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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
Meeting Mother and Father
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.
“And if they get me and the sun goes down into the ground
“And if they get me take this spike to my heart and
“And if they get me and the sun goes down
“And if they get me take this spike and
“You put the spike in my heart”
My Chemical Romance, “Vampires Will Never Hurt You”
As a quick forewarning, some of this analysis and the things I talk about are pretty rapid-fire and probably should be elaborated or explained more, but I wanted to shorten many of the points here. If you want to learn more about some of these things, you can check it out for yourself, or reach out to me with any questions and whatnot.
Vampires need very little introduction, but here we go.
Vampires have become something that borders on memey at this point, but vampires as a Dawkinsian meme (the immaterial, “idea-gene” or evolving idea) have a long evolutionary history—starting with folklore, developing into the classic Dracula-vampire, and then finally committing a slow suicide with a glittery stake in the 2000’s and 2010’s.
Concepts of vampires or of things similar to vampires have appeared across cultures throughout history, beginning with ancient stories such as the Indian Vetalas and Pisaca; the Babylonian/Assyrian and Hebrew Lilitu and Lilith, respectively; and a slew of Greek monsters: the Empusae, Lamia, Stirges and Gello.
Many of these creatures, as well as other similar tales throughout the world, are not strictly “vampires”, but they bear similarities to the modern concept of the vampire (nocturnal, blood-sucking/flesh-eating, demonic, undead/undying, odd rules around their behaviors). These ancient creatures in particular may have given rise to the modern “Draculian” (yes, I just made up a new word) or Gothic Vampire.
Accounts of this more modern concept of a vampire arose from the Medieval Period to the 18th Century (the century where a widespread fear of vampires began to crystallize and bloom across Europe). There were Hebrew, Norse and British accounts of undead or vampiric entities, such as revenants and draugrs, and then in the 18th century, when European populations began using the term “vampire”, vampires became the object of hysteria.
Similar in many ways to the witch-hunts that spread across Europe and North America, the notion of vampires became an object of fear, paranoia, hate and morbid scholarship. The “18th-Century Vampire Controversy” was a generation-long marathon of grave-desecration, hysteric accusations, and the tail-end of pre-modern superstitious-hysteria (though, I’d say the underlying psychological/psychic structure persists to this day).
One interesting note here is that this Vampire scare flared parallel to the Age of Enlightenment, a tangent that I probably won’t bring up much beyond this, or will simply forget to bring up, but an interesting corollary to the analysis.
Why was it that both witch-hunts and vampire-scares coincided with progressive philosophic movements?
Why is it that such ancient, superstitious cleansing-hysterias emerged in tandem to socio-cultural and cognitive leaps forward?
Why have we, at such dramatic cultural turning points such as the 60’s, 80’s and 00’s, faced similar witch-hunts and vampire-hysterias?
And why do we now, in such a strange and tumultuous politico-cultural shift of contemporary history, do we seem to be face similar superstitious hysterias?
This 18th century vampire evolved into the Bram Stoker Dracula of 1897—another curious example of society/culture/media that roughly coincided with Nietzsche’s famous proclamation, “God is Dead”.
From out of the dying light of Romanticism, Dracula—named after Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula (I may talk about him more, I haven’t decided yet)—evolved through the 19th century into suave villains and anti-heroes (excluding Nosferatu, who was less-than-suave). After Bella Lugosi and pulp fiction, there came waves of comic book and genre-fiction renditions of vampires who all played as variations of the Gothic/Dracula vampire, peaking with thee ’92 Bram Stoker’s Dracula film before its new, contemporary variations (one might say the Post-Modern vampire).
And with this relatively brief but relatively whole history of vampires, I will examine the core psycho-symbolic meaningfulness of vampires.
I want to use this to analyze the modern depictions of vampires in an almost historic study of its evolution and bring this all in to a contemporary analysis of culture and society using this initial analysis, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that without a hyper-extended article.
So, I may do this in the future.
For this analysis, there are three crucial “modes” of the ancient, classical and post-classical/early modern vampire narrative I wish to examine:
Vampire as Feminine Demon
Vampire as Indifferent Entity
Vampire as Masculine Aristocrat
And, for those already jumping on this “controversial analysis”, this has nothing to do with value claims about actual gender/sex, rather the mytho-narrative symbolism of these fragmented archetypes. This is all aimed at a symbolic mythological analysis, not a material, cultural or philosophical analysis of sex or gender.
Analysis of Vampires
I’ll first roughly define each of these sub-archetypes and give a mythological/historic relation/foundation to each of them, then delve into each. As a fun little note here, these three archetypes I think may still be present, at least partially, in modern culture, arts and narrative, but it’s safe to say they’ve both splintered and evolved into more sub-archetypes.
The actual “psychological archetypes” (since we’ve already entered the realm of Jung here) are most certainly still alive and well in our culture, sleeping in tombs or ruling from dark castles.
First, we have to examine vampirism at its foundation. Vampirism, roughly speaking, relates to an undead, undying or demonic/infernal force that parasitizes “normal” humanity. Vampirism relates to death, but it also relates to undeath (either something dead returning to life, or something immortal) which preys upon life.
Vampirism more particular relates to either consuming flesh or blood, and so can be seen as siphoning a life force or siphoning “what makes us ‘us’” as a source of sustenance. Vampirism also relates to the nocturnal, which is what we cannot see, what lurks in “the dark”, or what comes out in times or places of “dark”.
Vampirism is often treated in a disease-like manner. It can either kill others, or it can be spread to others who then become new nodes of Vampirism.
Vampirism also relates to immortality, but usually is more specific to the ability to consume the “life force” of others in order to maintain or continue its own life.
This can be seen in a number of ways:
– Something which we suppress, either in our own selves or in our conception of reality / Something parasitic or destructive in ourselves which we actively decide not to acknowledge, or something external to us that we do not acknowledge.
– Something we regress to, or something that the state of society, state of nature or state of being regresses to in moments or periods of weakness or “death” / Some state of behavior or being that emerges as we as individuals or we as a collective revert into a less humane state of being.
– Some eternal and recurrent force, or some “undying” force—or an aging force that maintains itself beyond death—which preys upon, parasitizes or infects the contemporary culture or youthful population.
Now, for the promised controversial analysis.
Vampire as Feminine Demon refers to the “Lilithian” vampire—the darker elements of Hecatean feminine-mythology. Really, this archetype goes down to one of the deepest roots of mythology: the feminine archetype of Mother Nature. More particularly, this relates the negative aspect of the Mother Nature archetype: Nature as cruel consumer and destroyer, as opposed to Nature as loving creator and nurturer.
Examples in Modern Culture: Antichrist (I would argue); Blair Witch Project (also arguable); Jennifer’s Body (there aren’t many great examples, guys); A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (but not really); Let the Right One In (kinda)
Vampire as Indifferent Entity is sort of an off-shoot of the Lilithian vampire. Where the Lilithian vampire may be seen as the more divine (divine meaning “of-higher-being”, not necessarily in a positive or negative sense) conscious progenitor, source or monarch of vampirism, the Indifferent Entity is more like an amoral child or creation of the source-being. This Indifferent Entity is like an animal, a more unconscious being driven by instinct, and closer to an unthinking, mechanical object than a conscious, moral agent.
Examples in Modern Culture: Stakeland, 30 Days of Night, I Am Legend
Vampire as Masculine Aristocrat is closer to the more traditional conception of vampire. This is the Draculian vampire, ranging from Nosferatu to Dracula to Edward Cullen (brace yourselves, Twilight fans, it’s only just begun). The Masculine Aristocrat vampire relates to the patriarchal sense of masculine—the twin brother of Mother Nature—as the archetype of “Father Society”. Just as the Lilithian vampire represents the negative aspect of Mother Nature, the Draculian vampire represents a negative aspect of society—the manipulative, bureaucratic, parasitic aspect of society.
Examples in Modern Culture: Bram Stokers Dracula, the Underworld series, the Twilight series (Edward’s a pedophile, accept this fact)
The first analysis will be of the “Vampire as Feminine Demon”. And here, with feminine, I will repeat:
I do not mean the modern contextual meaning of “feminine as effeminate” or “feminine as female biological sex”, or even “feminine as cultural gender”. I mean “feminine as mythological ‘Mother-archetype’” and it has nothing to do with actual sex/gender. Thank you for your time.
With this, we look at the concept of a vampire as the Hebrew Lilith, which arose from the Babylonian Lilitu. Lilith has often been associated with Satan, and in some traditions, Lilith couples with Samael, who, in some ways, can be considered as an initial conception of Satan (Samael being “Ha-Satan”, the accuser, seducer and destroyer).
However, focusing more on Lilitu, Lilitu was a Babylonian “female night demon” who consumed the blood of infants for sustenance. A similar Hebrew demon, the estries, were nocturnal predators who consumed the blood of their victims for sustenance. And then we have the Greek Lamia and Stirges, which feasted on the blood of children and adults (Lamia more particularly on children).
This historic “Lilitu” meme generalizes to a nocturnal, blood-feasting predator, which often preys on children or infants. Here, I think one concept becomes blindingly clear: the negative Mother archetype.
The Mother archetype, as previously stated, is the archetype of Mother Nature, which is both protective, nurturant and procreative, but also cruel, preying and destructive. Mother Nature is that which creates life, and mother nature is that which consumes life. These Lilitu and Lilitu-esque demons are female entities which consume the life-force of individuals, and often the life-force of children (one could say that all individuals, youthful or mature, are children).
So, this ancient proto-vampire, the Lilithian vampire, is an aspect of Mother Nature. The Lilithian vampire might have been a personification of the fear of child mortality/morbidity—the fear of predators, the fear of disease, the fear of fatal injury, the fear of one’s child suddenly going missing when they’re out of sight (in the dark).
This fear could also be seen as a Mother’s fear of her own part to play in the potential destruction of their child. This might be reflective or symbolic of two things. The first, the mother’s own incompetence or the mother’s own malevolence. Perhaps the fear manifested here is that it is the Mother’s fault through their inadequacies that their child either dies or matures into an unsuccessful or even malignant individual.
The second might be an aspect of another negative aspect of the Mother archetype: the Oedipal Mother. This is the archetypal maternal force which is overbearing, overprotective, smothering, and even manipulative and parasitic.
The Oedipal Mother (archetypically speaking, though perhaps literally speaking) keeps their children, particularly their sons, from going out into the world and exploring. They keep their sons at home, where they fulfill the role of their father (sometimes only superficially, sometimes behaviorally, sometimes to a Freudian/Oedipal extreme). This relationship is manipulative, as the mother must coerce, or at the very least be an enabler, the child/son into remaining at home and fulfilling the role of the father, in exchange for continued protection and “nurturing”. The relationship is parasitic, as the mother essentially ruins the child’s life by smothering them, keeping them from maturing and keeping them from living a fulfilled, satisfying life in order to satisfy her own needs.
These are a bit of a stretch. They fit the “vampiric mold”, though it may be difficult to prove that Lilith/Lilitu and their corollary mythological monsters are in fact symbolic of this (but it’s still fun to think about).
The next part of the analysis is the “Vampire as Indifferent Entity”. This one, I will be honest, interests me the least, so I will be quick with this one. However, these happen to be the types of vampires in three of the only good vampire flics in the last couple decades (30 Days of Night, I Am Legend, Stakeland).
These are the animalistic, zombie-like vampires—the mindless, raving, depraved animals. Now, these might be represented at times as semi-autonomous people, or at the very least may outwardly appear as being normal humans, but are far more animalistically autonomous than they are moral agents.
And I think that’s the key here: these are parasitic entities without moral agency.
But, at the same time, it could be argued that a vampire, especially the traditional Draculian concept of a vampire, is without moral agency, since they have a sort of addictive “ball-and-chain”. They cannot escape their necessity to consume blood.
And so, we might look at this Indifferent Entity as being the baseline for vampirism, or the core mode of vampirism—a revelatory vision of vampirism beneath the faux aesthetic put on vampires. At the core of both feminine and masculine modes of vampirism, there is this mindless hunger—this animal instinct to feed.
Perhaps this vision of the Indifferent Entity is the masculine/feminine modes stripped of all external pretense and power—the animal without the divine/demonic powers or omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence of nature; and the animal without the structures and powers afforded by culture and society.
It is a parasitic animal, and perhaps all animals, humans included, are these indifferent, parasitic entities, stripped of all aesthetic and power and pretense.
Finally, there is the “Vampire as Masculine Aristocrat”. This relates to, as previously mentioned, the Patriarchal Father archetype, and the negative Patriarchal archetype: the Tyrannical King. With the Father archetype, there are the positive elements or aspects: protection, order, meaningfulness, a place in society, tradition and so forth. But, there are also the negative aspects: tyranny, conformity, stagnation, immobile and unfair hierarchies, inability to adapt.
However, one aspect of the negative Patriarchal archetype I think is often overlooked is it’s parasitic and manipulative nature. Now, this might be because the elements of tyranny are often regarded in terms of brute force and reigns of fear. However, this is not a nuanced perspective on Tyranny. Some of the most disturbing aspects of tyranny are the manipulative and parasitic aspects of it.
Take for example bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are monolithic hyper-complexes of rules and regulations, filled with a five-dimensional labyrinth of legalities, jargon, hierarchies, departments, divisions, forms, contracts, signatures, waiting lists and so forth. Bureaucracies are unquestionable and impenetrable. Unless you know the infinite in’s and out’s of a bureaucracy, you are at their mercy, and you cannot battle them except on their own terms.
In order to overcome the labyrinth, you must first enter the labyrinth, and we have all committed and signed ourselves over to a bureaucracy from the moment we enter a society. From the moment we enroll in school, from the moment we become an active agent in the legal system, a rational agent in the economy, or a consumer, employee, car-owner, etc., we have entered the labyrinth of a pre-constructed bureaucracy. And at that point, you are subject to a multitude of fines, legal requirements, insurances, non-disclosures, liability forms and so on.
Perhaps this is Dracula’s castle.
And then, you are subject to the sway of society (I would recommend Camus’ The Stranger, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and the dystopian diad, 1984 and Brave New World in order to get a fuller scope of this).
You are under the sway of conformity, and the lure of advertisements, and the pull of envy and resentment and ego and uncertainty and the schizophrenia of modernity.
You are gaslit by everyone around you, your conceptions of reality are constantly questioned and attacked (which may be good in some circumstances), and you’re either with us or against us—with a multiplicity of reasons why (with a multitude of sub-labyrinths and Kafka-traps that trigger your determined “otherness-hood”)—and you’re an enemy because you’re not a patriot, or you’re an enemy because you are, or an enemy because you’re neutral, or you’re an enemy because you’re not, or you’re an enemy because you’re as independent and individualistic as possible, or you’re an enemy because you’re part of the herd—and then, on top of it, everyone finds every way they can to make you all of these things at once, and then in the end, who are you anyway? so just follow the herd, but be your own person, but be the person we want you to be, until we’re done with you.
And this is the psychosis of modernity, and this this is the charm and trap of Dracula.
You need a job. Go get one, and now you’re trapped.
You need an education. Go get one, and now you’re trapped.
You need to buy a thing. Go get one, and now you’re trapped.
And powers on all sides are trying to convince you of five things at once, and you succumb, and now you’re a warm, comatose body they can siphon blood off of.
And then—THEN—there is Dracula as the aging noble who seduces, entraps and parasitizes the youth (Dracula seducing the virgin into being his bride and prey). This is the key element of understanding the Draculian vampire.
The Dracula-vampire is an entity which is immortal, but it can only continue its immortality by drinking the blood of the youth.
It is a parasite which exists only to manipulate new generations in order to siphon their life-force from them. These are the decade and even centuries-old institutions which have been created by prior generations for their benefit. While these in some ways may offer some benefit for those entrapped (just as Dracula offers a home, a purpose and pleasure for his brides), the vast majority of the benefits go to the Draculian institutions.
These are colleges and student loans. These are Big Pharma and Big Oil. These are monolithic retail stores. These will soon be the monolithic social media and online retail stores. These are all the institutions created with benefits for the many and the small, but with tremendous and corrupted benefits for the few and the big.
And, no, I’m not a Marxist or a Socialist. No, no, no. But, fuck man. Some days.
A Sudden Stop and Conclusion
There’s so much more I wanted to discuss with this analysis, but the analysis is already long, and there’s so much more I have to say—so much more that I’m not sure I can comfortably articulate in a sane manner.
