Horror-Tober IV: Eraserhead Part 3

Written by Alexander Greco

October 14, 2020

This is the final article analyzing Eraserhead (for now…), and because of how long this analysis took, I think I’m not going to do the articles on witches and werewolves, though I may see if there’s any topics in the future I’d rather swap in witches or werewolves for.

If you haven’t read the previous articles on Eraserhead, I’d recommend reading those before this article. However, this article does summarize much of what I discussed in the previous analyses. If you don’t mind a bit of a lack of context or as much depth in explanation, feel free to read this without reading the others.

Layer 2: Synthesis and Generalization of Patterns and Themes

There’s a lot to go over here. A lot information to try and bring together. And I don’t want to spend too much time wrapping this up.

So, let’s start by trying to crystallize some key themes and patterns from across the film.

First, there is the man with the levers at the beginning of the film. Henry seems to be a disassociated observer, passively watching and allowing events to occur before him while Fate or God, or even Henry’s own unconscious mechanisms, are in control of reality. At the same time, Fate or God or Henry’s unconscious is portrayed as this grotesque sort of figure.

Perhaps the entity pulling the levers of Fate has aged into a monstrous being, or perhaps always ways.

Combine this with the setting and atmosphere of the film.

Modern and industrial cityscapes, devoid of most life other than humans walking around. The movie has a constant eeriness too it, and a constant tension. There are few, if any, moments throughout the film that don’t possess some tension or conflict, or else something unsettling, uncomfortable or disturbing.

Henry passively exists within and observes a reality which cold and disassociated from life and living, but which there is also no control over one’s fate. Henry passively watches himself act in this barren, dispassionate world without any effort of intervention.

And, it seems, so does everyone else. Everyone in this film, from Henry to Gathy, seem to behave caricaturistically and almost mechanically. They behave in absurd and strange ways, yet this seems to be the typical mode of being in this world.

Everything feels at least awkward or slightly uncomfortable. Even when Henry is alone, there are very few moments that don’t at least feel awkward. Our protagonist is a bit of a strange individual. He’s not very fit, he has a bit of a stoop, he walks awkwardly, his expressions are wonky, and he speaks rather awkwardly as well.

All of the people he interacts with likewise have many strange idiosyncrasies—no one seems normal, yet, at the same time, every somehow seems natural.

What I see here are a bunch of individuals with their own oddities and idiosyncrasies, attempting to co-exist in an incredibly strange and somewhat cold world. Everyone is sort of trying to cope with life and trying to survive, and they all become these strange characters attempting to exist with one another.

So, we have a theme of modernity and we have a theme of strange social interactions. The cold alienation of modernity, and the disassociation of modern socialization.

Everyone is just a listless, arbitrary entity acting out of their pre-ordained mechanical manner, and everyone passively exists in a cold, lifeless world.

How are they able to exist in this world emotionally or psychologically without going insane? Well, many of the characters do seem to act insane, but so do people in real life, and yet society manages to keep going?

They find a meaning to go on through comfort, intimacy and I suppose responsibility—all three of which form a sort of interwoven monolith around libido and sexuality.

Henry has a job to have an apartment and possessions, which acts as a place to invite women he’s attracted to—Mary then Gathy. Then, Mary has a child, and now Henry must take care of Mary and the child. Comfort through sex, as well as intimacy through sex and a romantic relationship, and then responsibility through their job (with its connections to other elements of life) and through raising a child.

There is something like a façade placed over the bleak world Henry lives in—his idealization of reality—so long as he can have some level(s) of comfort, intimacy and responsibility.

However, all these things become complicated. Mary lives with Henry, but their relationship seems less than romantic, and she seems to be refusing sexual intimacy with Henry. Henry is attracted to Gathy, which prompts an affair, but then Gathy refuses Henry because he is a father. Henry is a father, but being a father seems to be the locus of so much of his frustration.

So, his idealization of reality does not match reality itself. This is why I think there are two key projections Henry makes in the film.

