Thoughts on “Eraserhead” and the Power of Disgust


I realize I’m breaking the general theme of the recent blog posts in revisiting Eraserhead, but I was so completely fascinated by this movie I feel it will be much more interesting for both myself and any of you reading for me to discuss something about which I am really excited. Eraserhead is an excellent example of how film can instill fear, paranoia, and anxiety within viewers. Granted I found myself confused for the majority of the movie, I also found myself thinking about what the movie could have meant and why certain details were used long after it was over. When I realized that the movie that stuck with me the most was also one of the most disturbing movies I have seen to date, I was a little surprised, and found myself wondering why it is that movies that are grotesque and very unconventional are so likely to catch my attention. I’m sure that part of my reaction is due to my general fascination with “weird” things, but also I think movies with elements that have the power to make the audience cringe also have the ability to stick in their minds. It is an interesting experience to face unnatural and “disgusting” images like a deformed, prematurely born baby, a cooked chicken that starts moving its legs while sputtering blood from the gap between them, and a bed full of, well whatever those things were. Personally I found myself cringing, scrunching up my face with a disgusted look, but unable to turn off the film because some part of me was interested to see what other strange things I would encounter.

I considered my reaction further while reading Plantinga’s article “The Rhetoric of Emotion: Disgust and Beyond.” Mainly, this article discusses the complexity of disgust as a reaction to film. Eraserhead has components of all three “types” of disgust (core, animal-reminder, and sociomoral). The presence of these elements, at least in my experience, made watching the movie very uncomfortable. In addition to the presence of disgusting elements, the main character, Henry, filled my viewing experience with anxiety. The extremely paranoid look on his face, his nervous gestures, and his slow, quiet speech made me feel both anxious and fearful about what kind of world he must live in if he behaves in such a way.

Despite my ability to recognize the presence of all of these details, I still am not completely able to pinpoint why this film impacted me so strongly. I think perhaps my reaction could be related to the idea of film as an escape from reality. I would never want to see any of the things Henry saw in his world, and I would certainly never want to know or be like any of the characters in the film, but because there is safety in knowing on some level that it is only a movie, I was able to explore more deeply the realm of the grotesque. There is a certain freedom gained from this and there is something sort of thrilling about the “I don’t want to look, but I can’t look away” experience. Also, this movie gave me an escape from asking, “what does this mean?” While I did wonder about what meaning could have been attached to this film, I found that it was necessary to at least try to abandon my usual need to understand and explain to really appreciate the film as a creative work.

I don’t know what all of you thought while watching the movie, I’m sure everyone had different reactions, but I think my general conclusion is that we find ourselves fascinated by grotesque and disturbing things because we know that this fascination breaks convention. I think one feels a thrilling sense of rebellion that comes from viewing images that many would suggest shouldn’t be seen at all. This, of course, is only my opinion, and I would love to hear more insight on the matter.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Eraserhead” and the Power of Disgust

  1. I was also fascinated by this weirdly disturbing movie. Maybe it’s just me, but I got an idea that the whole movie has a very sexual context. As it bean, we saw a round sphere, which I thought looked a lot like a human egg cell, and also little sperm cells fell from above.
    didn’t it look similar to that?

    I guess I interpreted this moment as Henry and his girlfriend having sex. And then she gave birth to a deformed baby. I think all the sperm cells were Henry’s, and they were also weak and dead looking, as if his genetics were the reason they could not have a healthy baby. And we see these sperm cells appear everywhere throughout the movie. For example, when Henry finds them in bed, and starts throwing them out, his wife next to him is struggling to get out of the blanket, as if she is a fetus confined inside a uterus.
    Also, when when Henry has sex with his neighbor woman, she keeps looking at the deformed baby, as if it also represents his bad fertility, and she is terrified of that thought. This is what I thought of little things that did make some sense to me. Most didn’t.
    I think this movie is largely multidimensional, and can mean different things for different people, can be interpreted in so many different ways.

  2. What a rich post, Whitney. There’s a lot here to think about.

    I think you’re absolutely right, Alesia. This film is absolutely multidimensional — it offers many different possible interpretations. Part of the fun of Eraserhead is that it seems to encourage us to try to assign meaning to various elements but then gives us so much to work with that we almost have to resign, as Whitney says she did, to abandoning a search for a consistent, coherent meaning and just take it in as a whole but perplexing work of art. And I completely agree, Whitney, that there is freedom in this. We don’t have to make everything fit a logical structure (we probably can’t anyway) so we can interpret as freely as we wish within the parameters the movie sets up for us. And in the case of Eraserhead, anything goes — or at least that’s what it feels like. Archibald McLEish famously wrote that “A Poem should not mean/but be” — maybe the same should go for movies that try to challenge the audience and the medium itself, like many of David Lynch’s films.

    Of what I have seen by David Lynch, both Eraserhead and Mullholland Drive are just so surreally inexplicable that, while it is fun to try to connect images and ideas in a coherent whole, it is virtually impossible to do that in a way that is fully satisfying. I haven’t seen Inland Empire, but I hear it is the same way. Lynch’s films are great because they are as much about us watching as they are about whatever they are about. He loves to play with the spectator in that way — by speaking to our desire to make logical, consistent sense of what we see, on the one hand, but frustrating that desire, on the other.

