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.