The Horror: ‘Eraserhead’
An examination of David Lynch's bizarre look into the life of an average male.
Horror films are often forgotten and left behind to rot in the locked vault of cult appreciation. Buried so far beneath the over saturation of projects being pumped out into the genre is the struggle of production, the social stigma of fear during a film’s release, and how the critical reception may have changed over time. Searching the vault, we will examine the inner workings of the greatest films and creators the horror genre has to offer.
David Lynch & Eraserhead (1977)
Every few years a film is created that poses more questions than answers, giving viewers the gift of ruminating on fear alone in their homes, rather than while watching. This is 100% the case with David Lynch’s surrealist interpretation of a man who sinks into the pitfalls of mediocrity. The film begins with a disconnected view of the reality we are asked to dwell in, as a disfigured man sits alone in an empty room staring into the nothingness of the dark. From here, the viewer does not gain any clarity as a disfigured head, Henry (the films subject), floats around an empty screen emitting some sort of intestinal appendage.
A love for the surreal keeps the audience on their toes.
Following Henry, the film diverts from the abstract and gives us a more grounded look into the world. The character, seemingly alone for the majority of the film, is tracked through his mundane job in a factory, eventually leading to a dinner with his girlfriend and her parents. This is where the film begins to use the blend of distortion and reality in order to create fear and unease. A seemingly normal situation of a parental introduction is quickly turned into an awkward encounter that makes the audience squirm in their seats. Lynch uses his touch of bizarre to portray the mother as an overly controlling woman, pestering and prodding to Henry if he has deflowered her daughter. If that wasn’t awkward enough, the mother also has a habit of violently convulsing at the table, while Henry picks at his under-cooked, seemingly living chicken dinner as it bleeds on his plate. This is where the fear is derived in Eraserhead, and what made it one of the most uneasy tones featured in film; the basis of reality.
Fear is relatable, Fear is attainable.
The basis of the entire film is grounded in reality– a man who accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant is forced to deal with the harsh circumstances of raising a child with someone he does not truly love. What makes it special is the altered state of the material. For example, in the dinner scene the absurdity acts as more of a introduction to the world rather than a source of fear. Through the film, the relatable, yet fear mongering situations continue for Henry as his child comes out as a borderline monster. This display of clear animosity and fear for his new born child, coupled with the isolation Henry feels due to the lack of affection for his girlfriend, leaves the viewer feeling very lonely. The life that the film’s subject reacts to with normalcy is surreal to us, and this distinction (while still remaining grounded– unlike some of Lynch’s short films) is able to create a black and white experience that nightmares consist of. Continuing through a dream-like state, Henry fantasizes about the ‘woman in the radiator,’ which is a hotly debated icon in this cult horror film; much like every mystery planted by Eraserhead.
The Mystery surrounding Eraserhead has helped to create its cult standing.
Upon its release in 1977, David Lynch was a relatively unknown. He only had two previous short films under his belt, and most noticeably known for The Grandmother (1970). After receiving a grant from the American Film Institute, Lynch was given the ability to create short films, and eventually, a budget for a feature. The project Lynch had in mind was so out there and bizarre, only he could have made it. Lynch has chosen to keep the secrets and unresolved fan theories regarding the film as a mystery, which has ultimately created a cult following that loves to break down the world.
Even with production design choices, the secrets are kept tight lipped. Regarding the fetus, it is rumored that Lynch used an undeveloped cow fetus (as well as a skinned rabbit) to portray the deformed child of Henry’s, but Lynch (or anyone on set) has yet to reveal what the creature truly was. Lynch also refuses to address any theories about the film, which allows the viewer to make their own interpretation of the horror. The production time and budget was also a large mystery, as development took four years (after the construction of sets) and featured multiple financial backers. These financial backers included filmmaker Terrance Malick, who upon screening the film for a potential investor, was greeted by the film being called “bullshit.” When it was released, Eraserhead was thought to be a “midnight” movie of sorts, without any sort of real expectation. The result was filmmakers being blown away, as well as John Waters and Stanley Kubrick offering their acclaim for the film. The success and obvious auteur vision of David Lynch, displayed with his feature debut, led him to his first big budget project, The Elephant Man (1980); and he even received an offer to direct Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983); which he turned down.
David Lynch was rumored, by his own daughter, to have been inspired to make this film by his fear of being a father, and the club foot defect his daughter was born with. This is fitting as David Lynch actually had to live on set for a year when the films budget began to run dry. Acclaimed by some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Eraserhead still stands as a cult classic shrouded with mystery. The black and white high contrast display of a bizarre version of reality has left a resonating feeling with viewers and filmmakers alike. Even Stanley Kubrick had a deep appreciation for the film as he left it on replay on the set of The Shining (1980) in order to get the cast in the mood to shoot a horror film. The thing about Eraserhead is that it has to be viewed multiple times because the first viewing often goes over a viewer’s head, but like an onion, the film has layers that needs to be carefully deconstructed and examined. Whether the eerie hymns of the the woman in the radiator or the dismembered fetus plaguing Henry’s dreams, the blurred line of reality and art-house surrealism displayed by Lynch served as inspiration for both the horror genre and films as a whole.