Horror. Terror. Lynch.
Written by Anton Charpentier
The horror we experience when watching a David Lynch film is unlike any other. The mundane everyday experience is contaminated, and our idea of self is shattered by an unknown entity. Lynch plays a game of psychological warfare with the audience; coercing us to feel disgust to what we once thought was pure and sacred. David Lynch pays this extra focus on his depiction of Americana and by doing so, dismantling our North American perceptions of society. This horror plays a special role in his films and separates his work from most films in the genre. It remains important to distinguish his films from Terror films; which imply a sense of mortal and physical danger. Instead, we should categorize his films as true horror pictures; in this paper the two films being Eraserhead (1977) and Inland Empire (2006). By defining horror and terror as two separate terms; horror describing the potential phycological trauma and terror describing the physical embodiment of danger. I hope to assert that Lynch is not only unique to the genre but in fact a realization of what the genre should be. After distinguishing horror from terror, I’ll dissect how both Eraserhead and Inland Empire utilize elements of Sigmund Freud’s definition of the uncanny to subjugate his audience to horror. Additionally, I’ll dissect how both films utilize the abject an element of horror, specifically the disfigurement of the self in relation to the symbolic universe of his characters. This paper is attempting to prove that Lynch is characteristically a horror director but additionally shapes how we understand horror as a cinematically complex genre that’s often generalized by the public.
THE HORROR… THE TERROR…
The genre term horror is often misapplied; condensing horror and terror as one and the same. Conceptually, they could not be further apart and deserve unique categorization. According to Adrinna Cavarero in her book Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, horror is best described as “in contrast to what occurs with terror”(8). Therefore, establishing the definition of terror is essential to understanding horror. Terror as defined by Cavarero is “characterized by the physical experience of fear as manifested in a trembling body” (4). Additionally, it can be characterized by the it’s entomological dissection which includes the term flight (Cavareo, 4). Suggesting not only the physical embodiment of danger, but also the potential of escape and prevention; simply put as flight. Take for example, Friday the 13th (1980), which encapsulates terror in the physical treat of Jason (or more aptly his mother) who physically harms the counsellors of Camp Crystal Lake. The film is based on the fear the audience feels when confronted with a life-threatening situation and therefore is better defined as a terror movie.
Further, we can apply the term Terror to the everyday experience of our reality. Particularly in our contemporary culture which is all too familiar with terrorist attacks; be it domestic or foreign. Terrorism frightens the public because of its potential harm to us physically and the fear lies in the penetration of our physical wellbeing, especially if it leads to our death. In a case example Cavarero provides:
Using Cavarero’s definition of terror; it’s clear distinction is the physicality of terror and it’s treat to our mortal wellbeing. Using Friday the 13th as an example, it remains terrifying because we worry about being in physical danger like the counsellors.
Horror on the other hand is psychological; in Cavarero’s dissection of the etymology of the word begins by stating “although it is often paired with terror, horror actually displays quite opposite characteristics” (7). The characteristics of horror align with that of the mind; the effects of horror can still affect someone even though they may be physically absent. This psychological affect is what interests the cinema of David Lynch; and categorizes his work in the field of horror rather than terror. In Eraserhead and Inland Empire, the viewer is brought into the symptoms of horror through Lynch’s deliberate use of uncanny elements; creating a strong feeling of being disturbed by what’s on screen. Cavarero summarizes this horror in this passage:
ERASERHEAD: DISGUSTING FILMMAKING
Lynch’s first feature film Eraserhead is perhaps one of the best examples for a true horror movie. Eraserhead is perhaps one of the most disturbing pieces of film I’ve ever seen, yet there is little to no physical treats presented to our protagonist Henri. Instead, Eraserhead toys with psychological trauma by fracturing of our perception of reality and is achieved primarily through techniques relating to the uncanny. The uncanny as defined by Sigmund Freud “occurs either when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (17). Eraserhead seems to function as a means of capturing what Freud describes; adhering to the proposed idea of the uncanny. The most obvious uncanny element in the film being the abnormal newborn and additionally the elements around Henri’s sexual experiences.
The infant is immediately uncanny to look at; as a viewer we do not understand why the infant is so immediately repulsive. Acting against our instinctive nature to adore and protect babies. What makes it uncanny is it’s howling screams which only push us further away from how we should feel around an infant and instead of wanting to offer assistance to nurture the child, we feel as if we should leave the room. Freud describes this constructed feeling as “all condition operating to produce uncanny feelings in real life; and everything that would have an uncanny effect in reality has it in his story. But in this case, too, he can increase his effect and multiply it by bringing about events which never or very rarely happen in fact” (18). This quote from Freud on the uncanny in storytelling also surmises why we react in such a negative way to Eraserhead and helps us understand the how horror is invoked in the film.
