Turning the Nightmare into a Dream: Eraserhead Revisited

Analysis and Annotated Script Transcription by David Johnson

“A dream of dark and troubling things.”
–David Lynch’s synopsis of Eraserhead

“My dream is a code waiting to be broken.”
–Special Agent Dale Cooper, Episode 3, Twin Peaks

Why Now?

The recent release of Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, and the stunning announcement that the series will return in 2016, has sent me back to the film catalogue of one of my all-time favorite directors, David Lynch. It also made me realize that I had a huge hole (more about holes later) in my own collection—I did not own a copy of Eraserhead. How could I claim to be a true David Lynch fan and not own a copy of Eraserhead? It’s not only the film that launched his career, but also the source of the term “Lynchian.” Eraserhead is, in my view, the most Lynchian of Lynch films. Created over a five-year period, Lynch seems to have complete control over every element in every frame of the film. And it is his most baffling–unlike Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and INLAND EMPIRE, later films which also rely heavily upon dream logic, Eraserhead does not include a framing device set in the “real” world to give us clues to the meaning of the “dream” sequences. In Eraserhead, we are in the “dream“ the entire time. Additionally, ideas and images from Eraserhead appear again and again in later Lynch films. Clearly, it is one of his most important works. I needed it in my collection.

So I quickly ordered a DVD copy on Amazon.

The arrival of the DVD began an obsessive quest for meaning that has let not only to this essay, but, shockingly, a transcription of the entire film in script format. You will find my transcribed script, with annotations in bold, attached to the end of this essay. My comments attempt to decode the mysterious symbols and bizarre sequences within the film and connect them to larger themes. They constitute the “evidence” for my interpretation of Eraserhead.

I did not intend to write a critical essay about Eraserhead. And I certainly did not intend to transcribe the entire film in script format. I simply wanted to understand what was going on. But, like Henry, I was naive and driven by unconscious forces towards a goal I didn’t understand. And also like Henry, I followed my intuition and tried to turn the nightmare into a dream.

Eraserhead and Me

I first saw Eraserhead in the late 80’s. I had recently discovered the incredible world of independent cinema, thanks to films such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Reservoir Dogs, and Roger and Me. I was hooked. And I was intrigued by the weirdness of the granddaddy of all independent films, Eraserhead. I viewed my rented VHS copy several times. But I didn’t know enough yet, and hadn’t lived enough, to make sense of the film. I didn’t have the critical tools or the life experience needed to take apart such a strange and personal film. I became a Lynch disciple with the release of Twin Peaks and recognized echoes of Eraserhead’s iconic imagery in Lynch’s later films. I collected these films, especially the ones I considered to be opaque and difficult (INLAND EMPIRE yes, The Straight Story no). But, for some strange reason, I never returned to the challenging world of Eraserhead. Until now.

Cinematic Detective

There is scene very early on in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me where FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, played by David Lynch himself, presents the character Lil to Special Agents Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley. Lil wears a red wig, and a tailored red dress with a blue rose pinned to it. She spins around, squeezes one hand into a fist continually and dances in place. Her sole purpose in the film is to send the agents messages about the case, in code, with her appearance and behavior. Presumably, this visual and enigmatic form of communication not only saves Cole a lot of explaining, but also keeps his agents’ detective skills sharp. It forces them to make observations and connections. The scene takes on a self-referential quality though when viewed a metaphor for the way Lynch presents his films to his audience. Just like Cole, Lynch presents visual enigmas for his audience to decode. In this sequence Lynch seems to suggest that we go along for the ride with him and accept his bizarre codes. Of Lil’s dress, Agent Desmond points out matter-of-factly (while driving a car!) that “Tailored dresses are code for drugs.” “Oh” replies Special Agent Stanley, quickly accepting this as perfectly reasonable. Later in the film we are told explicitly, through subtitles, that creamed corn, or “garmonbozia,” represents pain and sorrow. Like the exploding television in the opening shot of Fire Walk With Me, Lynch give us clues about how to approach and decode his films.

In the years since that first viewing of Eraserhead I had became something of a “cinematic detective” myself. Like Agents Cooper or Desmond, or the many other detectives in Lynch films, I love nothing more than solving the mystery. Few things excite me more than taking apart a difficult film, such as Synecdoche, New York or The Master. I love to discover how they work and I love to extract meaning from them.

But, for some reason, Eraserhead lay dormant in my critical consciousness. It was something I would get back to “some day.” Unconsciously, I may have recognized that Eraserhead was the Mt. Everest of enigmatic films. Perhaps, like Henry, I feared it a bit and walled it off in my mind. But as the film itself demonstrates, repressed things don’t stay repressed. The film had lodged itself in my subconscious, and deep down it was an irritant—the great unresolved cinematic mystery. So after watching a few minutes of my new Eraserhead DVD, my cinematic detective instincts took over and I vowed to make my peace with the film.

Let’s rock.

Why I Did What I Did

There is a danger in offering an interpretation for a film as enigmatic as Eraserhead—it could derail the train of thought and feeling the film is clearly designed to inspire. This is likely why Lynch has refused to offer an interpretation himself, in all the years since its release in 1977. As he states in an interview:

“It kind of wiggles around in there, and it’s how it strikes each person. It definitely means something to me, but I don’t want to talk about that. It means other things to other people, and that’s great.” (Saban and Longacre)

By providing analysis, others may no longer feel the need to do the uncomfortable (but rewarding!) work of wrestling with the film and coming up with their own interpretation. And for me, there is no greater cinematic challenge than Eraserhead. The film is created to engage the audience’s mind and intuition, and a clear analysis could ruin a great cinematic pleasure for a great many people. So, for those who prefer the joy of arriving at an their own interpretation, stop reading now.

But if ever there were a film which cried out for close, careful scrutiny, it’s Eraserhead. A film like this, which encourages such deep thought and provokes such a visceral reaction, is also a film which demands a response. Besides the intellectual challenge of trying to unpack the film’s strange symbols, Eraserhead engages the audience with sequences that challenge our moral compass. Eraserhead’s most audacious challenge is it’s most horrific—the apparent murder of the Baby by the film’s central character, Henry Spencer. This action demands that we understand it enough to reconcile it with our own sense of morality. Either that or turn away in horror and, like Henry, repress what we’ve seen.

Furthermore, aside from the challenges within the film, we as cinematic detectives have been challenged by the film’s creator to come up with an interpretation which reflects his original intention. In a recent interview with Vulture.com, David Lynch states:

“I like to have people be able to form their own opinion as to what it means and have their own ideas about things. But at the same time, no one, to my knowledge, has ever seen the film the way I see it. The interpretation of what it’s all about has never been my interpretation.” (Ebiri)

Lynch has repeated some form of this statement many times since Eraserhead‘s release. For a cinematic detective, such a challenge is almost impossible to resist. It practically dares us to divine an interpretation which might reflect his personal vision of the film. Challenge accepted.

And finally, of the interpretations readily available, none seem wholly adequate. Eraserhead is still a great mystery for a great many people. I am not aware of an interpretation which encompasses the film in its entirety; all of the strange characters, bizarre symbols, and puzzling sequences. Most interpretations focus upon a few select symbols, sequences, or themes; none, that I’m aware of, address all the elements and therefore the sum of the film. I believe that a thorough analysis of Eraserhead must account for all major elements of the film. Otherwise, one weird symbol or baffling sequence could bring the entire interpretation crashing down like Henry’s decapitated head.

In the research I conducted after arriving at my own interpretation of the film (more on this later), I found one reading which initially seems in line my thinking about the Baby (at the blog Cinema Beans—see Works Cited page). But this interpretation also quickly goes off track. It is a good effort, but in my view ultimately fails to identify the key clues and make the logical connections necessary for a complete and satisfying interpretation of the film.

It’s been 37 years since Eraserhead’s original release and there is still no consensus about what it all could mean. No one has put forth a definitive interpretation of the film. Therefore, hubris be damned, this is my attempt.

