Our Eraserhead screening was naïve and unexpected and for me had lasting impact, because when art enters our heads uninvited, leaves traces after it’s flashed through our consciousness, jars the brain beautifully so we can’t help watching wide-eyed, these experiences take root and give the imagination fertile reach.
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Not being primed to explain, give meaning to, or make ordinary an extraordinary experience gives young minds reach and absorbency. A nine-year-old head has room for lasting terror and ecstasy, has fuller imaginative dimensions because its apperceptive mass isn’t clogged up with categories or bogged down with classifications. Preteen cupboards aren’t so neurotically arranged as to presume automatically where weird goes or which way strange is stacked, how horror slips snug alongside surreal, abstract gets wedged in with expressionist, not to mention in which drawer Lynchian belongs. We are busy always sifting and sorting, but at an early age nothing is for certain or takes absolute priority up front or gets relegated to mothy back rows, every aesthetic jolt jockeys for position; open and critically disarmed, perceptions are free to float and land where they will, sometimes with such an impact we still feel the ripples years later, because what hits your nine-year-old head haunts hardest.
If seeing Eraserhead (1976) when I was nine disfigured my perception of film and art, the alternative, that had I not seen it my ways of seeing would have been unalterably figured, seems far worse. It wasn’t a filmic experience, not an exchange between viewer and product curated on-screen. The best way I can describe Eraserhead’s visceral effect twenty-seven years after the event would be to say I felt I’d dreamt Henry and his apartment and would carry the monochrome memory of resurrected worms, a puff-cheeked Lady in the Radiator, dissected alien babies, those all-but-artificial-looking leaking chickens, this world of factory gothic, claustrophobic rooms, eroded reality and indeterminacy, not as movie memories; they got entangled in my preteen putting-together and sorting-out, disrupted the dry process of this goes here, that goes there, what’s art, what’s not. Being receptive and unable to articulate (so often a byword for explaining away) what I’d seen allowed Lynch’s vision to enter intact and bare-knuckled, as an immaculate imaginative act, seen and felt off-screen and firmly in-the-head.
Eraserhead was sixteen years old when I saw it in 1993. That it was still a phenomenon, an example of high art weirdness that’d stowed away into the movie mainstream, is why by chance a VHS copy happened to land in our house. My mum was doing a B.A in fine art and it was part of the syllabus. She told me and my sister (also sixteen at the time) that during a screening at the college, half the mature students walked out, which, combined with the 18-certificate and horror-tinged green title above Henry’s head in gritty chiaroscuro on the cover, gave the film an air of murky forbidden promise, temptation enough for us to watch it one evening when left alone. I’d already been acclimated to movie gore and violence. We had a relaxed attitude to movie certification – I’d seen Chucky, Evil Dead, Alien, Terminator, etc. – so it wasn’t in lurid anticipation of what the 18-certificate entailed that enticed me, more the question of what could make half a roomful of adult art students sulk and storm out?
If it was linear narrative loyalists who walked first, they might have left early, even during or shortly after the Man in the Planet prologue that cuts suddenly to Henry traipsing through muddy heaps and puddles to his apartment building. Or they may have simply left when made to wait thirteen (the magic number for some Eraser-eggheads) seconds for the elevator doors to close; and if not, at least a few in the audience looking for readable signposts in the first thirteen minutes would have walked out when Henry enters his apartment, with its surfaces piled with soil, puts a Fats Waller 45 on an old record player, takes off his wet sock, puts it on a steaming radiator that he stares into with stupefied longing, then transfers this look to a brick wall viewed through a dirty window, and then crosses the room, opens a drawer full of paper, a saucer of water he flips a coin into and a photo of his girlfriend Mary that’s been ripped in half that he tenderly puts back together. Those in the audience impatient for exposition and accustomed to narrative lynchpins, Chekhov’s gun, dialogue, would have already left by now, I imagine. My sister and I are still watching, though, suspended in the unknown and estranged world of Henry, who teeters on the edge of being hilarious but who’s too uneasy and haunted to laugh at.
