For a film as heavily symbolic as David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), readings of its aesthetic aspects are often commonplace within the cinematic discourse of the film. Lynch has often made explicit use of the medium’s inherent dream-state as a tool to question the viewer on various topics, often finding visual expression through symbolic and highly personal direction. Though Eraserhead was his first feature film, his control on the project is vast; his vision finding its way into every single element that makes up the film. This at first may come across as controlling but, with hindsight of his later talents in painting, design, and music, it is an obvious norm for a director with a very clear and personal set of themes.
All of these are often required to be addressed in his work but Eraserhead is a project where Lynch addresses them through the music and the sound design of the film as well as in the production, the writing, and the direction of the narrative (in collaboration with Alan R. Splet). Here, Lynch is starting as he means to go, exerting full creative control at whatever cost. Eraserhead may be renown for being a dark and disturbing watch but its sound is of equal morbidity like the rusted pipe that Lynch bludgeons his viewer with while they sit in awe, hypnotized by the dreams and zigzag floors of his cinematic world.
Eraserhead is presented as a collapsing world but one that is depressingly at the design of a maker. The fate of poor Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) seems to be inevitable and the fearful look on his face throughout the film suggests he is aware of it. The world of Eraserhead is audibly created more so than visually, with its vast industrial landscape sketched out through sound design as well as the oblique, Kafka-esque ubiquity of brick walls and industrial paraphernalia. This world is not, however, the first to be presented to the viewer and Lynch, for the first of many times, goes through the looking glass of a spatial dream before descending into Henry’s nightmare reality.
These two worlds are lined by sounds of differing kinds though they are also aesthetically similar. The opening dream sequence, which consists of Henry floating around a rocky, spatial void while an unknown figure controls the levers of his life, is aurally vast; a chasm of white noise and Musique concrète that presents a vague but isolated realm. This is one of the film’s many odes to Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953) and its origins are said to derive from a wind effect from that film (no doubt an accident at the time but strangely effective in hindsight). Much has been assumed of this sequence and this article’s reading of it is that it presents a conception and the eventual birth of our main character. This is simplified as it suggests much more (that Henry’s life is controlled by someone else and that Henry may be flashbacking to his birth thanks to a religious confessional) but it makes sense when comparing it to the aural patterns of the rest of the film.
The hissing void of space is almost replicated by Henry’s industrial world which is filled with far-off work horns and hissing radiators. Almost everything technology-wise seems to hiss at Henry, as if even the inanimate objects are somehow against him and his life. The later themes of mutation also provide separate elements for tying in the industrial horror of the film but there is more in the soundtrack than simply an aural equivalent. One of the notable themes of Eraserhead is the persistent reoccurrence of a strange and creepy piece of dancehall music. Though it is later placed as coming from a record player in Henry’s apartment (which itself is deliberately hissy), it invades various other moments too, even when Henry is first seen walking back through the empty, concrete land towards his apartment.
This may just be a natural, easy method to create a sense of unease but that would be underestimating Lynch as an audio-visual artist. The music is of a sickly and pleasant variety played largely on an dancehall pipe organ, in definite contrast to the more ambient sounds of the film. Aside from the film’s infamous musical interlude provided by the “Radiator Girl” (singing a song with lyrics by Lynch), this music is the only made-for-pleasure sound that appears. Perhaps it is there to numb the character, or maybe even the viewer as they are provided a handful of minute breaks from the film’s constant barrage of unpleasant diegetic sound. The music also invokes the era of 1930s America or even the sickly twee of a seaside resort; a popular, almost trad-jazz type nuance that plays on the film’s questioning of the county’s darker side (a later preoccupation of Lynch’s that would affect nearly all of his films post-Dune). What can happen in this industrial outback, full of American clichés or at least twisted formations of them? Perhaps the whole film is a mutation of the American Dream itself.
With all of the buzz that surrounds Henry, Eraserhead becomes a film that is just as disturbing to listen to as to watch. From the wails of his crying mutant child to the vibration of light bulbs, from the oozing gloominess of black, oily liquid to a vast void of space, Eraserhead‘s soundscape is a dark, powerful provocation of both its main protagonist and the viewer who are forced to drown in the twisted remnants of technology and dusty voids.