Horror-Tober VI: Ghosts as Symbols

Written by Alexander Greco

October 21, 2020

So, this article and probably the next as well will be relatively short, I’m trying to get caught up after stumbling a bit the last week and try to get back on course.

Today, I will be discussing ghosts (oooh, spooooky…).

There are a number of things that can haunt you, ghosts being one of them. To harken back to a short story I wrote a long time ago, (literally A Ghost’s Story) I personally have a theory that a house represents the psyche, or the brain and all the space in it for all its various contents. The house can be filled will all kinds of normal or positive things, as well as all kinds of negative things—ghosts, ghouls, goblins, demons—and these things that fill your house all represent something about your psyche.

Demons for example might represent our “sinful” or destructive and self-destructive tendencies.

Monsters, doppelgangers and lightless rooms or hallways might be the things inside of us we are afraid of confronting, seeing or entering.

Ghosts, for me, have a relatively common motif: something haunting you from the past.

It could be a memory, it could be a person, it could be a trauma. It could be all three, or more. Whatever the case, the ghost represents something from the past which haunts your current life.

So, to explore this topic, I want to analyze several ghost-centric stories, or even non-horror stories/films that employ ghosts, and see how ghosts represent the people, places and things of the past which haunt us in the present.

Boring Classical Literature

So, I’ll begin with some of the OG ghosts of Christmas past.

First, Hamlet.

Of course, the primary ghost of Hamlet is Hamlet’s father, the deceased king of Denmark.

Now, Hamlet might not be a great story to start off with, since any of Shakespeare’s more well-known plays are like a Normandy Beach of literary analysis. We’ll disregard that though.

As a ghost, Hamlet’s father is like a messenger from Hamlet’s unconscious. Actually, possibly a messenger from the unconscious of all those who care about Hamlet, Hamlet’s father and the Danish kingdom in general.

Out of the guardsmen, Horatio and Halmet (those who saw the ghost), none of them could have known the truth of what happened to Hamlet’s father. However, all of them do know that Hamlet’s father died, and Hamlet’s mother immediately married Hamlet’s uncle. So, one might be able to make a few connections here.

Hamlet’s father may be an emergent perception or feeling coming from the unconscious of those loyal to Hamlet’s father. Their minds may be correlating events of the past, and they know that something is amiss. For Halmet himself, this feeling and epiphany emerges even stronger, and Hamlet’s father outright tells Hamlet what happened and that Hamlet should avenge him.

Of course, Hamlet must confirm this, just as anyone ought to confirm their suspicions and theories. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s vision of his dead father represents Hamlet’s loyalty, responsibility and vengeance at the memory of his father and suspicions of his father’s death, which emerge from the unconsciousness.

Next, Wuthering Heights, another literary can of worms.

Wuthering Heights is a complex story and a difficult story to parse through (the older era of language not helping this). The primary ghost here is Catherine.

Catherine as a ghost “appears” in two ways. One, she appears before Lockwood in the beginning of the story. Two, she appears before Heathcliff at the end of the story, and then Catherine and Heathcliff both are seen wandering the countryside by local inhabitants (however, these two “appearances” are not directly observed in the book).

Now, Catherine could be a number of things, but, in the context of ghosts, she obviously represents the past which haunts Heathcliff. First, her appearance in the beginning of the book is followed almost immediately by Nelly retelling the history of Wuthering Heights. This, by way of approximate comparison, indicates Catherine as being symbolic of the past (Catherine’s existence at least warrants an explanation of the past).

Later on in the book, Heathcliff is haunted by the ghost of Catherine, and he cannot look at the younger generations because they have the same eyes as Catherine. This is the present (and the future) being haunted by the past. The younger generation is a product of the past, and so even the existence of the younger generation haunts Heathcliff.

Semi-Classic Films

Next, here are three films which utilize the ghost motif rather well, though in unique ways.

First, there’s The Sixth Sense, which is almost entirely focused on ghosts. The primary theme of the movie is reconciling with the past. Every ghost inevitably wants help reconciling themselves with prior events (particularly the events that led to their death). Almost all of these events were the result of some sort of traumatic or violent event, with the mother poisoning the daughter being one of the darkest events that took place.

It is up to the child to uncover these traumatic events and put the ghosts to rest.

