Just Suggesting This Film Makes You Weird

Eraserhead (1977)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

My brother and his wife returned from the haunted house. It had been named something ridiculous like The Retribution or The Reaping. I had stayed home with the baby, watching a program that explored the possibilities of a prehistoric New York City. The baby liked the part where Mastodons marched down 42nd Street.

They returned from the attraction disappointed- they’d expected to be terrified and found instead that they were simply annoyed by the lazy gore and loud patrons. There is something particularly unterrifying about excessive gore, or at least there is to me. It makes me think of Des in The Last Days of Disco, who idealized his college crush until the moment she took her shirt off and suddenly he was “confronted with these breasts, which turned out to be completely surprising and, frankly, disconcerting”. He says what men think about women’s breasts “isn’t something you just blurt out… it’s far more complicated and nuanced than that”.

Des was talking about desire but I think the same can be said of fear. There is almost something pornographic about gore and special effects. Excessive imagery can be vulgar when compared to what the imagination can do with just the suggestion of a monster.

We started to discuss what would be truly scary and it didn’t include high school dropouts in ski masks. My brother brought up the death tape in The Ring, how he wanted a movie that was like that tape. His wife agreed. I was surprised by how deeply they wished to be disturbed.

The word Eraserhead rose up in my throat like vomit, though I tried to keep it down. I forgot, for a moment, about the differences between the three of us. The gap between the two of them like a bridge, the gap between myself and my brother a medium-sized state like Iowa, and the gap between myself and his wife, a distance which could be measured in intergalactic terms.

I forgot about these differences and told them about the film. Maybe it was the disappointment of the evening’s attraction, or the spirit of October, but they were in just the right mood that they decided to go for it. I couldn’t believe it. I knew I shouldn’t have even brought it up, but I did, and they actually wanted to see it. I knew as I went to turn off the light that it was a mistake.

To some, things are either normal or they’re weird, and that’s it. My brother is on the borderline. I think he wants to explore the underbelly of things, but something seems to hold him back.

Growing up in small towns that seemed like cultural wastelands, we shared our influences with each other. He would make hip hop tapes for us to listen to while we played basketball. I would play music for him on the way to school, and show him movies I’d checked out from the library. At times it felt balanced, at other times off-kilter. Sometimes it seemed like our offerings had inherent values and that mine were inferior and weird, like they weighed less than his. It didn’t help that I was probably too excitable, asked too often, sometimes not asking but pleading. It’s like I needed to show him, needed to share with him, needed someone to relate to me. A low-point was when we were teenagers and I offered him thirty dollars to watch Amelie. He dozed off before she even found the buried box in her bathroom. I dug the bills out of his back pocket and ejected the tape. What used to bother me about that was that he fell asleep—now I’m mostly mortified by the fact that I made it a financial transaction.

A few years later and I was offering up Eraserhead. “It’s really different,” I told them. Most of us have a bag of disclaimers we carry around daily. Explanations, justifications, the need to make other people comfortable.

“Are you sure you wanna watch it?”

They were asleep in less than twenty minutes. Still, this was more than enough time for them to inform me that the special effects were terrible, to criticize the film as “needlessly in black and white,” and to repeatedly question just what the hell I was thinking.

“How can you watch this?” they asked me. “What is this supposed to be about?”

The first question was a rhetorical one, meant to make me feel like a freak. But the second was a reasonable one, something plenty of people have asked in regards to Eraserhead. On the surface, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If there is a sequence of events it is something like this: dream sequence, man meets girlfriend’s parents, girlfriend prematurely gives birth, man and girlfriend marry, baby is sick and difficult to care for, wife abandons baby, man encounters a tap dancer and a neighbor lady, another dream sequence, two strange men fight in the street, man looks for neighbor lady, power outage, baby dies (sort of), another dream sequence. Of course, the baby resembles a deformed alien cow fetus, the tap dancer lives in the radiator, and the dream sequences aren’t really dream sequences at all.

Even David Lynch claims he was having trouble understanding the film’s vision during its five year creation. In his book, Catching the Big Fish, Lynch says he didn’t know what pulled the whole film together until one day when he opened the Bible and “read a sentence.” Lynch wrote that he “closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent.”

He also wrote that it’s his most spiritual film, and that he doubted he would ever reveal which particular Bible verse cemented Eraserhead for him. Perhaps the Bible verse is bullshit, non-existent. Perhaps he is simply adding to the legacy of his own work. Then again, maybe there is a verse that makes Eraserhead makes sense. Because I don’t “understand” any of Lynch’s other work either. Maybe there’s a bible verse that solves the riddle of each of his films. And if there isn’t, okay then. He is a Surrealist after all.

I’m not offended that my brother and his wife didn’t like the movie; I don’t uphold it as a monumental film. Truth be told, it frustrates me and freaks me out.

It’s not about culture or film snobbery. It’s about experience. It was exactly what they asked for, and I thought they could appreciate it for that. It’s something that was created out of thin air and makes you think and feel, even if it’s negative thoughts and feelings. I reminded them that there were many people behind the camera. That someone came up with that story and they made that moon and that abomination baby and that every decision involved in the creation of what they were seeing made them feel a certain way, made them forget that it wasn’t real, that it was all with purpose. They didn’t give a shit.

Some are in such unwavering control of their worlds that they can’t be shown, even for an hour or two, the possibility of other ones. For some, films are meant to entertain, art is meant to decorate, and books are meant for children.

They dismissed it and went to sleep. I remember laying in bed that night, thinking about the next day. Tomorrow, I thought, they won’t remember that they had asked for something and received precisely that. They won’t remember the film’s bleak lighting or the unbearable silence or the thrilling absurdity. Tomorrow they won’t care that they were in a different universe for a few minutes, and that they hated it so much that they followed bread crumbs back to this one.

Tomorrow I will be that cauliflower girl in the radiator, weird as ever.

  1. I loved reading this story. Though I have never offered someone $ to see a movie, I have paid for friends’ movie tickets to entice them toward enjoying something on the big screen. I read that Lynch resisted the release of Eraserhead on VHS for some time, and I can see why because it seems like a film that’s meant to be overwhelming in its sound and gross happenings. I’ll never forget seeing it at the Valley Art Theatre in Tempe, AZ – probably in 1994. Sound man Alan Splet is incredible. I don’t remember a scene in the film where Henry weds Mary. He just hears she’s had a child from her mother, and then in one of the next scenes he’s trapped in his apartment with Mary and their progeny.

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