There may be a part 2 to this at some point, or another standalone article to discuss more of this article, but I do think that this is a good place to stop for now.
I want to say here that I think the analysis I’ve started has opened up a sort of psycho-symbolic-social-critique can of worms. These are complicated topics, and the three symbols I’ve dredged up from the concept of vampires are incredibly deep and complex symbols/ideas and parts of our society and widespread, cultural mythos.
Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of “begging the question” in this analysis, where I’ve mentioned a lot of things that want to be brought into a sort of practical moral conversation, but would be compounding cans of worms if I did right now.
So, I will say this here as well:
This isn’t intended necessarily to make any social or moral value claims, even though it kind of did make a few. It’s intended to analyze vampires as a symbol (and this was written somewhat manically over the course of a couple days, so cut me some slack). And it’s meant to be fun.
I think this is a strong though in parts somewhat shaky analysis of the core aspects of the vampire symbol:
The relationship of vampires or proto-vampiric-entities and the negative aspects of Nature
The animalistic vampirism present in life and nature as a mechanical, unconscious agent
The now-traditional aristocratic vampirism of social institutions
But these are each complex topics, and the implications to a broader moral and social conversation become even more complex [Xander is currently still realizing the deep end of the pool he dove into was actually the Ocean].
Do I think anything bad of Nature? No! Do I think anything bad of the occult? No! Do I think anything bad of women? Only a few.
Do I think anything bad about animals? No! Do I think anything bad about the masses? That’s a loaded question. Do I think anything bad about being an unconscious, mechanical agent in a moral system? Well, yes, I do, actually.
Do I think anything bad about older people/generations? Next question. Do I think anything bad about social institutions? That’s a complicated question. Do I want to burn down all institutions? No, but I do want change.
Do I think the world governments are secretly run by Alex-Jonesian psychic-pedophile-vampires? Maybe. The jury’s out.
But, this is all beside the point.
Here’s what vampires are. Here’s what I believe them to represent. Here’s a foundation for how we can begin discussing the symbolism of said vampires.
I didn’t get to drive a stake through Twilight’s heart, but goddamn, I wanted to.
Hopefully in the future I can work out these ideas a bit more, maybe give myself more time to organize my thoughts, but for now, I’ll have to put this bad boy back in its coffin. Next up, I will analyze Eraserhead, and I think this will be a much more sober analysis. Thank you for reading, and have a spooky October.
Now, I will pivot into the second half of the analysis, the inversion of Thing as Metaphoric Object.
Analysis Part 2: Thing as Phenomenological Object
While the first half of the analysis is fun and interesting, and possesses moral/ethical/political considerations that are worth discussing (and will be discussed), this second half of the analysis is far more interesting to me.
For this, we will be examining what the Thing is to the humans.
For this, we will be examining the Thing from the perspective of humans as a metaphoric, narrative object, meaning: what is the Thing from a symbolic and psychological perspective?
But, if this is more important and more meaningful to me, why begin with the other analysis?
Because, while we are now looking at the Thing as an object, the nature of it as an object must be understood as an object capable of subjectivity.
When the humans are perceiving the Thing, they are not looking at an inanimate object, they are looking at a conscious and rational object.
However, the Thing and the contents of its subjective experience is a “black box”, a programming term that here means the contents of the Thing’s consciousness and cognition cannot be known.
In programming, a “black box” is a piece of code that has a function—there are inputs, which are then processed by whatever code exists in the black box, and then there are outputs produced by the code—but the function of the “black box” is completely unknown. The contents of the unknown programming can be guessed by looking at the inputs and the resulting outputs, but the code within nonetheless remains a mystery.
The fact that the Thing does have a consciousness and is capable of rational thought is known. There are measurable inputs and measurable outputs, the inputs being reality and events, the outputs being the actions the Thing takes. However, the humans do not know what the consciousness and rational thoughts of the alien are—they cannot examine the “code” inside the Thing’s “black box”.
So, when the humans perceive the Thing (possibly the most apt name here), they perceive an organism they cannot fully understand, with a psychological/cognitive/subjective black box that they cannot examine.
All humans are actually like this to all other humans.
No two humans can actually know what is happening inside the other human’s mind—not fully, at least.
The minds of all humans are like “black boxes” to all other humans.
Here, I can recall the fictional (though, unfortunately, not completely unmoored from reality) anecdote of the lesbian in a Muslim society.
She might be the only person on the planet who knows she is a lesbian. She might not have shared with any other human the fact that she secretly has a sexual and romantic attraction to other women. This, being a function of her mind, experience, psyche, etc., remains a content of the “black box” of her psyche.
This “black box”, however, extends beyond just our thoughts, our motivations, our sexual preferences, our beliefs and so forth, and extends to things like our memories—which then extends epistemologically to our actions, our experiences, our decisions and so forth. Not only can we hide from others what we think, feel or believe, but we can also hide from others our actions, our patterns of actions (actions taken as part of an agenda) and the things we have experienced in our lives.
Now, one of the great peculiarities of humanity is our ability to communicate the contents of this “black box” to others. We can tell other people: This is what I think; this is how I feel; this is what I have done; this is what I have gone through in my life; etc.
And here, we find the interwoven segments of a functioning, healthy society (or, on the micro-level, functioning, healthy relationships): communication, honesty and trust.
Humans have the ability to communicate what resides within our “black boxes”, so long as we trust what the other person is communicating.
By knowing what these contents are—so long as we also know these contents do not indicate a hostility towards us—the people we know can be perceived as something we understand.
That may be one of the most important functions of language and society: providing every individual with a socio-linguistic structure that allows us to understand to a high enough resolution who everyone else within a society is.
You don’t have to know someone’s name, you don’t have to know their address, you don’t have to know their job, but we are able to safely and comfortably walk into a Starbucks without immediately backing into a corner at the sight of a dozen hairless primates because society has provided us with enough information to know (or believe) that none of the people are actively or passively hostile towards you.
However, what happens at the point at which someone doesn’t make any sense? Let’s examine this.
If we have a socio-linguistically mediated epistemological structure which provides us with the information about others, and this information ensures as that particular individuals will not be hostile, what happens when this epistemological structure is violated?
What happens if you go into a Starbucks, and someone pulls out a gun?
What happens, I think, is much deeper than most might suppose.
On a rational, material level, very little has actually changed. The only change in the material environment around us is that a small, mechanical object has been introduced to the physical contents of Starbucks.
However, from a deeper cognitive and psychological level, the change is nearly infinitely drastic.
You are no longer standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee to be made. This idea, this perception of reality, is not the material reality, it is a cognitive, phenomenological reality. The idea of Starbucks, the idea of what you are doing in Starbucks, the idea of what others are doing in Starbucks, and the idea of how these things are situated within our understanding of reality are all socio-linguistically mediated knowledge-structures we base our decisions on.
Suddenly, by the introduction of a gun into the environment, these socio-linguistic knowledge-structures have disintegrated. The reality of standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee no longer exists—that reality is gone—and a new reality of being in a place where a stranger has a gun has taken its place.
In addition, the person who was also waiting at Starbucks for a cup of coffee also vanishes, and they become an entirely different person. They may not even be a person anymore—at least as far as your psyche is concerned. The benign stranger at Starbucks (another mediated knowledge-structure) has suddenly vanished, and is replaced with an object whose intentions, motivations, knowledge and experiences you suddenly don’t understand.
That person transforms into some other thing that is no longer a person as you understood them to be.
That person, on a psychological or phenomenological level, literally transforms their being from a defined, articulated, mutually understood citizen of a country into a living, thinking, acting black box.
And here, now, I hope you can begin to see how this connects back to The Thing.
At the moment at which one of the dogs or humans is transforming into its alien form, what precisely is happening from the perspective of one of the non-aliens?
What subjectively and psychologically is happening?
We’ll take the scene at which Palmer is revealed to be one of the Things.
The poke his blood with the hot metal, and the blood reacts as a living organism.
Suddenly, we now know Palmer is a Thing, and at this precise moment, Palmer “physically” begins to transform.
He begins convulsing unnaturally; his eyes bleed and bulge; his head grotesquely deforms; his entire body transforms into a pseudo-human horror; his head splits open into a giant, monstrous mouth and attacks Windows; and MacReady finally burns the creature alive then kills it with dynamite as it tries to escape outside.
What is happening is Palmer begins with a defined, articulated, orderly form. What Palmer is—Palmer’s being as a perceived object—is understood. Then, at the moment Palmer is revealed to be a Thing, Palmer transforms into something that is not understood.
What is happening when the humans or dogs are turning into the chaotic monstrosities we refer to as “the Thing”? All of our fundamental and assumed knowledge about their being suddenly vanishes. They transform from something that has a rigid, defined form and a concrete definition-of, into something that cannot be easily described, except as something grotesque, volatile and chaotic.
Now, viewing this as a phenomenological event (rather than an actual, physical event), it is not that the people and animals are physically turning into these chaotic alien-creatures, it is that we are witnessing the psychological transformation of these beings from the perspective of the human-observers. The moment a dog or human transforms into a “Thing” is the moment where a defined, ordered, articulated being transforms into something that we cannot understand.
The perceived physical transformation is therefore actually a projected psychological transformation of the other being.
So here, if we view the entire film in this light, with the transformations as symbolic, phenomenological transformations, what is happening is quite peculiar.
What if, instead of viewing the movie as a sci-fi horror film where they’re being attacked by these assimilating aliens, we view this as a movie where everyone is subjected to a mass hysteria where they begin to “hallucinate” that their fellow outpost members are turning into monsters?
What if the members of the outpost are going insane, and begin projecting these monstrous psychological transformations onto each other?
Throughout the beginning of the movie, we see many of the characters at odds with each other, just over mundane things. With the introduction of the Thing into their midst, they suddenly become paranoid, suspicious of one another, and delusional. They perform purity tests on one another (like the blood tests), and enact a sort of martial law where the typical legalities and civilities are out the window.
How much of this is caused by the actual introduction of the Thing into their population, and how much of this is caused by a mass hysteria?
To bring this back to our prior quasi-fictional anecdotes:
At the moment the lesbian woman reveals herself to be a lesbian in the fundamentalist Muslim-dominated society, she is no longer an accepted, understood human within that society; she transforms into a being that must be ritually annihilated.
At the moment the benign coffee-drinker at Starbucks pulls a gun out from their pocket, they are no longer a benign stranger in a socially mediated/understood setting; they have transformed into a chaotic, undefined being who is armed with a mechanism that can quickly and effectively end lives.
To bring this back to our prior analysis of Thing-as-Subject, we (“we” as all of us as individuals) are at all times both Thing-as-Subject and Subject-Observing-OtherThing-as-Object.
And now, to wrap this analysis up, we will examine what this perpetual duality means.
Conclusion: Bring the Pieces Back Together
There are two obvious but conflicting moral or ethical statements to the analysis:
Communication between two beings—and so an understanding between two beings—must be established in order for there to be peaceful co-existence.
That which cannot be communicated with or understood may have to be annihilated if it cannot otherwise be survived.
While with the 1982 The Thing, the ethical question of communication and survival may remain ambiguous, in the original 1951 version of the film, The Thing From Another World, this ethical question is actually confronted, but is answered in a much less ambiguous way.
One of the characters attempts to communicate with the alien, but is killed for his efforts, and the remaining characters then annihilated the alien in order to survive it.
While I can applaud the original film for confronting this question more outrightly (itself adapted from the 1938 novella, Who Goes There? (of which I know little about)), and perhaps the 1982 The Thing ought to have brought this ethical issue more to the surface, the 1982 film nonetheless captures the true, phenomenological or subjective reality of this moral issue more accurately (though opaquely).
The problem is we never can know what to do.
The problem is not that we should create a society where there are no Starbucks shooters, or a society where we don’t murder lesbians in the streets (though both are admirable goals).
The problem is that it is impossible to create a society that does not possess analogues to these anecdotal societies.
The true “point” to the 1982 The Thing is not a moral answer to this combined problem of every individual being at once a Subject-Who-Perceives and Object-Being-Perceived.
The true point here is a pragmatic and amoral one, and the point is this:
We cannot know what is truly going on in the minds of anyone else. We cannot truly know what is happening in others’ minds, what they are motivated by and what actions they may take for or against us. We cannot truly know who (and, so, what) another person is.
And, so, psychologically, people we cannot understand transform into grotesque monsters before our eyes, even if physically they are exactly the same.
What The Thing proposes to us is not a moral proposition, but an amoral Truth about the reality of subjective experience and the phenomenology of human relationships.
All humans—all organisms and, more broadly, all objects with a personal subjectivity—are simultaneously:
Subject Perceiving Other-Object
Object Perceived by Other-Subject
Now, this is more applicable in situations where the aforementioned social-structures have been violated, but the problem here, as I tried to illuminate, is in part that we can never know when these violations will be made, or what the nature of this violation is.
So, I said previously these were not intended to be made into political/moral value statements, but, fuck you, I’m a lying black-box-bastard, live with it.
What is the most pressing moral/ethical/political and even epistemological (knowledge-based) issue today in America? (And, likely, throughout the world right now)
Our ability to communicate with one another has all but been corrupted to an impossibly unreconcilable state.
Our politics (in America, and, from what I know, in many places across Western society) has become so polarized that to say you support Trump is to self-declare yourself as a Fascist, and to say you support Biden is to self-declare yourself as an Anarchist.
Of course, except in the marginally extreme, neither of these cases are true. 99% of Trump-supporters are not Fascists, and 98% of Biden-supporters are not Anarchists (I’m kidding, fellow-Liberals, I really mean 97%).
However, those 99% who’ve fallen into the “Trump Camp” cannot convince those in the “Biden Camp” that they are not Fascist Bigots intent on inciting the Fourth Reich; and those 95% (I kid) who’ve fallen into the “Biden Camp” cannot convince those in the “Trump Camp” that they are not psychotic Anarchists seeking a Communist Revolution.
So, what has happened?
Both sides of our political divide have decided they can no longer convince the other side that they are not vicious monsters, so they’ve taken to treating the other side as vicious monsters.
What has happened to both sides of our current political “war”?
The Right and the Left currently perceive themselves as the humans, and they perceive the others as the “Things”.
We have a strange and potentially catastrophic situation right now where both the Right and the Left are simultaneously Subject-Perceiving-Object-as-Thing and Object-as-Thing-Perceived-by-Subject.
So, what do we do?
Obviously, we must come to understand that the shooter at Starbucks may actually be a Muslim Lesbian. I mean this jokingly, and I mean this seriously.
Imagine the moment you realize someone you know supports the candidate you currently oppose. How quickly does that person transform into something grotesque and horrific?
If you support Trump and you discover someone you know supports Biden, how immediate is the effect on you? How immediately do you either go quiet and politely smile and nod before walking away, or attack them on the spot, engulfing them in the fiery Truth of your words?
How immediately do you, a Biden-supporter, see your friends transform into a Fascistic Existential threat to equality and compassion the moment you see them don a MAGA hat?
At this moment, you may even be wondering whose side I am on, so you can know whether or not to condemn my words as profanity or praise them as sacred wisdom. “He poked fun at Liberals, but then he called himself a Liberal, but then ambiguously quasi-supported/quasi-criticized both sides, so what the hell is he?” Fuck you, that’s what side I am on.
The ending of this upcoming election may precisely reflect the ending of The Thing. The architecture we live in that protect us and trap us with the Thing—the structures of society/the outpost of Antartica—are destroyed in fire. We are left in the wreckage, only remaining alive by the dying light of burning buildings. And we face each other as the last survivors of a great cataclysm, wondering if the Thing across from us is a friend or foe.
We must communicate with each other.
We must learn to trust each other again, whether or not we agree on the other’s opinions.
We must learn to understand each other again, to open up our own black boxes, despite the ensuing vulnerability, so that others may open up their own black boxes.
And while we may find that our friends turn into Things and Things turn into friends, maybe, just maybe, if we can stop, think and speak to each other, we’ll come out of this alive.
This article is the first of two on the 1982 The Thing. This article will introduce the movie and the two halves of the analysis, then present the first half of the two-part analysis. The second article will present the second part of the analysis, then conclude by examining both and comparing them to current social events.
The contents of the first article will focus on a theoretical analysis of the film revolving around the key element of Information Control, while the second article will delve into more philosophical and psycho-social territories.
The 1982 remake of The Thing has gone down in history as one of the best sci-fi/horror films of all time, with good reason. It’s a tremendous movie, it was made in the golden age of classic special effects, right in between the developing stages of earlier films and the rocky slide into 90’s and 00’s effects and CGI.