  3. The first time I had watched “Eraserhead,” I was thoroughly confused and disgusted. Thinking that it was my problem that I was confused, I watched it a second time and I yielded the same results. It was almost like watching a compilation of Twilight Zone episodes and trying to connect them all together.

    The only way I can interpret Henry would be to say that he did portray signs of fear, anxiety, and paranoia. He speaks sparingly but when he does, it’s easy to tell that there’s always something on his mind. Another thing I noticed about Henry was that he was rather emotionless when it came to either seeing the chicken wiggle and see blood squirt out and also seeing the baby for the first time. I probably would have freaked out after carving that chicken.

    In regards to the movie as a whole, I thought it was very creative and perhaps the purpose was to allow the audience interpret it their own way instead of spelling it out in clear letters. Few movies do what Eraserhead did.

  4. Hi Whitney! I’m glad you went back to Eraserhead because like you, it’s the movie that left the greatest impact on me, by far, out of all the movies we watched. It was a movie where I couldn’t look away because besides freaking me out and leaving me confused and disgusted, I kept trying to answer “WHY is this happening?” And most importantly, I could not help but wonder over and over again, “What did David Lynch (the sole writer, director, and producer) want the viewer to get out of this?”

    Maybe Lynch didn’t like mother-in-laws, because all her scenes made me the most uncomfortable. Especially her alone-time with Henry.

    Maybe he wanted to show that shotgun marriages don’t last– look at that deformed baby and the runaway mom!

    Or even further, as I tried to make sense of it, the movie seemed to be strongly against pre-marital copulation and a society of emotionally detached people. Neither Mary nor Henry really cared about their baby. And the baby itself isn’t a creature to be loved. Henry’s interactions with the sexy neighbor is a sign of his infidelity and maybe, just maybe, his hallucinations with the puffy-cheeked girl is his redemption?

    As to what Prof Gershovich wrote, this movie is open to interpretation. The images in this movie didn’t make sense. It had no real beginning and end. However, this in essence disconnected me from gaining a solid idea of what went on. I liked it, and I hated how this movie left me with an “unknown,” and no matter the solution I come up with, it’s only a “hypothesis.”

    I just don’t get it, and that’s the most frustrating and scary part of the whole experience!! So if this is what he wanted, maybe Lynch accomplished his goal for this film.

  5. Whitney, your blog post made me think about “Eraserhead” in a completely different way than I had when I first saw it.

    The title of the course is “Fear, Anxiety and Paranoia in Film,” and to me, this suggested a fairly static interpretation–We would be looking at movies in which characters expressed these emotions. And it seems a few other people in the class interpreted it this way too, as many of the blog posts and class discussions would inevitably go back to how these emotions applied to the people in the film.

    But after re-watching “Eraserhead” this weekend, I saw how the title could be broadened to mean other things. Perhaps the course is meant to also explore the fear, anxiety and paranoia the film evokes in the viewer, not just the characters. Throughout the entire movie, my face maintained the same look of confusion and frustration, as I just couldn’t make sense of what was going on. Like Alice, I also asked myself why David Lynch would make such a movie? But I didn’t think it was to provide social commentary. Rather I asked what kind of disturbed psychopath would come up with the idea and put in the time to make something as disgusting as this.

    Now, I think he may have just been trying to experiment with the viewers’ emotions. People tend to always try to make sense of everything, and when we can’t see logical progression in a story for example, it elicits anxiety. I can’t help but think that maybe Lynch had this in mind.

    • I completely agree with your thoughts about Lynch’s intention. I think it’s interesting to consider how things that cannot be explained or are out of the ordinary seem to stir up more anxiety within people than anything else. I think fear of that which is different is so common, but really things that are different have so much potential to spark change in thought and behavior. I think if people embraced what they cannot explain, they would not only learn more about themselves and the world around them, but also they would escape many anxieties about the world.

  6. Whitney,

    “we find ourselves fascinated by grotesque and disturbing things because we know that this fascination breaks convention. I think one feels a thrilling sense of rebellion that comes from viewing images that many would suggest shouldn’t be seen at all. ”

    Your statement above is brilliant and talks to why so many choose to see movies like Eraserhead as it stimulates the shift of consciousness and creates expansion through the breaking of convention.

    Please Write on!


  7. I agree in that I don’t think it is possible to watch Eraserhead without any internal reactions or emotions, in the very least, if not external. I definitely do feel that I will remember this movie. However, while of course the film has some some aspects that show purely physical disgust that Plantinga talks about, I would argue that the anxiety created by this film is the loss of comprehension or ability to relate it to our world, the fear of the unknown. The fact that it is completely open to the interpretation, that two opposing views can be right at the same time is what I feel gives anxiety value to Eraserhead. That is, there is really not a single instance where the viewer can grasp onto something that would give stability and not one moment brings up a schema that one is already familiar with. Although there are human beings in the film and some situations might occur in our world, I feel that Eraserhead doesn’t just take place in an alien world but somewhere where no human laws or principles, as we know them, exist.

    • I looked at Plantinga’s article, “The Rhetoric of Emotion: Disgust and Beyond,” which I mentioned in my post. Other than that particular section, the post was my personal opinion.

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