I do not think, as some do, that such an interpretation is impossible. I just think that it is very difficult. This difficulty, this rational impenetrability, is one of the fantastic things about the film. It forces the viewer to take the film in intuitively, rather than intellectually. By Lynch’s account, the film was “felt,” (Lynch, Lynch 64) or created intuitively, with reason applied later. (For more about this, see the discussion about the Biblical quote at the end of this essay.) But despite it’s apparent lack of order, Eraserhead has a set of rules that it follows closely. It is not a random mass of bizarre images. There is a logic to what happens in the film, as David Lynch has stated:

“Everything makes sense to me, you know. Eraserhead is real logical to me, and it has rules that were followed and it has a certain feeling that was followed all the way through. And you sort of tune into that at the beginning of the film, and you sort of know what’s right. And it makes certain sense to me and it feels right.” (Saban and Longacre)

Through the processes of writing we can bring dark things into the light and make the unconscious conscious.

Crazy Film, Crazy Approach

For Eraserhead, I initially tried my usual method of analyzing a film, i.e. watch it several times, take notes along the way, and use those notes to come up with an evidence-based interpretation. No problem, right? Wrong.

I quickly discovered that this method was not anywhere near adequate for Eraserhead. Eraserhead is an incredibly dense, subtle, and symbolic film. My detailed notes on a particular scene still left out too much potentially important information. I decided the only way to really capture what was happening in the film was to transcribe the entire thing, as closely as possible, in script format. If I could recreate an accurate script for the film, I might be able to study it’s structure. Hopefully I could use the script to unpack the strange symbology and bizarre sequences. I would also get to know the film very, very well in the process. Rationally, I didn’t know if this method would work. But I followed my intuition. Eraserhead is an unconventional film and it felt like it required an unconventional approach.

This method paid off greatly. For me, the transcription process revealed critical elements of the film that had been hidden in plain sight. These elements proved to be the important keys that unlocked the film’s central themes. Having to describe each environment, character, scene, and action forced me to think deeply and precisely about what I saw. I could no longer let something pass unexplained because I couldn’t understand it and had difficulty describing it; I was forced to describe it. This led to connections I hadn’t seen before and opened up new possibilities of meaning for the film’s strange symbols. I discovered surprises and reveals in the film that had only registered on a subconscious level, if at all. Many of these discoveries I have not seen described in print anywhere else. And now that they have been consciously acknowledged, they are impossible to ignore. For me, the film has become not only a much less confounding experience, but also a more pleasurable one. It’s become one of my favorite films.

Regarding the use of outside sources to aid in the initial analysis, I’ve taken David Lynch’s advice. In Catching the Big Fish he briefly discusses film interpretation:

“You don’t need anything outside the work. There have been a lot of great books written, and authors are long since dead, and you can dig them up. But you’ve got that book [i.e., the film-DJ], and a book can make you dream and make you think about things.” (Lynch, Catching 19)

While I’ve used many outside quotes and references to Twin Peaks in my subsequent explanatory essay, all of this is supporting evidence gathered after the fact. For my initial interpretation of Eraserhead, I made a conscious effort to use only the film. No other source helped me arrive at my conclusion. Of course, as stated above, I have a history with Lynch, and it is quite possible that my familiarity with his work subconsciously informed my reading of the film. But I can’t speak to my subconscious. And I truly believe that Eraserhead stands on its own. All the clues necessary to understand the film are contained within.

All you need is the film. Eraserhead has made me dream and think about things. Actually, it has lit my brain on fire. Walk with me.

What the Hell Just Happened

The summary below is necessarily detailed because, with Eraserhead, the devil is most definitely in the details. In order to unlock the mystery, it is important to have all the clues:

A dark, deformed man –The Man in the Planet–lives in a shack on a dark planet inside the mind of the film’s central character, Henry Spencer. The shack has an electrical cord which attaches to a large hole on the planet’s surface. The Man in the Planet stares out a window inside the shack, into darkness. Henry’s head floats in space and his mouth opens as if to scream. Seemingly as a reaction to something he sees outside his window, the Man in the Planet pulls factory-like levers in front of him. Each lever causes one of following actions: a spermatozoon creature to shoot from the frightened Henry’s mouth, a dark puddle to appear on the planet’s surface, and the spermatozoon creature to splash into the dark puddle. It sinks deep in the liquid of the puddle. The result is then birthed into Henry’s bleak industrial world through a hole that resembles the shape of the puddle.

A frightened and bewildered looking Henry walks home through this industrial wreckage. He passes a frightening power station and steps in a puddle on the way home.

He reaches his apartment building, checks his empty mailbox, and takes the elevator upstair.

Before entering his apartment he has brief interaction with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. She says that a girl named Mary called and invited him to dinner at her parents’ house. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall seems attracted to Henry, but he takes no action.

In his apartment Henry plays music and dries his wet sock on a radiator. There are many bizarre features to his apartment, including a twig-like substance around the base of his radiator and a mound of twig-like substance on his dresser. There is also a leafless tree branch in a small mound of dirt by his bed. There is a window of bricks above his radiator. He stares at the brick window for long time. He then goes to his dresser, takes out ripped pieces of a picture of Mary, puts them together and examines the picture closely.

Henry walks to Mary’s parents’ house through the dark and fearful industrial environment. Mary accuses him of being late. He goes inside and sits in the living room with Mary and her mother, Mrs. X. Mrs. X grills him about his job. Henry says he’s a printer on vacation.

Mary’s father, Bill, comes from the kitchen saying they’re having chicken for dinner. The chickens are strange, small, man-made and new. He then complains about have to put all the pipes in the neighborhood and how it’s degenerated over the years, from pastures to the “hellhole” it currently is. Mrs. X chases him to the kitchen.

In the kitchen, Mrs. X makes an old lady toss a salad by controlling her arms. The old lady stays in the kitchen when they leave, even though the light is out.

At the dinner table Bill says his arm is numb and asks Henry to carve the chicken. When Henry sticks a fork in the chicken it starts moving it’s legs back and forth and gushes blood from a hole in its end. Mrs. X makes orgasmic sounds then screams and runs away. Bill seems numb to the scene.

Mrs. X returns and pulls Henry aside to talk. She demands to know if Henry had sex with Mary. Henry doesn’t answer, and Mrs. X aggressively comes on to him sexually. Henry is fearful of this and calls for Mary. When Mary arrive Mrs. X says there’s a premature baby at the hospital, Henry’s the father, and they can pick it up after they get married shortly. Mary says they’re not sure it is a baby and Henry thinks it’s impossible. His nose starts to bleed. Mrs. X gets ice.

In Henry’s room, Mary tries to feed the baby. The Baby, which looks like the spermatozoon creature, has a strange reptile head and bandages around its body. The Baby spits the food out and cries constantly, frustrating Mary. Henry goes to his mailbox and finds a small box. He takes to the street and opens it. There’s a small seed inside.

Henry hides the box in his jacket pocket and returns to his room. He lies on the bed and stares at the radiator. A light turns on in the radiator and we see a small stage in the radiator. Mary continues trying to feed the baby. She asks if there is any mail and he says no.

We see many ominous shots of the brick window while in Henry’s apartment.

In the night Henry takes the box from is jacket and places it in a floral cabinet. The baby cries continually. A fearful-looking Henry looks reaches over to Mary for sex, but she shrugs him off.

The baby’s cries won’t stop. She screams for it to stop and it won’t. Mary can’t take it. She gets dressed, pulls her suitcase out from under the bed in a fearful and sexual manner, and leaves.

After she is gone Henry has a vision of the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall.

The Baby is then unusually quiet. Henry gets a thermometer from his dresser and the Baby’s temperature is normal. But when he turns around again the baby is covered in boils, gasping for breath.

Henry set up a respirator for the baby and sits by it. Henry looks at the seed in the floral cabinet and puts on his coat to leave, but every time he tries to the baby starts crying more, forcing Henry to stay in his room.

Henry has a dream of a woman with mashed potato-like cheeks —the Lady in the Radiator—who dances on the stage in the radiator and crushes spermatozoon creatures with her feet.

In the night Mary mysteriously appears back in his bed. She thrashes around in a strange, wet-sounding manner. Henry finds spermatozoon creatures under the covers, coming from Mary. He throws them against the wall and smashes them.

The floral cabinet opens and the seed dances away onto the dark planet. One end of the seed opens up, revealing an eery, dreamlike image of Henry in his room at night. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall knocks on the door and asks if she can spend the night. The Baby cries but Henry puts his hand on its mouth. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall moves in to kiss Henry.

We then see a pool of white liquid on Henry’s bed, with Henry and the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall naked inside it, kissing. The Baby cries and the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall stares at the baby while kissing Henry. They sink into the pool.

