And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

Eraserhead – Dystopic heterotopias

«We can say that a horror movie is, in itself, a dystopia: a place outside the “real” world, a dehumanized place, a cataclysmic setting, which is defined by functioning out of the ordinary morals, environment, politics, technology, ethics, etc. Heterotopias are separate spaces (physical and/or mental), which exist simultaneously with(in) those that are considered “real” spaces.»


Eraserhead is David Lynch´s first full-length, written and produced while he was a student at the American Film Institute, and released in 1976. It was one of the most successful films of the midnight-circuit: films that were played in North American theaters at midnight in the 1970s. These were mostly surrealist horror films, which featured non normative sex and gender in the plot, and often included incest, sexual “perversions” and fetishism – some of the most well-known examples are Pink Flamingos, 1972, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975, and Eraserhead.

I propose reading this film between two concepts: dystopia and heterotopias, having in mind the presence of the abject in both types of surroundings.


The main character of this film is Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance), a white and plain man, who carries a rather neutral expression for most of the film and whose only upsetting visual feature is his hair, which gives the audience the idea that he is constantly alarmed and/or scared. He has a girlfriend (who eventually becomes his wife), Mary X (played by Charlotte Stewart) and a newly born baby (and abject premature creature who refuses food and is laying down, moaning and/or crying whenever we see it). There is also Spencer’s neighbor (Judith Anna Roberts), a femme fatale with whom Spencer gets intimate, the parents (Jeanne Bates is the mother) and grandmother of his girlfriend, a woman who lives inside the radiator (Laurel Near) and a man who seems to live in a space outside the rest of the film.


Sex and sexual intercourse seem to be one of the strongest elements of the plot, although never clearly explicit, but through symbolism and analogies: many holes, many penetrations, many sperm like creatures. But the film also displays fear of women, situating the monstrous in relation to the maternal figure, giving birth, sex, female genitalia, etc, therefore structuring objectivity trough abjectivity. The mother-child relationship is a constant throughout the whole film: the female dog with her puppies, his future mother-in-law with her mother, his future mother-in-law with his future wife; his future mother-in-law with himself (incest); his wife with their child; even his relation with the woman in the radiator can be perceived as a mother-child relation, given the last scene after he kills the baby, instead of accepting it (which could mean accepting his subjectivity after distancing himself from the mother), he finally goes peacefully to her arms – as if denying the separation of the subject (the baby representing himself) from the mother through abject. All these relations are upsetting and outside the expected norm of mother-child relations, taking us by the hand to a temporal locus where the abject is the norm: bodily malformations (the baby, the woman in the radiator), sexual perversion (the presence of the neighbor), sacrifice and murder (the animals to be eaten, the baby), corpses (the animals for dinner, the baby), body fluids (the references to sperm and blood), the feminine body.
Rather than considering the fear of (heteronormative) sex, in connection to modernity and technology, the leitmotif of the film, I believe that its most striking feature is how this fear is created through the displaying of women as abject, the fear of women as sexual subjects. One way of looking at it would be how technology and modernity in city life play a role in increasing the distance between (the binary) men and women (the machines, technology and city life stimulate perceiving women as abject), where solitude is one of the most powerful results, which causes dementia or schizophrenia (the several co-existing spaces of the film, as I will show).


The editing of the film is in some aspects coherent with the atmosphere of horror it wants to create. Firstly, through the use of lighting: the film is shot in black & white on purpose, which accentuates contrasts and increases the lack of definition of liquids, objects, creatures, raising tensions and fear; and also to relate to earlier horror movies of the 1920s and 1940s. On the other hand, the framing is usually centered, balanced, not subverting perspectives, therefore forcing us to focus on the image displayed (also to create the contrast between the “easy” balance of the visual with its semantic, the horror, and the abject) and without drastic editing: although the camera is not static, it usually doesn’t do dramatic changes. Most of the film is set indoors, which increases the connection with the spectator, creating a sense of intimacy, of expected safety, but which for this precise reason accentuates the dystopic perception. The same can be said about proximity, we have occasional close ups, usually of the presence of the abject(s), although there is never a big distance from the camera to the scene –underlining the privacy of the space, keeping the film close to its audience. The sound, however, is one of the most important features of the film, with its dystopic white noise and coldness, and being difficult to understand if it is diegetic or not (most of the sound appears to be diegetic, simulating the noises heard in cold industrial city life, but we rarely have this confirmation), upsetting the viewer by creating the contrast with the intimate space of the house (the bedroom, the stage, the corridor, the girlfriend’s house) and the horror and surreal elements in it. The most peaceful (because expected and regular) sound atmosphere of the whole film is the space when Spencer’s head falls off and is carried until becoming pencil erasers.


