David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ and the art of the uncomfortable

Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - 4:57pm

"Eraserhead"

"Eraserhead" Buy this photo
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Horror has always been a genre of extremes. It’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; it’s difficult to evoke fear from that which is familiar, so horror filmmakers find themselves locked in a never-ending search for the bloodiest, the goriest and the scariest. This proverbial arms race has led the genre to feel a bit oversaturated, with many horror films prioritizing shock value over quality and depth. It’s no slight against these films, as they certainly have their place in the popular entertainment canon, but one couldn’t be faulted for hoping for an alternative. Enter David Lynch.

Lynch is horror’s Andy Warhol: an enigmatic, white-haired virtuoso with a penchant for the bizarre. Operating on the fringe is Lynch’s modus operandi, originally making a name for himself on the midnight movie circuit that gained cult fame in the ’70s. These screenings, which started as a place for low-budget genre films, would eventually become a hotbed for some of cinema’s most bizarre and inventive films that would have never been funded by a major studio. Lynch produced his directorial debut, 1977’s “Eraserhead,” during his time studying at the American Film Institute, and would go on to blow up the midnight circuit, running for 99 consecutive weeks. 

The film tells the story of Henry (Jack Nance, “Lost Highway”), a young man whose one-night stand leaves him forced to raise a grossly deformed baby in a hyper-industrial urban hellscape. It’s not only one of Lynch’s most iconic and recognizable films, but also a quintessential example of Lynch’s iconic horror style. Watch “Eraserhead” and you’ll find no jump scares, no dissonant string quartet; that’s just not Lynch’s style, which recognizes fear as a deep, complex emotion that deserves exploration beyond just cheap tricks and gotcha moments. In “Eraserhead”’s runtime, audiences are treated to a factory that turns brains into erasers, a cabaret girl with severe facial deformities and a limbless, lizard-like baby that cries 24/7. 

Most horror movies tell stories about scary situations happening in our world. They’re meant to leave audiences with that nagging thought that maybe, just maybe, this could happen to them. Lynch, however, defies this convention entirely. The world of “Eraserhead” is like our world gone insane; Lynch isn’t trying to scare you so much as he’s trying to make you extremely uncomfortable. Lynch’s cinematography purposely defies the typical “rhythm” of horror movies, forgoing the short, jumpy shots meant to build suspense. Rather, Lynch’s camera lingers on characters as they twitch and convulse, often in silence. There’s a realness to this style, and as a result, “Eraserhead” feel less like watching a scary movie and more like accidentally stumbling through a portal into a hellish alternate reality. 

Lynchian horror is effective because it toys with our expectations. It is at once both disturbingly bizarre and uncannily familiar. This dissonance is powerful and can make Lynch’s films viscerally difficult to watch. Lynch’s films upset the most basal part of us, the part that has observed an order and wants to see that order upheld. Lynch’s films take this order and warp it into deformity; the worlds his film occupies are like ours gone horribly wrong. While fans have long argued over Lynch’s messaging, he’s refused to ever comment publicly about the meaning of “Eraserhead,” leaving fans to find their own meaning in the insanity. Lynch’s penchant for secrecy expanded to his props, never revealing how he made “Eraserhead”’s deformed baby prop — even the actors and set crew had to close their eyes when he moved it onto the set. If you’re sick of the cheap tricks this Halloween and you want a ruin-your-life kind of horror experience, then look no further than the works of David Lynch.