Eraserhead is a 1977 experimental body horror film written, produced, and directed by David Lynch. It stars Jack Nance as Henry Spencer, the otherwise titular character (due to a surreal dream sequence in which his decapitated head is taken to a pencil factory and made into erasers).
Filmed in black and white, the film presents a bleak, lonely cityscape expressive of extreme social alienation and violent, disturbing unconscious phantasy. It has been preserved in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Here are some quotes:
Mrs. X: It’s Henry isn’t it? Mary tells me you’re a very nice fellow. What do you do?
Henry: Oh, I’m on vacation.
Mrs. X: What did you do?
Mr. X: I thought I heard a stranger. We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man-made. Little damn things, smaller than my fist – but they’re new!…… I’m Bill.
Henry: Hello. I’m Henry.
Mrs. X: Henry’s at Lappell’s factory.
Mr. X: Well Henry, what do you know?
Henry: Oh, I don’t know much of anything.
Mrs. X: Henry, may I speak to you a minute? Over here. Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse?
Henry: [stammering] Why?
Mrs. X: Did you?
Henry: Why are you asking me this question?
Mrs. X: I have a very good reason, and now I want you to tell me.
Henry: I’m, I’m very… I love Mary!
Mrs. X: Henry, I asked you if you and Mary had sexual intercourse!
Henry: Well, I don’t… I don’t think that’s any of your business!
Mrs. X: Henry!
Henry: I’m sorry.
Mrs. X: You’re in very bad trouble if you won’t cooperate… [nuzzling at his neck]
Henry: Well, I… Mary!
Mary X: [grabbing her away] Mother! [sobs]
Mrs. X: Answer me!
Henry: I’m too nervous.
Mrs. X: There’s a baby. It’s at the hospital.
Mary X: Mom!
Mrs. X: And you’re the father.
Henry: Well that’s impossible! It’s only been…
Mary X: Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!
Mary X: [to the crying baby] Shut up! [Baby continues to cry] I can’t take it anymore! I’m going home!
Henry: What are you talking about?
Mary X: All I need is a decent night’s sleep!
Henry: Why don’t you just stay home…
Mary X: I’ll do what I want! And you better take good care of things while I’m gone!
[the Baby is going into violent convulsions and has broken out in spots] “Oh, you are sick!” –Henry
“In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine.
In Heaven, everything…is fine.” –The Lady in the Radiator, singing
The film begins with the Man in the Planet moving levers, Henry’s head floating in space with his mouth wide open, and a large, snake-like spermatozoon coming out of his mouth.
This seems to be a dream, or fantasy, of his. Henry doesn’t want to be the father of a baby, and so he imagines the Man in the Planet to be a kind of sky-father god impregnating his girlfriend Mary X, making her like one of those pretty maidens that Zeus ravished and impregnated in Greek myth.
We note that the Man in the Planet has a deformed face, just as the Lady in the Radiator and the baby are deformed. Unattractiveness in general is a recurring theme in the movie, reinforcing the sense of alienation.
Henry is unattractive in how absurdly geeky he looks, with that hair and those clothes (with the pens in the pocket, and the too-short pants), to say nothing of his awkward pouting. The X family are unattractive in how odd their manner is, always making Henry feel uncomfortable. Even the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall is unattractive in how society would disapprove of her promiscuity.
Lynch’s own fear of fatherhood is apparently what inspired the story (other influences being Kafka‘s Metamorphosis and Gogol‘s short story, “The Nose“), for his daughter Jennifer had been born with “severely clubbed feet.” Hence, the deformed baby with the snake-like head, no limbs, and no skin covering its internal organs.
The fear of fatherhood is extended in the film through Henry’s own conflicted feelings about sex. Part of him wants the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, though her ‘whorishness’–as he seems to sense it–repels him. His coitophobia is demonstrated in his reaction to Mary X’s mother bluntly asking him if he’s had sexual intercourse with her daughter: he retorts that it’s none of her business. Her kissing him embarrasses and agitates him all the more.