The white liquid vanishes, leaving darkness. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall sees the dark planet and is afraid of it. She vanishes in the darkness.

The Lady in the Radiator appears on the radiator stage and sings a song about everything being fine in Heaven. Henry approaches her on the stage, but the environment turns into white light when he touches her. He is scared and she disappears. The Man in the Planet appears briefly and the scene turns into a nightmare. The crushed spermatozoon creatures are blown off the stage. A giant version of the dirt tree wheels itself onto the stage. Henry retreats behind a witness stand on the stage. His head then pops off and falls onto the stage, pushed off by a phallic object that shoots out of his collar. The tree starts gushing blood and Henry’s head is surrounded by the blood. The Baby’s head emerges from Henry’s collar. Its screams fill the stage. Henry’s head splashes into the blood and disappears.

Henry’s head falls onto a city street. His scalp tears away, revealing his brain. A child in the street grabs the head and runs away. He takes it to a factory and gives it to the Boss. The Boss then takes it to a machine operator. The operator extracts a sample of Henry’s brain and feeds it into a machine. The machine produces pencils, using the brain sample as the eraser heads. The operator draws a mark on a piece of paper with one of the pencils and erases it. He lets the Boss know it’s okay. He sweeps the eraser dust into the air.

Henry wakes. We see a prominent shot of the brick window. We also see several shots of Henry’s empty bed.

Through barbed wire we see the road below. There is a large puddle with a pipe coming from it. We then see two figures by the puddle. One appears to attack the other with a club near the puddle.

Henry watches through the window. Henry then decides to knock on the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall’s door. There is no answer.

Henry returns to his apartment and the baby snickers loudly, seemingly to mock him.

Henry hears elevator doors and opens his front door. He sees The Beautiful Girl Across The Hall at her door, with another man. She is taking him into her apartment, presumably to have sex. Henry continues to stare at them. She looks at Henry and sees his head replaced with the Baby’s head, quaking in fear.

Henry returns to his apartment and the Baby begins snickering loudly, mocking him again.

In anger Henry takes a pair of scissors out of his dresser. He cuts the Baby’s bandages open while it quakes in fear. The Baby’s hideous organs are revealed. Henry stabs the organs with his scissors. The Baby begins spewing blood from it’s mouth and organs and appears to be dying. Henry turns away in horror. The lights flicker violently.

The mashed potato-like substance begins spewing from its organs, consuming it’s body. Its head appears to pull away from its body, but Henry still doesn’t look at it. The lights continue to flicker violently.

The Baby’s head becomes gigantic and appears to jump around the room.

Henry finally looks at the head. The Baby’s giant head lunges towards him and the lights burn out. Henry looks away.

In the dark we then hear a loud crack. Henry looks at the head again. He sees the dark planet from the beginning. The front of the planet explodes open.

We see the Man in the Planet pulling on his levers for all he’s worth. Sparks from the levers hit his face and body. We see the mashed potato-like substance on his face and body.

The screen then turns to white light and white noise. We see the smiling Lady in the Radiator. She embraces Henry warmly. Henry accepts the embrace with a look of peace on his face.

What Others Think

There are many, many theories about what Eraserhead could mean. Below I’ve listed three common ones. It is easy to see why these interpretations endure: each of them holds a kernel of truth about the film’s meaning.

1. It’s an Illogical Dream (or Nightmare)
The interpretation goes like this: Eraserhead is a crazy and scary dream that, like a dream, ultimately makes no sense in and of itself. Its meaning is derived strictly from what the viewer brings to it. Therefore, it can mean anything at all. Eraserhead is like an inkblot and all interpretations are equally valid.

I do think there is some truth to this interpretation. I do think that the entire movie is a dream of some sort (more on this later). But just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it lacks rules and logic. If it has rules and logic, it can add up to something.

Claiming a film can mean anything at all is often the easy way out. It is usually a knee-jerk reaction to material that is difficult, confusing, and uncomfortable. For a cinematic detective, it’s the ultimate excuse for not doing the difficult analytical work necessary to arrive at meaning; it’s ultimate rationale for turning off your brain when something becomes too hard to understand.

While inkblots are fun to play with, Eraserhead is most definitely not an inkblot. The film was constructed with exquisite care over a five-year period. It is cohesive. I take David Lynch at his word when he states above that there is logic (albeit dream logic) at work in Eraserhead, and that it follows it’s own rules, from beginning to end. Just because these rules may be difficult to uncover doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

2. It’s About Suicide
Others believe that Eraserhead about Henry’s suicide. According to his interpretation, the Baby turns out to be Henry. Henry kills the Baby, therefore Henry kills himself.

There is some truth to this reading as well. The Baby does seem to represent Henry in some way (again, more about this later). And Henry does kill the Baby at the end.

Intuitively though, this doesn’t seem to be enough of a reason for a great movie. This reading turns Eraserhead into nothing more than a dark joke, with the punchline being that Henry kills himself in the end.

It also doesn’t seem logical. In Eraserhead, Henry fears that the Baby will replace him in some way. We see this twice: in the “trial” on the radiator stage when his head falls off and is replaced with the Baby’s, and also near the end, when the Beautiful Woman Across the Hall sees him with the Baby’s head instead of his own.

Does it make sense that he’s afraid of replacing himself (i.e. his own head) with himself (the Baby’s head)? Why would this be something to fear? Logically, it’s still himself.

3. It’s About the Fear of Fatherhood/Anxiety About Parenthood
This seems to be the most popular interpretation, and with good reason. Many people believe the film is primarily about Henry’s anxiety regarding becoming a father and the responsibilities that role entails.

There is a lot of truth to this interpretation. Clearly, Eraserhead explores the anxieties of new parents in its storyline about life with the difficult Baby. Any parent can relate to aspects of Henry and Mary’s plight. This reading cannot be dismissed.

At least, on the surface.

This surface story can be summarized as follows:

Young lovers Henry and Mary have a baby out of wedlock. The baby is premature and deformed. Mary’s parent make them take the child. They get married too young and move in together to care for the child. Mary can’t take the baby’s constant crying and leaves. Henry takes over the care of the child, but feels trapped. The constant demands of his sick and needy child prevent him from pursuing an adulterous relationship with his neighbor. In anger and resentment he kills the child and ends up in a form of heaven, where everything is fine.

In this interpretation Henry ultimately kills his child, as strange and deformed as it is. If we follow the logic of this interpretation, Eraserhead is a straight up horror film. An evil man kills his child and is rewarded with Heaven. The Lady in the Radiator would have to be a sort of demon. In this reading Eraserhead could be considered perhaps the darkest film of all time. It would be the ultimate celebration of infanticide.

Yes, the Baby is a burden. It cries all the time. It drives his wife away. It’s sickly. It keeps him from pursuing his beautiful neighbor. Yes, he fears that the Baby will replace him and that he will be erased. It truly seems to mock him.

But morally, none of this can come anywhere close to justification for killing it.

Intuitively, it feels wrong that Lynch, now a father of four, would put so much time and effort into a film whose sole purpose is to show the horrors of child rearing, and one which ultimately rewards its child-murdering protagonist. Like Agent Cooper when all the clues point to Ben Horne as Laura’s killer, the intuition rebels. This conclusion doesn’t feel right. There must be more going on in the film.

Likewise, it doesn’t feel right that the Lady in the Radiator, such a beautiful figure in the film, is ultimately a demon. The scenes with her are just too joyful. The final shot with her is nothing short of ecstatic. The song she sings is reassuring. The white light she occupies certainly does not look like Hell. Typically, Lynch adheres to the tradition that Hell is dark and Heaven is light. The crescendo of white light and white noise that ends the film definitely feels like a triumph of some sort.

So, Eraserhead either has the darkest ending imaginable or, somehow, a triumphant one. I’ve come to realize that it is indeed triumphant.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Eraserhead’s own bizarre nature undercuts a surface reading of the film. Clearly, there is more going on than what is happening on the surface and we are not meant to take events at face value. The characters in Eraserhead often do not act like “normal” people and there are events in the film which could not possibly occur in the “real” world. For example, when Henry won’t tell Mrs. X whether or not he had sex with Mary, Mrs. X says something very bad is going to happen to him if he doesn’t tell and then starts “coming on” to him sexually. She starts kissing him and nibbling on his neck. This is bizarre and not at all a human response. Likewise, the roasted chickens we eat do not bleed and start thrusting their legs back and forth when we begin to carve them on our dinner tables. Actual babies do not look or act like the hideous, impossibly-brought-to-term Baby that Henry and Mary bring home.

