Saturday, 18 December 2010

David Lynch's 'Eraserhead', 1977

Fig. 1 Eraserhead poster.

David Lynch's Eraserhead is his first feature length film and it explores the melancholic existence of the main character, Henry Spencer, through some intense surrealist techniques.
Fig. 2 Industrial housing.
The first environment the audience is introduced to is a heavily industrialised city or town in which Henry lives. Despite the film being shot in black and white the audience can still see the grime and dirt, how thick the air must be.  Brian Jarvis described the setting as "Lynch's depiction of an Urban-industrial milieu in which the city - with its indefatigable assembly lines and hissing pipes - appears considerably more animated than its listless inhabitants." This is supported when the only people the audience are introduced to are Mary, his girlfriend, and her parents.  These characters have many uses throughout the narrative but in this case they are seen as shells of people, drones that keep the industrial heart beating. Kylo-Patrick R. Hart and Annette Holba believe that the mise en scene used  to portray this setting, combined with the strange events that are yet to happen represent "the natural confluence of denial and panic in response to the encroaching end of the world." (Hart, Holba, :38).  Throughout the narrative there are suggestions of a sparse population (the audience never see more than 4 people in one place), indications that there's no 'green' life, such as plants and trees and the use of a framed picture of a nuclear bomb in Henry's apartment are all symptomatic of an event that's brought humanity to the end of it's world as it knew it.

Fig. 3 The Lady in the Radiator.
The feeling of hopelessness attached to such a catastrophe is also carried over by the director. Erica Sheen and Annette Davison divulged that "Eraserhead offers little if any hope of salvation, liberation or deliverance from evil; even those characters and scenes typically held up as beacons in the midst of the film's literal and metaphorical darkness (for example, The Lady in the Radiator, Henry's 'mercy killing' of his diseased infant, his tryst with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall) are themselves sources of disgust, loathing and fear." (Sheen, Davidson, 2004:5)  Henry is presented with a dystopian future which he cannot escape from.  He becomes engulfed in the industrial world, smothered by overwhelming mechanical thrumming even when at home.  The audience reads into the dark and dysmal portrayal of the future through the literal dark spaces and shadows so when Henry escapes into his own world within the radiator the audience interprets this bright space as safe from reality.  However, as Davison and Sheen explained, the contorted actions that 'The Lady in the Radiator' commits, such as her giggling while squashing foetuses under her shoes, combined with her incredibly engorged and scarred cheeks create an unnerving juxtaposition for the audience.  They're presented with a area that Henry seeks to escape to but it appears just as damaged and unpleasant as his reality.
Fig. 4 Henry Spencer.
The sound, as mentioned previously, is not only smothering to the characters but to the audience as well.  As they sit and watch this film that is much more about 'emotion than narrative' they are battered by an amalgamation of mechanical hums and industrial crashes.  Noises so smothering that the viewer is unsure whether to keep watching or step outside to take a breath.  Jarvis revealed that "The incessant drone of heavy machinery, an industrial symphony, accompanies the deconstruction of organic desire by technological will in a surreal ballet mécanique." (Jarvis, 1998:176) The sound is not only significant in indicating the industrialised state the inhabitants live in but is used to display the decay of humans desire both the characters within the narrative and the audience alike.  The sounds act as a constant reminder to Henry that he can't live the life he desires any more, due to reasons unknown to the audience. He can't escape his monotonous existence and his awkward and unhappy relationship with Mary and the audience can't escape from the chains the sound holds them by.