Since so much of this film is surreal, it isn’t always easy to distinguish fantasy from reality. So, as with my analysis of mother!, I’ll be assuming that the more bizarre and hallucinatory moments are figments of Henry’s imagination.
Such fantastic moments, apart from the obvious ones, would include Mary’s mother nuzzling on his neck (a narcissistic projection of his own sexual disgust and desires onto her), the bleeding, small “man-made” (!) chicken on his plate (symbolic of his hated baby), and the baby itself, whose hallucinated (as I see them) deformities make it easier for him to rationalize killing it at the end of the movie.
His real reason for hating his baby–however repressed that hate may be–is his Laius complex, a father’s desire to commit filicide out of a fear that his child will grow up to supplant him one day, as evinced in his dream of being decapitated, the baby’s snake-head appearing from the cut in his neck to replace his head.
In Greek myth, Laius wanted baby Oedipus exposed out of fear of the fulfillment of the prophesy that he’d grow up to kill and replace Laius and marry Iocaste. Uranus, disgusted with the ugly children he had by Gaea (the twelve Titans, the three Cyclopes, and three Hecatoncheires), imprisoned the youngest of them in Tartarus. Cronus would rise up against his father and castrate him. Cronus himself was afraid one of his children, the Olympians, would one day supplant him, so he ate them. Zeus, in turn, feared his unborn child, by then-pregnant Metis, would one day supplant him, so he ate her and the baby!
The Man in the Planet (these two could be seen to represent, respectively, Uranus and Gaea–i.e., he is inside her in an act of copulation), moving the phallic levers and causing the spermatozoon to emerge from Henry’s mouth, is thus a figment of Henry’s imagination, a key role in his fantasy that he isn’t the true father of his deformed baby. He is thus projecting his hatred of his baby onto the Man in the Planet, who could also be seen as representing Henry’s hated father.
Henry fears that the baby will supplant him in an act of revenge by the Man in the Planet (an internal object of Henry’s father–recall the close proximity of the planet to Henry’s floating head, and their overlapping, in the opening dream-sequence), whom Henry–in his unconscious phantasy–imagines to be the father he himself supplanted.
In that opening surreal dream sequence, we see Henry’s unconscious mind let loose. We see his head floating in space, so close to that planet, a barren, lifeless spherical rock. The planet suggests the desolation of his inner mental life. Thus, the Man in the Planet, whose deformed face symbolizes an abusive nature, allied with those phallic levers he manipulates, is an internal object residing in Henry’s mind like a ghost haunting a house.
Hard rock suggests death, and pools of water suggest the primordial soup out of which life emerges; so when we see the spermatozoon drop into the liquid, this suggests conception.
Henry walks home alone, carrying a bag of groceries in a bleak, desolate cityscape of essentially lifeless industrialization. We see hills of dirt by a building; he has to pass them to get to where his apartment building is. In fact, his apartment also has piles of dirt and lifeless vegetation in it.
He works in “Lappell’s factory,” but he’s on vacation: that he isn’t going anywhere special, or doing anything interesting, tells us two things about him: his salary must be too low for him to afford going on a trip somewhere, and/or he’s too dead emotionally even to be able to enjoy himself on such a trip, so why go anywhere?
In all of the above observations–filicide fantasies, bleak industrial landscapes bereft of plant life, and a lonely life without human bonding–we see a theme of death over life. Given the increasing urgency in today’s world to resolve the climate change crisis, we can see Eraserhead as prophetic.
David Lynch called this his “most spiritual film,” an odd statement to make about a wish to commit infanticide. In exploring this “spiritual” interpretation, we can see a kind of perverse, morbid, and dark version of the Christ myth: the Man in the Planet is God the Father, the deformed baby is the Christ Child (and Christ, like the baby, must die for us to live), Henry is Joseph (since he’d rather not be the biological father), and aptly-named Mary X is the Virgin Mary, her surname suggesting the Cross, or X as in Xmas.