The setting was great, the characters were memorable and unique, the pacing and storytelling was masterful, and the underlying Cosmic Horror themes and tones of the movie were pitch perfect.
However, while The Thing has gained enormous notoriety since its initial box office flop, I still think it’s a vastly misunderstood movie, and even a vastly underappreciated movie. The source of this misunderstanding and underappreciation comes from the most overlooked element of the film: Control of Information.
The key to understanding The Thing, what made The Thing so horrifying and why the The Thing has been misunderstood is how the film’s director and screenwriter, John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, controlled what information the viewer does and doesn’t know:
– The absolute knowns, or facts
– The assumptions
– The absolute unknowns, or known unknowns
– The unknown unknowns, or things we don’t even know that we don’t know
Control of Information is important in any form of narrative, but it is key in genres like sci-fi, horror and mystery, where so much of the meaning or emotion is derived cognitively rather than aesthetically.
With The Thing, nearly the entirety of the film’s true horror is derived from what we know and don’t know as opposed to what we are perceiving physically or aesthetically. So much of the horror is derived from Carpenter and Lancaster’s Control of Information: What we know; what we don’t know; what we’re lead to believe; what we assume; what assumptions we’re forced to question; and what information is left to the imagination.
The entire film is centered on an alien who can assimilate other organisms and disguise itself as any organism it has assimilated. So, throughout the movie, right to the final scene, we are constantly questioning who is an alien, who isn’t an alien, how the alien can be discovered, how the alien can be defeated, and what might happen if the alien isn’t defeated.
While The Thing is a master-class on Control of Information, with its ability to penetrate and terrorize your consciousness with doubt, isolation, paranoia and these constant questions, one question is never actually asked—one question is kept hidden by such overt terror, or the answer seems so obvious we never think to ask it—and this may be the question that is most crucial to understanding the film:
What does the alien want?
This is one piece of information is secreted away, hidden and kept beneath all the other layers of the story to such a greater extent than anything else in the movie.
And so, the Control of Information—and, as sub-sets, both the ignorance of individuals and the inability to communicate or perceive information cohesively or coherently—may actually be the deepest and most important theme of the movie.
The instinctual assumption of both the characters and the movie-viewers is that the alien wants to assimilate other organisms for its own gain, and to eventually take over the world by assimilating all other lifeforms. However, this may only be a projection of motivation onto the organism, as this motivation is never explicitly confirmed by the end of the movie. The grotesque, violent horror of The Thing is so great that we never stop to question this motivation. We simply take it as a given.
However, we know so little about the monster in The Thing that it seems foolish to assume anything about it:
– We don’t know where it’s from
– We don’t know why it came to Earth
– We don’t know what it was doing before it came to Earth
– We don’t know how it’s able to assimilate organisms (we don’t know very well, at least)
– We don’t know what it is, that’s part of the point of the film: it’s just a thing that came from space
This of course connects to Cosmic Horror and the Lovecraftian Cosmic Nihilism, but I won’t delve too much into this. Feel free to read my articles if you want to read more about Cosmic Horror/Nihilism.
The short of it is we are small, limited creatures living on a small, blue dot in an imperceivably vast reality. We are far more blind and ignorant that we are perceiving and knowing, and the knowledge that we don’t know is so tremendously more massive than the knowledge we do know.
We don’t know where the alien is from or why it’s on Earth. We don’t know what the alien is or what it is capable of. We don’t know what it wants, what it’s goals are or what it it’s like to be the alien.
What is interesting, is that we do know the motivations of those who have remained humans: survival.
The motivations we do know (of the humans) are the will to live. The motivations we don’t know (of the aliens) are assumed to be violence, domination and usurpation.
But, we don’t know what the alien’s motivations actually are.
What are the motivations of, what is going on in the mind of, and what is it like to be The Thing? As an important inversion of this, why are the Thing’s motivations, and the Thing itself, perceived the way it is?
These will be the focus of the analysis.
Summary and Structure of Information
This summary will, of course, have spoilers in it, so be warned.
However, the summary will be centered on how information is controlled throughout the film, so, though much of the film is luckily centered on this as well, it will likely leave out decent swaths of the film’s content.
If you haven’t watched The Thing, it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. If you have watched The Thing, this will all be old news, so feel free to skip to the meat of the analysis.
After one of the most memorable and iconic opening title scenes in sci-fi history (up there with the 1979 Alien), the movie begins with two Norwegians in a helicopter, chasing a husky dog across the icy wastes of Antarctica.
The Norwegians are shooting at the dog, and at one point throw dynamite at it. The husky arrives at the American Outpost, Outpost 31, where the majority of the film takes place.
The Norwegians follow the sled dog and soon arrive at the outpost as well. One of them accidentally blows themselves and their helicopter up, while the other pursues the dog on foot with their rifle.
While trying to kill the dog, the Norwegian shoots one of the Americans, then begins yelling something at the Americans in Norwegian, brandishing the gun at them. However, no one can understand the Norwegian, and they shoot the man dead, then take the dog inside their outpost.
Immediately, we are introduced to both the key tool of the film, Control of Information, and a key theme of the film, Communication.
The sad irony of this opening scene is that the dog (spoilers) is actually the alien that will later terrorize the outpost for the remainder of the film. The Norwegians know this, and their actions to kill the dog may have (spoilers) saved the lives of everyone at the outpost, but the Americans cannot understand the Norwegians, and so kill them.
However, we as the viewers cannot know this, just as the characters cannot know this, and so we are left with the same blind assumptions as the Americans (if that ain’t a metaphor).
The dog is allowed to wander around the outpost, doing god-knows-what behind the scenes, while we still assume it is only a dog, until it is put into a kennel with the other dogs.
After MacReady and Copper have investigated the Norwegian base, the dog finally reveals itself to be what it truly is: the Thing.
The dog’s body begins to change, with tentacles and other appendages growing from it, and its face eventually splits open to reveal a monstrous “mouth”. It begins attacking and assimilating the other dogs (meaning it absorbs their bodies into its own and begins copying the cells of the dog). But then, the alien is killed by the Americans, though the question remains open as to whether or not other members of the outpost have been assimilated.
There are two important threads to follow through the beginning of the movie:
One: we see the relationships of the characters as tense, often with a lot of conflict between them that erupts over minor things. One example is Blair asking Windows if he’s been able to reach anyone over the radio, with Windows blowing up and saying it’s impossible to reach anyone at this time. (This, along with other moments, builds on the them of communication, and comes into play more in the second half of the analysis.)
Two: our knowledge of the alien/Thing is developed, though only to a certain degree (we never fully/explicitly learn much about the Thing). Primarily, we learn of its ability to assimilate other organisms, and of the possibility that it could eventually assimilate the entirety of organisms on the planet, if it were to make it to any other continent (if it was motivated to do so).
And, of course, much of the rest of the first two thirds of the film is devoted to determining who has been assimilated or not.
Blair suspects Clark, who was in charge of looking out for the dogs, and was alone with the dogs when the Thing began assimilating them.
Bennings becomes partially assimilated, and attempts to escape, but is discovered and killed before it could fully assimilate.
Blair goes crazy, suspecting anyone and everyone could be an assimilated alien, and is locked up in a building outside of the main structure.
A supply of blood samples that could’ve have been used to test who has been assimilated is destroyed, implicating the small number of people with access to the blood as being assimilated (and subtly implying the alien may have assimilated the DNA of all members at the outpost).
Fuchs goes outside to find a piece of clothing with MacReady’s name on it (this happening shortly after MacReady himself mentioning the alien seems to tear apart people’s clothing while assimilating them).
Fuchs is then found dead outside, apparently burning himself alive to keep himself from committing suicide.
Mac and Nauls go out to check on Blair. However, a storm hits, so the two are late coming back. The rest of the outpost decides to close off all entrances.
While closing off one of the last entrances, Norris sees Nauls coming back alone through the blizzard. Nauls is let back inside and says he found a scrap of clothing with Mac’s name on it (the same one Fuchs previously found).
Mac then returns to the base, but the outpost members refuse to let him inside. Palmer and Norris are both quick to decide Mac ought to be killed, since he has likely been assimilated.
Mac breaks into the outpost, brandishing a flare and a stick of dynamite, letting everyone know he’ll blow himself and the others up if the try to stop him. However, Norris then collapse and stops breathing. He is brought to the infirmary where Copper tries to revive him, but Norris’s stomach splits open into a giant mouth and kills Copper (thus revealing Norris to have been assimilated all along).
After the Norris iteration of the Thing has been killed, Mac forces everyone to do a blood test to see if they have been assimilated. The assumption is that the cells of the Thing act autonomously, and so will attempt to survive if harmed. Mac uses a hot piece of metal to poke the blood, and eventually Palmer is revealed to be a Thing.
Palmer transforms and attacks the other outpost members, killing Windows before Mac can kill the Thing.
Here, we finally arrive at the wind-up to the climax.
The team discovers Blair has gone missing and has built a spacecraft beneath the structure he was put in, and so Blair is the last remaining Thing (that they know of).
While getting ready to blow up “Blair’s” spaceship, Nauls sees Childs run off into the blizzard. Immediately after this, the power for the entire outpost goes out. They assume this is Blair shutting down the power so that everyone else will die and Blair will be frozen until a search party comes and recovers everyone’s body (effectively reviving Blair/the Thing once its body thaws).
Mac, Nauls and Garry decide to blow up and burn down the outpost, effectively committing suicide, but ensuring the Thing does not survive as well.
While preparing the explosives and incendiaries, Blair picks off Garry then Nauls, then attacks Mac. Mac kills the transformed Blair-Thing and blows up the outpost. Mac escapes outside and is sitting in the cold as the outpost burns down.
Childs finally returns and sits down with Mac, telling him he ran off into the blizzard because he thought he saw Blair, then got lost and couldn’t find his way back. Neither can tell whether the other is a human or a Thing. The film ends ambiguously with the two of them sitting outside, “[waiting to] see what happens” as the outpost burns down and the Antarctic cold sets in.
That’s The Thing. Got it? Good.
The Poetry of Squaring Off: Analyses of the Thing as Subject and Object
And so, I will jump as quickly as I can into this.
This analysis has two halves: One, examining the Thing as a Literal Subject capable of perceiving, rationalizing and critical strategizing; and Two, examining the Thing as a Phenomenological Object being observed by humans.
The Thing as Literal Subject must be understood first in order to transition into an understanding of its inverse, the Thing as Phenomenological Object.
What do I mean by these terms?
Thing as Literal Subject is exactly that: we assume the Thing has sentience, and we build a possible model of its phenomenological reality from what we can assume in the film, then examine this reality.
This will fall more into a “film theory” than a proper “analysis”, though it is pivotal to understanding to the second half of the analysis.
Thing as Phenomenological Object: we examine not what the Thing is perceived as by the humans, but we examine why there is a Thing being observed by the humans.
This will contain more of my typical approach to analysis, though more focused on one specific aspect of the film rather than the broader narrative analysis I typically write.
Analysis Part 1: Thing as Literal Subject
What is the immediate conflict that arises in The Thing?
The Norwegians and the dog.
The Norwegians are chasing the dog through the Antarctic wastes, trying to kill it—knowing fully what the dog is and what it is capable of—but the last standing Norwegian is killed because the Americans can’t communicate with the Norwegian, can’t understand why the Norwegian is doing what he is doing, and don’t know what the Norwegian knows or perceives.
Of course, the brutal irony is that the Norwegian could have saved the entire American outpost from catastrophic destruction and death, and this as I mentioned implicates the deepest themes of the film: ignorance and communication.
What is the dog/alien thinking at the start of the film?
What is going on in the alien’s mind at this point?
Well, first, let’s construct a potential reality for the alien as a conscious subject. This might be technically impossible, considering there’s so much about the alien we don’t know (and that’s part of the point of the film), but, if we start from one basic assumption or premise, we can work our way to something that I think is most likely to be true.
The one basic assumption is: the alien wishes to survive.
Why assume this?
Because, as far as we know, all life forms share this instinct. Instinct might not even be the right word, it may go even deeper than instinct, as it’s difficult to say single-celled organisms possess “instincts”. The will to live seems to be a mechanism that is embedded so deeply in the fabric of “living” that it may be at the core of existence for life or even proto-life.
The will to live, or something like it—and, as tangents of this, the will to maintain life through various motivations and functions, including replication—had to have been present even in the earliest stages of life as the theorized “first replicators”.
So, assuming the alien wishes to survive, let’s reconstruct what its experience would be like before the start of the movie and at the start of the movie.
The alien crash-lands on Earth, and we know the alien piloting the ship is the same alien capable of assimilation (rather than the pilot of the ship becoming assimilated pre-crash) because Blair as the assimilated alien version of Blair has begun constructing a new spaceship by the end of the film.
The alien is frozen in Antarctica, and is then unfrozen by the Norwegians. We don’t know the full scope of what happened with the Norwegians, but we do know something went fucky-wucky, and the Norwegians and the alien decided they couldn’t work out their differences.
Now, another assumption here is that the alien likely treats assimilation as something relatively natural and commonplace. We are capable of natural acts like eating, speaking and procreating, and the alien’s act of assimilation is likely as natural to it as any of these acts. So, while assimilation is remarkably violent and grotesque to humans, it may not be so violent and grotesque to the alien.
However, assuming the alien’s act of assimilation was at least a part of what led the Norwegians to hunt down and try to kill the last remaining alien, and knowing the alien is intelligent enough to build a spacecraft and pilot it across the cosmos, then the alien is probably smart enough to have realized the humans do not appreciate the alien’s act of assimilation. That said, the alien may not fully understand why the humans do not like this, just as we would be confused if we went to another planet, and the natural inhabitants did not enjoy us trying to breathe air, eat food, have sex or speak words.
So, the last of the Norwegians attempt to hunt down and kill the last of the aliens, resulting in the brutal irony of The Thing’s opening scene.
Throughout the rest of the film, once the alien is discovered in the iconic dog scene, the plot turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse/Clue/who-dunnit plot where the humans are trying to survive and the alien(s) are trying to survive.
So, what is the rest of the film after the opening scene like from the perspective of the alien?
Each scene must be looked at as the alien’s attempt at survival, rather than the pre-supposed attempt at world domination. Why?
Well, other than the base instincts the alien likely has, there is one telling scene: the Thing-as-Blair attempting to build a spacecraft.
Why would the alien build a spacecraft rather than find some other mode of transportation or find some other mode of survival? Obviously, because it is trying to leave the planet Earth and return to its own civilization, or return to whatever it was doing beforehand.
It could be argued that the Thing would use the craft it created to travel to some other part of the planet and begin its worldwide domination there, but why? Why would it want to?
It has already seen the humans to be incredibly hostile towards it, and it landed there accidentally rather than on purpose, and, if we assume the alien’s core motivation is to survive, why risk trying to interact with other Earth-organisms that are likely to be just as hostile? On top of this, all it knows of Earth so far is the frozen wastes of Antarctica, unless it is smart enough or has learned enough to know what the rest of Earth is like (which may be unlikely, since it crash landed thousands of years ago, pre-civilization).
So, in these circumstances, why would the alien behave as we see it behave?
With the dog scene, this is possibly the most unclear, but, if it was assimilating the dogs as an act of survival, than perhaps it was doing so to create “allies”, or to spread itself out among a wider array of individual organisms and so increase its likelihood of survival. Perhaps it was an attempt at communication, though we don’t know enough about assimilation to know if this is a form of communication, and we do know enough to know it is used for functions other than communication.
The rest of the movie after this, however, is much more clear.
The dogs are now all under suspicion, and are killed because of their potential contact with the alien. And, while all the other humans are now under suspicion, they cannot be killed so recklessly. So, the alien begins assimilating humans to blend in and survive.
Another reason for assimilating humans is that this may be the only mode of communication the alien currently possesses. If you are trying to survive, one of the best places to start is to ask the hostile population, “Please! Don’t kill me!”
But, knowing the humans are hostile towards it, it may have decided not to communicate in the given circumstances—especially since no communication from the humans has been attempted.
So, the alien is in a circumstance where it is being hunted down. It may wish to communicate to the humans, which would be a reason to assimilate the other humans, but communication may also result in its own death.
Let’s say, as an example, you are a lesbian woman in a non-Western country that is predominated by a Muslim population (just to be arbitrarily controversial): while one mode of survival may be to yell out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am a homosexual, one of the things you wish to kill, but, please, I mean you no harm! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”
What are the odds this woman won’t be killed?