The queasy have their first real opportunity to leave during dinner. Henry arrives at Mary’s house for a meet-the-parents episode, where her father memorably introduces himself with these lines: “We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man-made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re new. Hi, I’m Bill.” When Henry is given the honour of carving, the chicken moves its legs up and down and viscous blood bubbles from its artificial anus. Exit the queasiest.
It’s shortly after dinner that Henry learns Mary’s pregnant, though with what won’t be made clear until back in Henry’s apartment, as we enter a scene of bemused parenthood where all the terrifying realities of feeling ill-prepared and the floor-swallowing petrification of being responsible for a fragile human life are grossly magnified by the indeterminate species of Henry and Mary’s bundle of fear. To make matters worse, it cries like a vulnerable, needy, sickly baby. Usually referred to as “the baby,” christened Spike by Jack Nance who played Henry, this best-kept cinematic secret has been the cause of long, deep speculation and guesswork. How did David Lynch create a creature so uncannily lifelike yet so inhuman, so implausibly alive yet unlike any living thing? We don’t know and I’m sure, thankfully, we never will. The obsessional response “the baby” so often evokes lets us hone in on one aspect of this film that can stand in for the whole subculture of Eraserhead: while knowing “the baby” is a filmic device, many viewers nevertheless approach it as a mystery that needs solving so as to reassume the safe distance they’re used to when watching even the most realistic depictions of violence. Henry and Mary’s baby is so real yet unfathomable, appears not to have derived from anything recognisably of-this-earth, as though without origin, the common impulse is to try and reveal the lamb or rabbit in heavy prosthetics or highly advanced animatronics working underneath the bandages, an impulse Henry himself won’t be able to resist later in the film, when he uses scissors to cut through its bandages, only to discover they are all that contain the baby’s fragile organs, which froth and spew a thick curdled cheese. Exit the last of the queasy. After the organ-spewing scene, my sister and I are still watching, and it’s this scene in particular and “the weird baby thing” in general she can still remember (she’s only seen it once) twenty-seven years later.
Big theories of Eraserhead abound, anecdotally, in forums and in full-length books. There is J. A. Fairhurst’s confident graphic novel The Key to Eraserhead: David Lynch’s Greatest Secret Unlocked!, which promises to reveal “the mystery text that inspired the absurd details sprinkled throughout the movie” but makes not much more than a spirited guess, using a creative constellation of unconvincing dot-to-dots to demonstrate Hamlet’s at the heart of it all. Kenneth George Godwin’s Eraserhead, The David Lynch Files: Volume 1: The Full Story of One of the Strangest Films Ever Made doesn’t claim to decrypt its mysteries; instead, Godwin excavates Eraserhead through exhaustive interviews, essays, commentary, and production history, as though by taking the back out he might shed light on what he describes in his early essay1 as the “intensely personal, unshared” experience of watching and rewatching Eraserhead. Only Twin Peaks would go on to inspire such an industry of creative curiosity.
A third group of students, more specialised in their queasiness, I’ve more sympathy with. Anyone in the college screening that day suffering with helminthophobia, scoleciphobia, or vermiphobia, all three descriptions of the fear or revulsion of worms or wormlike creatures, should have received a merciful prewarning: Eraserhead’s central motif and binding symbol is the worm.