Little details in the environment are off or strange, signaling that we’re not in the “real” world: Henry seems to approach the X’s house from two directions, the X’s home has strange flower-like objects embedded in its walls, their kitchen appears to have multiple stoves, their oven seems to be in a cabinet, their clock has one hand, a twig-like substance surrounds Henry’s radiator, Henry’s elevator rises unbelievably slowly, the elevator doors on his floor are painted with dark textured material, the wallpaper and paint always seems haphazardly applied (as if quickly put on to cover something), the strange paper-like bricks outside his window, etc. The film is absolutely loaded with bizarre, verging-on-impossible environmental details.

Clearly, we are in some other reality than our consensus reality.

David Lynch has described the film as “A dream of dark and troubling things.” (Olson 60) I would emphasize the word “dream” in this summary. I believe the entire film takes place within the mind. In the film Henry states that he is on “vacation.” I believe that he is on a mental vacation and that Eraserhead is the ultimate head trip.

(Note: since the dreamer is not ultimately identified in the film, from this point forward I will refer to him—judging from the fears we see illustrated, I presume it is a male dreamer–as “Henry,” i.e. we are in Henry’s mind in the film.)

If Eraserhead does take place entirely within Henry’s mind, then all the elements within the film—the environments, the characters, their actions, etc.–are created by Henry.

This would explain why characters often don’t act or react in human or realistic ways in Eraserhead. These are not actual people, but representations of something within his mind. Representation of what is the question.

If we are dealing with the architecture of the mind in Eraserhead, it opens up the possibility of a deeper story than the surface one described above. It means there could be two levels of meaning in the film:

A.) A surface story with about the anxiety of becoming a parent, with bizarre events and character too strange to take at face value.

B.) An underground story, or deeper level of meaning, which remains mysterious until we collect and decode all the representations, or clues.

The Clue that Unlocks the Puzzle Box

For any mystery, one must have all the necessary clues in order to unravel it. The same is true of Eraserhead: we must have all the necessary information in order to make a sound interpretation. But Eraserhead is a still a great cinematic mystery. After 37 years there is no critical consensus about the film’s meaning. No one has been able to identify all the clues and show how they are connected. Consequently, there is no interpretation that had been entirely convincing.

I believe this is because David Lynch has hidden his clues very well in this film.

In Greg Olson’s Beautiful Dark, David Lynch says of his films: “I always hide all my fears, and sometimes my films hide them too, only in different ways” (Olson 58).

Like his fears, Lynch withholds and obscures what may be the most important clue in the film.

That one clue, when added to the other clues, unlocks mystery of the film. With this clue Eraserhead springs open like Eckhart’s puzzle box in Twin Peaks. It is a clue that is repressed by Henry and withheld by Lynch. It is a clue that he saves for the final act of the film. And when presented, it is presented subtly. It is a clue I have not seen referred to in any interpretation of the film. And it is a clue that I think it is absolutely vital to understanding the film.

That clue is what’s behind the bricks in Henry’s window.

Those odd, paper-like bricks outside of Henry’s window. Are they keeping Henry trapped? No, he can walk out his door. Perhaps they are keeping him safe from something? If we are dealing with Henry’s mind in the film, then the bricks could represent an attempt to repress something. Hide it behind a brick wall. Repressed things don’t stay repressed though, and that paper-like brick wall could be torn away at any moment.

If you look closely at the film, you will see how many times we are shown shots of that window. (In fact, you can count how many times in my script translation below.) Over and over and over we are shown this window, usually in dark shadows and with an ominous wind. There is often a slight hint of a scream in the sound of the wind in these shots. It is shown again and again and again. It must important. Yet no one, to my knowledge, has asked why we see so many shots of this window or questioned what might be behind those paper bricks.

Lynch does eventually show us what is behind them: after Henry’s eraser factory dream, he wakes up, and looks like he’s had a realization of some sort. We see him dressed, back turned to the window, staring at his empty bed. In the next shot, through blurred barbed wire, we see the dirt road below. There is a large puddle in the road with what looks like a pipe coming out of it. We then see two figures and what appears to be a violent assault that takes place by the puddle. One of the figures appears to attack the other with a club of some sort.

The next shot is of Henry looking out his window. Remember, previously there were paper bricks that blocked that window. Now, magically, the bricks seem to have disappeared and Henry stares out his window at the attack below.

This is what Lynch has withheld and Henry has repressed behind his paper-brick window: a violent attack in the street.

The shot of Henry looking out his window recalls another shot of another character looking out his window. We are led back to the beginning of the film.

The Man in the Planet, Revisited

The shot of Henry looking out his window is very reminiscent of the Man in the Planet staring out his window at the beginning of the film. Like Henry’s room, there appears to be a puddle of some sort outside his shack. This cannot be a coincidence. Instead of a pipe coming from the puddle there is an electrical line. After Henry’s silent scream while floating in space, The Man in the Planet appears to react to something he sees outside his window with a shiver or spasm. He then pulls the levers that leads to the conception and birth of the spermatozoon creature.

Connecting these two clues, The Man in the Planet creates the spermatozoon creature as a result of Henry witnessing the violent attack in the street. The spermatozoon creature represents fear. The Man in the Street then launches fear into Henry’s world. As Greg Olson points out in Beautiful Dark, in the first shot we see of Henry in his industrial environment, he is looking over his shoulder in fear. (Olson 61)

Lynch has often stated that Eraserhead is his Philadelphia Story, and that the film was inspired by living in Philadelphia. For Lynch, Philadelphia was a place of fear:

“Philadelphia, more than any filmmaker, influenced me. It’s the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable.” (Hartmann)

“‘It wasn’t a normal city when I was here,’ Lynch recalls. ‘The fear, insanity, corruption, filth, despair, violence in the air was so beautiful to me.’” (Adelson)

The opening sequence of Eraserhead is a creation myth for fear. It shows how fear was conceived and how it came to be in Henry’s world. But by withholding the critical clue of what’s behind the window, Lynch has made it difficult for us to interpret this sequence. We cannot unravel the mystery of the spermatozoon creature until we know what is behind the window. Of course, it’s the lack of this knowledge that makes the film what it is—an incredible mystery.

Fear and Sex

If the beginning of the film is a creation myth for fear, the process through which it enters Henry’s world is sex and birth. Fear’s “parents” in the film are the dark puddle where violence occurred and Henry’s reaction to it, a scream. After the spermatozoon creature splashes into the puddle, we see a shot looking up in the darkness to a hole of light with grass around the edges. We then move through the hole, out of the darkness and into the light. This shot movement is reminiscent of birth, and represents fear being born into Henry’s world.

(In is also interesting because this shot movement is a microcosm of what the film ultimately does—move from darkness to light. More on this in the “Beauty in Contrasts” section.)

In the process of creation, fear is strongly associated with sex in Henry’s world. The two become intertwined and twisted together in Henry’s mind. Henry’s world, and in fact the fabric of the entire film, is super-saturated with both sex and fear. They twist Henry’s mind and consequently Henry’s environment into a bleak, frightful industrial world where young lovers are forced to take the Baby, the product of fear.

It’s amazing how many times fear and sex appear in close association with each other in the film. The two go hand in hand in Eraserhead. Some examples from the transcribed script:

–The creation myth for fear that opens the film
–The many, many camera movements into a dark hole: moving into the planet, moving into the shack, moving into the seed’s hole, etc.
–Stepping in the dark puddle
–Mary having a fearful seizure when Mrs. X bring up “what Henry did”
–The chicken thrusting its legs and bleeding
–Mrs. X reacting orgasmically, then screaming in terror, when the chicken is stabbed
–Mrs. X “coming on” to Henry after stating something bad will happen to him
–Forcing Henry and Mary to take the baby.
–The Baby itself—a fearful object that came into the world through sex
–The fearful look on Henry’s face as he tries to initiate sex with Mary
–The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall’s fearful reaction after sex with Henry
–Henry’s head being pushed off by a phallic object and enveloped in a pool of blood
–Henry’s brain sample going into the pencil machine

It is certainly not unheard of that fear could become intertwined with sex. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, fear and sex were closely associated with each other in American culture. An interesting way to look at Eraserhead is as a critique of 1950’s attitudes towards sex. The X’s on one level represent a satirical take on the 1950’s ideal. The nice family’s home has been twisted by fear.