Another interesting point of the movie is that the protagonist themselves is a ghost, and in the end must reconcile with their past. This is something I’ll discuss a bit more with another movie, but The Sixth Sense does a good job of de-horrifying the ghosts in this movie, and ultimately allows us to empathize with one of the ghosts. This twist off events may also imply that the “ghosts” may not even be the psychological traumas that haunt us, but that the ghosts are the people who are haunted by the psychological trauma (someone “being a ghost of who they once were”).

The Shining

This one might be the most difficult piece of media on here to parse apart, and it involves a few theories about the film that aren’t explicitly confirmed by the film.

First, I’d like to mention The Shining’s reflection of what I said earlier about a “haunted house”. The empty hotel eventually becomes filled with ghosts and other malicious entities, and this may be symbolic of Jack Torrence’s mind itself.

Jack goes out to the middle of nowhere to watch over an isolated, empty hotel for the winter. Why? So he can have some peace and quiet and spend time working on his book. He tries to empty his world and empty his mind of distractions and other negative thoughts. However, this emptiness allows the ghosts and other monsters who reside in his unconscious to emerge. What ghosts would these be?

Well, there’s one very obvious and rather explicit one. Jack doesn’t feel like he’s adequate. Jack wants to prove he’s the man, prove he’s in charge, prove he’s capable and so forth. The ghosts even encourage this and treat him like he’s the man in charge of everything, the man on top of the world. Of course, they use this to manipulate him into committing violent acts. Jack’s narcissism urges him toward destructive behavior.

And then, a much less obvious and much less explicit ghost. It is almost explicitly revealed that Jack was physically abusive to his family in the past, especially when he was an alcoholic. However, it has been theorized that Jack sexually abused his own son. There’s too much to get into with this, but there’s quite a lot of small, circumstantial clues that point to this, and if you read the subtext of several scenes in the movie, Jack might have even started doing this again in the present time.

At the very least, Jack’s ghosts involving alcoholism and physical abuse certainly return to haunt him, and eventually possess him.

The Others

The Others is a rather unique film which explores ghosts in an incredibly interesting way. If you haven’t watched the film, I’m about to spoil it. If you don’t want it spoiled, skip to the next section.

It is revealed at the end of The Others that every character is actually a ghost. Everyone in the film is already dead and haunt either the mansion they live in, or, in the case of the protagonists’ father/husband, they haunt the country or land they live in.

This sort of extends the idea from The Sixth Sense, of both empathizing with the ghosts and with people becoming ghosts rather than being haunted by them. They become a ghost of their prior selves.

I won’t delve too deeply into this film, but there’s something interesting to note here. This film takes place in the 1940’s, and we discover that the protagonists’ father/husband died in WWII, the deadliest war in human history. Because of the fact that all of the characters in the film are dead (except for the living people, who were thought to be ghosts the entire time), maybe it is being implied that everyone involved in that war “died”, that perhaps humanity itself “died” after that war and that era of history. The rest of history, and the rest of humanity, will forever be haunted by the events of that war.

Cool Stuff

Now, to wrap this up, I want to examine three stories that employ ghosts and other supernatural events, but they do so in highly unique ways (and they’re very popular).

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series (both the books and the movies, but probably more so the books) make semi-frequent use of ghosts and ghost-like creatures.

Now, there’s two semi-obvious things here that aren’t explicitly ghosts, and I won’t discuss too much, but I’ll give a brief overview of them: the Dementors and the Patronus projections.

The Dementors are mysterious entities which siphon happiness and other positive emotions from their victims. They can drive their victims to the state of insanity, or they can even siphon the souls from their victims, leaving them in a vegetative state.

The counterpart of the Dementors—which are used to fend off the Dementors—are the animal projections made by the Patronus charm, which is in many ways like a projection of the individual’s soul itself.

So, Dementors may be like depression or some other mental illness, while the Patronus projections may be like a cure to those mental illnesses—the “true, inner self” or the spirit or soul of an individual emerging to confront the negative mental effects of an illness.

Beyond these, there are plenty of actual ghosts in Harry Potter.

There’s ghosts all throughout Hogwarts, there are many individuals who die in the series and return as ghosts (or as paintings) and even Harry Potter’s parents are ghosts.

In fact, the theme of life and death is quite prevalent throughout the film.

There are the Death Eaters. There is the phoenix, Fawkes. There is the Order of the Phoenix, led by Harry himself.

