Written by Alexander Greco
October 12, 2020
This article is the first part of two. I originally wanted to do one, but, as per usual, I just couldn’t contain the words bursting from my head.
When I think about David Lynch, I don’t think about the director of Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. When I think about David Lynch, I think about the director of The Grandmother, Rabbits and The Alphabet. When I think about David Lynch, I think about Eraserhead.
This article’s been a long time coming. I’d known about Eraserhead before I even knew about David Lynch, and I’d seen a few of David Lynch’s short films before watching Eraserhead and was pretty impressed by his work, but when I finally did watch this film, I was blown away by how well it was made and how unique it was.
Eraserhead is like if Tim Burton had been a Middle-American opioid-addict in the rust-belt for seven years, then switched to cocaine and Adderall shortly before directing Edward Scissor Hands.
David Lynch seemed to have carefully selected every minute detail in this film, painstakingly constructed every shot and every scene, and masterfully orchestrated every moment, every line-delivery, every emotion and every facial expression in the actors.
As bizarre and strange and absurd as this movie seems outwardly, if one delves just deep enough beneath the surface, you’ll find volumes of meaning spoken through the actions, expressions, words and emotions of the characters; an architecture of thematic elements constructed through the layout of the scenes, the relationship and flow of events and the relationships of subjects and objects with one another; and amidst it all, the humming, grinding, howling of subconscious emotion created by the setting, the atmosphere and the constant surreality and discomfort Lynch creates.
This is one of a handful of films I’ve seen where every scrap of information seems important. Every minute detail seems to not only support and emphasize the larger themes and meanings communicated in the movie, but also independently communicate their own meanings. You can’t entirely try to understand the movie by analyzing the events and character actions in a linear, causal way; you have to analyze the movie in a more mechanical and symbolic way.
I’d talked about this a bit with The Lighthouse and how you have to analyze the symbolism and narrative sub-structures of the movie, rather than simply the surface-level visions and events of the movie. However, while I think The Lighthouse is the first film I tried to analyze in this way, I think watching Eraserhead for the first time over a year ago was when I started to articulate this method in my head.
With this article/analysis, I’ll try to do the same for what I did with The Lighthouse, as well as with some of my other analyses, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Big O and Shin Gojira. However, I also hope to make this article/analysis a bit tidier and more concise than those.
While Eraserhead has single frames whose contents could be analyzed over the course of several pages, I want to try and stick to the more general events and primary acts of the movie. First, the opening of the movie, with the dream sequence, Henry returning home and hearing Mary called for him; then the dinner scene; then Mary and Henry raising their child; Mary leaving Henry, the baby getting sick and Henry having an affair; and then the final, schizophrenic downward-spiral that caps off the film.
The analysis isn’t entirely a new take on the film, my “theory” isn’t a new one; but I do think it’s the best one, and I do think it will allow me to further showcase my analytic method.
Eraserhead is a film about two still-maturing adults in the cold alienation of the modern world who find themselves having to take care of a child. It shows not only the universal difficulties of parenthood, but also the emotional and psychological problems many parents face; the labyrinth of human interaction one must navigate through; and the inner turmoil of being thrust into one of the most difficult positions in life one can face: raising a child.
But, more than this, Lynch pulls back the romanticized and idealized veil of sex and relationships, mixing an almost paradoxical verisimilitude and absurd surrealism to depict the strangeness of life, the strangeness of love and the strangeness of modernity.
With this article, we will explore the structural and symbolic meaningfulness of Eraserhead and how David Lynch crafted a film that depicts the bizarre, surreal and absurd reality of human relationships, sexuality and parenthood—more specifically, relationships, sexuality and parenthood in the cold, alienating world of modernity.
Layer 1: Dissecting the Surface
First, I’ll break the movie up into a few important arcs or acts, with a few of them further broken up, and analyze each as we go along.
Eraserhead begins and ends with two surreal dream sequences or hallucinations/visions.
