At some point you have probably come across the term “Lynchian.” It’s often used thoughtlessly to explain away weird imagery and seemingly ineffable behaviour in film, but it’s in the popular vernacular for a reason. David Lynch’s particular outlook and cinematic approach has made him the authority on dream-like ambience. The distinct sense of unease in his movies often comes from his interest in the uncanny; a “disturbing unfamiliarity in the evidently familiar.” The abstract concepts he puts on screen inspire fear because they are uncomfortably close to our own reality. In Twin Peaks, the ceiling fan on the landing of the Palmer household is shown at a low frame-rate, as if asking us to focus on the mundane, the ordinary, and wonder what is wrong with the picture presented; objects and behaviour normally associated with normalcy, stability, and positivity are corrupted.
In The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll attributed feelings of horror and the uncanny to apparent transgressions of cultural and conceptual categories. The most effective horror is often that which pushes us beyond the boundaries that give us stability. Even the most intelligent viewers carry their own preconceptions of what a narrative needs to achieve, and what the right emotional response is for a given moment. Examples Carroll provides of these categories are “living/dead,” “me/not me,” and “flesh/machine’,” dichotomies that are common in the horror genre because they challenge the principles that give us comfort, and make the world comprehensible. Eraserhead, Lynch’s most surreal film, is full of these contradictions. It’s about the anticipation of fatherhood, and the anxiety that can come with creation. It is concerned with the family dynamic, obsessed with flesh and disease, and yet set within a completely industrial environment. In the film, the “baby” is mutated and seemingly impossible to adequately attend to, it is far beyond the comprehension of Henry or the viewer. But it’s not simply an object of hatred; it is weak, harmless, and clearly suffering. As Carroll reflects:
“[Monsters] are un-natural relative to a culture’s conceptual scheme of nature. They do not fit the scheme; they violate it. Thus, monsters are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening.“
The child’s unnatural appearance reinforces the feeling of insecurity, estrangement, and lack of orientation; what Lynch himself refers to as being “lost in darkness and confusion.” The practical effects are convincing, and the mystery over how exactly they made the deformed newborn only adds to the uncanny, alienating experience.
Take Twin Peaks’ BOB as another example, and one of the most frightening villains I have come across, though he really shouldn’t be. His look is one of ripped denim and long grey hair, with a perpetual grin on his face. It should be goofy, a villain better suited to pantomime, but the almost painful-looking smile transforms him into something else. Again, the final episode of the series, titled “Beyond Life and Death,” contains the show’s most terrifying scenes, as Lynch uses the alternate space of “The Red Room” to break rules of television, narrative, and physics. We have characters returning from the dead, coffee turning to syrup, and Agent Dale Cooper being chased through an infinite cycle of the same room by his own doppelgänger. In what I believe is an incredibly significant moment in the landscape of the medium, the facsimile of the fan-favourite character turns to the camera, to us, the viewer, and smiles. This breaking of the fourth wall is alarming because it warns us that nothing is safe. At the crucial point, where our anxiety is at its peak, a knowing, wicked smile pulls the audience into the moment. The medium’s conventions are broken, and we are left feeling complicit, yet helpless.
But it’s not just in Twin Peaks that this corrupted smile appears. An uncomfortable scene in Eraserhead sees Henry sitting alone with his father-in-law, Bill. Bill simply stares at him, completely still, his face frozen in a foolish grin. In a disturbing juxtaposition of moods, his wife can be seen crying in the background. Again we see positive and negative imagery alongside one another, upsetting the comfortable separation we are used to and throwing us off balance. Lost Highway’s most unsettling scene is the introduction of the character only known as the Mystery Man, a pale-faced, smirking man, who approaches our main protagonist Fred Madison, played by Bill Pullman, at a party. Not only does he insist that he has visited Fred’s home before, but states that, “As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.” Justifiably sceptical, Fred telephones his house, only for the Mystery Man to answer. This, another instance of Lynch bringing the unfamiliar into the familiar space, makes us feel anxious, looking over our shoulders for the rest of the night.