He projects the warmth and comfort of his idealized reality (which we might say used to be sex with Mary without thought of consequence) onto the Radiator Girl. The girl herself is an imaginary person with a partially fake and mask-like face, and she is always presented in a positive manner. I think this projection of an idealized life or reality is made especially apparent in the Radiator Girl’s song about Heaven.

She is Henry’s desire to return to a simpler life—an innocent state of being.

The second projection is the child itself. Is the grotesqueness of the child reality itself? Is that how the child actually appears? Or is this just a projection onto the child?

Is the child truly that deformed? Is that simply how it appears in the eyes of its Boomer parents? (Just kidding, Boomers).

Let’s see how well we can paint this picture:

They live in a cold, alienating world devoid of life, and that seems to be commonplace for them. Sexuality is something strange, frightening, uncomfortable and omnipresent, as it is also a source of warmth, comfort and intimacy. Socialization with others seems to be difficult and bizarre. How does one create meaningful meaningfulness between themselves and others in a meaningless void? Every character seems so fragmented and disconnected from each other, they can’t seem to come to terms on a more personal level.

The only way to happily live in this world might be to idealize it and to live life for the few things that bring one warmth (such as sex, which might also be one of the only ways to be truly intimate with someone in this world as well).

However, the child created through that sex tears down the idealized simulation of reality that has been laid over the world’s ugliness (as children do), and frustrates their efforts at sanity, happiness and intimacy. If we can grant my theory that the child’s grotesque nature is being projected onto it, then we can see the child as a symbolic locus of frustration, fear and disgust for all those connected to it.

Mary’s father never even mentions the child, but Mary’s child also seems far more disassociated from reality and its consequences than the other characters­—in the sense that he barely seems to be conscious in a meaningful way, and is just sort of a personality machine inside a human skin suit. Perhaps he either refuses to acknowledge it, or accepts the child in a flat, affectless manner (juxtaposed to the bombastic and smiling personality he mechanically possesses).

Mary’s mother seems to accept the child, but only if Henry agrees to marry Mary and help take care of the two of them. Considering the mother’s sexual actions and behavior, she may even welcome the child’s existence.

Henry seems in the beginning to accept the child and its grotesque appearance, but it might be a safe assumption that he does it for the intimacy he believes it will afford him with Mary, as well as the sense of responsibility and meaning it might provide him. However, he then loses this intimacy with Mary, as well as with Gathy, because of the child’s existence. Now, the child truly becomes a source of his frustration.

Henry, already living in a cold, barren, alienating world, becomes so disconnected and so frustrated that he does the unthinkable—he kills his child. He destroys life in order to maintain his idealized state of being. This may even be the state of modernity in general. Modernity may be choking out and destroying life in order to maintain its idealized state—which is the state he returns to in the end of the film.

Not only this, he defies fate, or the man pulling the levers, and annihilates or destroys the planetoid womb. He defies the natural order of things in order to return to an idealized life.

Now, there are two routes to go about examining this. The first, a more literal and more critical view of Henry and his actions, and the second, a more symbolically cathartic one.

The first route, Henry is not only abdicating his responsibility as a father—more than that, committing infanticide—he is perpetuating the barren reality he lives in and idealizes. Rather than live with the frustrating reality brought upon by his child, he is seeking to destroy that reality in order to return to a place of warmth, ignorance and bliss (the murky white fluid he and Gathy descend into may be a precursor to the place of blinding white light at the end).

Now, to flip this in one simple maneuver. What if what Henry kills in the end is not his child, but the projection he creates of his child? What if Henry’s problem was not that the child was a destructive force on the nature of his life, but that Henry’s idealized perception of life was never fully updated to include his child in it? Of course, Lynch being a Boomer, this may be a bit of a stretch, but, for me, it fits the movie itself.

And what of the eraserhead sequence? Perhaps Henry needed to erase his prior reality and his prior identity in order to find that higher, ideal state again.