The first dream sequence shows a giant rock floating in space with Henry’s face hovering over it. The POV slowly zooms in on the rock before drifting over its surface, then closing in on a house with a giant hole in its roof. A disfigured man is sitting inside the house, looking out the window, with a number of levers in front of him.
The ghostly, disembodied view of Henry seems to be looking back at the man, then Henry’s mouth opens wide, possibly in horror or shock. A fetus emerges from Henry’s mouth and drifts in space next to him. The disfigured man pulls a lever, and the fetus moves out of view. The disfigured man pulls another two levers. We first see a pool of strange fluid, and then the fetus is thrown into the pool.
We see what seems to be light coming into the pool of fluid, except the POV seems to be from inside the pool.
Then, we see Henry walking through a dirty, lifeless, cold industrial area.
This first dream sequence begs for explanation, but is never given. I don’t think it’s crucial to understanding the entirety of the film, but I do have my own personal thoughts on it.
The giant rock is a planetoid. It may be Earth itself. It seems barren and lifeless, and it seems entirely exposed to the cold, empty void of the cosmos. The only sign of life is the disfigured man in the old, decrepit building, and then the fetus that is thrown into the strange fluid.
I think the man can be a number of things. He could be God, or some other entity who pulls the levers of fate and works the mechanisms of reality. The man could be humanity itself, fending for life on a cold, barren rock in the middle of space. The man is deformed an decrepit-looking, and perhaps humanity is deformed and decrepit looking by the time modernity has come around.
The giant rock could be Earth, or even Mother Earth/Gaia. The giant rock could be a womb, with the strange fluid on its surface being the amniotic fluid of the womb. The fetus might not even be a fetus, it’s difficult to tell honestly. It might be a sperm cell, and the giant rock might be an egg cell becoming fertilized.
The face Henry makes as the cell/fetus emerges from his mouth might be the face of an orgasm, and his expressions afterwards are the dull disaffection he carries throughout much of the film.
Henry’s Arrival Home
Moving on, Henry makes his way through the barren, industrial setting of whatever town or city he lives in—at one point stepping into a muddy puddle similar to the pool of fluid, and then walking past a swampy morass of dark, oily fluid and debris in some industrial site or other.
He makes his way back to his apartment, which is somewhat more welcoming than the industrial setting outside, but still carries a sense of discomfort and alienation. At his apartment door, he is confronted by his neighbor, a woman identified only as “Girl Across the Hall”, who informs him that a girl named Mary called him about having dinner with her and her parents. Henry awkwardly acknowledges this and enters his apartment.
Once he’s inside, there’s an assortment of minor things that could be discussed, but they would distract from the primary analysis.
While Mary and the Girl Across the Hall will warrant further discussion later in the analysis, here I’ll give a short introduction to their meaningfulness. Mary is (spoilers, if it wasn’t already spoiled) the mother of Henry’s child, and eventually his wife (kinda). There’s an allusion here to Mary as the Mother of Christ, but also David Lynch’s own ex-wife (a couple of them, actually) was named Mary.
There’s an irony to this, as the child Mary gives birth to is grotesque and incredibly uncomfortable to look at—as opposed to the Biblical Mary giving birth to the Christ, or savior of humankind.
The Girl Across the Hallway is a sort of foil to Mary—a sexualized counterpart to Mary (Mary being the woman who bore Henry’s child). Where Henry is forced to stay with Mary because of their child, the Girl is an object of sexual attraction to Henry, or possibly a sexually idealized projection of Mary before she became pregnant (or a sexually idealized projection of women in general).
Moving on to what I think is the most important and arguably the deepest part of the movie, albeit in incredibly subtle ways: the Dinner Scene.
When I say this scene is subtly important and deep, I’m looking at not only all the small details and minor symbols of the scene, but also the bizarre or absurd interactions between many of the characters.
This part of the movie is where I think many people will chalk most of the events up to “well, it’s just weird and random”, but where a more symbolic approach looking a the “grammar” of the scene (analyzing the sub-structures of the events) will provide volumes of meaning.
