For a certain group of people who happened into self-awareness in the 1980s, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man left a mark. Whether we were scarred for life or matured for the better, the explanation for the movie’s visceral wallop began with the fact that a lot of us were simply too young and too impressionable.
When I sat down as a pre-teen to this VHS rental, I didn’t realize it would result in my first nightmares that were truly emotional and therefore memorable. That a mere movie could have this effect like nothing else in my life up until that point meant I’d watched from a place of dear comfort, which the film had provoked me to both recognize and fear I may never completely return to.
Today, the images from The Elephant Man can still dismantle my sense of security in the world. The grainy black-and-white image of “the man” standing in a full cloak and crude hooded mask is enough to pull me back into a specific feeling of vulnerability. I see the single rectangular eyehole and know what’s behind it staring out. It reminds me that I could never stop staring back.
Here was my first horror movie that wasn’t actually make-believe. And through the very act of watching the spectacle itself, I’d made real a much larger monster.
“We’ve seen a lot more of these machine accidents,” Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) says over a bloodied patient on his operating table. Modernity grinds all around the capital at the apex of the British Empire that looms more manufactured and more hostile to human bodies every day.
But the doctor has been pursuing a side project in a wholly unscientific world—that of the carnival freak show. He’s learned of an extraordinary curiosity among its lurid attractions, and he’s determined to see it.
Like few other works about the Victorian period, The Elephant Man captures the sooty details, helped by the black-and-white film stock used to shoot them. As Treves follows the winding alleyways toward his first glimpse of the “terrible Elephant Man,” he passes workers endlessly pounding away at pipes and merchants working inflated mechanical contraptions, purposes unclear. In other scenes, Lynch focuses on gas lamps, cranks, gears and, whenever menace lurks, steam and stoked flames.
Against this churn of industry, life has contravened with something wildly outside the constructed molds. Without a bird or a tree in sight, the setting lacks any sign of nature. The Elephant Man uses a palette that can only accurately convey the colors of coal or smoke. Modernity must contend with one specimen of the living world that has swollen out of all boundaries and limitations, a human form for which it has no classification or measure.
We watch then as this implausible face and figure is slowly destroyed in the only place the industrial world has found to put it—the business of show.
The Elephant Man was the second feature from David Lynch, after Eraserhead in 1977. That cinematic debut was culled so directly from some other plane of being it’s almost too narrow to call it subconscious. About his creative process, Lynch has described his ideas as coming to him from unknown entities sitting in an “adjacent room” who are slipping to him, one at a time, “puzzle parts.” His films are the attempts to put the pieces they give him together. Lynch has refused to elaborate on this.
It’s part of art film lore that not only is the bearer of these eerie wonders an actual conscious human being (probably) but an American from Montana who attended JFK’s inauguration on his 15th birthday with his fellow Eagle Scouts. As events turned, in another 15 years, young David Lynch would have enough puzzle pieces to make Eraserhead.
For its follow-up, Lynch wanted a screenplay that wasn’t his own. He selected The Elephant Man upon hearing just the title. He has also said that he wouldn’t feel quite comfortable capturing Victorian England until a location visit to an abandoned hospital in London where, standing in the hallway and peering into a derelict ward, he “felt this thing enter me.” From there, he knew he was ready.
The project was possible thanks to another unlikely name, Mel Brooks, as producer. His wife, Anne Bancroft, would play the role of stage actress Madge Kendal. And Brooks would enthusiastically support his promising director’s vision.
It’s hard to say whose involvement in a 19th century biopic is odder: one of 20th century’s most successful masters of farce or the experimental director himself. In any case, the narrative was too straightforward to be Lynch. There’s a tendency to think that his auteur career launched in 1986 with Blue Velvet, the masterpiece that would solidify the adjective Lynchian.
But it was The Elephant Man that would set his universe in motion. The themes whirled like a woeful carnival calliope from its cinematic moment and pulled back the curtain on the rest of Lynch’s nightmare grotesqueries, with ethereal daydreams always rising to meet them.
In The Elephant Man, Lynch shows us gradually the full image of the protagonist, named John Merrick (after the real-life Joseph Merrick). The incremental reveal is a classic horror device; Lynch delays the unmasking of what he knows the audience has come for in the first place.
The very first shot of the film is not of a creature at all, but the eyes of a beautiful young woman. She is framed in a photograph that floats in darkness to the sounds of circus music. We learn later that this is Merrick’s mother.
The opening vision flashes quickly into violence. Charging elephants toss the woman to the ground and she’s left screaming in slow-motion. We then zoom in, entering through that strange hood’s eyehole, its shape matching that of a stage curtain, a film’s frame, our cinema screen.
We don’t completely see the Elephant Man at first. Its proprietor, the vile Bytes, gives Treves a private showing of what he refers to as his “treasure.” Bytes spits out his stagey introduction, telling of a man whose mother was attacked by elephants during her pregnancy. But for our story’s exposition, we’ve established this already. We saw the images of this attack at the outset. So the information comes to us as a hint that what we’ve been watching may be its own possible tall-tale.