He had to defy the natural order of things—in fact, he had to annihilate it. He had to annihilate his identity. He had to annihilate his reality. He had to annihilate the negative projection of his child. All this, and now he can recreate a more idealized reality that included a more positive projection of his child.

Of course, there’s still a catch to this.

It is both impossible and unhealthy to permanently try to exist in an idealized state, or a projection of an idealized state. However, it is also unhealthy (though much more possible) to exist in the non-idealized state of perpetual detachment and alienation that is the material reality.

We have models of reality projected onto actual reality, which are not reality themselves, but which need to be continually updated as we receive new information about reality.

The introduction of a child into Henry’s life was a major disruption to its previously idealized state. The ensuing psychosis is Henry’s mind attempting to cope with this disruption.

However, the disruption was so great, Henry was forced to annihilate his previous identity, his previous way of life, and his previous idealization of reality: eraserhead.

Layer 3: Broad Universals

So how can all of this be taken back to an examination of real life?

I don’t, how much more of an accurate representation of reality do you want than Eraserhead?

We live on a rock in space. We live in a social reality that is at all times fragmented and disassociated. We are all random people who come from random backgrounds attempting to associate with similarly random people who likewise come from random backgrounds.

No one’s really given the rules of engagement except in half-ass regurgitations of “passed-down wisdom” from our parents—we have to learn it on our own. We’re all just animals trying to figure out how to be humans on a rock in the middle of space.

And so, we all seem crazy or weird or arbitrary or downright insane to one another. If you examine someone close enough, the persona either you or they attempted to create will crumble, and beneath it, you will see that person for the strange, scared, dumb, blind, ignorant and absolutely insane person they really are—and that’s everyone, everyone is like this.

And so, half of Eraserhead is this. Half of Eraserhead is contending with this strange social mechanism we are all apart of that requires us to behave under certain terms of engagement, and yet we are all also individuals carved naturally and artificially by our own hands, the hands of others and by our circumstances.

The other half similarly follows this line of thought—idealization. Except, rather than the social idealizations and the idealization we have of the nature of reality, it’s a sort of internalized idealization.

It’s the moth drawn toward a bright light, or someone cold searching for warmth.

It’s the things we do to make ourselves feel okay with life, and the distances we’ll go to achieve this “okayness”. It’s the stories we tell ourselves—which aren’t necessarily explicit within Eraserhead, but I’d argue are certainly implicit to the narrative.

And, in the end, it’s what we do as a reaction to the inevitable discovery that life is not okay, life is not the idealized mask we put upon it, and that life is a bizarre, absurd, meaningless mess that we were left to fend against and contend with.

That’s the catharsis at the end of the movie:

How do we contend with the inevitability of reality?

How do we contend with the actuality of things and the actuality of their existence, consequences and effects?

How do we live with the experience of pulling back the veil and staring into sheer absurdity, sheer arbitrariness and sheer meaninglessness?

How do we put the pieces back together once our vision of reality has begun to crumble?

Conclusion

To conclude, I kind of want to give a meta-analysis of this analysis, since this was such big fucking analysis of a 90 minute film.

Perhaps I’m making much ado about nothing with Eraserhead. A lot of these conclusions may be a bit far-fetched from the information we’re given in the film.

However, what I’m trying to do is convert the images, symbols and characters in the film into something like a meaningful language, and then convert the events or causality, the emotions and the context of the movie into something like grammar, rhetoric and articulation; and then I want to see what comes out on the other side.

The process of this is to examine much of the film literally, for what is literally happening. This, in a sense, abstracts it (though this might not be how one normally things of “abstraction”). Here’s an abstraction:

Take an apple (apple as an object, not as the word). Red is an abstraction of an apple. Fruit is an abstraction of an apple. Food is an abstraction of an apple.

These are abstract categorizations or abstract descriptions of the apple.

So, you abstract from a film and it’s contents, then examine the abstractions.

We examine the film (you can examine anything like this, really) literally and abstract meaningful information from it, then analyze that meaningful information and look for patters. How do you know if that analysis works?