After learning from the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall that Mary’s family has invited him over for dinner, Henry goes into his apartment, takes off his socks, and lays them on his radiator to heat them. He seems to fetishize this radiator, for he stares at it often. It gives him heat in a cold world, though it’s an artificial, electric heat. He has no use for the natural warmth of human companionship. The Lady in the Radiator, as deformed as she is, seems to be Henry’s ideal of beauty. At least she has a pleasant, if odd-looking, grin.
He takes out a photo of Mary, torn in two, from his dresser drawer; it’s torn at the neck, suggesting a wish to decapitate her, more of his preference of death over life. Recall his later dream of being decapitated, the baby’s snake-head emerging from the cut in his neck, a symbol of the baby supplanting him. His fears of being destroyed are projected onto other people: better that they die than he.
The awkward conversations he has with the X family underscore the ubiquity of alienation in this film. He denies the possibility that he’s the baby’s father, preferring the fantasy of a virgin birth and a Uranus for the real father. Still, he must marry Mary.
Having moved in with Henry, she tries to feed the baby, which won’t eat anything. It is the most revulsive baby…conceivable–with its snake-like head, lack of limbs, and what seems a bandage instead of swaddling clothes. Her mother says the baby is just prematurely born, and as I mentioned above, I suspect its deformity is just a hallucination that Henry–in his obvious psychotic tendencies–is having to make it easier for him to kill the child one day. When Mary says one can’t be sure if it even is a baby, Henry could be imagining her saying that, too.
Cuteness in children has been recognized as a factor inspiring parental affection, making caregivers want to love a child, thus motivating them to care for it as best they can. This spermatozoon-child, however, inspires loathing and revulsion, not just in its appearance, but also in its unwillingness to cooperate during feeding, and in its irritating bawling.
Because the parent/child relationship here isn’t the normal, healthy kind (the occasional smiling at it from the parents, especially from Henry, should be seen as reaction formation), we don’t see what Wilfred Bion would have called the soothing containment of the baby’s agitated reaction to external stimuli.
Instead of using maternal reverie to soothe her baby, Mary engages in the negative version of the container/contained relationship (Bion, pages 95-99), shouting at the bawling baby to “Shut up!” (Click here for a full explanation of Bion‘s and other psychoanalytic concepts that I use throughout this analysis.) Instead of being soothed, the baby experiences aggravated agitation, turning it into a nameless dread.
Here we can see the foundation of so much of the alienation of society: if one can’t feel empathy for a baby (which, outside of Henry’s hallucinatory perception of it, probably isn’t half as repellant or deformed as he, and we, imagine it to be), for whom can we feel empathy?
Mary leaves the apartment in frustration, and Henry is left to take care of the baby alone. At first, he plays the role of the dutiful father, doing his best to attend to the baby’s needs. But his sudden discovery of sores on its skin, and its difficulty breathing, suggest that he has imagined the sickness, as a wish-fulfillment.
Bion explained that people learn from experience through a social connection with people, what he called the K-link, K standing for Knowledge. But in this film, no one really wants to connect with anyone else in a meaningful way, so just as there is the negative container/contained relationship, so is there one of -K, the avoidance of, and refusal to gain, Knowledge: recall Henry saying, “I don’t know much of anything,” to Mary’s father.
Attacks on linking are seen in Henry’s and Mary’s revulsion towards the baby, or, to use Bion’s terminology, ‘parents -L baby’ (i.e., they don’t Love it), or even, ‘parents H baby,’ that is, they Hate it (Bion, pages 42-43). The baby’s growing sickness thus reflects how it can sense this lack of parental love, so it cannot thrive and grow in K. Instead, the baby can only self-destruct in states of -K, -L, and H, because it has been born into a world of extreme alienation.
Henry’s dream/fantasy about the Lady in the Radiator reveals his true, if unconscious, feelings about the baby. He sees her shuffling from right to left on a stage, grinning that weird grin and seeming pretty in spite of her deformed cheeks, with their bulbous, sideburn-like protrusions.
As she shuffles from side to side, we see spermatozoa fall on the floor of the stage. She steps on a couple of them, squishing and destroying them. See seems to be telling Henry that she condones his future killing of his baby.