How exactly has fear entered their home? Once again, Lynch makes the abstract literal: Fear has been pumped in through the large pipes in their home. Pipes which are connected to the puddle, the source of fear. Bill, the family patriarch, installed these pipes himself.

Bill, for his part, has become increasingly numb to the fear which has saturated his home and his environment. His response to bizarre and fearful events is to wear a plastered-on smile and carry on inane small talk (“So Henry, what do you know?”). His arm has literally gone numb from it, like Teresa Banks’s arm goes numb in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Likewise, the old lady in the kitchen seems to have become completely numb and paralyzed by fear. She can’t even move enough to toss a salad, enjoy a cigarette, or leave the kitchen when the lights go out. The longer these characters live with fear, the more numb and paralyzed they become.

For the young Henry and Mary, having sex has led directly to the fearful dinner scene. The X’s force the young couple, the next generation, to take fear with them into their own home, to raise and nurture themselves. They both know something is not right (it’s impossible that there is a baby already, says Henry; they’re not even sure it is a baby, says Mary), but they take it anyways, carrying on the cycle.

So What Exactly is the Baby?

The impossibly brought to term, reptilian, deformed, repulsive, crying, needy, watching, controlling, mocking Baby, with outer bandages hiding hideous internal organs, clearly represents something. David Lynch is a master code builder. We are not meant to take such an important and bizarre object at face value. And just as creamed corn represents pain and sorrow in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, I believe the Baby represents fear in Eraserhead.

The Baby is a larger version of the spermatozoon creature from the opening sequence. On the surface level, it’s the product of the young, scared parents Henry and Mary. But on the deep level its “parents” were Henry’s scream and the dark puddle where violence occurred. The Baby itself is fear.

Here is the chain of (dream) logic that leads from the puddle to the Baby:

Dreamer witnesses violence by a puddle–>Reacts with a scream–>Fear is created in the mind–>Fear is repressed by the conscious mind–>Fear is associated with sex–>Fear defines the subconscious world–>Fear is an unnatural state for the mind–>Fear cannot stay repressed permanently and must be dealt with in some manner–>Fear bursts through, manifesting itself in a bizarre form which the mind can handle–>The Baby

Fear Itself

Once you plug in what the Baby represents, the film takes on an entirely different meaning than the surface story. For example, in the surface story:

Sex has led to the Baby. The Baby drove Mary away. The Baby prevents Henry from acting freely. The Baby stops Henry from having sex with his neighbor. Henry is afraid that the Baby will erase him. Therefore Henry kills (erases) the Baby and goes to a Heaven of sorts.

In the deep story the themes become clearer. Henry’s actions are no longer immoral, and the film makes more sense:

Sex has led to fear. Fear drove Mary away. Fear prevents Henry from acting freely. Fear stops Henry from having sex with his neighbor. Henry is afraid that the fear will erase him. Therefore Henry erases fear and goes to a Heaven of sorts.

Instead of committing a horrific act by killing an actual baby, Henry performs a triumphant one by killing the fear within his mind.

Plugging “fear” into the equation of the entire film:

The film takes place entirely within Henry’s mind and begins with his scream. Immediately after the scream The Man in the Planet, while staring out his window and connected via electrical power line to a dark puddle, instinctively reacts. He begins the conception of fear, creating the spermatozoon creature, the puddle, and causing the two to come together with his factory-like levers. Fear is then born into Henry’s mind and therefore his world.

The architecture of Henry’s mind is saturated with fear, as represented by the decayed and frightening industrial landscape. Henry gets fear on him physically by stepping in the dark puddle. The deeper Henry goes into his subconscious, represented by his apartment building, the darker it gets.

Henry has repressed the true source of fear behind a brick window in his room. Repressed things do not stay repressed though. The come out in other ways, forcing us to deal with them.

In his mind, this deep repressed fear comes out in the form of a common fear for young people —an unwanted pregnancy. The X’s force Henry to take the manifestation of fear, the Baby.

In short order fear drives Mary away. Fear keeps Henry trapped in his room by getting sick and demanding attention. Fear watches him constantly.

Henry dreams of a woman (the Lady in the Radiator) who destroys fear by crushing it with her shoe. Mary mysteriously appears in his bed, producing more fear, but Henry destroys them.

We see into Henry’s secret desire, his neighbor, the Beautiful Woman Across the Hall. She represents possible escape and relief from fear.

Henry tries to quiet his fear during his dream encounter with her, but she becomes afraid when she sees Henry’s fear for what it really is, a dark planet. Henry’s dream then turns to the Lady in the Radiator, who comforts him by letting him know that in Heaven everything is fine and that they will be together there. Henry approaches her, but is scared of her white light. Fear asserts itself again and the dream turns into a bizarre trial where a phallic object forces Henry’s head from its body. Henry’s head is then replaced by fear’s head. Henry’s head falls through a puddle of blood into another world, where it is taken to a pencil factory and turned into erasers for pencils. He fears that sex will destroy him, turning him (a printer) into a destructive force (an eraser).

By acknowledging this though Henry has taken a step towards confronting his fear. After waking from his dream he is finally able to see what is outside the brick window (and what the Man in the Planet reacted to)—a violent attack by a puddle. He is slowly peeling back the onion of fear.

He goes to his neighbor’s door. There is no answer. He returns to his apartment and fear mocks him. He then hears his neighbor in the hall. He goes out to meet her but she is with another man. In her view, she sees him with fear’s head.

Henry returns to his apartment and fear continues to mock him. In anger he confronts his fear. He cuts open fear’s outer layer (bandages) and stabs it’s heart. Fear’s body is overwhelmed by the same material that makes up the Lady in the Radiator’s cheeks (and therefore her smile). Fear’s head escapes it’s body, becoming giant and burning out the lights.

Despite this Henry eventually looks at fear and sees it for what it is—a dark planet. It then begins to blow apart. The Man in the Planet tries to stop the process with his levers, but cannot. The white sparks from his levers begin to overwhelm him, and the same material that makes up the Lady in the Radiator’s cheeks begins to consume him. In a moment fear is destroyed and all that remains is a white, blissful light. We see the Lady of in the Radiator and Henry embraces her without fear, in peace and with a sound mind.

Fear is destroyed by bliss. The nightmare turns into a dream.

Fear, Intuition, Bliss

In the second season finale of Twin Peaks, Windom Earl, Agent Cooper’s nemesis, uses Annie Blackburn’s fear to enter a mysterious realm by a dark puddle (a puddle, by the way, that is very reminiscent of puddle in Eraserhead). That mysterious realm is the Black Lodge and fear is the key to its gates. Likewise, in Eraserhead, fear is the key to the mysterious realm of Henry’s mind.

When we understand that the Baby represents fear in Eraserhead, we learn that:

–Fear is buried deep down
–Fear is all-consuming
–Fear is dirty and decayed
–Fear can become intermingled with sex
–Fear can be inherited and passed on
–Fear can disguise itself
–Fear is difficult to see
–Fear is like a deformed monster
–Fear is constant and nagging, like the crying child
–Fear can attach itself to you
–Fear can feed off of you like baby’s umbilical cord
–Fear can control you
–Fear laughs at you, and mocks you
–Fear keep you from action
–Fear keeps you from love
–Fear is hideous on the inside
–Fear is unnatural as a constant state
–Fear is difficult to face directly
–Fear can be destroyed
–Fear can be transformed into bliss

Once fear moves into Henry’s room, both Henry and Mary, almost immediately, seek relief from it. Fear is not a natural state and the moment it begins we instinctively try to move away from it. In the film Mary gives up trying to feed it, going through the motions of the relationship until she can escape from Henry’s room. Henry also looks for escape from fear. This opens him up to the possibility of an affair with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. We see the seed of his desire for her soon after the Baby moves in.

If fear is an unnatural state, then what is our natural state? According to David Lynch, in Catching the Big Fish, humans naturally want to progress towards bliss:

“And why is it so easy [to move towards bliss–DJ]? Because it’s the nature of the mind, because the mind wants to go to fields of greater happiness. It just naturally wants to go there. And the deeper you go, the more there is of that until you hit 100% bliss.” (Lynch, Catching 52)

When Henry cuts the Baby’s bandages and stabs its organs, he is not consciously aware that he’s killing fear. He is driven by internal forces to commit an act which on its surface is repellent to our nature. Fear is so intense though, and so antithetical to our true selves, that the urge to kill fear is overwhelming. We recognize fear on a deeper level, and we are moved to destroy it.