Dystopia and Heterotopias

The concept of dystopia is credited to John Stuart Mill in his Parliamentary Speeches of 1868. It can be said that a horror movie is, in itself, a dystopia: a place outside of the “real” world, a dehumanized place, a cataclysmic setting, which is defined by functioning out of the ordinary morals, environment, politics, technology, ethics, etc. An undesirable and frightening space. A place where people are unhappy and/or scared and/or deformed and/or oppressed and/or deprived, where nature can be inaccessible, where citizens conform to their expectations. This film is set in a dystopia: technology, industrialization, (slave) mechanic work, solitude, absence of nature, and lack of social bonding (no friends or social life outside home-work-home). Spencer is situated here, as the pacifist model citizen, who accepts everything that happens in his life, who is above all a passive receptor of the events that unfold around him, who feels disoriented and is incapable of dealing actively with his will (even when he spends the night with his neighbor he is, once again, a passive participant, accepting what is given) – until he finally, for once, acts against expectations.

There are some moments throughout the film, which do not seem to relate easily with anything else. They can be considered dreams or hallucinations. I will consider them part of the narrative, which should not be expected to be coherent or logical. I could have conceptualize Eraserhead as an inception of dystopias, but I propose that these scenes in(/out)side what is considered the main narrative are seen as heterotopias of/inside that dystopia. In order to do so, one must take the dystopia as the story that is usually considered “real” and see the deviations from that “real” in relation to its (dystopian) reality. Reading them as heterotopias will mean that these spaces are as real as the congruent narrative we want to see badly in this film (the story of Spencer and the baby), that these spaces don’t exist outside of that narrative; that they are not dreams or visions, but rather part of the same dystopia that is the film. I am, to make it clear, rejecting the idea that these scenes are dreams or hallucinations, but rather parallel spaces that exist alongside with what is seen the main narrative.


In 1967, Foucault developed the concept of heterotopia(s), spaces that exist, but where the conventional rules of other existing places are suspended. He did not, however, took into consideration Mill’s concept of dystopia. Foucault’s heterotopias are spaces (physical and/or mental) that act as separate spaces, but which exist simultaneously with those that are considered “real” spaces.  Foucault believes that such spaces (heterotopias) are related to other places (deemed “real”), in more ways that we might initially think. One of the examples of a heterotopia that Foucault uses is the cinema room. He does not conceptualize films, but rather focuses on real people’s experiences inside the cinema room, a space that exists in parallel with “reality”, that is part of “reality” but with certain characteristics that suspend the reality in itself.  There are six rules that must be observed to consider any space a heterotopia. I will go through them giving examples from the film.