Because of this, I want to break this one scene into five sub-sequences to analyze them in further detail:
- Henry’s Arrival
- Meeting Mother and Father
- Preparing Dinner
- Having Dinner
- Discussion with Mother and Mary
So, first, Henry’s Arrival:
- Henry walks through the dark, industrialized town or city to a small, cramped home in an equally cramped-appearing part of town.
- Mary is watching from the window and calls out to Henry telling him he’s late.
- Henry tries to talk with her, asking where she’s been and whether or not she even wanted to see him. Mary avoids these questions and tells him dinner is ready, that he should come in. This already shows a disconnect both socially and in reality, as Mary’s reply is an evasive non-sequitur.
Meeting Mother and Father
- Henry enters the house, and he and Mary’s mother introduce each other before Henry and Mary sit down.
- There is a brief shot of a mother dog nursing a litter of puppies, which are squealing and writhing in an unsettling way.
- Mary’s mother and Henry attempt conversation while Mary fidgets and scratches herself uncomfortably.
- Mary seems to begin having a seizure, and Mary’s mother brushes her hair and holds her mouth to calm or soothe her, after which Mary seems to return to normal.
- Mary’s father emerges from the kitchen and behaves in an almost caricaturistic way without any substance or thought or real meaningfulness—like he’s just a mechanical character and little else.
Preparing for Dinner
This is a relatively unimportant part of this scene, for me, but there is an interesting moment where Mary’s grandmother (we presume) is introduced. She is sitting completely still in a chair, then Mary’s mother sets a bowl of salad in her lap, puts the salad-mixing utensils in the grandmother’s hands and mixes the salad using the mother’s arms.
After this, Mary’s mother place’s a cigarette in the grandmother’s mouth and lights it for her.
Also in this part, we see Henry and Mary sitting next to each other quietly and awkwardly.
This might be one of the strangest parts of the entire movie (and there’s definitely some competition).
- Everyone is sitting around the table, and Mary’s father brings out the food for dinner.
- Henry slowly, awkwardly, eventually asks Henry to cut the chickens (which are tiny, miniature, manmade chickens).
- The moment Henry touches one of the chickens with his utensil, a thick, dark fluid begins oozing out of the chicken, and Mary’s mother begins having what can only be described as an orgasmic seizure at the sight of this before screaming and running out of the room.
- Mary seems upset and runs out of the room after her mother, leaving Henry and Mary’s Mother alone for hot minute before Mary’s mother returns and asks Henry to talk with her alone.
Discussion with Mother and Mary
- Mary’s drags Henry off to ask if he’s been having sexual intercourse with Mary, telling him he’ll be in trouble if he doesn’t cooperate.
- Henry tries evading the question, saying things like it’s none of her business, he loves Mary, he’s nervous, etc., until Mary’s mother pushes herself onto him and begins kissing his neck.
- Henry calls out to Mary who comes back and pulls her mother away from Henry, then tearfully asks if he would mind marrying her, to which Henry agrees.
There’s so much to discuss here, so many details to unpack, but I will try to be brief with this and examine some of the more important elements here.
The three core things to examine are:
- Socialization or connecting with others
- Succession of generations
With sexuality, we see the dog and her litter of puppies, there is the chicken-cutting scene and then there is Mary’s mother kissing Henry.
With the dog and puppies, we are shown the somewhat unsettling sight of something we normally find cute or loveable: a dog, firstly, but also dog-puppies. This takes the human process of child-rearing and reflects it onto an animal—showing both the reality that humans are animals who go through similar processes, but also showing the stark reality of child-rearing in an almost disturbing way.
This is also evidence of a sort of juxtaposition between our idealized reality and actual reality.
The chicken-cutting scene shows a small, artificial chicken squirming at the touch of Henry’s cooking utensil (which we could possibly consider as a phallic object), and then oozing a dark, viscous fluid. Perhaps this fluid is menstrual blood, perhaps this fluid is a lubricant, perhaps this fluid is a part of giving birth. Nonetheless, the fluid is something bodily, something that comes at the onset of being prodded with Henry’s phallic utensil, and something that both greatly disturbs Henry and greatly excites Mary’s mother.