Since I consider the Man in the Planet to symbolize Uranus, as well as to be Henry’s father as an internal object, I see the Lady in the Radiator, in spite of her deformity, to symbolize both Aphrodite and to be Henry’s objet petit a, the unfulfillable object of his desire, rooted in possible Oedipal feelings his father has frustrated.
Consider the phallic association, if not the shape, of the spermatozoa. They fall on the stage as if from the sky, like the severed genitals of Uranus, which fell into the sea and foamed up, Aphrodite then emerging from the foam. Just as the baby’s relationship with the Man in the Planet, Henry, and Mary X can be seen as a perverse variation on the Christ myth, so can the Lady in the Radiator’s relationship with the Man in the Planet and the spermatozoa–which I believe came from him (in Henry’s unconscious phantasy)–be seen as a morbid variation on Aphrodite’s birth.
Henry’s disgust with his baby is further demonstrated when he wakes in the middle of the night next to Mary (whom we never see again), and finds spermatozoa between him and her. They droop like flaccid penises, and he throws them against the wall; they splatter on impact, a symbolic castration, just like the Lady in the Radiator’s stepping on them.
Note how Cronus supplanted Uranus by castrating him, then Cronus was afraid of being supplanted himself (Freud noted how Zeus supplanted Cronus by castrating him, too–Freud, page 469; Robert Graves found, in John Tzetzes, a source that confirms how castration was part of Zeus’ usurping of Cronus).
So in Henry’s hallucinated fantasies, we can find the unconscious root of his fear of being supplanted by a son: his own taboo wish to eradicate his father. The ugliness of the deformity of the Man in the Planet seems to represent Henry’s father’s brutal, bullying, authoritarian nature; whether or not Henry has had Oedipal feelings for his mother may be a moot point, but I suspect at least that when he was a little boy, his father caught him enjoying a guilty pleasure like masturbating, and he brutally beat little Henry for it. Hence, his extremely uptight attitude towards sex.
While we don’t know for sure if Henry’s objet petit a (the Lady in the Radiator) is based on an Oedipally-desired mother, we can see that his wish to fulfill his sexual desires (in his lovemaking fantasy with the Beautiful Girl Next Door) is something he feels his father will punish him for (recall that brief flash we see of the Man in the Planet, eyeing him maliciously, just before we see Henry’s head popping off, his baby’s snake-head then emerging from the cut in the neck).
I’ll acknowledge Henry’s desire to have the Beautiful Girl Next Door, and I believe she really offers herself to him when saying she’s locked herself out of her apartment; but I insist that he’s fantasizing about being in bed with her, both of them sinking in that hot tub, if you will, of life-creating primordial soup (pardon the mixed metaphors). I believe he’s rebuffed her sexual advances, while fantasizing (if not hallucinating) having sex with her; it’s the only way he could resolve his conflict between wanting sex and being afraid of it. Similarly, he can’t quite face his revulsion towards his baby, so he projects that disgust onto her when he imagines her look of horror at the sight of the baby as they’re having sex in his fantasy.
His lovemaking fantasy with her culminates in another vision/dream of the Lady in the Radiator, who sings, “In heaven, everything is fine…” three times, then, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine.” She repeats this verse, but ends it with, “You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine.” (My emphasis.)
“Heaven” can be interpreted as Henry’s procurement (however fleeting) of his objet petit a: he has come to possess her “good things” (i.e., her genitals) as well as his own “good things” (i.e., there’s the sexual union of both people’s genitals).
Now, in capitalist heaven, “You’ve got your good things…” (your private property) “…and I’ve got mine” (my property). Then, “You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine” (You, the capitalist, have taken my good things, through wage slavery/theft, mergers and acquisitions, and/or imperialist conquest.). Since alienation is such an important theme in this movie, Marx’s conception of it shouldn’t be overlooked. (I’ll later resume a discussion of capitalism as a factor in the film’s sense of bleak social estrangement.)
