Parenting in Eraserhead
One might initially dismiss David Lynch’s 1977 sci-fi horror flick Eraserhead as being unnecessarily bizarre and not conducive to any kind of analysis. Eraserhead is an art film, and so almost everything takes on a figurative significance. In his article “A Dark Lens on America,” journalist Richard B. Woodward notes that Lynch created the film as a response to the experience of becoming a parent. With the issue of parenting in mind, the strange elements of the film make sense and things start to fall into place.
The atmosphere of the film is very tense. The alien baby in Henry’s room cries throughout much of the movie, setting both the characters and the audience members themselves on edge. The incessant crying eventually causes Henry’s wife to leave. Henry’s wife is driven to leave Henry because of the baby, but she also leaves because she does not love him and does not want to be a parent alongside him. We can see her cold feelings toward Henry after she flinches when he tries to comfort her during the night. This strain and eventual break of the relationship may be something a new parent fears.
About halfway through, one of the more frightening moments of the movie occurs. Henry turns around to see the baby covered with warts. The baby is making a terrible sound, and the music gets loud for a brief moment to heighten the scare factor. In a concerned manner, Henry says, “Oh, you are sick.” The fact that this is a terrifying moment for the viewer helps us sympathize with parents’ fears when children are ill. Lynch is trying to show that the real horror of this scary film is the baby’s suffering. Furthermore, Henry’s statement of sympathy increases our awareness of the aforementioned divide between him and his wife. Henry’s wife merely yells at the baby, but Henry shows genuine fear for its well-being.
Alongside the baby’s constant screaming, another sound dominates Eraserhead. There is a consistent abrasive whirring noise in almost every scene. It is never really specified where this noise is coming from. It could be coming from the radiator in Henry’s room, but the fact that it is heard in other scenes refutes this idea. The noise is likely non-diegetic and intended to be symbolic.
The intangible and mysterious nature of the noise implies that it is a composite of the various sources of tension. Henry’s relationship with his wife is extremely problematic, he must take care of the baby alone, he is afraid for the well-being of his offspring, and the noise from the baby is relentless. As we can see, several aspects of Henry’s situation, added up, are insurmountable. The noise throughout the film is meant to parallel the overwhelming nature of these events and the toll these problems take on a new parent.
The physical and psychological horror elements of the film are illustrations of Lynch’s difficulties as a young and inexperienced caregiver. Also, Eraserhead serves as a fitting representation of the desire to be a good parent and the simultaneous desire to be free of obligation when one is young. Lynch has created a difficult and obscure piece, but, underneath the surface, his debut film is about a universal internal difficulty that many viewers have experienced.
Lynch, David. Eraserhead. American Film Institute, 1977. Film.
Woodward, Richard B. “A Dark Lens on America.” The New York Times 14 January 1990. Web.