Eraserhead, simply put, is about confronting fear, destroying it, and embracing bliss.

Breaking the Code

As Eraserhead‘s perpetually frightened and bewildered protagonist, Henry tries to navigate a world built in dark code. He has little awareness of the forces driving him and little understanding of the symbols around him. As David Lynch stated in 1986:

“Henry is very sure that something is happening, but he doesn’t understand it at all. He watches things very, very carefully, because he’s trying to figure them out. He might study the corner of a pie container, just because it’s in his line of sight. He might wonder why he sat where he did. Everything is new. It might now be frightening, but it could be a key to something. Everything should be looked at. There could be clues in it.” (Chute 38)

As Henry tries to understand his bizarre world, so do we. But because Eraserhead is populated with representations of the mind, rather than “real” people and situations, it is up to us to decode them.

Like the two wrapped packages he carries home with him in the beginning of the film (representing his two loves at the time—Mary and the Lady in the Radiator), Henry has repressed and hidden many things: in his dresser, in the radiator, underneath his bed, in a box, in his jacket pocket, in the floral cabinet, and, most notably, behind the brick window in his apartment.

One of the more bizarre things he has hidden, at least on the surface, is the Lady in the Radiator. With her mashed potato-like cheeks, she sings and dances on a small stage in the radiator, stomping on fear. Since cold is associated with negative feelings, it makes sense that the ultimate symbol of goodness would live someplace warm. Her cheeks are puffy with a strange mashed potato-like substance that seems to have been generated by her smile. This same material consumes the body of the Baby and the face of the Man in the Planet. You could say that they were both consumed by her smile. Why mashed potatoes? Mashed potatoes are comfort food, just as The Lady in the Radiator is a source of comfort for Henry. Mashed potatoes also go hand in hand with chicken, which was the meal of fear at the X’s dinner table: chicken and mashed potatoes, meat and potatoes, fear and bliss. Two sides of the same coin.

Piled upon Henry’s dresser, around the base of his radiator, and the edge of radiator stage, there is a twig-like substance, which, considering that Henry has hidden his two loves (Mary and the Lady in the Radiator) in these locations, seem to represent a threshold to them. The twigs also look very much like pubic hair, which is a threshold to the sexual organs. The twigs are dark and strange though, and therefore also associated with fear. The rule holds that sex and fear are linked in Eraserhead. The trees in Twin Peaks also seem to indicated a threshold to mysterious places, like the White and Black Lodges. Twigs, of course, are strongly associated with trees; another strong connections between the worlds of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks.

The dog with the litter of puppies in the X’s living room appears to represents an animal instinct to procreate at work in Henry’s mind. Again, we see branches and twigs in close proximity, indicating a threshold to this instinct. This drive is the awkward elephant in the room with Henry and the Xs. It sits there, loudly nursing its pups, while Mrs. X, with Mary at her side, interrogates Henry. Yet even this instinct whimpers when faced with fear.

The lamps the X’s living room and Henry’s room, as well as the lights in his elevator, run on electricity. Electricity seems to have a strongly negative connotation in both Eraserhead and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In the creation myth for fear that opens Eraserhead, the shack that the Man in the Planet lives in is connected via electrical power line to the dark puddle on the surface—the ultimate source of fear. Electricity can be thought of as bad energy, and the lights indicate how much bad energy is flowing at the time. When fear is low, so are the lights. When fear is at its highest levels, the lights burn out. The patterns on the floors of both Henry’s apartment entryway and the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks are reminiscent of electrical waves. In Fire Walk With Me the word “Electricity” is spoken by the Black Lodge demons at their meeting and spelled out explicitly in subtitles. We are exposed to a burst that bad energy through the flickering lights when Agents Desmond and Stanley arrive at the dinner in Deer Meadows. And there are many ominous shots of power lines as Agents Desmond and Cooper investigate the trailer park where Teresa Banks disappeared. The characters in the trailer park seem intuitively aware of the bad energy that flows there. Some of these characters appear to have been deformed by it. Likewise, electricity represents bad energy in Eraserhead. The lights burn out when Mrs. X takes Henry aside to tell him about the Baby after the horrific dinner; they also burn out when the Baby’s giant head lunges at Henry in the film’s climax. In both cases fear is at an extremely high level.

The wind that blow through Eraserhead, and blows through the trees in Twin Peaks, is an indicator of something dark and fearful. Much like the electricity in the film, the wind increases as Henry’s fear becomes more and more intense. If you listen for the wind, you will hear it prominently featured in the third act of the film, as Henry confronts the source of fear.

The small dirt tree in Henry’s room (the branch in the pile of dirt with the doily on bottom) seems to represent Henry’s superego—his sense of right and wrong. Henry navigates very similar mounds of dirt in the opening of the film. The branch in the dirt tree represents a threshold, as described above. In this case, it is a threshold to right and wrong. In Biblical terms, the dirt tree is reminiscent of the the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: the mixture of two opposing forces, just as sex (a creative force) and fear (a destructive force) are mixed in the film. In Eraserhead, it is of great importance when something is lit and when it is not. Being lit indicates that the object is question plays a role in Henry’s thinking at that particular moment; not being lit indicates that it is not on Henry’s mind at the time. The dirt tree is lit when Henry’s thoughts or actions challenge his sense of right and wrong. It is prominently lit while he thinks about the floral box with the seed in it, which represents his hidden and growing desire for his neighbor, the Beautiful Woman Across the Hall. In Henry’s nightmare on the radiator stage, there is a giant version of this tree. The dirt tree occupies the judge’s position in this dream trial scenario. The doily at the base of the dirt tree is reminiscent of a jabot, which is sometimes worn by judges. The giant dirt tree then appears to pass judgement on the twitchy Henry, who nervously awaits his sentence on the witness stand.

Beauty in Contrasts

In Eraserhead David Lynch uses the most complicated and disturbing of means to convey a message that is ultimately simple and peaceful. He creates a dark and negative world as a means to a light and positive one. These ironies and contradictions are one of the many ways in which Eraserhead is a movie awash in beautiful contrasts. Like the black and white film stock used to create the film, Eraserhead is a gorgeous battle of opposites, and this struggle is ingrained in the very fabric of the film.

We need look no further than Henry himself to see these contradictions (as the film itself looks no further than Henry’s mind). With his sky-high hair, Henry appears to be in a perpetual state of cartoon-character fright. But physically, Henry also looks like a surreal pencil, with an eraser on top. Henry describes himself as a “printer.” A pencil is also a “printer.” It is a creative force. The other side of the pencil, the eraser side, is destructive. Two ends, two poles, yet still one object. Henry is driven by sex (a creative force) and paralyzed by fear (a negative one). He is a creator (a printer who creates fear) who ultimately destroys (killing the baby and erasing fear).

Many objects in the film lead to contrasts. Fear led Henry to commit violence, but also led to the bliss of the radiator. The dresser hides Mary, his object of love, but also hides the scissors, an instrument of death. The symbol of bliss is hidden in the radiator. Yet the radiator is right next to the window, which hides the symbol of fear.

Some of the contrasts or opposites in the film: black and white, darkness and light, good and evil, fear and bliss, warmth and cold, sex and violence, organic and industrial, beauty and ugliness, birth and death, meat and potatoes, milk and blood (the two liquids Henry bathes in during his dream), man and women, young (Henry and Mary) and old (Mary’s parents), birth and death, creation and destruction, phallus and vagina, sticks and holes (the club used by the puddle), pencils and erasers, music and wind, seductive and accusatory (the two uses of “late” in the film), moving in and moving out, beginnings and endings (the end of Eraserhead is new beginning for Henry–one without fear), surface and deep.

An incredible thing about Eraserhead is the way it finds great beauty in these contrasts. While there are far too many instances to list here, I’ll point out one: the composition of exterior shot of Mary’s home. The dark, ominous house with Mary’s body-less head trapped fearfully in the window, the wreaked, decayed yard with steam and particles billowing impossibly upon it. Yet this yard still manages to yield a handful of gorgeous roses. Beautiful life is trying to break through the bleak industrial landscape. As always, David Lynch finds bursts of light in the overwhelming darkness. In my view, no Lynch film better exemplifies this effort than Eraserhead.