Well, you test it or compare it along multiple levels or dimensions of meaning.

You can test it against itself: I say Henry develops a growing resentment for his child, or that his child is a source of resentment.

Is this completely unfounded? Or does it have a basis in the reality of the movie?

Well, the child is arguably the reason why Mary doesn’t want to have sex with Henry, as well as more obviously the reason Gathy doesn’t want to have sex with Henry, and Henry kills his child in the end, shortly after he sees Gathy with another man.

Seems sound. Seems logical.

Is the appearance of the child a projection? Well, this one is more of a thought tool, more of an assumption that can help aid an argument, but it circumstantially fits with much of the rest of the film.

Is Henry’s final moment with the Radiator Girl a moment of catharsis with his psychological manifestation of an ideal reality? Well, this one gets more complicated as you have to explain many other things, particularly the Radiator Girl and her relationship to Henry. However, if we assume the Radiator Girl to be associated with warmth (radiator), sexual attraction (all other women in the movie being related in some way to sex or sexuality), an idealized mask (the girl possessing fake cheeks that might accentuate her looks), then it seems likely.

So, these are examples of testing your analysis against the thing you are analyzing, but the problem here is that the analysis becomes a closed system. X = Y if Y = Z; Z = Y if X = Z. It can become to self-referential to be completely accurate.

So, you need to examine your own examination. Whatever you are analyzing creates its own reality (a movie creates its own, self-contained universe), and you must make sure you are analyzing that with minimized bias. You must make sure that even your unbiased analysis is at least founded in logic, or at least founded in the logic of the self-contained reality.

Then, you must break out of the self-contained reality of the creation you are examining, and compare the analysis to reality. Why? Because, inevitably, the creation is either a science or engineering experiment in art (in which case, one is not analyzing the meaning of that film), or the creation is a reflection of reality, whether material, social or psychological.

So, one’s analysis must inevitably lead back to the actuality of reality.

Does this analysis do all of this? I don’t know, but I do think so.

There can be many interpretations of something, true, especially with a David Lynch film. However, given the information we do have in the film, given the recurrent themes or meaningful patterns, and given some of the assumed quasi-universal meaning underlying much of the images, characters, symbols, etc. in the film, I think this analysis fits.

I do think this is close to approximating a quasi-objectively correct analysis of the film (if you squint and cross your eyes).

Part of the problem with such an analysis though, especially with such a movie, is that the movie is already incredibly abstract, and an analysis like this, in part, abstracts it even further.

The movie itself constructs a reality, and, in the case of most David Lynch films, these realities are incredibly abstract. A David Lynch film reminds me in many ways of the “Layers of Irony” memes, where Meme-Man inevitably spirals into a pocket dimension of hyper-ironic complexity.

We have a film that is an abstraction of reality already, which is constructed of abstractions, which communicates meaning in abstractions. That’s a typical David Lynch film. Analyzing it is like trying to add another layer of abstraction across all abstractions, so the initial cubed abstraction (abstract x abstract x abstract = abstract^3) becomes a tesseracted abstraction (abstract^4).

And that’s what it’s like trying to analyze a Lynch film. And that’s why this analysis hit ~10,000 words and still feels incomplete.

And of course, this can never be fully objective, and any interpretation can vary quite a lot from person to person, even if they’re looking at similar themes.

Hopefully though, this provides a solid analysis for you to understand Eraserhead as I understand it, and hopefully this also provides a solid method of analysis for you to analyze other works of art, music, film and so forth.

Thank you for reading.

Happy Horror-Tober.

Horror-Tober III: Eraserhead Part 2

Written by Alexander Greco

October 13, 2020

I wanted this to be a two-parter, but goddamnit, this movie’s just too good. However, to be perfectly honest, I wrote a ton today, and there came a time my brain was just too fried. So, a third article will be written to tidily wrap this all up.

This article finishes the surface-level analysis, and next article will synthesize the analysis from the first two parts and delve into some of the themes a bit deeper.