The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the population around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find understanding allies in others, or until such a time that you can escape to a less hostile population.
Let’s say the alien as an assimilated human were to shout out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am the alien that has assimilated other organisms, but, please, I mean you no harm! I only wish to survive! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”
What are the odds the alien won’t be killed?
The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the humans around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find a human willing to communicatee with you, or until such a time that the alien can escape Earth and go back home, or at least go somewhere it won’t be hunted down.
These assumptions and this understanding of the alien as a conscious and at least somewhat intelligent/rational creature can explain its actions throughout the rest of the film:
Attempting to escape as the half-assimilated Bennings
The alien as the fully assimilated Palmer and Norris being so quick to want MacReady killed, knowing MacReady is not an alien and that MacReady is the biggest threat to their existence
The alien as the “deceased” Norris attacking Copper before attempting to escape
The alien as Palmer attacking the others once it is discovered
The alien as Blair constructing the spaceship
The alien as Blair attacking the remaining humans once its spaceship is destroyed and the other humans are attempting to kill it
There is of course the ambiguity at the end of the film, with the final scene of Childs and MacReady in the wreckage of the destroyed outpost. While I could go into this and the various theories of whether or not one or both of them are the alien, and then what this would mean for our analysis, it is not so important, and I will let you decide.
So, here we have a construction of what the subjective reality and the motivations of the Thing most likely are.
There is a single hole in this argument: why didn’t the Thing-as-Blair simply run into the cold and be frozen, which would allow it to survive until a rescue party came and recovered their bodies, which would result in the Thing surviving until it was thawed out enough. But, this “hole” can have several counter-arguments to explain it, the least of which being: fuck it, it’s just a movie, and what a shitty ending that would have been.
Plus, if Childs or MacReady are an alien, then the alien being frozen and revived will likely happen anyway.
The Thing is trying to survive on an alien planet. It has woken up in an incredibly hostile environment, Antarctica, and it finds itself being assaulted on all sides by incredibly hostile lifeforms which do not seek to communicate with it.
The grand conflict here is on two levels a conflict of survival (the deeper, though maybe less interesting conflict), and the conflict of epistemology: the conflict of what is known and what is unknown.
The Thing cannot communicate with the humans unless it assimilates them. If it assimilates a human, then that assimilated human will be killed, so broadcasting that you are the alien disguised as a human will likely result in death.
I will return to this in the conclusion, but I think you get the idea here.
This essentially wraps up this part of the analysis. There’s no grand conclusion here, but it’s intended to roll right into the next analysis (where you will find a grand conclusion).
The Blair Witch Project, one of a number of the 90’s death throes, has become something of a meme. It’s a low-budget horror flic written by film students in the 90’s: it was filmed in 8 days, the entire script was improvised with almost no retakes, 80% of the movie is three people walking through the woods, and we never actually see the “villain” of the film (the mysterious Blair Witch). The Blair Witch Project has often been epitomized as the quintessential cheap, shitty, b-horror film. However, a less cynical and more appreciative mind might find this film to be quite enjoyable, and possibly even far more intelligent and intelligently created than it’s ever been given credit.
While I could spend this article exploring why The Blair Witch Project is an example of impressive cinematographic ingenuity on the part of its amateur cast and crew, and how it influenced countless films after its release, this has been discussed at length in the 21 years since Blair Witch’s release. What I’d rather talk about is the overlooked genius of the film that I doubt anyone has ever realized—possibly not even by the creators. The horror of The Blair Witch Project is being lost in the wilderness, stalked by unknown, unseen forces, with no map to help you return home—the genius of The Blair Witch Project is that this horror reflects one of the underlying horrors of modernity.
I was conceived and born smack-dab in the middle of the 90’s (~June 1995 – March 1996). The first birthday I remember was my third birthday, which would have been in 1999 (which would have been 3 months before The Blair Witch Project was released). I also remember my fourth birthday in March 2000, my fifth birthday in March 2001, and the collapse of the World Trade Center in September 2001.
It would be over a decade before I realized the 9-11 attacks were precipitated in part by the military actions of the US during the decade I had been born. It would be almost another decade later before I would really appreciate that the events that had precipitated 9-11 were precipitated by a vast number of prior events, which had been precipitated by an even vaster number of prior events, which had been precipitated by a nearly infinite gulf of prior history, which all create a continuum of history that resulted in our current state of society and reality, along which 9-11 happened.
The 90’s were something like a pivot point, both culturally and historically. Long-held traditions were, for many, little more than a joke at this point. A sense of Nationalism had in large part been disintegrated in America and across the world—a phenomenon that seemed to have begun post-WW2 and, in America, after the death of JFK and the rise of Hippie, Punk and other underground movements.
By the time of the 90’s, so little was genuine anymore—if it ever had been. Everything was cartoons and sitcoms, everything was commercial breaks and advertisements, everything was playing pretend, ignoring foreign wars, ignoring drug epidemics, ignoring government and economic corruption. Or, conversely, everything was Rage Against the Machine, but there was only Rage and the Machine, and no Against: no action. Now, even Zach de la Rocha has sold out, with “the Machine” providing him a net worth of 30 million dollars, despite still “Raging” about the broken system to sold-out shows.
So few things by the 90’s were genuine—no genuine wars, no genuine political movements, no genuine arts—and the things that were “genuine”, like the Grunge movement, were, with some exception, hopelessly cynical. This was because the only things that could be genuine, other than, perhaps, science, were the cynical things that shed light on the disingenuous nature of contemporary humanity.
No one really knew who they were anymore. As individuals, and as a society—possibly even as a species. Then, in 2001, 9-11 happened. The world watched in quiet shock as the World Trade Center collapsed in the middle of New York City—the crown jewel of America—and we still don’t know what this event even means for us.
We’re still living in the post 9-11 era, still stumbling from the aftershocks of that massive quake. We can’t agree on whether or not the resulting war was justified or even worth the effort. We can’t agree on the motivations of the aggressors and their allies. We can’t even agree on whether or not our own government was involved in the attacks of 9-11.
And now, we live in a world that seems entirely disingenuous, beyond what it was before. With social media, with ideological tribalism, with all facets of information and sense-making from all angles coming into question and under attack, with the inability to agree on the facts and “facts” of reality, we can’t even agree on what reality is. Who among us even can tell what reality is anymore?
We can’t agree on a common narrative. We can’t agree on what our various narratives even mean or signify. We can’t agree on what is meaningful, what is moral, what is true—or even what it means for something to be true, or if it is even possible for something to be “true” (whatever “true” might mean).
We are living in a chaotic time, with existential threats standing all around us like specters at a deathbed, and we’ve lost all ability to even understand what is happening. We don’t know what is going on around us, we don’t know who we are, and we don’t know where we are.
And this brings us back to The Blair Witch Project.
Blair Witch was developed throughout the 90’s and released right at the end of the decade, in ’99.
The entire movie was filmed as if it was an amateur documentary—a mockumentary, or a pretend documentary. It depicts three individuals—Heather Donahue (Heather), Michael C. Williams (Mike), and Joshua Leonard (Josh)—going to the small town of Burkittsville, Maryland to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch. After interviewing a variety of townsfolk, the trio embarks into the woods north of the town, where the Blair Witch is said to live.
As a quick aside, the names of the three characters are actually the names of the real-life (“real-life”) actors who play these characters.
Intending to stay in the woods overnight and return to civilization the next day, the trio ends up getting lost in the woods. While lost in the woods, they find strange things, such as piles of stones in a small clearing and sculptures or perhaps totems made from branches and vines that are hanging in trees. At night, they hear strange sounds coming from the woods and are even attacked at one point while trying to sleep in their tent.
In the end, Josh goes missing, and then Heather and Mike find an abandoned house, where they presumably meet their demise (though their demise is not seen).
Throughout the movie, Heather relies on a map to guide them through the forest, though Mike does not trust Heather’s navigation skills, and Mike does not trust the map itself. However, Heather wakes up one morning to find that the map is missing. Josh blames Heather for losing the map, and Heather questions whether or not Josh or Mike took the map as a joke. We later find out that Mike actually took the map and essentially destroyed it, laughing as he tells Josh and Heather:
“…I kicked that fucking map into the creek yesterday. It was useless! I kicked that fucker into the creek!”
Heather and Josh are rightfully indignant, and the movie from this point on takes on a markedly nihilistic and dread-filled tone. At this point, they are lost in the forest, they are being stalked by unknown forces in an uncivilized pocket of nature, and they have no map to return home.
And this is both the central horror and the central theme of the story.
Blindly wandering through the wilderness, stalked by unknown, unknowable forces beyond our control, without any useful form of navigation.
Now, there is one more important aspect of the movie that must be brought to light here: the filming of the movie itself.
The entire film, as I mentioned earlier, is supposed to be shot as if it were a documentary, giving it a Gonzo style of film (meaning the one filming the movie is also an actor, and the fact that the film is being shot is an element of the film itself). The entire film is shot from cameras the characters/actors are holding, which is constantly made obvious or relevant by the character referencing or interacting with their film equipment.
While this is important, obviously, to the horror of the movie—giving the movie it’s “real” quality, where the horror is that the movie is supposed to a depiction of reality—it is even more important to the underlying themes of the movie.
The film we watch is not in fact reality, it is a representation of reality, and it is a filtered representation of reality. This is made explicit in the film when Josh tells Heather:
“I see why you like this video camera so much. […] It’s not quite reality. […] No, but it’s totally like a filtered reality, man. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”
Now, we can begin breaking down some of the major components of the film: the map, the wilderness, the camera and the witch.
The map that Heather uses is their symbolic representation of reality. The map is not reality, but it is a symbolic depiction of reality, signifying the geography of reality, that is used to navigate that reality.
That reality is the wilderness, and the wilderness is symbolic of the true nature of the world we exist in: the world in-and-of-itself, as it is outside of our representation. If you look at a cellphone, you see the cellphone as what your brain decides it is. The cellphone is an object—an incredibly complex object—designed, primarily (or at least initially) to communicate with other people who have an object that can communicate with your object. That is our “map” of the cellphone. However, a cellphone is also an object made out of plastic, metal, glass and other materials, arranged by humans in a specific pattern to achieve its desired outcome.
However, these components of a cellphone are things that are only signified by our words, which have an agreed upon definition. These material components are only known to us as they are (these materials as such) in an incomplete way through science, or through Empiricism. We can never completely understand, know, perceive, etc. these material components because we can only experience them as external stimuli that have been filtered through our knowledge structures and our personal, subjective experience (more complexly, through our neurological structures, but we won’t get into that).
The wilderness is this primary reality—the true, actual reality that we exist within, but that we can only partially experience and imperfectly represent.
And this brings us to the cameras used in the film. These cameras are our knowledge structures and our subjective experience. They are the lens, the filter, and the mechanism by which we perceive reality. The camera is both our neurological mechanism representing reality—our imperfect capabilities of perceiving the wilderness we live in—and it is the knowledge structure of our society—the camera literally being an invention of modern humans.
Finally, the Blair Witch her/itself. The Blair Witch is a bit more complicated. Mythologically, we can connect the Witch to the Occult, most commonly thought of as Pagan or Satanic practices (though “Satanic” is usually a reactionary description of witchcraft). More deeply, the Witch can be connected to Nature—a priestess of the wilderness. She is the invoker of Nature, of the Wild, of the ambivalence of reality—both one who can heal and one who can curse, one who invokes the growth and life of nature and the destruction and cruelty of nature, and one who lives outside the scope and structure of civilization.
If we combine these two—Nature, or the wilderness and the occult—we get a “clearer” picture of the Blair Witch. “Occult” actually means “hidden” or “secretive”—that which is esoteric, unknown or unknowable. “Occult” practices were not “Satanic” practices, as they are often represented, but in fact practices meant to invoke “hidden” forces or discover “secret” knowledge. But the Blair Witch is also an entity which lives in the depths of the wilderness, far removed from society, who exists within and as a part of the forces of the unknown that we fear and cannot understand.
She might in fact be a symbol of this wilderness—a personified representation or manifestation of the wilderness.
We never see the Blair Witch: she is in fact the Occult—the unseen, the elusive, the hidden, the unknown and unknowable. She cannot be represented by our cameras—our subjective experience and our cultural knowledge structures.
To summarize these:
The map is the representation of reality.
The wilderness is that reality (reality in and of itself).
The camera is the lens of knowledge structures and subjective experience we view reality through.
The Blair Witch is the personified embodiment of the wilderness, or the personified embodiment of that which cannot be truly seen or understood.
Now, to bring these together.
On the surface, The Blair Witch Project is about three film students attempting to investigate the Blair Witch, and end up getting lost in the wilderness after their map is destroyed. They are stalked and eventually killed (presumably, we don’t know actually know) by the very thing they are investigating, the Blair Witch.
However, if we take the deeper analysis of the various aspects of the film, The Blair Witch Project is about individuals attempting to understand and represent the wilderness of reality in and of itself. While exploring the depths of reality, they find that their representation of reality does not adequately describe the world they live in. Their representation of reality is destroyed, and the three try to escape the reality they no longer understand and return to a reality they do understand. However, they ultimately meet their demise by the forces of the unknown and unknowable.
This demise could represent a few things. The death of these three individuals might be the death of their knowledge structures. They perceived reality with their pre-created representation of it (their map), and this representation was destroyed. As they attempted to flee the wilderness of reality and the overwhelming horrors of existing in a reality they don’t understand, they inevitably were lost inside this wilderness and could not return to the society they once existed in. They themselves might not have died physically, but the framework they represented the world with collapsed, and so it was impossible now to escape the wilderness of reality.
Now, to bring this back to the actual state of society as it is now and as it was when this film was created, I’m going to tie in the postmodern philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and his book, Simulacra and Simulation.
Now, postmodernism is a somewhat controversial collection of philosophies, and I myself have a few issues with some of the tenants of these philosophies, but they raise a number or important issues about humanity and the knowledge structures of humanity that are certainly worth discussing. These issues may even be at the core, or at least a portion of the core, of the current predicaments of society.
The central tensions of Postmodernism could be characterized as a criticism of our representation of reality—though there is admittedly quite a lot of nuance in the Postmodernist philosophies and one ought to simplify Postmodernism with caution. Since our beliefs and how we act within reality and society is determined by our representation of reality, Postmodernism is also a criticism of our beliefs and our actions.
Jean Baudrillard’s primary contention in Simulacra and Simulation follows this core concept of criticizing how we represent reality.
The first two paragraphs of Simulacra and Simulation go as follows:
“If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts – the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) – as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.”
Now, in the text following this, Baudrillard immediately contradicts everything he just says, adding to the opacity of Baudrillard’s writing, and means that quoting Baudrillard and referencing his work can be a bit perilous, but this quote will do.
To simplify what Baudrillard is saying here, we have a socially/culturally “agreed-upon” representation of reality (the map), and the map represents what we believe to be reality (the territory). Now, as what we believe to be reality erodes (the territory), so too does our representation of reality (the map). What we are left with is the “The desert of the real itself”, which parallels the wilderness of Blair Witch.
Baudrillard goes on throughout his book to use his metaphor of the desert-territory-map to analyze and critique a number of things, including (put simply) the disingenuous state of “reality” as the map and territory—leaving the desert as a blank, ungraspable truth beneath the map and territory.
However, here I would say that the Blair Witch’s forest—the wilderness—is a better representation of “the real itself”. The “real” is not an empty, desolate void, but an incredibly complex and dense tangle of existence. The problem of contending with “the real” is not that it is an empty wasteland, but, quite the opposite, that it is an infinitely complex landscape of objects, information, perceptions, interpretations, morals and decisions.
While Baudrillard simplifies the reality that exists beneath, or perhaps outside, our representation of reality, Blair Witch shows us this reality for all of its infinite complexity.
Nonetheless, the parallel metaphors paired together give us, ironically, an accurate representation of our current state of being.
This is the state of reality we find ourselves in today—the state, you could say, that was in the process of either being created or destroyed by the time the 90’s rolled around.
Currently, we are all blindly stumbling through a wilderness. The territory we reside within is crumbling, and, with it, so too crumbles our map. We do not understand and cannot adequately represent reality, and so our actions are all either ignorant fumblings or self-destructive collapsings.
Blair Witch can be seen as a commentary on this state of reality.
There is a major ambiguity in Blair Witch that is important to explore here.