Voldemort has various horcruxes which essentially prevent him from dying. However, in the event before the beginning of the books, when Voldemort tried to kill Harry, Voldemort did “die” in a sort of Saurony way. His spirit or soul or psychic force remained alive, though his physical body had been destroyed or killed.

In addition, Harry himself even dies and returns to the end in the climax of the series.

The Deathly Hallows, which are prevalent to some degree throughout the series, but really only emerge as important factors of the series in the last book, are rooted in a legend involving the grim reaper, or Death.

With just a cursory look through the Harry Potter books/movies, ghosts and other things related to death, souls, spirits, etc. seem to be highly prevalent in the series. So how do they relate to the themes of the series?

Well, there seem to be two primary and opposing forces throughout the story: Voldemort & Co vs Potter Inc.

Both possess the death and rebirth motif, with Voldemort “coming back to life” in the fourth book, and Harry Potter dying and coming back to life in the seventh book. However, their methods of death and rebirth seem to be as opposed as their goals and methods of attaining those goals. Voldemort maintains life after death through the horcruxes (dark magic). Harry maintains life after death in a much more ambiguous and far less clear way, but Potter Inc. seems to be attached to the idea of a Phoenix (Fawkes, Order of the Phoenix, etc.), and Phoenixes of course are creatures that burn to death and then are reborn in the ashes.

This death and rebirth is typically symbolic of a spiritual death and rebirth, or of the death and rebirth of ideas, stories and culture across the succession of generations.

Now, to get more into the specific ghosts, many of them seem to serve specific symbolic purposes.

Moaning Mrytle of the second book seemed to be symbolic of a past horror that was re-emerging in the story. She herself was killed by the basilisk and helped Potter Inc discover where the basilisk was hiding.

Dumbledore as a ghost in the final story may have been a part of Harry’s spiritual catharsis: Harry, having sacrificed himself help stop Voldemort, is now dead, but Dumbledore’s ghost comes to help return Harry to the world of the living, to revive his soul. Dumbledore here may have been a more positive apparition; a reminder of the plan Harry must still follow and the goal of defeating Voldemort he had to achieve.

Harry’s parents are symbolic of the great trauma that inevitably led to all the events of the Harry Potter series. The scar on his forehead is a constant reminder of the day they died, a constant reminder of the sacrifice they made to defend Harry from evil, and the sacrifice Harry himself would one day need to make to defend the world from evil. (But… why do Harry’s parents only show up as ghosts a few times? Can’t they, like, chill with him all the time?)

Other ghosts may show up in certain times as reminders of the evil done unto others, or possibly as reasons why Harry should continue fighting (Cedric, for example).

Silent Hill

The Silent Hill video game (and I suppose the movies as well) might be another topic that could be too complicated to get into, so I’ll be brief. However, I think Silent Hill solidifies a bit of our analytic theory here.

The town of Silent Hill is an “empty” town that had been wracked with great trauma in the past. It now possesses two “modes” or dimensions beyond normal, material reality. First, there is the fog dimension, where the entire town of Silent Hill becomes shrouded in a deep fog. Second, there is the “Otherworld”, which is a much darker, bloodier and violent dimension.

So, in this way, Silent Hill mirrors consciousness or the psyche. There is the conscious mind, the preconscious mind and the unconscious mind.

The town of Silent Hill, as I previously said, has experienced great traumas in the past. Those traumas are invisible on the surface (the town appears empty), but as one explores the traumas more deeply (delving into the unconscious mind), one discovers the existence and the effects of those traumas

Babadook

My last mini-analysis about ghosts, and one of my favorite horror movies ever (from a somehow simpler time in my life), The Babadook.

The Babadook is about an Australian woman who is left to take care of her child alone after her husband dies. The relationship between the woman and her child becomes increasingly toxic, especially as both of them seem to increasingly suffer from different forms and degrees of mental illness.

At the same time, a horrific, man/cockroach-like entity known as the Babadook invades their home and terrorizes the two of them.

In the end, it is implied that the Babadook is a ghost or imposter-ghost/shade/revenant/whatever of the woman’s husband. The mother and son learn to live with the Babadook in their home, and the relationship between the three of them seems to become more positive.

The Babadook in this movie seems to be a manifestation of the grief and pain that the death of the father/husband has brought onto the family, as well as a manifestation of the ensuing mental health decline and resulting toxicity. The Babadook is the dark, sinister, bitter grief that morphs into violence towards others—especially with the mother possibly seeing the son as the source of her grief, or blaming him for the death of her husband and the hardships of having to raise him alone.