With out further ado, here’s Part 2, leaving off right where Part 1 ended.

Living Together / Raising the Child

This part of the movie is relatively short.

First, we see Mary trying to take care of the new child—which is nothing short of a grotesque monster, but we’re forced to empathize with it because it’s a baby—and she is having an incredibly difficult time with it. The baby fusses, the baby cries, the baby refuses to eat and so forth.

Henry comes back from work, secretly checks his mail and opens up a box with some sort of dried organic thing inside of it (it looks like a small, dried worm or leech). Henry comes back inside, sees Mary and the Baby, the lies on the bed. Mary asks if there’s any mail, Henry tells her there wasn’t, and then Henry briefly gazes into the radiator.

There’re a few obvious things to talk about here. Mary is incredibly exasperated by living with the baby. The baby itself doesn’t make living with it hard.

It’s physical appearance is not something it can help, but it nonetheless rounds up any parents’ nightmares about how their child might be born: it seems to be deformed, it is wrapped in bandages, and it seems its body would not be able to function properly otherwise, and, on top of this, it incessantly cries and wails.

The baby here is something extremely grotesque—on the high end of parents’ fears of how their baby might come out—and yet the two parents must try to love the baby (ironically, Henry, until the very end, seems to be better at this than Mary). It’s a locus of problems, insecurities, frustrations and an entire network of psychological issues.

It’s all the worries, doubts and regrets we have about pregnancy, childbirth, childcare and children themselves all rolled into one.

The dried slug-creature comes into play later, so there’s not too much to discuss here other than wondering why Henry is hiding it. I think the dried slug might be Henry’s sexuality, which he is now hiding from Mary, and this will be developed a bit throughout the analysis.

The radiator likewise comes back later in the movie, and I think this radiator might be a sort of source of warmth in the cold, with the contents we later see in the radiator being the more symbolic or psychological sources of warmth.

Split

That night, Henry first places the dried worm (which now seems less-than-dry) into a small cabinet hanging on the wall. He then seems to make a sexual advance on Mary, which she promptly denies and the two try to get some sleep. The baby continues crying. Henry manages to sleep, but Mary cannot. She eventually begins yelling at the baby to shut up before trying to go back to sleep again.

The baby will not stop crying, and Mary still cannot sleep, so she eventually decides to leave for her parents’ house so she can try to get some sleep. She leaves Henry with the baby, telling him he’d better look after it.

After this, there are a few notable events. The baby gets sick, which is a disgusting sight to see, though Henry seems to take care of the baby relatively well. Then, Henry tries to leave the apartment, but every time he does, the baby begins crying to he returns. Henry lays in bed to sleep, and his radiator begins emitting light and sound.

Some major notes for this are, of course, the return and rejuvenation of the worm, which makes an appearance just before Henry tries to have sex with Mary again. Mary refusing might either be Mary’s general frustration at the situation, or it might be Mary’s realization that it was sex that led to all of her current problems and frustrations. She may be both weary of sex and may be resentful towards Henry for doing this to her.

Henry’s ensuing issues with the baby might be the first signs of his own resentment towards the baby, though so far he seems to be doing a better job at parenting than Mary. However, this frustration seems to be a little more evident in the moment when he’s trying to leave the apartment.

Here, we have the first of two hallucinations/dreams/visions of the girl in the radiator.

She has exaggerated cheeks, a constant smile and an innocent look to her. Perhaps she is meant to be child-like in some way, or perhaps she is meant to be like an innocent version of Mary before they had their child, and is a sexually idealized woman. There have been some theories that this girl is in fact Henry’s subconscious.

Though I haven’t seen it, the argument could also be made that this girl is Henry’s Anima (a Jungian term).

I won’t go down that line of thought too much, though my own line of thought may be precisely this.

I think the girl is sort of a projection of a sexualized woman. She is innocent, though potentially in a somewhat seductive way, she is young, she is happy, and she is associated with the warmth provided by the radiator. Also, and this is a big “also”, the cheeks she has are almost like a mask, and while their “purpose” might be to accentuate her looks, her innocence or her attractiveness, they are a bit grotesque.