The trio seemed to be lost in the woods even before Mike “kicked that fucker into the creek”. Despite Heather reassuring Mike and Josh that she could read the map, and that she knew exactly where they were and where they were going, the three of them couldn’t find their way out of the woods, even while Heather possessed the map.
The three different characters each had their own beliefs as to why they were lost. Heather thought they were lost because they lost the map. Josh thought they were lost because he didn’t think Heather knew how to read the map. Mike thought they were lost because the map itself was inherently useless or flawed.
So, following the three different beliefs of the three different characters, we as a society might be in our current state of confusion for three different reasons:
– We’ve lost the map / Our representation of reality is accurate and decipherable, but it was destroyed
– We are incapable of deciphering the map / Our representation of reality is accurate, but it cannot be deciphered
– We never had an accurate map to begin with / Our representation of reality was never accurate to begin with, so, rather than attempt deciphering it, the map ought to be destroyed
Whose interpretation of the situation is correct?
These interpretations and the question of which one is correct can be transferred to our current state of society and our current relationship with reality.
Do we / Did we have an accurate map of reality, but our map is being destroyed, and this is how we arrived at where we now are?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the actions of fellow humans.
Is our map of reality accurate, but the map is impossible to decipher by us, and so we cannot agree on what the map depicts?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the ignorance of fellow humans.
Is our map actually inaccurate, and so any attempt at contending with reality using our representation is inevitably worthless?
This would be a nihilism aimed at the nature of humanity and the state of reality itself.
And lets look at how the characters of Blair Witch were “picked off” throughout the end of the movie, in the order that these events happened.
First, Josh went missing. His voice could still be heard in the wilderness, and Heather and Mike still tried to save him, but he couldn’t be found, and the search for Josh inevitably led to the demise of both Heather and Mike.
We didn’t lose faith in humanity’s ability to contend with reality, but we lost faith in our ability to comprehend reality.
Second, Heather finds Mike staring into the corner of the room. Mike went to the basement of reality, to the darkest pit of the witch’s lair (to the darkest pit of the unknown and unknowable), hoping that salvation was still possible even without a map, and succumbed to a motionless apathy.
We stopped believing that it was in fact possible to contend with reality.
Finally, Heather drops the camera she is holding (her entire subjective experience/knowledge structure falls) and the movie ends. Heather finds that she has lost both Josh and Mike to the Blair Witch, and, in her presumed demise, lets go of all attempts to perceive or even experience reality (self-destruction, possibly to the point of suicide).
We stopped believing in humanity itself.
2 years, 7 months and 20 days after The Blair Witch Project was released at the ’99 Sundance Film Festival, the whole world, my 5-year-old self included, watched the Twin Towers fall.
Almost 10 years after 9-11, we still can’t agree on why it happened, we still can’t agree what happened that day, we still can’t agree how we should have reacted to what happened, and we still can’t agree on the state of reality as it was and as it is now.
Who are our enemies? Who are our allies? Where are we? What is our civilization? Why are we where we are right now? What do we do? How do we do it? Why do we do it?
With our map destroyed, how do we move on?
With our faith in our knowledge, our perception, our structures and even our fellow humans crumbling in our hands, what do we do next?
The only thing I can say we do is salvage what we still have—which I would say is quite a lot more than what many people suspect—reinvigorate and reconstruct our knowledge structures and our social systems, and regain faith in humanity.
Perhaps it is good for portions of our structures and systems to be torn down, but, with them, there is much that ought not to be torn down, and in the wake of these structures’ collapse, there must be better, stronger, truer, more genuine structures that are erected.
We have to create better maps—maps that do accurately represent the reality we live in; we have to grow as people, as individuals—so that we can create these better maps, interpret these maps and act appropriately by these maps; and we have to maintain our faith in fellow humans—maintain faith that we can understand reality, that we can trust other people, and that there is a way out of the wilderness.
There is nothing else we can do, except stumble into our own self-destruction and be devoured by the wilderness manifested by our actions and our disintegrating humanity.
We can emerge from this wilderness alive.
The Blair Witch Project may go down as a b-movie horror flic that grossed an impressively large amount of money and inspired two decades of b-movie horror flics in its wake.
However, I think Blair Witch represents a deep aspect of the society it emerged from, and ought to be remembered as such.
Not only should it be remembered as a film that quite profoundly represents one of the many horrors of modernity, how it represents this ought to be remembered.
Someone who excels at their given craft can engineer beautiful, thought-provoking creations with that craft.
Someone who can take their craft to the next level can use the aspects of their creations, in-and-of-themselves, to communicate meaning.
With a writer like James Joyce, meaning is not only conveyed with the plot and characters, but meaning is also conveyed with sentence structure, paragraph placement and with language itself (rather than the meanings of specific words used in that language). With the abstract movements of modern art, the elements of art are broken down to their constituent elements (color, tone, form, shape, line, etc.), and these elements are the focus or the subject of the art, rather than the elements that create the focus or subject.
With film, David Lynch might be the most well-known example of someone who can make the elements of cinematography themselves to communicate meaning. It isn’t only that the camera angle helps the subject of the film communicate meaning, or that the words of the dialogue are all that is communicating meaning, or even that the events of the movie contribute only to the meaning derived from plot and character arc. All of these elements in a David Lynch film not only help the subjects of the film communicate meaning, but the elements themselves are meaningful and communicate meaning.
With The Blair Witch Project, while much of the meaning is communicated in what is being communicated through the subject of the film—three students lost in the woods, stalked by an unknown and unknowable force—meaning is also communicated in how the subject is depicted to us. It isn’t just the tribulations of three people trying to survive in and escape from the woods, it’s that we see these tribulations through the lenses of their perceptions and knowledge structures.
The documentary intended to investigate and depict the legend—the narrative or modern representation—of the Blair Witch devolves into the last record of three people’s lives. The representation of the film begins as an attempt at objectivity—investigative journalism or documentarianism—with this lens of modern society and civilization, but the documentary falls apart and gives way to fear, dread and hopelessness.
The lens of modernity gives way to the survival of humanity amidst the wilderness of reality.
Remember this movie not as a strange novelty that emerged at the tail end of the 20th century, but as a misunderstood representation of the historic pivoting we currently find ourselves stumbling through.
“Shin Gojira” is one of the most terrifying movies I have watched in the last few years, and is easily the best Godzilla movie made so far—yes, still better than anything Hollywood has produced. Written and directed by Hideaki Anno—creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion—Shin Gojira is a retelling of the classic Godzilla story, but it is also a contemporary remastering of the story. Rather than producing the over-the-top monster-mash America is intent on making, Hideaki kept the movie simple, honing in on all the minute details that brought out the horror of Godzilla, as well as crafting a compelling, meaningful and an archetypically mythological narrative relevant to modern society.
The horror of Shin Gojira came from several things.
First of all, the cinematography was spectacular. Every shot of Godzilla makes you feel small, vulnerable, weak and hopeless. The first full shots of Godzilla show Godzilla in the semi-distant background with a large number of humans in the foreground. Despite Godzilla’s distance and the people’s nearness, Godzilla’s size visually dominates the shot. Then, in later shots, we either see Godzilla towering in the far-distance, appearing surreally large in the distant background as people seem insect-like in the foreground, or we see Godzilla from nearer shots, where a small portion of Godzilla’s body fills the screen. This doesn’t even touch on elements such as the sound or lighting, musical score and the pacing of the scenes, which all were masterfully accomplished.
Godzilla’s design was easily the most innovative iteration yet, though far from the most “pleasing” design. What made this version of Godzilla horrific was the realism of it and the blind violence of Godzilla’s behavior. The CGI did have it’s moments of “cut-the-shit”, it wasn’t perfect, but Hideaki Anno seemed to be asking with this movie, “What would it actually be like if Godzilla attacked Tokyo?” The Godzilla that answered Hideaki’s call achieved a shocking verisimilitude. Godzilla evolves through three forms. The first is an amphibious, fish-like juvenile form, where Godzilla walks hunched over, almost flat to the ground. It has wide-open, vacant eyes, like a shark or barracuda, a relaxed, slack jaw, revealing dozens of ragged teeth, and it stomps around awkwardly, almost like a monstrous child.
Godzilla here looks natural, like a monster that might actually crawl out of the primeval depths of the Pacific. Godzilla then evolves into a more dinosaur-like form, though it still appears as a sort of horrific, half-developed proto-monster. Godzilla’s second form looks almost like a grotesque, half-formed embryo, still growing to maturity. And yet, despite this embryonic appearance, Godzilla is still far larger and more powerful than any other organism on the planet. Godzilla is already a super-organism, and it’s not even fully developed.
And then, there is the tall, obsidian tower that emerges from the Pacific—the final form of Godzilla—and the terror of this Godzilla’s form is the sheer hopelessness of trying to confront such an impossibly large creature. Godzilla here is a tower of half-hardened, half-molten flesh—it barely resembles a natural organism—instead resembling some abomination of biology—yet the same verisimilitude is maintained. The movie doesn’t feel like a giant monster movie. It feels like a film depicting the actual outcomes of a super-organism walking into a major city.
You watch a realistic, god-like monster walk through buildings, topple apartments with families still inside, crash through crowded cityscapes and fill the streets of Tokyo with fire.
Possibly what is most disturbing is that Godzilla behaved without thought, without remorse, without any real awareness. Godzilla never behaved like an antagonist. There was never any malice or intentional aggression in Godzilla’s behavior, except when it was defending itself against the Japanese military in the latter half of the movie. Godzilla acts almost blindly, as if it is has no awareness to the destruction and mass death all around it. Godzilla’s only motive is survival: seeking sustenance, exploratory behavior, reacting to negative stimuli.
Godzilla’s first form flops around awkwardly. Its eyes bulge manically. It haphazardly bores a line through the city by toppling every building it passes. It has no clear motivation, no specific goal, no real awareness—not even much of an awareness of itself—except survival. All Godzilla actually does for the first half of the movie is walk through the city. That’s all.
All of this culminates in a supreme sense of uselessness. What do you do? How do you react? Is there any way of regaining control of the crumbling situation?
By the mid-point of the movie, it feels like there’s nowhere you can actually run or hide from Godzilla. Where can you go that won’t be destroyed? How far could you run before Godzilla catches up to you? What could you do to stop Godzilla? There’s nowhere you can go, no speed you could run, and nothing you can do. At no point do you feel safe. At no point do you feel secure. At no point do you feel calm. There is only a frantic fear, and a crushing hopelessness.
And yet, by the end of this story, we witness heroism in the face of this absurd horror that harkens back to ancient mythology.
At the heart of this movie are three major conflicts. Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. God; in other words: the protective/oppressive collective of Society, the negative aspect of nature—cancerous, violent, perfectly amoral and indifferent—and “God” being the enveloping/isolating reality of the universe we live in. These conflicts translate into three major themes of the movie:
Man’s eternal struggle for survival
Man’s eternal struggle against the conformity of culture
Man’s existential struggle with reality, the cosmos, and their relationship to the infinite
Literally explained, the primary conflicts of the movie are:
The physical survival of Tokyo and the citizens of Tokyo
The conflicts between politicians, scientists, journalists, the military and everyday people, and the relationships between different countries (Tokyo/Japan, and America, China, Russia, France, etc.)
The individual faced with the insignificance of their existence and the futility of their efforts
I will explain all three of these conflicts in the remainder of this article.
First, before I start digging at the deeper ethos of the story, we should come to an understanding of the mythological and archetypal symbols prevalent in Shin Gojira.
Shin Gojira, at the core of its narrative-structure, is an archetypal Hero Myth. More specifically, it is an archetypal Dragon-Slayer myth. A Dragon-Slayer myth can be explained as follows:
There is a “Kingdom” or a “Society” which is under attack from some external threat.
This external threat is always an archetypal “Monster”, some horrible and powerful creature, which often cannot be defeated by mundane ways.
A Hero must go out to defeat the Monster that is terrorizing their community.
The Hero confronts and slays the Monster, which typically results in marriage, wealth and social promotion.
These myths are prevalent throughout cultures across history, even back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and they portray a universal struggle of humanity: confronting the horrors of reality.
Often, the Monster of the Dragon-Slayer myth is in some way connected to an archetypally feminine force, such as a Goddess of Fertility, Creation, or Nature. Nature is typically represented as feminine, and throughout many ancient myths, the “Monsters” are children or descendants of a creator/mother-goddess (Tiamat, Gaia, Izanami, and so forth).
This is the archetype of the Great Mother, both a nurturing giver of life and a devouring destroyer of life. Another way of thinking of the Great Mother is as the mythological representation of Nature. The Great Mother is the beauty and the creation of Nature, and the Great Mother is the horror and the destruction of Nature.
Opposite Nature or the Great Mother is Society or God the Father.
In many Hero Myths, including Dragon-Slayer myths, there is a “King” figure. The King and the Kingdom are the forces that protect individuals within society, but are also the forces that oppress individuals in society. Archetypically—that is, as a narrative symbol—the King and the Kingdom are essentially the same thing. The King is the representative, the figurehead and the grand decision-maker of the Kingdom, and so the King and Kingdom are one (this is almost literally true in Totalitarian states such as Soviet Russia, North Korea and Nazi Germany). In this sense, the King is symbolic of Society.
Oftentimes the problem presented by Nature—the Monster or Dragon—accounts for only half of the problem that is facing a society. One half is the Monster itself. The other half is the failure of the Society—the failure of the King—to overcome the problems they are facing. This is why many kings in a Dragon-Slayer myth are often old, debilitated, dying, or in some other way incapable of confronting the horror on their doorstep.
To take this up to the same level of abstraction as the Great Mother, the archetypical masculine divine entity would be God the Father. As the Great Mother is representative of Nature, so God the Father is representative of Society. As the Great Mother has both negative and positive aspects, so does God the Father as tyranny and protection.
The third piece of the puzzle is the Hero. The Hero is that which confronts Nature in order to save Society. This process involves overcoming the horrors of Nature and revitalizing a broken and decaying Society.
This mythological narrative can be elaborated from our simple Dragon-Slayer myth as follows:
Nature poses threats to Society.
That Society is aging, corrupt or incompetent, and so the threat posed by Nature becomes a Monster—a threat so bad that it terrorizes the people of a Society.
The Hero must come not only to confront the problem posed by Nature, but re-order or revitalize the failing society. This necessarily means the Hero must grow in a variety of ways and collect resources to defeat the Monster. These resources can be:
The Hero is typically rewarded for their efforts and their sacrifices, which usually entails monetary, social and sexual rewards.
To sum this up:
It is the task of the Hero to return Order and Health to Society by becoming more powerful than the failing King, and defending Society from a Monster by incorporating the knowledge and resources of Nature and Chaos. In other words, it is the task of a Hero to save a Kingdom by usurping a King, and use acquired powers, weapons and knowledge (often attained from delving into the “Land of Chaos”, the “Underworld”, or into the “Unknown”) to defeat the Monster or Dragon. This typically results in the Hero attaining nobility or godhood, marrying a princess or virgin, and/or living the peaceful, simple life they wanted all along.
Shin Gojira begins with an anomalous event—a rupture or small earthquake in the ocean just outside the city—which the political leaders think is a perfectly natural event, and give little heed to it. Godzilla then emerges from the ocean, and the government and emergency response teams are ill-equipped to deal with Godzilla. Godzilla easily tears through Tokyo, and the immense amount of red-tape and legal regulations keep the government from effectively responding to Godzilla (even though it is well within their ability to do so at this stage of the movie).
Godzilla evolves into a much larger form, then returns to the ocean. When Godzilla returns from the ocean once more, Godzilla is far larger than before, and is nearly impervious to most small-scale weaponry, even artillery rounds. US bombers fly over Tokyo and begin dropping large bombs on Godzilla, which has some effect on the Monster, but then Godzilla destroys the bombers and wreaks havoc on the city before going to sleep in the middle of Tokyo.
From the very beginning of the movie, Rando Yaguchi—the protagonist—has been in conflict with the other politicians. He believed Godzilla was a creature and not a natural event far before anyone else did. He attempted to prepare for the potential oncoming catastrophe of Godzilla far before anyone else did. He also had a much clearer idea of how to respond to the threat of Godzilla than anyone else did. Yaguchi was ready to confront Godzilla and had the right mindset for confronting Godzilla, but his attempts at doing so were thwarted by the majority of fellow politicians.