Henry, in his dream, comes on the stage and stands before the Lady in the Radiator, who holds out her hands invitingly to him. He looks at her awkwardly and fearfully, wanting to claim his objet petit a, but afraid of the consequences–this is, the cruel look on the face of the Man in the Planet, symbol of Uranus (who is heaven, incidentally), and of Henry’s father. He touches her hands, and there’s a bright flash of light, along with a typhoon of white noise. This black-and-white film is the black-and-white thinking of splitting; since she is his objet petit a, his idealization, we momentarily see all white…and hear all ‘white.’
Henry retreats behind a black curtain when a leafless tree stuck in a rock emerges from the backstage curtains. This tree and rock symbolize a giant phallus and testicles. Henry is terrified, for this lifeless tree represents the father’s punitive castration, as does his head’s popping off of his shoulders, to be replaced by his baby’s bawling snake-head.
If Henry’s decapitation and supplanting by his snake-headed baby is a symbolic castration of the Cronus-vs-Uranus, or Zeus-vs-Cronus type, then phallic-headed Henry’s frizzy hair, standing up on end to indicate his eternal state of horror, is his symbolic pubic hair.
His head falls into a lake of blood, and then falls from the sky, just like those penile spermatozoa that land on the stage and are stepped on by the Lady in the Radiator, and just like the severed genitals of Uranus, god of heaven, that landed in the sea. Henry fears the humiliation of being emasculated by his child, just as he has feared being castrated (literally or symbolically) by his father as punishment for having sexual feelings.
It’s significant that, in his dream, Henry sees a boy (symbolic of his baby) picking up his phallus-head and taking it to a pencil factory, where an employee named Paul frantically buzzes to alert his boss of the arrival. The boss, who shouts at Paul, is a transference of Henry’s intimidating, bullying father; he even calls the boy with Henry’s head, “Sonny,” suggesting a symbolic link with Henry’s fantasied notion that his baby is actually the son of the Man in the Planet, Henry’s symbolic father.
Here, we see how the traumas of family translate into the conflicts inherent in capitalism. Bosses are as authoritarian and bullying as fathers and governments can be. Bits of Henry’s head are shaved into erasers to be attached to pencils, then sold by the boss for a profit. This is how capitalism cuts off a bit of the worker every day, castrating him symbolically, making him less and less of an existing thing.
And here is where we can come to a fuller understanding of the meaning of the film’s title. An eraser removes words, drawn lines, etc., either erroneous or deemed to be so (it removes information); in the process, bits of eraser are eliminated, too.
Since Henry is the “Eraserhead,” we can now understand what such a concept means, that is, in terms of Bion’s notion of -K, the adamant rejection of Knowledge through links with other people. Henry’s alienation is so severe that he’d rather ‘erase’ knowledge through human interaction than absorb it. As I’ve discussed in other analyses, when this rejection of external stimuli is taken to extremes, it can lead to psychosis, hence Henry’s bizarre, surreal, hallucinatory visions.
His brain’s ‘erasures’ of ejected, unwanted external stimuli, what Bion called beta elements, have accumulated over time, building up a beta screen (symbolized by the brick wall just outside the window of his apartment, the one above the radiator), which rejects all access to new Knowledge (-K) for Henry’s inner mental life. These ‘erasures’ are also split-off parts of himself that are projected outward and become hallucinatory phenomena that Bion called bizarre objects. This was Bion’s explanation of the origin of psychosis (and incidentally, I’m not the only one linking bizarre objects with David Lynch’s movies).
Henry’s unconscious hostility to his father, a hostility displaced onto his baby, forms the basis for the Lacanian explanation of the origin of psychosis, too: foreclosure. In not wanting to give up the dyadic mother/son Oedipal relationship (here transferred to Henry’s imaginary relationship with his objet petit a, the Lady in the Radiator), he is rejecting the nom/Non! du père, which would introduce him to society. Hence, Henry’s alienation drives him mad.