Fig. 5 Dinner with Mary's family.
This entrapment that Henry feels is from the relationship he has been forced to have with his girlfriend, Mary, via her parents. Bartłomiej Paszylk deciphered that Henry "finds it impossible to communicate with Mary's family, as they all behave as if they were saddened automatons using the presence of Henry for nothing else but channelling their frustration." (Paszylk, 2009:146)  Henry experiences one of the most uncomfortable social experiences of anyone, meeting their partner's parents for the first time.  Lynch makes sure to create as much discomfort for Henry and the audience as possible via the awkward and inappropriate conversations with the parents.  The discussion of 'sexual intercourse' comes from Mary's mother and the audience soon discovers that Henry has been trapped through Mary's pregnancy. Shortly after however, the audience are introduced to the full horror of Henry's situation in that his 'baby', isn't really a baby at all. Martha Nochimson explicated that "This "baby" is the essence of illusionist reality - there is something there, but it is actually formless, held together only by the word and a bandage-like swaddling.  It is an ironic representation not in that it is the new life of the infant but rather the preclusion of new life by a social will." (Nochimson, 1997:151)  This deformed and unnatural 'baby' can be seen as a metaphor for the 'new life' that Henry's just been forced into due to the cultural implications pregnancy.  The parents made it clear that he and Mary should marry and live together to raise their 'baby' and it is the culmination of finally meeting the parents of his long-term girlfriend that has sealed his fate, trapped by social will rather than his own.  
Fig. 6 The 'baby' replacing the father.
Hart and Holba made another intriguing observation about the 'child', that "For Lynch, the impossible fruition of the oedipal struggle, and the inevitable traumatic consequences thereof, is apocalyptic in and of itself." (Hart, Holba, 2009:37)  The study of Freud's Oedipus complex would suggest that the 'baby' is to become the force behind Henry's downfall.  Within the narrative the audience is shown a dream sequence in which Henry is decapitated from within, and his head is replaced with that of the 'baby', clearly indicating the Oedipus struggle as the father is killed by the child.  This display of fear for his survival is important as it foreshadows the later death of the 'child' at the fathers hands, allowing the audience to interpret it as self defence or self preservation.  This fear is supported by Nochimson's view that "The more culture tries to dominate form, the more powerfully matter and energy beyond control assert themselves." (Nochimson, 1997:156)  Due to Henry's sudden realisation that the 'baby' could be a threat to him, he cuts through its bandages revealing only organs and tissue, no skin or matter to hold it together.  As he becomes engulfed by the revelation that the 'child' is less 'human' than he or the audience could have expected, the unnatural and 'formless' creature asserts itself stronger than Henry can handle, expanding and pouring its alien bodily fluids everywhere, dominating everything in the apartment, including Henry.

Eraserhead is a mighty experience of a film.  To the audience its soundtrack is smothering, visual concepts are overwhelming and its surrealist horror is incredibly visceral.  It needs to be seen to be understood and stays with the viewer for perhaps a little too long.

List of Illustrations

Figure. 1 Eraserhead (1977) Eraserhead poster. At: (Accessed on: 18.12.2010)

Figure. 2 Eraserhead (1977) Industrial housing. At: (Accessed on: 18.12.2010)
Figure. 3 Eraserhead (1977) The Lady in the Radiator. At: (Accessed on: 18.12.2010)

Figure. 4 Eraserhead (1977) Henry Spencer. At: (Accessed on: 18.12.2010)
Figure. 5 Eraserhead (1977) Dinner with Mary's family. At: (Accessed on: 18.12.2010)
Figure. 6 Eraserhead (1977) The 'baby' replacing the father. At: (Accessed on: 18.12.2010)


Hart, Kylo-Patrick R., Holba, Annette (2009) Media and the Apocalypse. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Jarvis, Brian (1998) Postmodern Cartographies: the Geographical Imagination in Contemporary American Culture. New York: St.Martins Press

Nochimson, Martha (1997) The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. Texas: University of Texas Press

Paszylk, Bartłomiej (2009) The Pleasure and Pain of Cult Horror Films: an Historical Survey. North Carolina: MacFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Sheen, Erica, Davison, Annette (2004) The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions. London: Wallflower Press


  1. Great review again. I love this film, well I dont LOVE it but I certainly appreciate its existence as piece of artful cinema greatly, the world is better place with Eraserhead in it. I think your year must hate it though, I think I've only seen about 3 reviews so far!

    Looking foward to your review on The Shining after Christmas, it's my favourite film.

    Oh and Look out for Jack Nance in Blue Velvet, blink and you'll miss him!

  2. Aw cool, thank you! It's definitely hard to know where your feelings stand about this film, that's for sure! I think we're all just really unsure where to start with it, it's a tough one to try and explain.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing The Shining! I can't believe it's taken me this long but a big bonus is seeing it for the first time on the big screen, which will be awesome!

    I saw he was cast in it but I had no idea it was a cameo. I'll keep my eyes peeled! :D

  3. "Noises so smothering that the viewer is unsure whether to keep watching or step outside to take a breath." This is lovely writing, Molly :D

    As Tom says - another bright-as-a-button review, and it's very clear how much head-time you're investing. It IS a difficult film, but only in so much as it puts you through something and is uncompromising about its effect. Personally, I find a lot of truth in it; there's a toxicity there about human relationships - about the ambiguities of intimacy and of 'growing up', 'getting a house', 'having a family' - it's definitely a young man's film - a young man's nightmare of entrapment. I think it's a gynophobic film too - body-horror again - as women are seen as shrews or vampiric (the neighbour), or breeding grounds for unwanted, mewling babies...

    and it does haunt you rather, doesn't it? It's a movie I sort of experience in my guts!