However, Yaguchi is then given charge of task force designed to respond to the threat of Godzilla. Yaguchi is essentially in charge of dealing with the threat of Godzilla (though this authority is relatively surface-level until the end of the movie). After dealing with the catastrophic defeat at the midpoint of the movie, then dealing with several major stumbling blocks leading up to the climax (such as the threat of nuclear missiles from the US), Yaguchi rallies his task force together and defeats Godzilla. They do this by studying Godzilla until they understand Godzilla’s mysterious biology and find a chemical compound they can administer to Godzilla to incapacitate the Monster.
In the end, Yaguchi is hailed as the savior of Tokyo, he develops a potential romantic with an American politician, and it is implied that Yaguchi has a high chance of becoming the next Prime Minister of Japan.
I will simplify this and reconnect it to the archetypal Dragon-Slayer narrative.
Shin Gojira is about Godzilla attacking Tokyo. Godzilla is a reptilian Monster (Dragon) capable of evolving to adapt to threats (evolution, the province of Mother Nature). Godzilla emerges from the ocean (the lair of Leviathans and the territory of the Great Mother, as I’ll soon discuss).
Tokyo is the Kingdom or the Society that is being attacked by Godzilla, though you could say that Japan in general is under attack. The ultimate responsibility for confronting Godzilla falls onto the shoulders of the Prime Minister (the “King” of Japan), but the Prime Minister and his cabinet of politicians are broadly incompetent and their ability to confront Godzilla is hindered by bureaucracy.
Yaguchi, the Hero of Japan, confronts and defeats Godzilla by uniting the disparate forces of Science, Technology, the Military and the Government. They create a chemical compound (magic power or magic potion), and weaponize this chemical (the long, extended arms of cranes used to administer the chemical paralleling the phallic swords of knights) in order to defeat Godzilla.
For his troubles, Yaguchi is commended as a national Hero, given political favor, and gets to flirt with the American Princess, Kayoco Anne Patterson.
As an interesting side-note, Yaguchi’s plan to poison Godzilla is called the “Yashiori Strategy”, which is an allusion to the Japanese Yamatano Orochi legend. In the legend, an eight-headed dragon-like monster named Yamatano Orochi is terrorizing a countryside. The Hero, Susanoo, defeats the eight-headed dragon-creature by poisoning it with Yashiori no Sake, a legendary sake that incapacitates the Monster.
Yaguchi returns Order to Society by becoming more powerful than the failing King, and Defends Society from a Monster by incorporating the knowledge and resources of Science (magic), Outsider Intellectuals (allies and wise wizards) and Impromptu Methods of defeating Godzilla (magical weapons).
While this covers the surface-level narrative-structure of Godzilla, the symbolism and narrative structure of Godzilla can be delved into even deeper, especially when compared to other mythological narratives. This will deepen the meaningfulness of the first conflict, Man vs. Nature.
The name “Godzilla” or “Gojira” was originally a mix of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale”. The name was intended to illustrate Godzilla’s violent, primal nature, its vast size and power, and evokes parallels both the Behemoth (land monster) and the Leviathan (sea monster) of the Hebrew myths. In a sense, this is saying that Godzilla is a hyper-monster, a super-monster. However, in Shin Gojira, the name Gojira is translated as “God Incarnate”. This means that “Gojira” is a double entendre meaning both “gorilla and whale” and “God Incarnate”.
The title “Shin Gojira” is often translated into “Godzilla Resurgence”, however, the literal translation of “Shin Gojira” is “New Godzilla”, and the alternate translations are “True Godzilla” and “God Godzilla”.
Godzilla has been referred to throughout the movie franchise as the King of the Monsters, and here, with these name and title translations, this motif has been revitalized in Shin Gojira.
“Shin Gojira” ends of being an octuple entendre, a combination of New, True and God, and Gorilla + Whale and God Incarnate. These meanings can be simplified if one wishes to into “The New True God of Monsters made Incarnate”.
This name is significant, because it hearkens back to not just the archetypal or symbolic Monster or Dragon, but to the ultimate Monster, the ultimate Dragon, or the Divine Incarnation of Monsters itself: the God of Monsters.
Analytically, a God is not necessarily a literal being, but the ultimate archetype of a concept. Thor, God of Thunder, (a warrior archetype) embodies the violent, wild, powerful, and fleeting fury of a thunderstorm. Dionysus, the God of Wine and Revelry, (an archetype of psychological states) embodies the spectrums of biological influence and intoxication—from manic ecstasy, to violent insanity. Isis, Goddess of Motherhood, Nature and Magic, (an archetype of a queen) embodies love and love’s ability to overcome death or destruction, as well as the esoteric knowledge, such as Science.
Godzilla, God of Monsters, is a draconic archetype who embodies the indifferent cruelty of nature, evolution, survival, and primal instinct. Godzilla symbolizes the “Red Queen”, the concept that nature is forever one-upping itself through evolution. Godzilla embodies the ferocious necessity of animals to survive a cruel world by becoming crueler than its environment. Godzilla also embodies the instinctual thread that runs through each and every human psyche—the motivation to survive reality.
There are many mythological stories that encapsulate this archetypal motif—Thor and Jormungandr, Zeus and Typhon, Krishna and Kaliya, and Ra and Apep—but I think the best comparison can be made with one of the oldest—if not the oldest—Dragon-Slayer myths that we know of:
The story of Marduk and Tiamat.
In Sumerian myth, the God Marduk becomes the King of Gods by defeating Tiamat. Tiamat is a Sumerian Sea Serpent Goddess, and a Goddess of Nature and Creation. Tiamat is a dragon-like monster which emerged from the sea or ocean (the Ocean being symbolic of chaos, nature and the potential of life), and Tiamat is a monster that spawns other monsters. Tiamat is also the ruler of the Sumerian Gods, and is essentially oppressing the mortals of the world during this myth (Nature oppressing Man).
Marduk is the son of Enki, another God of Creation and Water, as well as a God of Intelligence, Crafts, Magic and Mischief. Marduk is gifted with many eyes, which allow him to see all around him, and possesses several boons or powers, as well as various instruments and weapons. None of the other Sumerian Gods are able to defeat Tiamat, though they try, so Marduk uses his powers, weapons and his many eyes to defeat Tiamat, and then become the King of Gods.
Godzilla emerges from the Ocean and wreaks havoc on Tokyo. The current government is incapable of defeating Godzilla. The protagonist, Yaguchi, rises to the occasion, and uses science, technology and the military (secret knowledge, magical tools and powerful weapons) to defeat the Monster.
However, Godzilla has another layer. In the story, Godzilla is created, in part, because of mankind’s arrogance. This additional layer comprises the conflict of Man vs. Society.
In previous Godzilla stories, Godzilla is created from atomic missiles, which symbolized the vast destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, in Shin Gojira, Godzilla is created from nuclear waste left in the Pacific by Americans (fuckin’ Americans, man, always dickin’ around with existential threats to humanity).
Hideaki Anno has also mentioned in interviews that Godzilla is meant partially to represent the Fukushima incident. The Fukushima incident was caused by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. When the earthquake was picked up by sensors at the plant, the active reactors shut down. The electrical supply to the reactors at the plant failed, but emergency generators were used to help supply coolant to the reactors. However, as the plant was flooded by the tsunami, these generators failed as well. This led to three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions and radioactive contamination from various reactor units. Much of this was paralleled in the destruction in Shin Gojira.
In this way, Godzilla is not only symbolic of the direct destruction by nuclear technology, but the destruction caused by the misuse of modern technology–and, you could say, the destruction caused by human arrogance. Humanity believes it to be in control of its environment–in control of the natural world–but that appearance of control vanishes rapidly in the face of most natural disasters.
Godzilla is a creation of nature, a beast of survival and evolution, but it is created only because of the arrogance of man. This is where the narrative of Shin Gojira becomes not only a conflict of Man vs. Nature, but a conflict of Man vs. Society.
Here, I can tie Godzilla to another famous myth:
The story of Perseus and the Cetus (bastardized into the Norse “Kraken” in Clash of the Titans).
In Greek myth, Perseus defends the city of Ætheopia from the sea monster, Cetus, which was sent to attack Ætheopia by Poseidon, God of the Sea.
Interestingly, Cetus is the etymological root of Cetacean, which is the classification of whale species—which is one half of the name Gojira.
However, the Cetus wasn’t sent arbitrarily. The Cetus was sent to Ætheopia by the gods as a punishment for the mortals’ arrogance (the queen of Ætheopia wouldn’t stop flexing). Perseus is the son of Zeus, King of the Greek Gods, who uses Pegasus as a steed, and Medusa’s head as a weapon, which turns the Cetus into stone. Perseus then returns to the now-saved society to marry Andromeda.
In Shin Gojira, Godzilla is created when a surviving prehistoric animal comes into contact with nuclear waste, and mutates into a giant monster. So, Godzilla is simultaneously a spawn of nature (literally a monster that was born and developed in the ocean), and a consequence of man’s arrogance (man’s immature use of nuclear technology).
Yaguchi is the protégé of a successful politician, who defeats Godzilla using a mix of military equipment (drones, bombs, and so forth), and his “Yashiori” poison to turn Godzilla to stone. After this, Yaguchi becomes a potential candidate for the future Prime Minister of Japan.
Godzilla is the vengeance of Nature—Nature revolting at the hubris of Man and Society. Yaguchi is the Hero who must overcome both Nature and Society to save his Kingdom. While Godzilla is seen as the primary threat, the incompetence, arrogance and decay of Society may actually be the larger threat posed to humanity.
Beyond this, Godzilla not only represents the havoc that can be unleashed by Nature onto Man, but Godzilla also represents the havoc humans can unleash on each other by the improper use of Nature. When Godzilla cannot be defeated by normal human weaponry, America threatens to nuke Tokyo. Really, it’s difficult to say which is worse: Godzilla continuing its assault on the city, or America unleashing an atomic inferno on the city. In some sense, you could almost see the two as being one in the same. Godzilla is the threat of Nature biting back at humanity because of Man’s arrogance, and Godzilla is also the threat of Man turning on Man and unleashing the horrors of Nature on each other.
Shin Gojira is almost a perfect reflection of several mythological tropes. However, these mythological tropes are actually a reflection of reality, and Shin Gojira acts as an intermediary between mythology and reality. In other words, Shin Gojira uses the structure and symbolism of mythological narratives to communicate concerns about the reality of humanity.
Humanity is comprised of fragile beings, faced with the near-insurmountable task of surviving in this universe. We make this already insurmountable task even more difficult by allowing human hubris, vice and ignorance to further disrupt our lives. We live in constant peril, despite the façade of modern security and decadence, and quite possibly worsen this peril with modern security and decadence.
We push the boundaries of science, technology, and society at our own risk. Though we are surrounded on all sides by natural disasters, predatory beasts, starvation, disease, and harsh environments, we only serve to compound these great horrors by introducing war, pollutants, and dangerous technologies (such as nuclear technology) to Earth’s environment.
Reality doesn’t care about your feelings. Reality doesn’t care about your suffering. Reality doesn’t care if our follies are only accidents and misunderstandings.
Reality—Nature—simply happens, with or without your approval.
Godzilla is the perfect Scientific/Materialist symbol for Nature. Godzilla is indifferent to the suffering of humans.
Godzilla might have an IQ of approximately 12, yet it is still higher up the food chain than humans.
It has no real form of emotion (other than, possibly, pain, aggression, and curiosity), no form of empathy, communication or rationality (other than reptilian survival), and has no sense of morality.
Godzilla doesn’t eat, doesn’t dream, and doesn’t have sex—instead, Godzilla evolves/mutates itself spontaneously, or reproduces asexually (as we see at the end of Shin Gojira).
Godzilla is the ultimate organism.
It is a self-contained nuclear reactor, which can evolve as needed in order to survive. It can unleash a storm of annihilation, and it can weather the bombardment of Man’s weapons. Godzilla, just like Nature, cares little for Man, and can only just barely be survived by Man. Not only this, Godzilla at its fiercest might be just as terrifying as Mankind at its fiercest. The horrors unleased by Godzilla—razing the city with its atomic breath—pale in comparison to what Man can do when unleashing their arsenal of atomic weapons.
And yet, beneath the horrors of Nature and the tyranny of Society, there is the deepest conflict of Shin Gojira:
Man vs. God
What would you do if you met a god?
What would a god even be like?
If we take the Judeo-Christian explanation of God:
God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. God is everything that existed, exists or will exist, everything that can occur in existence, and the knowledge of all that has been, all that is, all that will be and all that hasn’t, isn’t, and won’t. God is everything that can be imagined, perceived and understood, and all that cannot be imagined, perceived and understood.
What would that be like?
What would it be like to confront all that is reality?
What would you do?
In HP Lovecraft, one of the ultimate “evils” of the universe is an entity named Azathoth, which is also described as the “Blind Idiot God”. Yet, despite this name, Azathoth is considered to be omnipotent. Similarly, Godzilla appears to be both unthinking and unfeeling (though there are trace amounts of primal rationality), and at the same time, Godzilla is nearly omnipotent, like a God.
Godzilla is a symbol of the blind force of nature, which overwhelms humanity. Godzilla is the indifferent violence of the universe (manifest in hurricanes, volcanoes, and supernovas). Godzilla is the pinnacle of nature (the ultimate predator, the ultimate survivor, the ultimate organism). And Godzilla is the folly of Man’s hubris.
The horror of Godzilla is the horror of reality; the horror of the natural universe we must survive.
Godzilla is the manifestation—the incarnation—of all the problems that beset us on a daily basis, and all the potential problems we could face in our lives, ranging from the insignificant (a minor natural disaster) to the wholly catastrophic (the nuclear eradication of an entire city). And yet, even the most catastrophic events we imagine are still insignificant in the grand scheme of the Cosmos.
Shin Gojira is a story about a single terrible event that happened on one small island, in the vast ocean of a small, blue rock. Shin Gojira is about a single, small God walking into the midst of a single, huge City. Shin Gojira is about how insignificant a single person is when confronted with one, small God of Nature, Vengeance and Annihilation.
It took a team of dozens, hundreds of political officials, thousands of civil servants, and several thousands of soldiers to finally subdue Godzilla after a couple weeks or so. Godzilla led a one-man siege on Tokyo. Even Yaguchi says that Godzilla is a far superior species to humans, and Kayoco says, “Gojira, truly a God Incarnate.”
Godzilla is not dead. America has not left the planet to reside somewhere else. Tokyo is in irradiated ruins. The Japanese government has been disemboweled. Thousands are now dead. The battle is not over, it’s never been over, and it will never end.
And yet, Shin Gojira is, in the final analysis, a story about humanity ultimately triumphing over this absurd, terrible, maddening force that looms over us at all times.
Shin Gojira is a story about how humanity refuses to be defeated by even the most terrible threats that face us, and how the collective efforts of unique, empowered individuals can overcome the tragedies of reality.
In the end, this is an existential story of humankind standing in the presence of a God, the realization of the insignificance of our small, petty lives, and the realization of our potential to rise to greater heights and overcome the terrors that befall us.
Godzilla is the asteroid heading toward our planet. Godzilla is the nuclear reactor that goes into meltdown. Godzilla is the pollution of our oceans. Godzilla is our ignorance of the world we live in. Godzilla is the indifference of the Cosmos.
And we are the small species that dare disturb that Cosmos.
Max and Robert Egger’s 2019 “The Lighthouse” is a surreal dark comedy horror film, reminiscent of “Eraserhead”, “Dead Man” and “The Wickerman”. Set in the late 1800’s on a small, isolated island, “The Lighthouse” portrays the slow descent into madness of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) with a subtle, well-balanced mix of gritty realism and dream-like paranoia. The film is both disturbing and fascinating, bewildering audiences and critics with its near-schizophrenic plot, bizarre and bipolar dialogues and the stark, dream-like imagery presented in Ephraim’s growing insanity. However, despite the tangled web of absurdity, ambiguous symbolism and distorted reality, the film is highly intentional in its events and imagery, and “The Lighthouse” yields great depths of meaning once the layers of its web have been dissected.
The first problem with understanding this movie is the immense intentionality in every shot. Many scenes in “The Lighthouse” might take an hour or more to decompose, especially in relationship or in context to every other scene in the film. Despite this, I will try to summarize the movie as briefly as I can without losing important cohesiveness. The second problem is this problem of density and complexity. There’s honestly too much in this movie to discuss without writing at least another 2-3 analyses of the same length as this one. However, I intend to only follow one thread of analysis here (a long and at times winding thread, but one thread nonetheless).