So, in a way, this idealized mask that the girl wears mirrors the possibility that she is an idealized projection of Henry’s attraction.

The woman is also dancing across a stage in the radiator, and the strange sperm-fetuses we saw in the dream sequence at the beginning of the film begin falling from above her onto the stage. At first she dances around them, but then she steps on them and squashes them.

This might be the woman acting like a spermicide, or even committing infanticide. All of Henry’s problems, including his potential sexual frustration and Mary’s frustration/resentment/cold shoulder, stem from their child. So, Henry’s idealized female-figure would be one that either: cannot get pregnant; kills sperm; or kills fetuses.

Affair with the Girl Across the Hall

After this, it appears that Mary is back and is sleeping in the bed with Henry again. She is constantly moving around, making biting noises and taking up much of the bed. Henry finds another one of the sperm-fetus-creatures in the bed, presumably coming from out of Mary’s vagina, and pulls it out of her. After throwing these against the wall, the light in thee room dims, then a single light illuminates the cabinet with the worm in it.

The cabinet opens, and the worm seems fully rejuvenated now and begins moving around, making small noises. It moves into the dark, then we see it moving across a rocky landscape (possibly the rocky landscape from the beginning of the movie). The worm begins moving in and out of several holes, growing larger each time and its squeals growing deeper in pitch, until it emerges as a large worm with a gaping mouth.

Next we see Henry sitting alone in the apartment through a large hole in the wall (similar to the hole in the roof of the house at the beginning dream sequence). The Girl Across the Hall (who I will now start to call “Gathy” [Girl Across the Hall = GATH = Gathy]) comes into the apartment. She has a seductive, almost predatory, expression and body language.

Henry silences the baby while talking to Gathy, and the two eventually start having sex in Henry’s bed, which now has a large, hot-tub size pool of white, murky water in it. The two are having sex in this pool of whitish fluid, and Gathy sees the baby across the room and seems frightened by it.

The two continue to have sex, then slowly sink into the murky pool until they have completely disappeared. We briefly see Gathy staring into the dark, though we’re not sure what she’s staring at, and then we see the giant rock floating through space. I would wager that she is seeing the strange infant, and the giant rock might be the womb the baby came from. Gathy may right now be realizing that Henry created the grotesque monster through sex, and that she just had sex with Henry (more on this later).

Henry having sex with Gathy is him attempting to return to the life he had before the child, sex without care or perceived consequence. The pool of whitish fluid obviously has a biological vibe to it, and likely refers to sperm. However, it may also be a return to the womb, or a return to innocence—a return to an opaque place that consumes one in warmth, ignorance and bliss.

If it’s not obvious, the worm does seem to be associated with sex and a mix of libido and sexual frustration. The sperm-fetuses Henry pulls out of Mary may be his disgust at Mary, aided by his growing resentment of the child and Mary’s own behavior in bed. Henry might be realizing or acknowledging, as the other characters seem to have, that sex with Mary resulted in something grotesque he resents.

Girl in the Radiator, Eraserhead and Infanticide

At this point in the film, we’ve really lost all hold on reality, and Lynch provides us with a roller coaster of visions and dreams and surreal events. I will try to analyze each sequence here as we go, since there is quite a lot.

Girl in the Radiato

Immediately after Gathy is staring into the dark and we see the rock hurtling through the void, we see the Radiator Girl again. She begins singing:

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine

“In heaven, everything is fine.”

This, I took as possessing a dichotomy to it’s meaning, but overall, it’s about an idealization of life and a comforting narrative about the nature of reality.

First, “In heaven, everything is fine” is a comforting phrase repeated like a prayer, chant or mantra. It is the desire and hope that everything will turn out okay in the end, or that there is something better to be found, achieved or accessed—it’s a sort of escapism and belief that the grass is greener on the other side.