The contrary cold reality presents John Merrick. We see him first mainly in the shadows of his awful conditions. The camera cuts away quickly, and lingers instead on a closeup of Treves and his tears. Later, under his care, Treves presents Merrick to an anatomy lecture. Again, our view is not complete. We’re given only a silhouette from behind a partition, a kind of “backstage” view; the focus stays on the aghast reactions of the doctors seated in the hall.
Finally, Merrick comes into light sitting in his hospital bed. An attending nurse screams before him; Merrick recoils, as scared of her fear as she is of his face. We see the large tumors of his head, his gaping mouth and a drooped and lumpy right-side (all ground-breaking prosthetics cast from the actual remains of Joseph Merrick that took seven hours to apply to actor John Hurt).
The plain sight of the “monster” in a situation of repose and recovery introduces the human being. It starts the darker reveal—the title character is not, in fact, any sort of creature but a 21-year old man, aching with awareness and tenderness.
Still, he won’t speak freely until the latter half of the film. More crucially, we almost never get Merrick’s point of view. The only exceptions to this are in dream sequences, with the recurring face and voice of his mother, and the final scene where he becomes a spectator at the royal theater. Only in these pure or near-fantasy moments do we see the story through Merrick’s eyes.
Otherwise, he is only gazed upon. The ogling carnival-goers, the scrutinizing doctors, the pitying members of high society and we, the audience members seated beyond the fourth wall, all gawk.
It’s the deeper unsettling injustice. The widest gaze is coming from us. We are participants because we’ve paid to watch the show, eyeballing with the others who we assume we’re above. Merrick’s appearance is our allure, precisely because it has been moving us to tears.
Lynch himself, the showman proprietor with a lens, acknowledges his own present hand in the heartbreaking spectacle he has birthed into existence. Bytes points out that a greedy carnival barker and a doctor trying to make a name for himself aren’t so different. During their first encounter, Bytes insists that “they understand each other.” Later, the hospital head nurse (Wendy Hiller) admonishes Treves, throwing him into a spiral of doubt when she says, “If you ask me, he’s just being stared at all over again.”
It appears to be true, and appearances continue to propel the story. Visiting their home, Merrick shows Treves and his wife (Hannah Gordon) the framed photograph of his mother. This new modern technology of the period also adorns the mantle at the Treves household. As they exchange the photos of their lovely family, Merrick apologizes for getting emotional and “making a spectacle of himself.”
The heights of sentiment then soar with Madge Kendal (Bancroft), the renowned star of English theater. Her own identity is built on being the object of stares, and she strikes an instant connection with Merrick. When she mentions her status in the theater, Merrick asks, “Do you live there?” She then presents him with a gift—her own photograph—and a copy of Romeo and Juliet, from which they read the famous first kiss sonnet together. She kisses him on the cheek and declares that he is Romeo.
Her beauty and his ugliness are the star-crossed lovers. A saccharine score swoons and swells. Our spectacle has gone romantic.
The Elephant Man returned to theaters in 2020 to commemorate its 40th anniversary. Lynch oversaw the film’s restoration himself. Its run, however, was cut short by a worldwide pandemic. We had the new collector’s edition of the film to shelter with at home.
The 4K print makes the dark spaces and the bright contrasts all the more present. On that first partial glimpse of Merrick at the sideshow, we see almost less because of the richer, more opaque shadows. The glow of any lights are also that much more vivid, whether a flame in a lantern or sunshine through a window.
The whole restoration highlights Lynch’s early evolution from a painter—his foundational artistic pursuit—to a filmmaker when he realized he could create, “a moving painting, but with sound.”
Looking back through The Elephant Man, we can also spot the origins of all the visions and revelations that would follow. It’s a little like studying the early realistic paintings of Picasso, where the accessible monochromatic depiction of subject matter in, for instance, blue explodes in his next period to boundless new abstractions.
In Lynch’s art, the cruelty of Bytes and the night porter flare into the demon psychotics of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Twin Peaks, just as angelic women of gossamer grace counter them. The idea of a man as an elephant gets distorted further. Beginning with the mutant infant of Eraserhead, we can trace a through line from The Elephant Man into painted faces, severed ears, dancing dwarves, soothsaying giants, pale mystery men at parties, pitch-black grinning figures behind diners, televised rabbit people and a talking monkey in an interrogation room.
Lynch’s dreamy romanticism would expand as well. He would always wear large pieces of his heart on his sleeve. He would portray hideous brutality and gushing empathy without distinguishing which one might be more dramatic, and therefore more the illusion.
But from the starting point of The Elephant Man, he proffered only that if we wanted to keep our heads we’d need desperately to hold on to a sentimental heart. His melodrama clash became of two archetypal entwined extremes (or, for the sake of continuity in his cinematic universe, let’s say peaks twinned): violence and compassion, horror and beauty, darkness and light.
They never came more powerfully close to a conscious surface than in his second film.
John Merrick experiences a dream come true. After the actress showers him with attention, members of London’s upper classes take notice and perform their own goodwill in visits for tea. The Princess of Wales arrives. She presents a letter from Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself, urging the hospital run by its Governor (John Gielgud, the real living legend of the English stage) to keep Merrick as a permanent resident. To celebrate the occasion, Merrick receives another gift—cologne, brushes, and beauty products inside an elegant dressing case. But it all portends Merrick’s backslide into his life as an object of entertainment.