“The Lighthouse” begins with the arrival of Ephraim and Tom to the mid-ocean lighthouse they will be manning for the next four weeks, the two of them entirely isolated from society for a month. Tom, the senior lighthouse-keeper, makes it clear to Ephraim, the new junior, that the duty of maintaining the actual lighthouse will solely be Tom’s responsibility, and the manual labor (shoveling coal for the foghorn, cleaning and maintaining the house, purifying the cistern and so forth) will be left entirely to Ephraim. Tom wavers between being intensely critical of Ephraim and tyrannically domineering; and being warm, friendly and jovial with Ephraim, usually during their dinner.
Shortly into the film, we witness the beginning of both characters’ insanity. Tom stands in front of the Lighthouse at night and removes all of his clothes, speaking to the lighthouse lamp affectionately. Then, Ephraim goes out to the ocean shore and sees wooden logs floating in the water, before seeing a dead body in the water. Ephraim walks into the water until he is fully submerged, then sees a mermaid or siren swimming in the water, screeching at him.
Over dinner, Tom tells Ephraim about his time as a ship captain and how he solved a mutiny by giving his sailors liquor until they made it to land. After telling Ephraim how his former junior-keeper went mad and died, Tom tells Ephraim he shouldn’t kill seagulls because its bad luck, and Tom later explains seabirds are the souls of dead sailors. In the next scene, Ephraim masturbates in the supply shed to a small, ivory trinket shaped like a mermaid he found in the beginning of the film.
Leading up to the midpoint of the film, we begin to see the intensification of a master-slave relationship between Tom and Ephraim, with Tom repeatedly calling Ephraim a dog and treating him as subhuman, juxtaposed with a much friendlier relationship between the two.
Ephraim goes to the top of the lighthouse one night, where he hears Tom muttering to himself. White slime drips from the metal grate above Ephraim, where Tom is standing, and Ephraim then sees a tentacle slithering across the metal-grate above. Ephraim eventually kills a seagull, which has been continually harassing him, and this action causes the wind to change direction. A storm rolls in just before the two are to be relieved of their duties at the end of their four-week stay. They find themselves marooned on the island, and either Tom’s or Ephraim’s sense of time begins to slip.
At the midpoint, Tom gives one of the greatest monologues in cinema-history as he curses Ephraim in the name of Neptune for a whole two minutes (as a side note, Willem Dafoe won at least 8 awards for his performance in this film, and was nominated for at least 17 others). As the two keepers remain stranded on the island, they steadily drink more and more alcohol, Ephraim continues furiously masturbating in his spare time and reality slips into a strange back-and-forth state of hallucination, paranoia and glimpses of sanity. Ephraim reveals that his name is actually Thomas Howard and that he let his former foreman, Ephraim Winslow, drown to death before taking his foreman’s name (you will probably forget this detail, but, nonetheless, try to remember it for the very end). Ephraim (or Tommy) tries to leave the island, but Tom chases him down with an axe and destroys the island’s only lifeboat. After calming down, Tom tells Ephraim that they’ve run out of alcohol, so the two begin drinking lamp oil (likely to be kerosene).
The storm, which has been raging for weeks, days or months now, finally ends after flooding the island and the lighthouse, all but ruining the home they’ve been staying in. Ephraim wakes up and finds Tom’s logbook and finds that Tom has been writing highly critical notes about Ephraim, even going so far as to say Ephraim should be fired from the job without being paid. Ephraim attacks Tom, and the two begin grappling, punching and strangling each other. After a hallucinatory moment where Ephraim sees Tom as his former foreman, the siren he’s been fantasizing about and masturbating to and as the sea-god Neptune himself, Ephraim nearly beats Tom to death.
Stopping himself before killing Tom, Ephraim stands over Tom and begins commanding Tom to bark like a dog. Ephraim then leads Tom out of the building on a leash to a hole they previously dug in front of the Lighthouse. Ephraim begins burying Tom, while Tom gives another masterful dialogue about “Protean forms”, “Promethean plunder”, “divine graces” and “the fiddler’s green”. Once Tom is presumably dead, Ephraim steals the key to the lighthouse, but, once inside the building, Tom returns with an axe and strikes Ephraim with it. Ephraim takes the axe, kills Tom and proceeds to the top of the lighthouse.
Ephraim reaches into the lighthouse lamp, presumably reaching into the lamp-flame, and begins laughing and screaming as the light engulfs him, then falls down the stairs to the bottom of the lighthouse. The movie ends with Ephraim laying naked across a rock formation alongside the ocean. Seagulls have shit on his body, and they are now devouring the innards of a still-living Ephraim. And that’s the movie.
There are a few other notable details to mention here. There is a foghorn on the island, which can be heard in the background throughout the movie, as well as a ticking clock which is likewise heard throughout the movie. There are a number of Christian and Greco-Roman allusions throughout the movie, as well as allusions to maritime folklore. In addition, there are quite a few phallic symbols throughout the movie, as well as a large (like, dinner-platter-sized) mermaid vagina. However, I probably won’t be able to get into all the various symbols and their potential meanings.
To begin understanding the movie’s deeper meanings, we need to understand the relationship between Ephraim and Tom, Ephraim and the mermaid, the lighthouse itself and Ephraim’s character. What we find here are the psychoanalytic dynamics of the Ego (Ephraim), the Super-Ego (Tom), the Id and the Anima (the mermaid/siren), and the Self or the Godhead (the lighthouse). Ephraim is the individual struggling against the forces of the Super-Ego/Authority/Society and the Id/Sexuality/Material-Satiation in order to find freedom and independence, as well as to reunite with the Self or the Godhead, symbolic of the power and freedom of true individuality. How do we pull such a lofty meaning from such a bizarre movie?
At its core, “The Lighthouse” is a mythological psychodrama. The movie is about an individual struggling with God the Father and the Sirens of instinct and sexuality. It is about an individual struggling with the oppressive demands and absurd behaviors of society, as well as struggling with one’s own nature—an individual struggling against these forces in order to maintain their individuality.
Ephraim is the Everyman, a term describing an ordinary, non-spectacular character whom the audience can sympathize with because of their mundanity. Ephraim, despite moments of fluctuating insanity, is mostly level-headed throughout the movie, and most of his actions or reactions seem sane compared to Tom’s. Ephraim is relatable—he’s the average person working a shitty job with an overbearing boss—and he reflects many of the ideas and hopes that most people share. Not only does Ephraim share these hopes with the audience, but Tom frequently reminds Ephraim of the mundanity of these hopes.
Ephraim remains pretty quiet throughout the first act of the movie, to which Tom tells him he’s not special in that regard. At one point, Ephraim tells Tom about his plans to build a house somewhere, so he can be free of others’ demands. Tom replies to this with, “Same old boring story, eh?” Midway through the third act, Ephraim begins telling Tom of his troubled past, and Tom tells him, “Yer guilty conscience is ever as tiresome-boring as any guilty conscience.” Then, near the end of the film, Tom begins telling Ephraim how unspectacular he is, saying things like:
“Come to this rock playin’ the tough. Ye make me laugh with yer false grum.”
“Ye pretended to mystery with yer false quietudes, but there ain’t no mystery.”
“Ye’re an open book. A picture, says I.”
Not only is Ephraim subjected to inglorious manual labor by Tom throughout the movie; not only is Ephraim constantly criticized throughout the movie, culminating in Tom’s logbook full of Ephraim’s many supposed infractions; and not only is Ephraim led to disaster by many of Tom’s actions (such as the insistence on constantly getting drunk (which Ephraim is later blamed for)), but Ephraim is then told he isn’t even special in any way, and his existence as an individual is denigrated to a final extreme
Tom calls Ephraim, “A painted actress, screaming in the footlights, a bitch what wants to be coveted for nothin’ but the silver spoon what should have been yours.” Ephraim begins crying here, for which Tom mocks him. As this scene escalates, Tom begins calling Ephraim a dog over and over again.
“Thomas [Ephraim], ye’re a dog! A filthy dog! A dog!”
All Ephraim wants is a life free of servitude and domination. He tells Tom at one point, “I ain’t never intended to be no housewife or slave.” And yet, despite his dreams of freedom, he seeks that freedom through servitude, by taking a job to save up money. Anyone and everyone can sympathize with the desire to be free, the necessity of working for this freedom and the eventual boot on our necks that weighs heavier and heavier with each passing day. Perhaps there is nothing special with Ephraim, as he is just like everyone else, but it’s that normalcy that makes him such an empathetic individual, and why his role as the Everyman plays such an integral role in the meaning of this story.
Connecting this back to the Ego, all of us, in our immediate, conscious sense of reality, are confronted on the psychic level by the injunctions of the Super-Ego (society, law and order, Tom, God the Father) and the needs of the Id (survival, sexuality, the Siren, Mother Nature). Among the injunctions of the Ego, however, is that we accomplish this in a manner that will maintain our dignity and ensure our freedom and independence. Survival, security and self-dignity are three of the deepest desires of every human, and they all stack like weights on the shoulders of the Ego: that which consciously perceives and consciously decides.
There is a Camusian element of absurdity in this movie. Ephraim took the job as lighthouse keeper out of sheer arbitrariness. It paid well, that was it. Tom treats Ephraim like dogshit for no real reason, other than the fact he has the authority to, and then randomly starts treating him warmly at various moments.
At the end of the film, Ephraim is judged by Tom both verbally and in his logbook, and that judgement is almost entirely arbitrary. Some of the things Ephraim did were reprehensible. Some of the things Ephraim did weren’t. Some of the things Ephraim is judged for have no evidence to back them. Some of the things Ephraim were judged for were influenced by Tom himself. And that’s fucking life.
These events have parallels to one of the greatest works of absurdist art, Albert Camus’ novel, “The Stranger”, in which the protagonist’s mother dies one day, and he feels indifferent about this (death just happens, and why should we act one way or another about it). The protagonist’s neighbor is a volatile human, who careens between abuse and friendliness. A woman randomly begins having sex with the protagonist, then wants to know if he’ll marry her. He tells her it wouldn’t make any difference to him, and later tells her that marriage wasn’t special and he would have married any woman. In a half-awake daze, the protagonist is walking on the beach and runs into a man he knows nothing about, except that he has a feud with the protagonist’s friend, and so the protagonist kills this man for no real reason.
In the end, the protagonist is brought to court for killing this man and is found guilty essentially because he doesn’t feel one way or another about things. The primary evidence used against him is the fact he felt indifferent about his mother’s death. Things simply are the way they are, and the protagonist simply acts the way he acts out of his own detached volition. Because the protagonist does not wish to play the same games as everyone, carry the same sense of morality and imbue things with the same emotional weight as everyone else, he is sentenced to death, he is hated and he is, essentially, declared evil. The protagonist finally accepts his fate and accepts the absurdity of life.
“As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”
I would argue that meaningfulness—true meaningfulness—can be found in life, but there is indeed an enormous degree of arbitrariness to reality. We’re just born one day, in a certain period of history, which has its own set of rules and customs we’re told to abide by. We’re told to be a certain person, to act a certain way and to feel certain emotions for given events, and we’re told not to question any of it. We’re called a villain for questioning or going against the status quo. We’re judged for things that are out of our control, or that have no real impact on life. There are seemingly arbitrary standards and traditions by which we’re judged, and then there’s entirely novel arbitrariness by which we’re judged (things that aren’t even a part of broadly accepted standards), and then there’s false or fabricated claims about us by which we’re judged.
This is the weight foisted upon Ephraim, the weight of arbitrary judgement, and this is the weight foisted upon the Everyman, the proxy of the collective individual or collective Ego. This is the weight carried by everyone living within a society. This is the guilt and condemnation which degrades: the arbitrary tyranny: the absurd, laughable, comically bizarre oppression of culture. And yet, that’s just life. Camus’ protagonist in “The Stranger” becomes what Camus called an Absurd Hero. The Absurd Hero is the individual who does not shy away from or seek to destroy the absurd reality around them, but rather accepts the empty arbitrariness of life and continues to live their life as an individual: continues to affirm life as being good and worthy, without the dishonesty of dogma, ideology or personal delusion. Shy of eradicating life, or at least eradicating your own life, one must learn to live heroically amidst absurdity, to remain free, individualized and dignified amidst our bizarre world because there is no escape from the necessary evil that is society, which is the Super-Ego, which is Tom.
Tom is the nagging, oppressive and at times nonsensical voice of the Super-Ego within Ephraim’s mind. Tom is the smiling, friendly face of society, which barks commands at us, and condemns our actions with spite and fury. Tom is society keeping Ephraim from achieving individuality by flooding his life with menial tasks, deprecating the value of the individual and forbidding Ephraim from witnessing the divine, and Tom is the same society which asks Ephraim to be as a friend: to love Tom, to forgive and overlook Tom’s flaws (of which, as we see at the end of the movie, Tom seems completely blind to).
Tom is what pushes Ephraim to insanity, and then denounces Ephraim as a madman. And yet, Tom is also what guides and protects Ephraim. There is an ambiguity in the nature of Tom and Ephraim’s relationship, just as there is an ambiguity in the nature of the Ego and Super-Ego’s relationship. The Super-Ego is typically represented in mythology as God the Father, or as some other variant of the masculine-authority archetype, which is simultaneously protective and wise, and oppressive and tyrannical. It is culture and society which protect us from the ravages of nature, and it is culture and society which tyrannize us with unyielding dictates. It is culture and society which rewards us meaningful work, and it is culture and society which enslave us with meaningless tasks. It is culture and society which gives us the wisdom of tradition, and it is culture and society which fascistically conforms individuals with this tradition.
In “The Lighthouse”, we quite clearly witness this paradoxical relationship between Ephraim and Tom, the Son and the Father, the Individual and the Society, the Ego and the Super-Ego. Tom teaches and guides Ephraim. He tells Ephraim when he’s doing something wrong or foolish. We see this in the concrete form when Ephraim carries the drum of oil up the lighthouse stairs rather than fill the small pail with oil, and we see this in the absurd form when Tom superstitiously warns Ephraim of the dangers of killing seabirds, which he later explains are the souls of dead sailors. There’s an ambiguity even in this superstitious tradition, since Ephraim’s act of killing the seagull that’s been harassing him is implicated as the cause of the storm which maroons them on the island.
Tom is also a part of what protects Ephraim from the terrors of nature. Tom cooks food to feed Ephraim, keeping him from starving; Tom gives orders to Ephraim to maintain the house they live in, thus protecting them from the cold and the rain; and Tom gives Ephraim advice that helps him stay alive and healthy. The island is a lone territory of protection from the chaos of the ocean (the suffocating depths, the dehydrating waters, the monsters of the sea), and the lighthouse itself is a mechanism of security: a light in the dark which keeps sailors from crashing their ships in the night.
Yet, Tom is also the highly critical or judgmental aspect of society and the oppressive or tyrannical aspect of society. Tom is constantly criticizing Ephraim, telling him how poorly he’s performing his tasks, even at one point asking Ephraim if he’s a “dullard”. Tom not only criticizes Ephraim’s work, but also criticizes Ephraim as a person, essentially calling him boringly normal and morally reprehensible throughout the film.
Beyond just the criticism, Tom is constantly giving Ephraim orders and loading him up with manual labor, while Tom’s sole responsibility (beyond making sure Ephraim is performing his tasks) is to man the lighthouse lamp, which is the most glorious and honorable of tasks. Tom gives Ephraim all the shit jobs, while Tom gets to perform the single easiest and most respectable job. Even then, Tom does his one job poorly and strangely. While manning the lighthouse lamp at night, Tom drinks and, presumably, masturbates (though we’re not shown Defoe’s jerk sessions as explicitly as we’re shown Pattinson’s). Tom orders Ephraim around and judges him for all his faults, while declaring himself to be the unfaultable and supreme authority of the island.
And, just to hammer it home, that’s life.
You can’t live with society, and you can’t live without it.
So where does Ephraim’s heroism come in this story? It comes in his insanity, as it does with every individual striving for freedom within society.
It comes, initially, from his repeated visions of the mermaid and her siren’s call. I’ve come to believe the mermaid is symbolic of three things.
The mermaid is Ephraim’s Id, represented as his sexual desires (the siren’s call). The mermaid is Ephraim’s Anima, which, in Jungian psychology, is the feminine, psychic force in men, which guides the Ego into the depths of the psyche. The mermaid is also Ephraim’s Shadow, or at least that which guides Ephraim to his Shadow. In Jungian terminology, the Shadow is the repressed part of the psyche, oftentimes synonymous with the Id, though not necessarily. The Shadow is the parts of our personality that we bury or repress, such as sexuality, aggression and even self-importance or self-love. Though the Shadow contains many negative aspects of our personality, those aspects of our personality might be what save us from the problems of our lives. Holding back the contents of the Shadow holds back the individual’s potential for actualization, or from becoming the free, independent, dignified individual we all hope we can become.
