far cry from the eerily romantic, candle-lit haven in Phantom. Due to modern day health and safety codes, the area is now brightly lit. And its use is actually quite practical—it’s where local firefighters train for underwater rescue missions.
Now, about that chandelier. As far as we know, no one has ever deliberately sabotaged the seven-ton bronze and crystal fixture. But in 1896, a counterweight from the massive chandelier did fall, killing one person.
There may be more nonfiction mixed in with Leroux's story. Legend has it that Leroux gave a deathbed confession in 1927, claiming that what he had written 17 years earlier was absolutely true. While there is enough crossover between fact and fiction to make you wonder, Vidal said no worker or patron has ever claimed to have encountered a ghost at the Paris Opera: “Although we do blame the Phantom as a joke if something inexplicable happens.”
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.