This movie is a fantastic take on grief, pain, mental illness and the toxicity of unchecked bitterness and suppressed frustration.

La Fin

I think this one is a pretty obvious analysis, and I don’t think I’m illuminating too much here, but it is nonetheless a fun analysis, and it’s insightful even if it’s tried and true.

There are many variations of this theme or of this symbol, of course, as well as many tangential symbols (such as the phoenix, such as zombies, such as other paranormal spirits/eentities/whatevers), and so this line of thinking can take you far analytically.

Feel free to let me know if you have any thoughts on these analyses. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more Horror-Tober.

Horror-Tober III: Eraserhead Part 2

Written by Alexander Greco

October 13, 2020

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

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

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

Living Together / Raising the Child

This part of the movie is relatively short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Split

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affair with the Girl Across the Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl in the Radiator, Eraserhead and Infanticide

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

Girl in the Radiato

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

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

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

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

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

“In heaven, everything is fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eraserhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s exactly what Henry does.

Infanticide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part 2

Horror-Tober II: Eraserhead Part 1

Written by Alexander Greco

October 12, 2020

This article is the first part of two. I originally wanted to do one, but, as per usual, I just couldn’t contain the words bursting from my head.

Introduction

When I think about David Lynch, I don’t think about the director of Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. When I think about David Lynch, I think about the director of The Grandmother, Rabbits and The Alphabet. When I think about David Lynch, I think about Eraserhead.

This article’s been a long time coming. I’d known about Eraserhead before I even knew about David Lynch, and I’d seen a few of David Lynch’s short films before watching Eraserhead and was pretty impressed by his work, but when I finally did watch this film, I was blown away by how well it was made and how unique it was.

Eraserhead is like if Tim Burton had been a Middle-American opioid-addict in the rust-belt for seven years, then switched to cocaine and Adderall shortly before directing Edward Scissor Hands.

David Lynch seemed to have carefully selected every minute detail in this film, painstakingly constructed every shot and every scene, and masterfully orchestrated every moment, every line-delivery, every emotion and every facial expression in the actors.

As bizarre and strange and absurd as this movie seems outwardly, if one delves just deep enough beneath the surface, you’ll find volumes of meaning spoken through the actions, expressions, words and emotions of the characters; an architecture of thematic elements constructed through the layout of the scenes, the relationship and flow of events and the relationships of subjects and objects with one another; and amidst it all, the humming, grinding, howling of subconscious emotion created by the setting, the atmosphere and the constant surreality and discomfort Lynch creates.

This is one of a handful of films I’ve seen where every scrap of information seems important. Every minute detail seems to not only support and emphasize the larger themes and meanings communicated in the movie, but also independently communicate their own meanings. You can’t entirely try to understand the movie by analyzing the events and character actions in a linear, causal way; you have to analyze the movie in a more mechanical and symbolic way.

I’d talked about this a bit with The Lighthouse and how you have to analyze the symbolism and narrative sub-structures of the movie, rather than simply the surface-level visions and events of the movie. However, while I think The Lighthouse is the first film I tried to analyze in this way, I think watching Eraserhead for the first time over a year ago was when I started to articulate this method in my head.

With this article/analysis, I’ll try to do the same for what I did with The Lighthouse, as well as with some of my other analyses, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Big O and Shin Gojira. However, I also hope to make this article/analysis a bit tidier and more concise than those.

While Eraserhead has single frames whose contents could be analyzed over the course of several pages, I want to try and stick to the more general events and primary acts of the movie. First, the opening of the movie, with the dream sequence, Henry returning home and hearing Mary called for him; then the dinner scene; then Mary and Henry raising their child; Mary leaving Henry, the baby getting sick and Henry having an affair; and then the final, schizophrenic downward-spiral that caps off the film.

The analysis isn’t entirely a new take on the film, my “theory” isn’t a new one; but I do think it’s the best one, and I do think it will allow me to further showcase my analytic method.

Eraserhead is a film about two still-maturing adults in the cold alienation of the modern world who find themselves having to take care of a child. It shows not only the universal difficulties of parenthood, but also the emotional and psychological problems many parents face; the labyrinth of human interaction one must navigate through; and the inner turmoil of being thrust into one of the most difficult positions in life one can face: raising a child.