While he is brushing his hair, the hospital night porter and a group of revelers who’ve paid for a look, including Bytes, burst in. The night porter knocks and announces tauntingly, “Curtain time!”
The excruciating scene has been foreshadowed in an earlier nightmare sequence. The horror reawakens. The circus music strikes up. The intruders cackle as Merrick stoically endures his return to abuse. The only indignity he ever reacts to, in a sudden howl as he’s pushed toward it, is his own reflection in the mirror.
The group departs but Bytes stays. He steals his Elephant Man back to punish and degrade him all the more for the distinguished “stardom” he’s attained elsewhere. Under his familiar appalling custody, Merrick collapses onstage at a new sideshow. That night, drunk and raging, Bytes locks him into a cage with monkeys. The atrocious pageant has destroyed Merrick as a human being.
In this devastating narrative plunge, Lynch has led himself—and us—toward the crushing consequences of our gasping pity and, above all, our inability to turn away. It has culminated in the tragedy of Merrick hoisted like a puppet by fools and caged like an animal.
We are left gutted while still inside our own act of glaring. Our reaction of vulnerability comes from the same place as the monster we made. What, in the name of creation, have we done? Lynch wants us to sit with this feeling. Because our empathy will also be a bridge to redemption. It will prove strong enough to transcend even our own complicity in the hurt.
The rock bottom of Merrick’s story is followed by a scene of sincere uplift and deep humanity. The Elephant Man is rescued, not by the doctor nor any other of society’s authorities, but by his fellow performers.
The other circus acts—persons too tall or short or fat or hairy—break Merrick from the cage. In one of the most exquisite shots in all of Lynch’s cinema, these misfits hobble away together, holding a light through the cover of darkness as they guide Merrick to safety. By morning at a seaport, the leader of the group (Kenny Baker), who comes up to Merrick’s knee and wears a plumed hat, wishes Merrick luck in a tone of fairy-tale buoyancy. He addresses him as “friend,” the only person in the film to ever do so.
Returned to society, Merrick walks through a train station where the eyes of the public close in—including Lynch himself, in a split-second cameo. These people chase and unmask the Elephant Man once more. Merrick cries out the now world-famous line, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”
The Elephant Man first arrived on the cusp of a decade that would renew the particular American devotion to appearances. In 1980, a Hollywood movie star was elected U.S. president. Surgery became plastic and popular for everyone trying to conform to tighter conceptions of beauty. Capturing ourselves on video in rapidly evolving formats became a currency. From there, a new millennium would be shaped by social profiles accumulated in an online “book” of our faces, as we stared at and stared back from more screens than any scientist or entertainer could have ever imagined. Television with the title of “reality” would steer the entire culture. Eventually, one of its gaudiest barkers would make an actor as president seem old-fashioned.
Our carnival would grow darker, more knowingly performative and more surreal. Life would do its best to imitate Lynch. But one aspect of his world that viewers never seemed to be able to fully reckon with was his sentimentality. Lynch’s devotion to unironic exaggerated emotion seemed, in the end, the most abstruse mystery. Regardless of how melodramatic reality itself became, the moments of overflowing compassion in his films were either inadequately labeled camp or lost in the bigger questions of artifice. But what remained was his heart, the last epiphany in need of any explanation.
Merrick has a final chance to attend a theater performance. He sits in the royal box beside the Princess. They watch a folkloric pantomime play full of prancing animals, moving trees, a moment of an ogre behind bars, and a fairy floating over lovers on a bridge. Each scene of this play functions as a magical microcosm of the very film we’re concluding. Merrick stares down upon the spectacle, enraptured.
After the curtain falls, Mrs. Kendal takes the stage to praise their special guest. The audience gives Merrick a standing ovation. “Go ahead, they want to see you,” Treves urges. He has reached a bittersweet summit. This is where he belongs, his place of ruin and his bastion of salvation. He stands and takes a solemn bow.
Things will not be okay. The horror will endure as will this overwhelming beautiful show.
We wear masks in public for the time being. I hear the sound of my shielded breath as I walk out and about the world like a patient, keeping my distance from others. It’s as awkward as the inconvenience is minor.
But I still manage to feel helpless. I still feel like we’ve all been subdued into a state of half-sleep through this uneasy year, whether it’s all been a fever dream or a just passing fog.
A tremor of vulnerability renewed itself as I sat down recently to watch The Elephant Man again. I wasn’t sure I could handle it. Am I resilient enough for this now? Am I finally old enough to see it?
Will any of us be able to absorb any more inevitable heartache? I know only that we can share some vulnerability. We can acknowledge what hurts.
One smaller salvation is that we have a movie like this one to push us, beyond any of its complexities, to care. Any flood of emotion we experience in reaction to The Elephant Man probably can’t be too much. Like the lines of poetry delivered by Merrick’s mother in the last shot drifting through the stars, it never really dies.
We may need this spectacle. We may need to remember it was real. We may need, more than ever, a master of seeing to show us once again.