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Eraserhead is a film of disturbing beauty and harsh reality. These two things may seem to cancel out, but in the talented hands of director/writer David Lynch, the film takes us on a twisted carousel trip through the human psyche and the troubled conditions of the soul. Too often cast aside as simply a "weird movie," Eraserhead is a true piece of visual art that deserves the appreciation of its audience that will ostensibly lead to a further appreciation of life itself. This admiration can be gained by a close analysis of the film's most constant themes and metaphors that show how the film's content is pertinent to events in our own lives.
Henry (Jack Nance) is taking some vacation time from his job at the factory. He spends his days in his bare apartment, staring mindlessly at the steaming radiator. His girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) invites him over to her ramshackle house one night to have dinner with her parents. The evening progressively grows stranger, culminating in Mrs. X informing Henry that Mary suffered an early pregnancy and that they both must now care for the child. The introduction of the baby into Henry's sheltered life brings about a descent into the darkest trenches of sexual repression and parental fears...
Eraserhead was the first feature film of film student David Lynch. Upon its release, the public seemed to be taking polar sides in their opinions. Variety called the movie a "sickening bad-taste exercise" that "pulls out all gory stops in the unwatchable climax... the mind boggles to learn that Lynch labored on this pic for five years"1. On the other hand, Ben Barenholtz, founder of Libra Films (which released the picture), called Eraserhead a "film of the future" at the midway point of its showing and Mel Brooks was inspired to hire Lynch to direct The Elephant Man after seeing the film1. Viewers to this day are still repeating the same mixed feelings. They either abhor the film for its disturbing and disgusting images or see it as a masterpiece of transcendental beauty.
There are three major themes that make up the dark core of the film. The first prominent theme in Eraserhead is sex. The film is filled with suggestive imagery of intercourse and sexual activity. Long, grotesque creatures that can be compared to sperm are seen throughout the film, such as when one is dragged from Henry's mouth and cast into a puddle-filled hole, symbolizing the birth of his child.
This birth is an event that is twisted into a horrible parody. In life, the birth of a child is usually looked upon as a joyous moment. In the film, however, the baby is a strange, reptilian monster swathed in bandages that can only cry in high-pitched shrieks. Lynch appears to be making a black joke at the expense of the audience; the director is showing us that at times our own children are nothing more than mutated beasts crying for attention. The filmmaker has admitted that the fear of fatherhood is an important theme in the movie2. The baby can also be seen as less of a character and more of a disease, a frightening plague that has infected Henry's life like a sexual virus.
However, sex is not a completely terrifying act in the film. Henry's precocious neighbor (Judith Roberts) pays him a midnight visit and they engage in a passionate moment of lovemaking. This is shown as the two characters lie in a hole in Henry's bed, which is filled with a milky-white substance. It resembles all the comforts of the warm, moist womb and the characters are at genuine peace as they submerge in the liquid. Sex, Lynch is saying, has a dual nature. It can bring us pleasures of the flesh but, if we are not careful, it can corrupt the very skin it is spawned from and take over our lives.
Is this not how it is in reality as well? As children grow up, they eventually learn that carnal activity can register pleasurable feelings in their physical bodies. This idea is cast aside by schools and parents, though. They constantly bombard the hormone-fueled offspring with images of transmittable diseases and early pregnancies. This instills a fear of sex in them that Lynch personifies to its nightmarish maximum in the film with his haunting images.
Another intriguing theme that occurs in Eraserhead is that of death and the dark hold it has on our lives. This is displayed throughout the film in various ways. The world that Henry and the other characters live in is a post-apocalyptic, barren wasteland that is populated by giant factories and clanking machinery. The fact that the film is shot in black and white adds to this feeling of decay, all the color and vitality having been sucked right from the picture. Henry's apartment is also filled with images of death, from the pile of rotting grass that lies underneath his radiator to the framed picture of a mushroom cloud that hangs over his bed.
Where sex was depicted as more of a negative aspect of life than a pleasing one, Lynch does the same with death, turning it into something more pleasurable than the bleak life Henry is living. The mysterious Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) represents the Grim Reaper and sings to Henry an eerie song of heaven and of how "everything is fine" there. It can be stated that the radiator itself is representative of Henry's thoughts of self-destruction and that he sees death as a source of freedom from his living Hell. This view seems to be confirmed at the film's shocking climax when Henry kills his baby in act of release and mercy. He is then met by the Lady in the Radiator in a brilliant flash of light and dies in her arms. In this act, Henry has finally embraced Death and accepted it into his life, giving him admittance to his own personal heaven and freedom.
We seem to treat death the same way we treat sex; keep the grave out of sight and out of mind. But it is there and always will be and Lynch knows this. He is forcing us to embrace the dark side, to admit ourselves into the valley of the shadow and fear no evil. Without death, there can be no release.
The third recurring theme in Eraserhead is the world of fantasy and the dreams (and nightmares) that occupy it. In perhaps the most vividly terrifying and perverse scene of the film, Henry suffers through a dream that quickly elevates into a full-scale outburst of madness and surrealism. Henry tries to confront his fantasized woman, the Lady in the Radiator, but she disappears in a flash of light when he touches her. His dream having eluded him, Henry is suddenly decapitated by a phallic-like piece of flesh that protrudes from his neck. His cranium lying in a pool of his own plasma, Henry can only watch in horror as the deformed head of his child takes the place of his own on his body and laughs cruelly at him. The world of dreams brings all of Henry's subconscious thoughts to the surface from the darkest corners of his mind. He fears his own child and all the duties that have come with its arrival, displayed in the macabre dismemberment and take over of his body in the dream.
Henry also enters into a world of fantasy in order to escape the new responsibilities of his married life. Although he stared idly at the radiator before, Henry only begins to envision the Lady after Mary and the baby have moved into the apartment with him. The Lady in the Radiator is his vision of release, whether he consciously realizes it to be Death or not. Regardless of the release, the fantasy is inviting and tantalizing. It offers up a more pleasurable experience than the tasks he must face in his real life.
The lure of fantasizing of some far-away place, removed from all the worries and troubles of the day-to-day can be an attractive idea. These dreams may seem like nothing more than pleasurable excursions into the realms of fanciful wishing that are harmless in their innocence. But watch out, Lynch appears to warn us. Sometimes your own fantasies can turn against you. People can become totally immersed in their make-believe worlds to the point that they genuinely believe in their authenticity. Again, the dual nature of the human condition is bared by Lynch for all to see. The world of fantasy can also bring forth all of our fears and worries and contort them into nightmarish shapes. Like the film, everything is in black and white. For everything that life possesses, there is both light and darkness within.
The film's greatest achievement is showing the audience the good and evil that exists in everyone and everything. This is perhaps the number one reason that Eraserhead is so off-putting to the public. There are weird and disturbing images in the film but, more importantly, the audience is forced to see everything they fear become objects of love and everything they hold dear twisted into something unrecognizable. Everything in life has these two natures. We must embrace them and appreciate them, good and bad. Perhaps if we can learn to love things that appear frightening or different on the surface, then maybe we can appreciate life that much more.
Eraserhead is probably one of the most important films of the century. I would recommend that everyone should view it at least once sometime in his or her life. Do not watch the movie but experience it. The bizarre images that warp the screen are moving pieces of art that invoke strong mental responses in the viewer. The interpretations are endless and half the morbid excitement is in attempting to piece everything together to fit into the film's puzzle-like framework. Perhaps one day the ultimate interpretation of Eraserhead will rise from the shadowy ashes. Until that time, let us open our minds, invite the ghosts of our past to join us, and take a long journey down that utterly beautiful and completely terrifying road known as Life.