But, more than this, Lynch pulls back the romanticized and idealized veil of sex and relationships, mixing an almost paradoxical verisimilitude and absurd surrealism to depict the strangeness of life, the strangeness of love and the strangeness of modernity.

With this article, we will explore the structural and symbolic meaningfulness of Eraserhead and how David Lynch crafted a film that depicts the bizarre, surreal and absurd reality of human relationships, sexuality and parenthood—more specifically, relationships, sexuality and parenthood in the cold, alienating world of modernity.

Layer 1: Dissecting the Surface

First, I’ll break the movie up into a few important arcs or acts, with a few of them further broken up, and analyze each as we go along.

Dream Sequence

Eraserhead begins and ends with two surreal dream sequences or hallucinations/visions.

The first dream sequence shows a giant rock floating in space with Henry’s face hovering over it. The POV slowly zooms in on the rock before drifting over its surface, then closing in on a house with a giant hole in its roof. A disfigured man is sitting inside the house, looking out the window, with a number of levers in front of him.

The ghostly, disembodied view of Henry seems to be looking back at the man, then Henry’s mouth opens wide, possibly in horror or shock. A fetus emerges from Henry’s mouth and drifts in space next to him. The disfigured man pulls a lever, and the fetus moves out of view. The disfigured man pulls another two levers. We first see a pool of strange fluid, and then the fetus is thrown into the pool.

We see what seems to be light coming into the pool of fluid, except the POV seems to be from inside the pool.

Then, we see Henry walking through a dirty, lifeless, cold industrial area.

This first dream sequence begs for explanation, but is never given. I don’t think it’s crucial to understanding the entirety of the film, but I do have my own personal thoughts on it.

The giant rock is a planetoid. It may be Earth itself. It seems barren and lifeless, and it seems entirely exposed to the cold, empty void of the cosmos. The only sign of life is the disfigured man in the old, decrepit building, and then the fetus that is thrown into the strange fluid.

I think the man can be a number of things. He could be God, or some other entity who pulls the levers of fate and works the mechanisms of reality. The man could be humanity itself, fending for life on a cold, barren rock in the middle of space. The man is deformed an decrepit-looking, and perhaps humanity is deformed and decrepit looking by the time modernity has come around.

The giant rock could be Earth, or even Mother Earth/Gaia. The giant rock could be a womb, with the strange fluid on its surface being the amniotic fluid of the womb. The fetus might not even be a fetus, it’s difficult to tell honestly. It might be a sperm cell, and the giant rock might be an egg cell becoming fertilized.

The face Henry makes as the cell/fetus emerges from his mouth might be the face of an orgasm, and his expressions afterwards are the dull disaffection he carries throughout much of the film.

Henry’s Arrival Home

Moving on, Henry makes his way through the barren, industrial setting of whatever town or city he lives in—at one point stepping into a muddy puddle similar to the pool of fluid, and then walking past a swampy morass of dark, oily fluid and debris in some industrial site or other.

He makes his way back to his apartment, which is somewhat more welcoming than the industrial setting outside, but still carries a sense of discomfort and alienation. At his apartment door, he is confronted by his neighbor, a woman identified only as “Girl Across the Hall”, who informs him that a girl named Mary called him about having dinner with her and her parents. Henry awkwardly acknowledges this and enters his apartment.

Once he’s inside, there’s an assortment of minor things that could be discussed, but they would distract from the primary analysis.

While Mary and the Girl Across the Hall will warrant further discussion later in the analysis, here I’ll give a short introduction to their meaningfulness. Mary is (spoilers, if it wasn’t already spoiled) the mother of Henry’s child, and eventually his wife (kinda). There’s an allusion here to Mary as the Mother of Christ, but also David Lynch’s own ex-wife (a couple of them, actually) was named Mary.

There’s an irony to this, as the child Mary gives birth to is grotesque and incredibly uncomfortable to look at—as opposed to the Biblical Mary giving birth to the Christ, or savior of humankind.

The Girl Across the Hallway is a sort of foil to Mary—a sexualized counterpart to Mary (Mary being the woman who bore Henry’s child). Where Henry is forced to stay with Mary because of their child, the Girl is an object of sexual attraction to Henry, or possibly a sexually idealized projection of Mary before she became pregnant (or a sexually idealized projection of women in general).