On his way out of the sick Spike scene, Henry receives a tiny package in a pigeonhole in the lobby of his apartment block. Safely alone in the street he unwraps a small dried worm that he then carefully replaces back into the tiny parcel. Cut back to his apartment and Mary’s still sitting by the “baby.” When Henry enters, there’s a brief glimpse of domestic comedy grotesque, as the father looks on dotingly at mother and child, mother hunched despairingly over the limbless, bandaged newborn as it gasps for breath. Henry retreats into the radiator. In his gaze a stage and spotlight appear, but no puff-cheeked Lady in the Radiator yet. Mary asks if there was any mail and Henry lies, coveting this worm and whatever secret it conveys. Now it’s bedtime, and Henry makes sure she’s asleep before taking out the worm and places it inside an empty wall cabinet. Only severe scoleciphobics will have left by now, since a dead, motionless worm evokes less dread; and speaking from my own phobia, much of the recoiling and revulsion comes from a worm’s squirming movement, its blind slithers and thrusts, so a dead worm isn’t nearly as distressing as a live one. That night Mary leaves the apartment to get a night’s sleep because unappeasable Spike won’t stop wailing. Left alone with “the baby,” Henry opens the cabinet with some suspense, giving us a tinge of pre-horror at what he’s going to find there, but the worm’s still lifeless, our mild scoleciphobics still in their seats. Aside from this worm, large sperm-like creatures that fit within the phobic formula appear right from the start. In the prologue, one is superimposed over Henry’s head. This same sperm is seen later when the Lady in the Radiator giddily stomps on them, leaving milky puddles on a chequered stage. Then again, in a scene I’m certain provoked walkouts among both the generally squeamish and the scoleciphobic, when Mary, now returned to Henry’s bed, has a dream seizure and Henry fumbling under the sheets extracts a number of the sperms from Mary’s nightdress and throws them splat against the wall. Any scoleciphobic strong enough to stomach this scene will soon be off their seats and out the door, as we move from the squished sperms to wall cabinet, doors open, to reveal a now fattened worm, revived and wriggling out of the cabinet into a mound of dirt on Henry’s bedside table. It burrows, surfaces, burrows and surfaces with a whimpering scream (screaming worms may be the scoleciphobic’s creaturely hell incarnate, the sort of image that would have the paralyzing affect the bum behind the diner dumpster has on the guy in Lynch’s later nightmare Mulholland Drive). Through the mouth of the worm we go, to find Henry awake, without Mary, lumbered with Spike who’s about to go through a transformation at the hands of Henry and a pair of scissors. Whoever’s left in the rows now are likely staying seated to the end.
I’d remember Eraserhead’s worms more distinctly than anything else in the film for many years. Henry unwrapping the worm, how he stowed it so cagily in his jacket, how it moved and escaped from the cabinet, came to life and screamed. My fear of worms and larvae of all kinds I still blame half-jokingly on Eraserhead. I doubt it can bear the full brunt, because another childhood episode sits buried deeply stewing with my memories of Eraserhead. At around the same time I accidentally – accidentally I suspect is charitable recall – cut an earthworm in half with a trowel in our garden. Swamped with nauseating guilt, for some reason I buried both halves in separate graves dug with the same trowel. Indoors I’d haunt myself for days imagining their slow spasms in search of their better halves. Both Eraserhead’s worms and the severed earthworm sit heavily side by side as twins of formative scoleciphobic horror in my head.
It’s tempting to follow the worm into a realm of Fairhurst-esque cultic clue hunting. Of the scant information about Eraserhead’s conception, Lynch has given us one alluring tidbit to chew on. When searching for the film’s conceptual thread Lynch says he opened a Bible at random and lit upon the cohering theme in this one found phrase. Lynch isn’t giving away the phrase, although it’s no great theoretic leap to see Henry’s plights in Job’s trials and Job has plenty to say on the subject of worms, for example:
How much less man, a worm? and the son of man, a worm? 25:6
My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken and become loathsome. 7:5
My worms always lead back to the wall cabinet of preadolescent horror. Had it not been for Eraserhead, though, my fear of worms would be a flat and simple phobia. Instead, the film has been an imaginative medium to hold that fear under the light.
Long after the majority of students had left the screening out of prudishness, squeamishness, confusion, boredom, mum was still in the audience; and thanks to her lack of the above and her appreciation of Eraserhead’s unsettling aesthetic, nine-year-old me and my sixteen-year-old sister will watch it too, without any handouts or academic preamble about its place in arthouse lore. Our Eraserhead screening was naïve and unexpected and for me had lasting impact, because when art enters our heads uninvited, leaves traces after it’s flashed through our consciousness, jars the brain beautifully so we can’t help watching wide-eyed, these experiences take root and give the imagination fertile reach. That’s especially true if we’re lucky enough to be exposed to jarring, disorienting, unrestrained works of art before we know any of these words exist to describe them or have learned to discriminate between art and everything else. To give life and variety to our apperceptive mass, always it’s the strangest damn things that are the best damn things.
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Images are screenshots from the film’s DVD or trailers.
- Eraserhead: An Appreciation, one of the first and few serious pieces on the film, printed in Cinefantastique in 1984 [↩]