One Final Guess

David Lynch has offered up yet another mystery regarding the interpretation of Eraserhead. In Catching the Big Fish, Lynch states that Eraserhead is his most spiritual film and no one understands why:

Eraserhead was growing in a certain way, and I didn’t know what it meant. I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying. Of course, I understood some of it; but I didn’t know the thing that just pulled it all together. And it was a struggle. So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent.” (Lynch, Catching 33)

Lynch, of course, isn’t saying what that quote is. But I will venture a guess. While I’ve had the fortitude to carefully transcribe a script for the film and write an analytical essay, I haven’t the time or will to re-read the Bible in search of the proper quote. A newfound awareness of Eraserhead‘s themes make this an intriguing possibility though, and perhaps one day I will. Until then, a Google search for Biblical quotes related to the themes I’ve uncovered will have to suffice. And that search did reveal a very promising possibility.

From II Timothy 1:7, in The Holy Bible, King James Version: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love and of a sound mind.”

The two opposing spirits described above (fear and love) recall the opposing states that Henry A) finds himself in at the beginning of Eraserhead and B) instinctively arrives at in the climax of the film. Henry begins the film with the Man in the Planet, possessed by an unnatural spirit of fear. He ends the film with the Lady in the Radiator, in the presence of love and power, with a sound mind and peaceful expression. Eraserhead is a spiritual film because it shows Henry’s journey away from fear, and his ultimate arrival at God’s spiritual ideal for us.

This quote is also striking because of its similarity to way Lynch described yogis, after seeing pictures of them for the first time:

“There was such a presence of power and dignity—and an absence of fear. Many of their countenances held playfulness or love, or power and strength.” (Lynch, Catching 37)

Therefore, the quote above from II Timothy is my best guess at a Biblical quote which could encapsulate Eraserhead. When dealing with a film as challenging as Eraserhead, and an artist as intuitively brilliant as David Lynch, a best guess is all a cinematic detective can hope for.

The Script

Eraserhead script – transcribed and annotated by David Johnson

Works Cited

David Lynch film and television projects:

Eraserhead (1977)

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Books:

The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Meridian. November 1974.

Lynch, David. Lynch on Lynch. Ed. Ed Rodley. London: Faber and Faber. 1997.

Lynch, David. Catching the Big Fish. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 2006.

Olson, GregBeautiful Dark. Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. 2008.

Chute, David. Out to Lynch. David Lynch: Interviews. Ed. Richard A. Barney. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. 2009.

Online articles and resources:

Saban, Stephen and Longacre, Sarah. Eraserhead: Is There Life After Birth? New York: The Soho Weekly News. October 20, 1978.

Hartmann, Mike. The City of Absurdity. Eraserhead online resources. November, 1996.

Bean, Travis. Eraserhead, or: The meaning of the baby; the meaning of fear. Cinema Beans. June 7th, 2012.

Ebiri, Bilge. David Lynch Thinks No One Will Ever Agree on Eraserhead. Vulture.com. Sept. 19, 2014.

Adelson, Fred B. David Lynch: “Philadelphia is Percolating in Me.” Delaware Online. October 23, 2014.

17 thoughts on “Turning the Nightmare into a Dream: Eraserhead Revisited

  1. Very interesting analysis, congratulations for putting all the work into it! It makes sense, although I doubt it that I could’ve come up with the same detailed interpretation of all the metaphors. But it is really a movie worth watching, but maybe a bit too difficult to understand, for a layman like me 😉

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  2. Great analysis, certainly convinced me about the importance of what’s behind Henry’s bricked-out window. “There’s a man in back of this place, he’s the one who’s doing it”, as it were. It would seem to suggest the violent mugging is a depiction of Freud’s primal scene, which according to wikipedia “refers to the sight of sexual relations between the parents, as observed, constructed, or fantasized by the child and interpreted by the child as a scene of violence”, a theme that would resurface in Blue Velvet.

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  3. “Therefore, the film is ultimately about confronting fear, destroying it, and embracing bliss. A powerful and inspiring message for anyone who, like Henry, lives in a world of fear—you can get out of it.” Perfect. This sums up my thoughts about it beautifully.

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  4. I’ve got the opportunity to introduce this great film to a young friend, so I thought I’d see what others think of the film. It gives me great joy to expose the younger generation to the Lynch “classics”–imagine all the young people going through life never seeing ERASERHEAD! Just read your thoughtful interpretation two years after you wrote it–Have seen ERASERHEAD many times, and your writing makes a lot of sense. Now let’s see what my young friend thinks of it!

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  5. Wonderful write-up, and a real eye-opener.

    I want to challenge it a little though, because although I feel you have it almost spot on, there seems to to be a crucial element that has eluded you.

    Multiple times you refer to the “puddle” by which the attack took place. You seem to dismiss this puddle as a coincidental landmark by which something terrible happened. I believe the puddle is the result of the attack. The puddle is the blood of the man who was attacked (and possibly killed), which Lynch witnessed from his window in Philadelphia in his past. The puddle was not there to start with; it oozed from the dying man and left a mark of fear in Lynch as he watched passively in horror.

    This theory somewhat changes the core of your transcript. The baby is indeed fear, but it is also guilty concscience for witnessing the murder/attack and not doing anything about it. It is Henry’s (Lynch’s) own cowardice of not responding to the attack, of not helping nor reporting it and instead repressing it and pretending he never saw a man die outside his window. The pool of blood is the constant reminder of his cowardice and inaction, and thereby also his fears of being a victim himself if he speaks up about it.

    This leads me to believe that the Man in the Planet is actually his guilty conscience, egging him on to confront his own fears. The man is trapped inside the planet, because it is the prison that Henry’s mind has built to contain his guilty conscience from eating him up. The baby is a manifestation of said guilty conscience (the man in the planet) to spur Henry into action through confrontation of fear. The baby is in fact the Man in the Planet, rebirthing himself )or part of himself) in order to help Henry confront his own cowardly fears. Notice how the Man in the Planet has numerous deformities and pustules reminiscent of the baby. They are the same entity.

    The beginning of the movie supports this, in that we see the trapped man (guilty conscience) jumping into action suddenly at seeing something through the window. This sequence is Henry remembering the act (perhaps due to stepping in the pool), and the Man in the Planet seizing his chance of escape. The birth of the baby is to prevent Henry from forgetting and sinking back into blissful ignorance. The baby distracts him from all the things that Henry uses (sex being a big factor) to repress the memory of what he witnessed through the window.

    Henry’s transformation into the baby is again a metaphor for his guilty conscience eating him up. His severed head sinking into the pool of blood from the murdered man. The eraser trying to erase the memory and the guilt (and fear).

    Thus the Dancing Potato Lady is not blissful victory over fear. No, it is the complete opposite. She is the blissful ignorance, trying to constantly help Henry forget and ignore. The scene of Henry watching the Dancing Lady disappearing, and then being replaced briefly by the Man in the Planet is again a metaphor for his guilty conscience (the man) trying to distract him from blissful ignorance (the lady).

    She tries to keep him from his guilt, and eventually succeeds at the end of the film where Henry stabs and kills his imprisoned conscience. It tries to grow strong, in order to get Henry to own up to his fears and guilt. The movie actually ends in tragedy, as Henry gives in to ignorance and kills his own conscience. The white stuff that envelops the baby as it tries to escape is bliss overpowering the ugly, truthful guilt.

    Mary might also be trying to help him come to terms with his past. She suffers because he represses his childhood horrors, which begin to eat up at her as well (as seen in the bed scene where he pulls spermatozoons from her). Very prominent is the scene where she gets fed up and leaves; she feels trapped in a relationship with a man who shares his body with her, but not his mind and past. A scene that is very subtly portrayed when she sits at the end of the bed, trying to wrest free her suitcase. She sits behind the bars of the bed, rocking violently back and forth in a sexual manner, while the bars make it look like she is trapped in a prison cell being raped.

    In short, the film is about a man trying to escape his own guilt and fears by giving in to ignorance and bliss. So in a way it can be seen as positive or negative. He conquers his fears and guilt, and can perhaps feel free, which may be good since there was probably nothing he could have done back in the alley anyway. But on the flipside, he gives in to cowardice instead of confronting it and owning up, thus he remains a coward.