The mermaid in Ephraim’s hallucinations is repeatedly coupled with the image of Ephraim’s previous foreman, whom Ephraim effectively murdered by letting him drown. Throughout the movie, Ephraim is repressing three things: his sexuality, through nearly constant masturbation, his aggression, the same aggression that let Ephraim dispassionately watch his foreman die, and his desire to see the lighthouse lamp. The ultimate repression is the latter, repressing the desire to climb to the top of the lighthouse. The lighthouse is a phallic symbol of divine power, which is roughly parallel to Ephraim’s inner divine power, which is roughly akin to the Libido. The lighthouse can also be seen as a symbol of social power, as in the social hierarchies of society, or as moral authority, the light being the highest moral good.
Though I argue the lighthouse to be a symbol of psychological hierarchy, I would also argue the lighthouse is symbolic of all three of these at once, and that these representations may in fact be synonymous with each other at a certain level of analysis.
Ephraim represses this divine power, the psychic energy of the Libido, through masturbation, and, by repressing his aggression, represses his ability to overthrow Tom, the Super-Ego, which is also denying him his divine power. Throughout the movie, Ephraim masturbates to a small, ivory trinket carved in the shape of a mermaid. He’s not actually having sex, he’s not actually incorporating the repressed portions of his psyche; he’s fantasizing about the act and arbitrarily giving himself pleasure and release from the repressed Libido. He’s worshipping a false idol, he’s worshipping a fetish, and he’s silencing the siren’s call by sexual release, rather than actually uniting himself with those repressed forces (the divine or psychic marriage).
Ephraim is keeping himself from attaining his desires by shutting down and repressing those desires with short-term gratification. Ephraim wants to be a free human being, that is his ultimate desire. He wants to have power—not power over others, but power over himself: not the power of authority, but the power of individuality. However, rather than fulfilling that desire, Ephraim spends most of the movie bending to the will of Tom, the Super-Ego, or, in other words, bending to the will of society. At the end of the movie, Ephraim fulfills this desire by first destroying the mermaid trinket, the object of false sexual desire, and then by killing Tom, the judgmental and tyrannical force of society. It’s at this point that Ephraim finally ascends to the top of the lighthouse and finally witnesses the glory of the fire within the lighthouse lamp.
What is the lighthouse, and what is this divine power within its lamp? The lighthouse symbolizes a number of things. It is that which protects sailors from death as they sail through the horrors of the night. It is that which is most high upon Ephraim and Tom’s little rock, as well as that which shines most brightly. It is the most valued and coveted thing upon the island, and it is the most important thing on the island (it’s literally the only reason they’re there). The lighthouse is also a phallic symbol (among many), as previously mentioned, and an analog in some ways to Ephraim’s sexual frustrations. He is denied actual sexual release, and he is denied access to the top of the lighthouse.
I mentioned earlier that the lighthouse is the Self or the Godhead, which it is, to a certain degree. It is the source of divine power within ourselves. It is the axis mundi, source of all life-renewing energy: the world navel. As Joseph Campbell explains in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”:
“The torrent pours forth from an invisible source, the point of entry being the center of the symbolic circle of the universe, the Immovable Spot of the Buddha legend, around which the world may be said to revolve… The tree of life, i.e., the universe itself, grows from this point. It is rooted in the supporting darkness; the golden sun bird birches on its peak…Or the figure may be that of a cosmic mountain, with the city of gods, like a lotus of light, upon its summit…”
The lighthouse is the axis mundi, with the bright, burning spirit or entity of light at its top (sunbird/phoenix, city of gods, lotus of light, etc.), and it is from the lighthouse that Ephraim discovers reinvigorating, life-giving energies.
However, there is more to the lighthouse than simply this. What is interesting about this Axis Mundi or Godhead (this source of divine energy and the divine “Self”), is that it is manmade. The center of Ephraim and Tom’s universe is a manmade construction, and it is designed to keep sailors safe amidst the ocean’s turmoils. In some sense, this is showing that the new source of rebirth comes from the humanity’s creations, or their ability to create, alter the world around us and constantly innovate.
The new source of divine energy comes not from our ability to confront the natural world and its horrors, or from society and its oppression, but from our ability to create, a traditionally divine ability in itself, and through our creations, alter nature and alter society. Originally, creation was seen as the province gods, and then, in the West, the cosmos was seen as crafted by Jehovah or Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian God. Now, the divine power of creation is a human power.
Now, there’s another piece here, you may have already noticed it, and this is the Greek story of the Titan, Prometheus. There are many details and variations to the myth, but the central story is that Prometheus stole fire from the Greek gods and gave it to humans. As punishment, Prometheus was chained to rocks, and everyday his liver was eaten by an eagle. This almost directly parallels the ending of “The Lighthouse”, in which Ephraim “steals the fire” from the lighthouse lamp and is then seen lying naked across oceanside rocks, his insides being eaten by seagulls.
To add to this, one of the details of the broader Prometheus myth is that Prometheus is seen as a hero in a Greek Deluge or Flood myth. The son of Prometheus, Deucalion, builds a boat with the help of his Titan father, and Deucalion and his wife survive a massive flood brought on by the wrath of Zeus. Just before the climax of the story, there is a similar flood in “The Lighthouse”. During their night of drinking lamp oil/kerosene, the unending storm that has been assaulting Tom and Ephraim floods the lighthouse and ruins the interior.
There are two things to parse apart here: Prometheus and the Deluge, or the Flood.
Beginning with the Deluge, because it occurs first in “The Lighthouse”, the Great Flood represents the Flood of Chaos. In mythology, from Greek mythology to Judeo-Christian myth, the Flood is typically a punishment on humanity because of their hubris or their sins. Why is a society of sinners punished with a flood? Because they were too arrogant to prevent or prepare for a flood. The floodwaters represent the accumulation of Chaos, disorder or poor behavior, accumulating over time until the water level, or the Chaos level, is too high to stop.
If a society, a group of people or even a single individual do not take the time to deal with all the small annoyances of their lives, or all the small problems they know they should fix (internally or externally), those problems begin to accumulate until your life is flooded with them. Maybe there’s a leak in your roof, and you do nothing about it. Maybe there’s some damage to the electrical circuits in your house, and you put off having it repaired. Maybe you feel like you should buy home insurance, and you never do.
Maybe that leaky roof keeps getting worse: the wood rots and more water gets into your house every day. Maybe the state of the wiring in your home continues to deteriorate, and maybe it does so without your knowledge because you don’t think it will ever be a problem. Maybe one day, a huge storm rolls over the city you live in, and your roof does nothing to keep your house dry. The water comes into the attic, maybe it drenches your floors, maybe it interferes with the damaged electrical circuits, and maybe the day after the storm, you’re left with a water-damaged house, ruined furniture and no electricity, and there’s nothing you can do about it because you don’t have home insurance. That’s the Deluge.
It doesn’t have to actually involve water, it might involve parking tickets, or it might involve bill collectors, or it might involve that skin rash you’ve been hiding for three months, hoping it’ll magically go away, or it might involve the steady and growing supply of alcohol you’ve been consuming for ten years, or it might involve anything in your life that you know you should have fixed, prevented or prepared for, but didn’t.
In “The Lighthouse”, the Deluge begins with Ephraim killing the seagull, thus bringing on the near-unending storm as a result. Once Tom and Ephraim are thoroughly marooned on the island, they begin drinking copious amounts of alcohol, which results in them acting irrationally, damaging parts of the house and not performing their tasks as well as they should be. In the end, the storm floods the lighthouse and ruins the interior of the first floor, but the question here is:
Was it the storm’s fault? Or was it their fault?
The other part of this is the Promethean mytheme of stealing the fire. If Prometheus stole the fire of the Olympic gods, and Ephraim’s tragic character arc is a parallel to Prometheus’s, then what fire does Ephraim steal?
Here, I come back to the Self and Ephraim’s desire to unify with his inner, “divine” Self.
Ephraim has two core desires within “The Lighthouse”. One is to become a free, independent individual, and the other is to gain access to the lighthouse lamp. The desire to become free and independent aligns with the Jungian notion of Individuation or Actualization, in which an individual unifies the disparate portions of their psyche or personality (their Ego, their Super-Ego and their Id, for simplicity), in order to become the greatest version of themselves: in order to become a complete, unified individual. Once they become this complete, unified version of themselves, they are capable of actualizing their fullest potential. They become a person who is fully equipped to seek out and satisfy their deepest desires.
Another description of the Jungian process of Individuation and Actualization is unifying oneself with the deeper Self, the True Self. There are the superficial, extrinsic and animalistic parts of one’s personality: the Persona—the mask we wear for society—the Ego, the Super-Ego and the Id. Then there is the deeper part of one’s personality: The Self. The Self is our true identity, the unified whole of our fragmented personality, where our most pressing desires and profound personal capabilities reside.
It is this Self, this deeper source of individuality and personal power, which Ephraim is seeking throughout the movie, both as his desire for freedom and his desire for the lighthouse lamp.
In this sense, the Self, the divine spark of the Godhead, is what Ephraim is stealing and giving to humanity. The cure for a sickly, stagnant or corrupt society—symbolized by Tom—does not come from a collective—the cure for society isn’t society. The cure for society is the individual capable and willing to transgress society. Ephraim’s theft of the divine flame—of the inner Self—is punished in the form of laying naked across rocks and being eaten alive by seagulls, which is a reflection of the actual punishment such an accomplishment might engender. Much of the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche centered around the notion of the Ubermensch or the Superman, a hypothetical individual Nietzsche posited as not only being able to overcome the horrors of nature and the shackles of society, but also capable of overcoming themselves and their own flaws—an individual capable of personal greatness. However, this Superman is an individual who is misunderstood by broader society, sometimes envied, oftentimes villainized, and, in many cases, abused by society.
Ephraim achieves Individuation and Actualization, then returns this divine spark of freedom and personal power to society—symbolized by him falling back down the lighthouse, or falling back to Earth—but then is punished for the very same act. Ephraim steals the fire of the lighthouse, returns to society, and then is consumed by the souls of dead sailors. Not only is he consumed by the souls of the dead sailors, but he was never saved by living sailors—no one came to rescue him from his isolated island.
In this sense, Ephraim becomes like the lighthouse. He becomes the beacon of light keeping sailors across life’s ocean from death. However, twisting the meaning of Ephraim’s punishment a bit, he, like the lighthouse, becomes a stationary object, neglected by the very people he has saved. Not only is he neglected, but he is also abused by those he couldn’t save—the sailors who weren’t saved by the lighthouse. This could be guilt, these could be parasites of society, or these birds could be metaphoric critics eating Ephraim alive. The lighthouse is revered, and yet it is also an object used as a lifeless tool by the society that reveres it. Ephraim saves society, so to speak, by his actions, but then is left for dead and eaten alive by that society. No deed goes unpunished.
Now, despite the dissections of these symbols, the meaning of the story still hasn’t fully been articulated.
“The Lighthouse” is a movie about an individual attempting to maintain their individuality within the confines of the Id and the Super-Ego, but, moreover, attempting to transcend those confines in order to save that society. Ephraim and his story are offered up to us like a sacrificial lamb to feast upon. The lighthouse is a construction of individuals, and this construction is a gift to society, a gift which is both revered and abused. Similarly, we in our own lives can become individuated and actualized human beings, which in turn makes us beacons of light that save our society from death at sea. This in turn makes us something like sacrifices to the society we are trying to save.
Now, there’s an interesting dynamic to this all. The individual attempting to save society—the individual stealing the fire from the gods—must first transcend or overcome society in order to then save society. This exact structure can be found in the Christ myth.
Christ is born on Earth as a normal human. Christ led a revolutionary movement in his society, rebelling against the authorities of that society, as well as challenging the traditions and social norms of that society. Christ was then crucified for his rebellion and revolution. And yet, there is an even deeper sub-structure to this.
It is interesting to note that this film takes place in the late 1800’s, which was around the same time Nietzsche made his famous declaration, “God is Dead”.
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” In order for Ephraim to ascend the lighthouse and steal its fire, he first had to kill Tom.
As I mentioned before, the Super-Ego is often symbolized mythologically as God the Father, or as the Benevolent or Tyrannical King. Society, as well as the fatherly-authority god, are both derivatives of the Super-Ego—the standards, traditions and practices of society which both protect and oppress us. Ephraim killed Tom, the analogue of Society, the Super-Ego and God the Father. It was only through this act that Ephraim was able to attain wholeness and individuality, but this was not necessarily a happy act. Through killing Tom, through killing God, Ephraim’s world fell apart, and he was punished for it.
Christ, by challenging society, by challenging the Jewish high priests and by challenging the governors of the Roman Empire, was in fact challenging God himself.
To dig deeper into this, and to dig deeper into what the Death of Christ ultimately means, I’ll now come to the work of the contemporary Hegelian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. Nietzsche believed that Christianity, by holding Truth to be its highest virtue, was inevitably a self-extinguishing religion. It was Christianity’s insistence on Truth which led to the Age of Enlightenment, which led to Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead”. In a similar vein, Slavoj Zizek has made claims that Christianity is in fact an atheistic religion.
In Slavoj’s words:
“I think that this [the story of Job] is maybe an incredible ethical revolution because this is already the first step out of this traditional pagan view where justice means you should be at your own place, do your particular duty, and so on and so on, you know, this withdrawal, which then I think culminates in the death of Christ.
“What dies on the cross? … As Hegel says, what dies on the cross is God of beyond himself. It’s precisely God as that transcendent power which somehow secretly pulls the strings. This is, I think, the secret of Christianity… This God abdicates. I think that something tremendous happens in Christianity because remember, after the death of Christ, we don’t get back to the father. What we get is Holy Spirit… So, for me, again, this is a tremendously important message of freedom.
“Again, as my beloved Chesterton said… in all other religions, you have atheists, people who don’t believe in God, but Chesterton‘s reading of those famous ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?’ (‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’) is that only in Christianity, and for him this is crucial, God himself becomes for a moment an atheist.”
To sum up what Slavoj is saying, though eroding much of the subtleties here, at Christ’s death, Christ looks up to the sky and asks, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Here, Christ, being a manifestation of God himself, is God realizing the truth of his own non-existence.
The revolution of Christ was not the continuation of a religion, but the annihilation of a religion, albeit a slow annihilation, and, to this day, not a complete annihilation (which might be evidence of the psychological vitality of the Christian myth). Christ: the Logos, the Word of God, the Truth made Flesh—Christ is what killed God.
The resurrection of Christ is not the resurrection of the flesh, but the resurrection of the spirit. Christ as spirit—Christ as the spirit of the Logos—paradoxically could only be kept alive by the Death of Christ as flesh, or by the Death of God by science and the Enlightenment. And now, this concept of the Spirit, decoupled from God as flesh and God as Divine Authority, lives on with us as the Logos, or rational thought and truthful speech.
Just as God died because of what Christianity valued most highly—the Logos, or the Truth—Tom, the analogue of God, died because of what he valued most highly, the lighthouse, or the Divine Self. It was Ephraim, the analogue of Christ, who killed Tom and sacrificed himself for the betterment of society. Just as Christ was the Logos, or Truth, made flesh, and it was Truth which murdered God; Ephraim was the Self, or Individuality, made flesh, and it was Individuality which murdered Society.
Just as Christ saved society and saved God by killing both society and God with Truth, Ephraim saves society and saves the fire of Individuality by killing Tom and both murdering and sacrificing himself to society with Individualism. In both stories, the murders are in fact suicides. God the Father, the manifestation of society and the Super-Ego, the manifestation of the crowds at Judaea, sends Christ as a sacrifice to die at the cross, and, in doing so, sends himself to die at the cross. Christ, the manifestation of the Logos, kills God, thus killing himself. Ephraim’s real name is Thomas. This means that Thomas killed Tom, and, in doing so, Tommy essentially sacrificed himself.
Just as Catholics consume the body and blood of Christ, an act of ingesting the divine Logos, the seagulls now consume the body and blood of Ephraim, an act of ingesting the divine Self. Christ will become resurrected as the Holy Spirit, the dove, and Ephraim will be resurrected as the soul of a dead sailor, a seagull.