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Why Eraserhead (1977) Actually Is David Lynch's Most Spiritual Film

In a 2007 interview with BAFTA, David Lynch described his first feature film, Eraserhead (1977), as his 'most spiritual film'. When asked to elaborate, he said no, causing the audience to laugh at his bluntness. This would eventually become a meme format, still used today, in response to making outlandish statements and refusing the clarify. Lynch is a deliberately obtuse director when it comes to the meaning behind his films, stating in the same interview that he has given the audience the tools to decipher the film in it, and that he has no more work to do as an artist once the film has been released.

As an audience member, I do really love the idea that it's up to me to pull apart what the filmmaker was trying to convey, what they wanted me to feel, and I think this small nugget, this notion of spirituality in the film is a good place to start when trying to explain what Eraserhead is 'about'. He won't give a definitive answer. Neither will I. But I will try to explain why I connected with it and why I agree that it is in fact incredibly spiritual.

Source: Reddit

A good place to start would be define what we mean by 'spiritual'. Outside of aligning yourself with a particular belief system (i.e. a religion), we can take it to mean 'of the spirit' or more plainly, 'of the self'. To make a spiritual statement in a film is to discuss humanity in a more abstract and, specifically, less material way. And there is almost nothing more intangible than a dream.

The way the film incorporates the dream space, making it tangible from the point of view of Henry, is cohesive to the way the main character is truly the subject of the film. When subjectivity is usually discussed in relation to art, it is seen as an inevitability, but this can't be wholly true because otherwise, most films would feel deeply alienating. What films tend to lean towards is an experience that brings universality to a subjective experience, ensuring that if you aren't the main character (and you probably aren't), you're still able to understand the world and the experience of being the person at the centre of the story. 

What Eraserhead does is the opposite. It's an experience about a specific man dealing with his arranged marriage and newborn son, and at no point does the audience feel invited into this world. We are held at a distance, seemingly for our own safety, because this world is unsettling and creepy, and Lynch wants to emphasise that we probably aren't new fathers who are terrified of our slimy jellybean-shaped baby. The dream realm and the waking one are treated as interchangeable, and the film does very little to help the audience distinguish between the two. In order to get on board, the audience must interrogate the idea of the subjective voice, of Henry as a character, whether he can be trusted and what he is leaving out of his story. According to him, we should hate his baby and resent his wife (for leaving him alone to parent his child) as much as he does.


In Lynch's eyes, what happens to the spirit in an increasingly mechanised world is alienation and a violation of personhood that goes wholly unquestioned. Whether it's being forcibly kissed by your mother-in-law or having your head fly off and fed into a machine making erasers for the ends of pencil, the body has become an empty tool. Furthermore, this mandatory objectification speaks to the way manhood is conceived under a system that requires labour and offspring from you with no real regard to the wants and needs of the self. Henry is passive in his waking life and has very little control over what happens to his body, torn apart by the responsibility of fatherhood.

We aren't offered solutions in viewing this film. Once more, this is a subjective experience and we must simply watch as Henry makes (or doesn't make) decisions. A frustrating and horrifying coping mechanism depicted in the film involves the protagonist becoming his own child, reverting to his infant self as he becomes more run down and exacerbated with his life. This can be read as a way of maintaining control of himself, of not allowing the cold and empty life he leads to force him into being an active participant. He repeatedly chooses to be passive and that's what this reversion emphasises. His spirit has been crushed by the weight of responsibility and on some level, he accepts that he is unable to change this. By becoming a baby, he is able to shirk off the guilt of this truth. But this doesn't come without a price, as he is horrified by his own creation, unable to conceive of the fact that he had a hand in creating something so strange and disgusting, that this child is a part of him.

Eraserhead is spiritual simply because it refuses to encompass, engulf or democratise the experience of Henry. It's a difficult film to 'get' because it's not asking that you relate to what's happening. In fact, it probably doesn't want you take anything material away, apart from the notion that the world is cold and machine-like, and that the humanity of its subject is constantly under attack.