Dinner

Moving on to what I think is the most important and arguably the deepest part of the movie, albeit in incredibly subtle ways: the Dinner Scene.

When I say this scene is subtly important and deep, I’m looking at not only all the small details and minor symbols of the scene, but also the bizarre or absurd interactions between many of the characters.

This part of the movie is where I think many people will chalk most of the events up to “well, it’s just weird and random”, but where a more symbolic approach looking a the “grammar” of the scene (analyzing the sub-structures of the events) will provide volumes of meaning.

Because of this, I want to break this one scene into five sub-sequences to analyze them in further detail:

  • Henry’s Arrival
  • Meeting Mother and Father
  • Preparing Dinner
  • Having Dinner
  • Discussion with Mother and Mary

So, first, Henry’s Arrival:

  • Henry walks through the dark, industrialized town or city to a small, cramped home in an equally cramped-appearing part of town.
  • Mary is watching from the window and calls out to Henry telling him he’s late.
  • Henry tries to talk with her, asking where she’s been and whether or not she even wanted to see him. Mary avoids these questions and tells him dinner is ready, that he should come in. This already shows a disconnect both socially and in reality, as Mary’s reply is an evasive non-sequitur.

Meeting Mother and Father

  • Henry enters the house, and he and Mary’s mother introduce each other before Henry and Mary sit down.
  • There is a brief shot of a mother dog nursing a litter of puppies, which are squealing and writhing in an unsettling way.
  • Mary’s mother and Henry attempt conversation while Mary fidgets and scratches herself uncomfortably.
  • Mary seems to begin having a seizure, and Mary’s mother brushes her hair and holds her mouth to calm or soothe her, after which Mary seems to return to normal.
  • Mary’s father emerges from the kitchen and behaves in an almost caricaturistic way without any substance or thought or real meaningfulness—like he’s just a mechanical character and little else.

Preparing for Dinner

This is a relatively unimportant part of this scene, for me, but there is an interesting moment where Mary’s grandmother (we presume) is introduced. She is sitting completely still in a chair, then Mary’s mother sets a bowl of salad in her lap, puts the salad-mixing utensils in the grandmother’s hands and mixes the salad using the mother’s arms.

After this, Mary’s mother place’s a cigarette in the grandmother’s mouth and lights it for her.

Also in this part, we see Henry and Mary sitting next to each other quietly and awkwardly.

Having Dinner

This might be one of the strangest parts of the entire movie (and there’s definitely some competition).

  • Everyone is sitting around the table, and Mary’s father brings out the food for dinner.
  • Henry slowly, awkwardly, eventually asks Henry to cut the chickens (which are tiny, miniature, manmade chickens).
  • The moment Henry touches one of the chickens with his utensil, a thick, dark fluid begins oozing out of the chicken, and Mary’s mother begins having what can only be described as an orgasmic seizure at the sight of this before screaming and running out of the room.
  • Mary seems upset and runs out of the room after her mother, leaving Henry and Mary’s Mother alone for hot minute before Mary’s mother returns and asks Henry to talk with her alone.

Discussion with Mother and Mary

  • Mary’s drags Henry off to ask if he’s been having sexual intercourse with Mary, telling him he’ll be in trouble if he doesn’t cooperate.
  • Henry tries evading the question, saying things like it’s none of her business, he loves Mary, he’s nervous, etc., until Mary’s mother pushes herself onto him and begins kissing his neck.
  • Henry calls out to Mary who comes back and pulls her mother away from Henry, then tearfully asks if he would mind marrying her, to which Henry agrees.

There’s so much to discuss here, so many details to unpack, but I will try to be brief with this and examine some of the more important elements here.

The three core things to examine are:

  • Sexuality
  • Socialization or connecting with others
  • Succession of generations

With sexuality, we see the dog and her litter of puppies, there is the chicken-cutting scene and then there is Mary’s mother kissing Henry.

With the dog and puppies, we are shown the somewhat unsettling sight of something we normally find cute or loveable: a dog, firstly, but also dog-puppies. This takes the human process of child-rearing and reflects it onto an animal—showing both the reality that humans are animals who go through similar processes, but also showing the stark reality of child-rearing in an almost disturbing way.

This is also evidence of a sort of juxtaposition between our idealized reality and actual reality.