That is another strange note about this scene, the fact that Mary’s mother seems to become sexually aroused by the chicken-cutting and Mary seems to be upset by it.
Then, there is the part where Mary begins kissing Henry. What is happening here? Why is she doing this?
Is it that she is aroused by the man who made her daughter pregnant (whom she was once made pregnant with by her husband)? And maybe she’s sexually attracted now to a man who resembles her husband at a younger age?
Maybe Mary’s mother is a fragment of Mary’s psyche, or some other part of her personality or behavior. Maybe it’s some strange way of Mary’s mother suddenly accepting Henry into their family or as the husband of her daughter.
Nonetheless, this is an incredibly uncomfortable and bizarre event, both for the viewer and for Henry.
Now, as far as the socialization with others, this entire portion of the movie is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable as far as the relationships between people are concerned.
Not only are the conversations strange, with roller-coasters of emotions, but the actions characters take are strange.
There is the initial part where Mary begins having a seizure and is calmed down by her mother without really slowing down the pace of the conversation. There is the father, both his entrance, his stumbling attempt at asking Henry to cut the chicken (and the ensuing chicken-cutting sequence), and then the rest of his half-minded and at times mechanical behaviors. There is the mother’s coldness and short questions and answers, as well as her sternness while confronting Henry.
Throughout this whole part of the movie, we are shown the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the family, and much of the meaning is derived from Henry’s reactions to the family’s idiosyncrasies. Whether it’s attempting to maintain a conversation, trying to figure out what course of action to take, or his struggle to respond to the family members, Henry—who is a strange, idiosyncratic individual himself—struggles with connecting and reacting to Mary and her family.
Finally, the succession of generations, which I think is a less-important but still interesting part of this analysis.
It is interesting to note that Mary lives with her mother and father, as well as her grandmother, but not with her grandfather.
First, we look at the reflection of Mary and Henry to Mary’s parents.
Henry and Mary’s father seem to be the most stable individuals here; both of them have their professions or careers (printing and plumbing); and both of them seem to have relatively flat responses to everything Mary and her mother do. The only difference really is that Henry seems quietly bewildered, while Mary’s father seems to have accepted or learn to ignore the bizarreness of life.
Mary’s father seems to be missing “something” and acts somewhat mechanical and pre-programmed. Henry seems reactive to everything in small, quiet ways, and when Mary asks if he’ll marry her, he seems to accept this without giving it much thought.
Mary and Mary’s mother both have strange, quasi-epileptic fits, both of them show quite a lot of negative emotion (Mary crying or weeping, Mary’s mother acting hostile towards Henry). Both of them are the only ones who seem upset or even cognizant of Mary’s child. Mary’s mother seems to show sexual excitement and sexual attraction towards Henry, while Mary was previously having sex with Henry.
There’s this sort of reflection between the two generations of couples. Perhaps this is meant to show where Mary and Henry are going to end up. Or, perhaps it shows how couples like Mary and Henry previously ended up in previous generations, which contrasts to how the more modern couple Mary and Henry become have so many complications and problems.
Nonetheless, I think this, as well as much of the sexual evocations here indicate a sort of relentlessness of Nature in bringing about offspring—a “trap” (trap inferred by the negative connotations surrounding the child) that ensnares every generation and foists the task of procreating the next generation.
There is one last note here for this part, then I will move on (though much of this I will likely bring up again later), and that is the presence of Mary’s grandmother. I won’t delve into this too much, but, interestingly, it does create the mythological triad of Maiden-Mother-Matron, or Virgin-Mother-Crone (three generations of women existing simultaneously). And, at the same time, Mary’s grandfather is not there. Perhaps the deformed “God” we saw in the beginning? Pulling the strings?
End of Part 1
This concludes the first part of the Eraserhead analysis. In the next part of the analysis, I will conclude analyzing the surface elements of the movie and synthesize the information I’ve gone over before discussing some of the more universal themes of the movie.