    What say you?

    Like

  6. (Sorry if this is a double post, it didn’t seem to get posted the first time around as it took quite a while to write, so I’m copy/pasting it again to be sure)

    Wonderful write-up, and a real eye-opener.

    I want to challenge it a little though, because although I feel you have it almost spot on, there seems to to be a crucial element that has eluded you.

    Multiple times you refer to the “puddle” by which the attack took place. You seem to dismiss this puddle as a coincidental landmark by which something terrible happened. I believe the puddle is the result of the attack. The puddle is the blood of the man who was attacked (and possibly killed), which Lynch witnessed from his window in Philadelphia in his past. The puddle was not there to start with; it oozed from the dying man and left a mark of fear in Lynch as he watched passively in horror.

    This theory somewhat changes the core of your transcript. The baby is indeed fear, but it is also guilty concscience for witnessing the murder/attack and not doing anything about it. It is Henry’s (Lynch’s) own cowardice of not responding to the attack, of not helping nor reporting it and instead repressing it and pretending he never saw a man die outside his window. The pool of blood is the constant reminder of his cowardice and inaction, and thereby also his fears of being a victim himself if he speaks up about it.

    This leads me to believe that the Man in the Planet is actually his guilty conscience, egging him on to confront his own fears. The man is trapped inside the planet, because it is the prison that Henry’s mind has built to contain his guilty conscience from eating him up. The baby is a manifestation of said guilty conscience (the man in the planet) to spur Henry into action through confrontation of fear. The baby is in fact the Man in the Planet, rebirthing himself )or part of himself) in order to help Henry confront his own cowardly fears. Notice how the Man in the Planet has numerous deformities and pustules reminiscent of the baby. They are the same entity.

    The beginning of the movie supports this, in that we see the trapped man (guilty conscience) jumping into action suddenly at seeing something through the window. This sequence is Henry remembering the act (perhaps due to stepping in the pool), and the Man in the Planet seizing his chance of escape. The birth of the baby is to prevent Henry from forgetting and sinking back into blissful ignorance. The baby distracts him from all the things that Henry uses (sex being a big factor) to repress the memory of what he witnessed through the window.

    Henry’s transformation into the baby is again a metaphor for his guilty conscience eating him up. His severed head sinking into the pool of blood from the murdered man. The eraser trying to erase the memory and the guilt (and fear).

    Thus the Dancing Potato Lady is not blissful victory over fear. No, it is the complete opposite. She is the blissful ignorance, trying to constantly help Henry forget and ignore. The scene of Henry watching the Dancing Lady disappearing, and then being replaced briefly by the Man in the Planet is again a metaphor for his guilty conscience (the man) trying to distract him from blissful ignorance (the lady).

    She tries to keep him from his guilt, and eventually succeeds at the end of the film where Henry stabs and kills his imprisoned conscience. It tries to grow strong, in order to get Henry to own up to his fears and guilt. The movie actually ends in tragedy, as Henry gives in to ignorance and kills his own conscience. The white stuff that envelops the baby as it tries to escape is bliss overpowering the ugly, truthful guilt.

    Mary might also be trying to help him come to terms with his past. She suffers because he represses his childhood horrors, which begin to eat up at her as well (as seen in the bed scene where he pulls spermatozoons from her). Very prominent is the scene where she gets fed up and leaves; she feels trapped in a relationship with a man who shares his body with her, but not his mind and past. A scene that is very subtly portrayed when she sits at the end of the bed, trying to wrest free her suitcase. She sits behind the bars of the bed, rocking violently back and forth in a sexual manner, while the bars make it look like she is trapped in a prison cell being raped.

    In short, the film is about a man trying to escape his own guilt and fears by giving in to ignorance and bliss. So in a way it can be seen as positive or negative. He conquers his fears and guilt, and can perhaps feel free, which may be good since there was probably nothing he could have done back in the alley anyway. But on the flipside, he gives in to cowardice instead of confronting it and owning up, thus he remains a coward.

    What say you?

    Like

  7. Great review based on symbolism and themes.

    A couple years ago, I made a surprising discovery about Eraserhead. All those little absurd details? They come from a common inspiration – an older, literary text. This “mystery text” motivated everything from the messed up skin on the Man in the Planet to the little picture ripped in half to the chicken bleeding to the Radiator Lady’s puffy cheeks. None of these details is truly random. Overall, I found nearly 100 associations. This main text motivated the images – and it reveals a second text that motivates the plot. It opens up a new, unexpected meaning.

    March 19th, 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of Eraserhead’s first public screening. I will reveal the secrets in a Graphic novel on that day. In the meantime, I’m revealing a panel a day at https://key2eraserhead.com. I’m making announcements on Twitter at @key2eraserhead.com.

    And a great thing about the graphic novel approach – it makes it as easy to understand as reading a comic book.

    BTW, the brick wall is one of the few details not in the “mystery text.” I can’t wait to spill the beans on March 19th.

    Like

  8. Professional level work here. I wonder what the man himself would have to say (or think, I guess as the case may be).

    One thing about the dream… The pacing of everything seems set so that it’s virtually impossible for me to stay awake through this movie. The result is that I watch the movie in bits of disjointed pieces, further ‘spacing’ it out for me as it were.

    Like

  9. Wonderful work … I partially agree and disagree yet thank you ! I believe the film is a tale attempting to describe REALITY … What our lives ARE in this universe … a haunting PHYSICAL description of our world view .The man in the ROCK is a morbid physicalist description of a mechanical GOD in a strictly mechanical view of the universe …
    I intend to further review my interpretation in LOST IN THOUGHT GALLERY … please check it out !

    Like

  10. This is the first analysis I’ve seen of Eraserhead that feels like a potential definitive explanation. When I first watched Eraserhead, I thought I was clever and had figured out Lynch’s intentions, but as I’ve rewatched it and read interviews with Lynch, it was clear I was still missing a lot. This feels like the first big picture explanation that puts all the pieces together in a more analytical/factual way (vs loosely interpreting it)

    I’ve thought about doing a video essay on Eraserhead and this has made me rethink some things – if I ever do one, I’ll definitely credit your work here. (I have my own additional thoughts that your essay ends up supporting as well)

    Like

  11. Very interesting read, that pays enough attention to overlooked details, especially the window (a Threshold that’s recalled by Jowday’s inherent concept-character in “Twin Peaks: The Return”), but I’ll offer another interpretation.
    Being Lynch’s own “Philadelphia story” means it’s about a city which is also known as “The City of Neighborhoods”, “The Workshop of the World”, “The Birthplace of America”, “The Athens of America” and commonly shortened as “Philly”.
    What do we get of the above in “Eraserhead”?
    There’s an invasive neighbour who lures the citizen and then emarginates him, like in a sexual intercourse gone wrong.
    There’s an industrial setting.
    There are Birth, fear of it and possibily Abortion.
    There’s a Man in the Planet who’s possibly Saturn, a.k.a Chronos, whose cult was mainly located in Athens; he cut his own father’s penis off and the lever might be an allusion to a damaged phallus which generates deformed things.
    So…
    I believe we’re not in Henry’s mind, but in Mary’s womb:
    -nothing we saw earlier at the X’s really happened and was a simulation/abstraction of Henry’s fears, to which he doesn’t know how to react
    -Spike’s a spermatozoon waiting to see the light of life outside the womb and he’s scared of being aborted ’cause he’s the result of a rape (the traumatic event seen from the window) and this explains why Henry doesn’t want him, not feeling like being his father
    -Spike fears even his mother would eventually abort him, so he “chooses” a premature birth
    -in his frailty, he switches places with his father’s environment, which results in Henry having a naïve attitude relating to the walls of a womb not so protective
    -the chaos around him makes Henry want to desire the destruction/erasure of the city he lives in by an atomic bomb, much like Lynch himself hated being both so intrigued and exhausted by Philadelphia
    -the filicide is a “literal” sublimation of a Philly-cide
    -with the places having being switched, the destruction of the outside automatically means the destruction of the inside, i.e. Henry causing his own sterility
    -after destructive and self-destructive wishes, there’s need for spiritual redemption, and at the end of the experience there’s new blank ground (the blinding white light) in order to move on and create or to be actually (re?)born in peace at least.

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