The chicken-cutting scene shows a small, artificial chicken squirming at the touch of Henry’s cooking utensil (which we could possibly consider as a phallic object), and then oozing a dark, viscous fluid. Perhaps this fluid is menstrual blood, perhaps this fluid is a lubricant, perhaps this fluid is a part of giving birth. Nonetheless, the fluid is something bodily, something that comes at the onset of being prodded with Henry’s phallic utensil, and something that both greatly disturbs Henry and greatly excites Mary’s mother.

That is another strange note about this scene, the fact that Mary’s mother seems to become sexually aroused by the chicken-cutting and Mary seems to be upset by it.

Then, there is the part where Mary begins kissing Henry. What is happening here? Why is she doing this?

Is it that she is aroused by the man who made her daughter pregnant (whom she was once made pregnant with by her husband)? And maybe she’s sexually attracted now to a man who resembles her husband at a younger age?

Maybe Mary’s mother is a fragment of Mary’s psyche, or some other part of her personality or behavior. Maybe it’s some strange way of Mary’s mother suddenly accepting Henry into their family or as the husband of her daughter.

Nonetheless, this is an incredibly uncomfortable and bizarre event, both for the viewer and for Henry.

Now, as far as the socialization with others, this entire portion of the movie is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable as far as the relationships between people are concerned.

Not only are the conversations strange, with roller-coasters of emotions, but the actions characters take are strange.

There is the initial part where Mary begins having a seizure and is calmed down by her mother without really slowing down the pace of the conversation. There is the father, both his entrance, his stumbling attempt at asking Henry to cut the chicken (and the ensuing chicken-cutting sequence), and then the rest of his half-minded and at times mechanical behaviors. There is the mother’s coldness and short questions and answers, as well as her sternness while confronting Henry.

Throughout this whole part of the movie, we are shown the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the family, and much of the meaning is derived from Henry’s reactions to the family’s idiosyncrasies. Whether it’s attempting to maintain a conversation, trying to figure out what course of action to take, or his struggle to respond to the family members, Henry—who is a strange, idiosyncratic individual himself—struggles with connecting and reacting to Mary and her family.

Finally, the succession of generations, which I think is a less-important but still interesting part of this analysis.

It is interesting to note that Mary lives with her mother and father, as well as her grandmother, but not with her grandfather.

First, we look at the reflection of Mary and Henry to Mary’s parents.

Henry and Mary’s father seem to be the most stable individuals here; both of them have their professions or careers (printing and plumbing); and both of them seem to have relatively flat responses to everything Mary and her mother do. The only difference really is that Henry seems quietly bewildered, while Mary’s father seems to have accepted or learn to ignore the bizarreness of life.

Mary’s father seems to be missing “something” and acts somewhat mechanical and pre-programmed. Henry seems reactive to everything in small, quiet ways, and when Mary asks if he’ll marry her, he seems to accept this without giving it much thought.

Mary and Mary’s mother both have strange, quasi-epileptic fits, both of them show quite a lot of negative emotion (Mary crying or weeping, Mary’s mother acting hostile towards Henry). Both of them are the only ones who seem upset or even cognizant of Mary’s child. Mary’s mother seems to show sexual excitement and sexual attraction towards Henry, while Mary was previously having sex with Henry.

There’s this sort of reflection between the two generations of couples. Perhaps this is meant to show where Mary and Henry are going to end up. Or, perhaps it shows how couples like Mary and Henry previously ended up in previous generations, which contrasts to how the more modern couple Mary and Henry become have so many complications and problems.

Nonetheless, I think this, as well as much of the sexual evocations here indicate a sort of relentlessness of Nature in bringing about offspring—a “trap” (trap inferred by the negative connotations surrounding the child) that ensnares every generation and foists the task of procreating the next generation.

There is one last note here for this part, then I will move on (though much of this I will likely bring up again later), and that is the presence of Mary’s grandmother. I won’t delve into this too much, but, interestingly, it does create the mythological triad of Maiden-Mother-Matron, or Virgin-Mother-Crone (three generations of women existing simultaneously). And, at the same time, Mary’s grandfather is not there. Perhaps the deformed “God” we saw in the beginning? Pulling the strings?

End of Part 1

This concludes the first part of the Eraserhead analysis. In the next part of the analysis, I will conclude analyzing the surface elements of the movie and synthesize the information I’ve gone over before discussing some of the more universal themes of the movie.