Symbolic castration is the lack, or manque, that originates desire, which Lacan says is of the Other, or the people of the world, to be recognized by them, and to desire what one thinks they desire. But Henry is afraid of his desires, and he wants only the dyadic, lower-case other (the objet petit a of his fantasied relationship with the Lady in the Radiator, who isn’t even a real person). So his inability to relate to others leads to his madness.
He wakes up, and remains in his apartment for most of the remaining time, at one point hearing his baby laugh, as if at his inadequacies, and at another point seeing two people fighting outside another of his windows; this is the kind of hostility and unpleasantness that makes him want to reject the world. Sometimes, he wants to reach out, though. On two occasions, he hopes to connect with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall: the first time, she isn’t at home; the second time, he sees her with another man, one almost as ugly (though not deformed) as the Man in the Planet, and so he can be seen as another substitute for Henry’s hated father.
That this trio of people in the hall can symbolize the Oedipal relationship is also seen in how she is a manifestation of his Oedipally-based objet petit a, who looks back at him scornfully, and she sees–in his hallucinatory projection–the baby snake-head on his shoulders, symbolizing his feeling of having been reduced to an infant that cannot be the phallus for Mother (symbolized by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall; by ‘phallus,’ I’m referring to it in the Lacanian sense of being a signifier of lack, not the literal male genital organ).
Crushed, Henry retreats back into his apartment. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall’s scornful look at him was probably because–his hallucinated lovemaking with her notwithstanding–he actually rebuffed her advances before. Still, he feels humiliated, symbolically castrated…and so he looks in hatred at his baby.
He gets some scissors and approaches the baby. I believe he’s hallucinating the bandage wrapped around the baby’s body: imagining the bandage makes it easier for him to cut it open, when he’s really cutting a long incision along the naked baby’s belly and chest, hence, we see its internal organs.
Some of those internal organs are black; those dark organs, taken as a whole, have the shape of that “man-made” chicken that Henry stabbed into at the dinner table with the X family. This is why I say that chicken represents a baby; for I suspect that Henry was already fearing he’d impregnated Mary at the time he’d learned of the invitation–hence his awkward meeting of the family. All it takes is the sex act, one time, to get him nervous.
Anyway, Henry takes those scissors and stabs his baby. He recoils in horror at what he’s done; there’s no way he’ll escape the consequences of his filicide…except in hallucinatory fantasy. The electric lights flicker on and off, suggesting he’s descending into darkness. The baby’s neck elongates, and its head grows to a gigantic size; both of these sights symbolize Henry’s fear of the baby growing up, coming of age, and taking revenge on him, to supplant him, like castrating Cronus dethroning Uranus, only to be dethroned himself by Zeus.
In the narcissistic imagination of the sufferer of the Laius complex, there can be only one man in the family: neither Henry’s father, nor his son, may exist with him. In reality, of course, the baby won’t do anything to harm Henry, but he’ll be socially shamed and arrested for murder. In his psychotic state, though, reality doesn’t matter. Only a fantasy world will protect him, so he indulges in it.
He imagines the giant snake-head to have transformed into the planet, one side of which then bursts apart. The phallic levers of the Man in the Planet emit sparks; they seem damaged, for he struggles with them (this symbolizes castration, and therefore the thwarting of Henry’s oppressive Uranus-like father).
Henry watches this symbolic thwarting with a look of amazement, his head surrounded by a billowing cloud of those eraser shavings we saw in the pencil factory, those which were made from his head. As I mentioned above, the shavings represent split-off portions of his ego, projected outwards and now made into bizarre objects. He is at the height of his psychosis in -K, in an arrested state of the paranoid-schizoid position, for there can be no reparation with the bad father; his paranoid fear of a reprisal from his father internal object will ensure no repairing of his damaged internal world.
His only escape from this fear and pain is an escape into fantasy, where, having finally defeated his father, he can enjoy the love of his objet petit a, the Lady in the Radiator, without fear of paternal punishment. The bright light and white noise return, she appears, and they embrace. On his face, we finally see a look of peace of mind.
Henry has finally found love…in a hallucinatory world of fantasy.