Then, there’s the line, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine”. This line indicates a separation of individuals and possessions. Possibly a divorce, or possibly just a state of two people living individually and distinctly from each other, but still co-existing in a positive state.

Then, there’s the line, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine”. This line sort of contradicts the other line and seems to indicate a union of individuals and possessions. This might be a marriage, or simply two people living peacefully and happily together.

It also reflects an idealization of Henry’s life before and after Mary had their child. Henry previously may have previously idealized his relationship with Mary as having no consequences, and their entire relationship was sort of built atop a more hedonic relationship of sexuality.

After this, once Mary had the baby, Henry may have idealized his new relationship with Mary as being a happy, unified relationship—the nuclear family—where mother, father and child live happily together.

The idealized yet grotesquely-masked Radiator Girl sings this to Henry, presenting both halves of his life in an idealized way.

Eraserhead

After this, Henry steps onstage with the Radiator Girl and a series of events happens in sort of rapid-fire succession (or as close to rapid-fire as Eraserhead can get at x1 speed). I will also say, parts of this analysis really feel like they go off in the deep end for me, but I think it all at least makes sense (and it’s a David Lynch film, I can think whatever I want about it).

Henry interacts with the girl onstage, then, after a couple flashes of light, she disappears. We briefly see a vision of the man pulling the levers from the beginning of the movie, the sperm fetuses littering the floor are swept away by the wind, and finally a dead tree emerging from a tarp-covered pile is rolled onstage.

Henry retreats behind a small barricade, then his head falls off and bounces onstage. From the hole where his neck is, the head of the child emerges, screaming and wailing, until Henry’s head falls through a pool of blood or dark fluid onstage. It falls into the industrial cityscape Henry had been traversing earlier in the film.

A small boy picks up the head and takes it to a shop. The boy is taken to a man in the back room who is operating a strange machine, and the man operating the machine drills a hole into Henry’s head and produces a stick of, presumably, brain matter. He puts the stick into the machine, and uses the stick to create eraserheads for pencils (get it?).

The boy is paid for his efforts, and some eraser dust is flung off of the man’s table before Henry wakes up.

There’s a lot here that happens in a short amount of time, so I’ll try to go through this relatively quickly.

Henry confronts his idealized projection of a woman, and she disappears. We briefly see the man pulling the levers—the idealized projection vanishing and briefly being erased with the entity in control of fate, reality, the universe, or maybe just Henry’s own thoughts and actions.

The sperm is blown away, possibly sanitizing the stage or blowing away Henry’s fears, and then the tree is wheeled onstage. The tree has no leaves—it is lifeless—and it grows from a plastic hill that is disassociated from the rest of the earth/ground (it is on a mobile vehicle rather than being planted on the ground).

This may be the lifelessness present in a society which has uprooted itself from a natural way of living, the barrenness of such a life, or perhaps Henry’s own desire for lifelessness or fruitlessness in the world (his desire for a barren, sanitized love-life free of the consequences of children).

Henry’s head falling off and being replaced with the child’s head is a few things. Henry has died, either physically or metaphorically. His identity is destroyed, he’s nothing more than a headless, mindless body, and either his identity or his mind has been replaced with the baby. This could be that Henry’s new identity is that of a father, and all other identity is now gone (even the identity that seeks sexual comfort). It also harkens back to the idea of a succession of generations.

Henry helped create a child of the next generation, and now his life is subordinate to the new generation’s life (which will eventually take Henry’s place in society/life once the baby has matured).

Now, the part where Henry’s head is taken away and sold to make erasers.

This part, despite being what the movie is named after, really took a while to make sense to me, but I think I’ve got it.

The three men at the shop are like three aspects of modern society, especially in the economic sense.

There is the storefront clerk, the shop owner/manager/boss, and the expert or professional working in the back room. We have the service/servant class, we have the professional or craftsman class, and then we have the managerial or ruling class. All three form a sort trifecta representing the needs, expectations or pressures of society, as manifested through business and the economy.