  1. A space where behavior rules are suspended. There are crisis heterotopias where the rules are going through crisis, and heterotopias of deviation where behavior outside the norm can be exercised. One of the spaces in the film where this happen is when Spencer has an intimate meeting with his neighbor (we don’t know if they had sex) and the rules of fidelity are suspended. He doesn’t show any kind of preoccupation for breaking that rule, and neither does she, who seems to be nervous (she touches the bed iron frame as an insecure person usually does), in contrast with the idea of her as a femme fatale that is shown throughout the film.
  2. Heterotopias have a determined function within the space they exist and they reflect the society in which they exist. Here I recall the scene when Spencer’s head, after being decapitated (his child replaces his own head), is found by a kid and taken to an eraser factory. The function of that heterotopia is to make erasers out of heads, and the fact that the title of the film is precisely Eraserhead, reassures the importance of this space within the whole narrative. This space reflects the society in which it exists as on the one hand, there is Spencer’s head as the linking element; on the other, it is a factory setting, despite different from the one in the beginning of the film. This is the less dystopic space of the film, although at the same time, it reflects the other spaces as here is where the exploitation of the capitalist system of production is best shown: he see an employee who the boss yells at, and is not allowed to leave the counter for one second, and outside we see a homeless man.
  3. Heterotopias have the power to juxtapose several sites simultaneously; sites that would otherwise be incompatible. A space where this happens would be around 60m and 30 seconds: the lady of the radiator (in her childlike silliness, her sweetness and prude housemaid style of the 1950s, incarnating the a good mother) sings, then Spencer appears on stage (where we never saw him before), then the plant Spencer has in his bedside table appears (resized) and it starts bleeding resembling a vagina. Then Spencer holds on to what seems to be his bedframe – probably looking for comfort, or maybe it is the ritual for him to get out of the heterotopia.
  4. Heterotopias are most often linked to slices of time. Time is not linear, it can accumulate or be transitory. In Eraserhead it is not clear how time develops in each heterotopia, but it is definitely not linear. The space where Spencer’s head is turned into erasers is an example of how time develops outside of linearity, since he loses his head and when he’s back into the non-heterotopic space he has his head again.
  5. Heterotopias presuppose a system of opening and closing (entering and leaving) that both isolates and makes them accessible. It is an accessible place, the entry should be either compulsory or the individual has to submit to rituals, as if asking for permission. One of the systems of entering the heterotopia is the radiator, or Spencer’s ritual of lying down on his bed facing up with his clothes on, or even falling asleep. To get out, one of the options can be holding the replica of the iron bed framing, as mentioned above; waking up could be another option, but the truth is that, no matter how we conceive these spaces, the process through which Spencer comes out of them is not clearly portrayed, except for the heterotopia where his head falls off and is turned into pencil erasers: we then see Spencer laying down on his bed, face up, with his clothes on. In this scene, getting out of the heterotopic space was made more explicit. This not only underlines the importance of this heterotopia within the film, but also clarifies how the separation of these spaces from the “central” narrative.
  6. Heterotopias work in relation to other spaces. They can be a space of illusion or a heterotopia of compensation: another real space, a parallel one, which is well arranged, organized and perfect, in contrast with the mess of the existing one(s). The heterotopia of the radiator is a heterotopia of compensation. It creates a different space precisely where “everything is fine” (repetitive lyrics sung by the woman): the woman is sweet, dances and sings, ignores and then kills the sperm (therefore, she won’t became a mother of one of those creatures, and she won’t became monstrous or hysteric herself), and she wants to hug him peacefully. This is a sharp contrast with his out of control live: taking care of an abject child, a wife who abandoned them with a postpartum depression, and the other three women of the film – and where is his mother? Her absence also reflects his problematic relation with the world and with women. The heterotopia of the affair with the neighbor, on the other hand, is a space of illusion that exposes “real space”: it is set in his apartment, in his bed, his child is there, and his belongings are there. We know however that it is a different space because when they are kissing each other they dive into this mysterious white (?) liquid, but also because despite his neighbor being portrayed as a femme fatale, in this space she too is nervous and insecure: she asks for his wife instead of just kissing him without caring, she touches the iron bed framing as someone who is not confident enough and/or is nervous does, and she hesitates when the baby distracts her from kissing him.


It is not clear how real (inside the general dystopic environment) these moments are within the narrative, if they are at all unreal. Hence my proposition of seeing them as part of a nonlinear, non-coherent narrative, made of different co-existing spaces. Since Foucault’s heterotopia was not conceptualized in relation to film theory, and Lynch probably didn’t have Foucault’s text in mind when he wrote it, its application is not flawless. It is, however, an attempt to think this particular film differently, without under(/over)estimating these spaces (I consider heterotopias) which can occur by analyzing them as dreams or hallucinations.


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This entry was posted on 10/10/2015 by in ENG and tagged , , , .
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