Additionally, the theory of the abject can be argued as a means of understanding horror. In Julia Kristeva essay “Powers of Horror”, and specifically the section entitled “The Abjection of Self”, where she posits that:
Asserting that what is equally disturbing as the rotting of flesh, or the decomposition of food, is the loss of control over one’s self; also suggesting that horror stems from the realization that death is inevitable part of life. There is no better example of this then the unwrapping of the babies’ swaddle revealing the infant’s innards; exposing them to the world. Disgusting in the fact that it reveals our mortality and exposes the horrid processes that bring us our own life. Henri then proceeds to stab and kill the child; providing an instant relief to the audience that the creeping form of death has now came and passed. This feeling of relief is a truly horrible reaction for the audience to have but distinguishes the abject from the uncanny. As Kristeva points out when described the abject, “essentially different from “uncanniness,” more violent, too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory” (5).
INLAND EMPIRE: WHAT THE LYCHIAN
The abject functions like the uncanny as means of creating horror. Both terms describe not only what makes Lynch’s cinema unique but drive it to be a true symbol of the horror genre. No other film in Lynch’s oeuvre solidifies this point more than Inland Empire. His last feature film as of writing this, the film acts as a return to form that we saw in Eraserhead. The film relies on the uncanny and the abject to sustain it horror element. Like his previous films, Lynch dives into the separation of one’s self, or more succinctly, the loss of control over one’s actions. This action is primary achieved through the character of Nikki Grace; played by Laura Dern. Especially towards the end of the film, in which Nikki’s face gets digitally superimposed onto her head. Capturing something that is quintessentially abject through the digital medium. Prior to the scene, the film is dominated by the uncanny; however, this marks a turn to the abject because Dern has become unrecognizable. The moment is truly horrifying because all familiarity has been lost and the evil is inescapable for it has ultimately become us.
Conversely, the films uncanny elements act as method of horror filmmaking. The film makes no attempt to convey a conventional plot; yet it does incorporate familiar elements we ‘ve come to expect in a typical Hollywood narrative. Through acting in a deformed manner with these classical elements, the film delivers a familiar yet entirely independently manufactured story. In Freuds words “we react to his inventions as we should have reacted to real experiences; by the time we have seen through his trick it is already too late and the author has made it flow in another, and he often obtains a great variety of effects from the same material” (18). The films formal qualities can also be argued as a means of invoking the uncanny; specifically, the use of digital film which gives the film a home video quality. The aspect of the home plays a special role in the film, embodied not only in the films digital medium but with its depiction of Nikki’s home slowly diminishing in size and quality. Aspects that should be associated with the familiar and safe are instead warped and destroyed.
In his article on Lynch, titled "Lynch keeps his head", David Foster Wallace mentions the concept of the Lynchian; a term used to define Lynch’s unique method of filmmaking (141). In his words “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter” (141). In short, the term defines the specific form of uncanny and abject elements that are apparent in Lynch’s filmmaking. In terms of horror, I argue the Lynchian is in fact what true horror genre filmmaking is; something that terrifies that audience not in the physical embodiment of death but rather the psychological processes that accompany it. As with both Eraserhead and Inland Empire, the psychological and subconscious are elements at play that define what horror really is.
In summary, the horror genre is often used as a blanket term for vastly different types of films; specifically, films that could be described as terror or horror. The oeuvre of Lynch falls under the latter and offers us a what I would call true horror filmmaking. The uncanny as suggest by Freud and the abject by Kristeva offer us a way of categorizing real horror filmmaking techniques. Often, we complain that horror depends on cliché tricks in order to invoke panic in the audience; but the same cannot be said about Lynch. As an artist, Lynch uses our own psychological processes against ourselves and providing true feelings of disgust and panic when we watch his films. Lynch’s horror falls under Cavarero’s definition of the word; arguably being an exemplary form of what she strives to define in her book. Perhaps when we consider what we define as the Lynchian, we should be defining what we consider what a horror film truly is; and that is Lynch.
Cavarero, Adriana. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Sammlung: Imago, 1919.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Wallace, David Foster. "Lynch keeps his head." Premiere (1995): 131-170.