The boy could be Henry’s son, or it could be a child-like Henry himself, selling his head (selling his identity or his cognitive ability and attention) to the ruling/managerial class. Henry is sold, and his brain is turned into something that erases. What is being erased here?

Well, Henry is being erased (his identity and his mind), but also Henry’s brain is being used to erase mistakes people make, or erase things people don’t want anymore after they’ve created it with a pencil (a pencil being a phallic object).

So, there’s a few things happening here at once. Henry’s identity and thoughts are being sold to a manifestation of society. Henry himself is being erased. This means the child that brought Henry’s head/identity/thoughts to this place is in part responsible for Henry’s erasure. But also, Henry is turned into something that erases. He erases mistakes and other undesirable creations.

And that’s exactly what Henry does.

Infanticide

Sometime after Henry wakes up, he goes and knocks on Gathy’s door, with no response. When he returns, the baby begins coughing or wheezing, except it sounds almost like a mocking laugh. Then, Henry sees Gathy with another man, kissing and feeling her up. When Gathy looks at Henry, he sees the infant’s head instead of his.

This is Gathy associating sex with Henry to the creation of the infant. She identifies Henry as the father of something grotesque.

In the next scene, Henry cuts open the infant’s bandages, revealing its organs beneath. This is another “pulling of the veil”, where something idealized or hidden from the eye by outward appearances is revealed for what it truly is.

Then, Henry uses his scissors to stab the infant’s organs. This is an act of destroying the thing he created—something either perceived as or projected as being grotesque—and it is also an attack on the grotesque reality that has been revealed to him.

The baby dies, with a yolk-like fluid oozing from its body (possibly a connection to eggs), and then a foam substance begins growing out of the baby’s body, engulfing it. Then, the baby turns into something similar to the sperm-fetuses.

Henry begins seeing giant versions of the baby’s head moving around in the dark. The electricity is going insane at this point, and then the power goes out. Henry is left alone in the dark with the giant head of the baby, which then turns into the giant rock.

The giant rock explodes, revealing that it is hollow, and the dust from the explosion resembles the dust from the eraserhead. Inside the rock, we see the man with the levers again. Sparks are flying from the mechanism. This cuts to the final moment of the movie.

Henry is standing in a place of blinding, white light, and the Radiator Girl comes and embraces him. Henry here seems to be at peace.

The giant infant head, for me, is a number of things. It is like a ghost, in that it is something that comes back from the dead to haunt Henry. It is something giant, something that has grown to immeasurable proportions, something that is larger or greater than Henry. It is something that exists in the dark, which flits in and out of existence on a whim, it seems.

It is like a giant monster lurking in Henry’s unconscious (the dark), which has grown to immeasurable proportions through Henry’s actions. It could be guilt, it could be the ghost of his child haunting him for what he has done, it could be the cathartic accumulation of emotion swelling into some monstrous projection that is confronting Henry, or that Henry is confronting.

And then, the rock, if it is a womb, explodes. Is this birth? Is this re-entry into the womb? Or is this also the destruction of something that has brought Henry so much frustration and resentment?

The man with the levers is struggling to maintain control over his machine. Perhaps it is fate struggling to contend with Henry’s actions—perhaps Henry has now broken out of the pre-ordained structures of reality—or perhaps it is Henry’s mind itself struggling to contend with his own actions. The machines of either fate or decision and action-making are malfunctioning, with either God or Henry’s unconscious struggling to maintain control.

Finally, Henry is bathed in white light and an overwhelming crashing of white noise all around him. He has entered into a transcendent place or state—much like at the end of The Lighthouse—where his idealized projection of women has come to embrace him.

He has destroyed the part of his life that has caused him and Mary so much frustration and resentment, he has broken the mechanisms of fate or his programmed decisions/actions, and has reunited with his idealized perception of life (the life he wishes he could go back to after having the baby).

End of Part 2

Horror-Tober II: Eraserhead Part 1

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.

Introduction

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.

Dream Sequence

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).

Dinner

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.

Having Dinner

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:

  • Sexuality
  • 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.