More recently, Inland Empire is a long, perplexing film that I love more than most do, but it does successfully continue in this trend of leering grins. It exhibits what is likely the scariest single image Lynch has made, that of actor Laura Dern’s own manic smile projected onto the face of her would-be killer. What these examples have in common is the idea of shame and guilt being personified. These examples are the adult extension of the monster under the bed, with access to your home, even your own image. Our sensibilities are threatened by that which is familiar and yet unfamiliar; it is a violation of our field of comfort.
In Mulholland Drive, Betty arrives in L.A. alongside an elderly couple; they wish her the best and they part on good terms. When they leave, Lynch lingers on the shot of them sitting in the back of the taxi, turning to each other and then to the camera with creepy smiles. This undercuts the optimism the film has just displayed and, as the only real source of parental guidance in the film, it undercuts the safety of the familiar. Images otherwise associated with love and support become symbols of guilt and fear. It’s why they return to her in the ultimate scene of despair and self-loathing. It is one thing to fear recognisably antagonistic forces, but what Lynch does to really get under our skin is focus on fundamental fears we all share: that we are not good enough; that we will fail the ones we love; that our dreams will not come to fruition.
A common thread in the works of David Lynch is the conflict between good and evil. While this is possibly one of the most common themes found in any art form, he takes it to darker, frightening places. It has been an interesting topic of debate whether the worlds he creates convey his own cynical worldview, or whether he’s rallying against that kind of negativity. Twin Peaks spoke of the opposing forces of good and evil in the forms of the White and Black Lodge, expressed as fear and love. As Major Briggs confesses in Twin Peaks, his greatest fear is “the possibility that love isn’t enough.” Most of the protagonists of Lynch’s films are victims of fear, or are otherwise dominated by a culture of fear. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison walks the hallways of his home, knowing that he is vulnerable, willingly walking into pitch black. A recurring image in his films, and one of the key elements of Lynchian horror, is the camera’s slow crawl into darkness, and around corners. The director himself describes his fascination with “blackness” in Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch:
“Black has depth. It’s like a little egress; you can go into it, and because it keeps on continuing to be dark, the mind kicks in, and a lot of things that are going on in there become manifest. And you start seeing what you’re afraid of. You start seeing what you love, and it becomes like a dream.“
One of the leitmotifs of his work is the powerlessness of the individual in the face of the mysterious and sinister powers that be. There’s the shadowy figure of Mr. Roque in Mulholland Drive, who sits alone in a large room, with enough power to control both the film industry and a criminal element; and the spirits of the Black Lodge, seen all together in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In the case of Lost Highway, we see this intrusive force at its most unfiltered. Fred Madison is sent a videotape containing images of the exterior, and then interior, of his house. With no indication of the person filming, the penetrating gaze is completely disembodied. There is never a complete explanation of these forces, they remain unseen and so are never truly understood, yet are always around the corner.
Whatever is around the corner is something unknowable, and yet it is also a reflection of ourselves. It is brought into being by our fears, and then sustains them as they sustain it. The painting Laura Palmer is given in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me depicts a partially open door, at such an angle that the contents of the room is hidden from us. In her dreams, she is drawn through this egress and into the incomprehensible space of The Red Room. The literal monster around the corner is delivered to us by Mulholland Drive, and remains the most effective jump-scares I have ever encountered. An unnamed man confides in his therapist that he had a dream about the diner they are now in, and that hiding out back is the most horrible thing he has ever seen. The therapist tells him that the monster is not real and encourages him to check. When he approaches the corner he discovers that it is all too real. Repressed feelings of guilt, self-hatred, and envy are concentrated into these terrifying things. And yet while they are still around that corner, we can only imagine confronting them to be utterly annihilating.
Beyond all the themes, tone and message of Lynch’s films, what achieves the enduring atmosphere of unease is his mastery of sound. The influence of composer Angelo Badalamenti and sound designer Alan Splet should be given credit, as it is with these two that Lynch has created mesmerising soundscapes. It is within these reverberations that simple and vague dialogue provokes such strong feelings of anxiety. Few lines stick in my mind quite like Mulholland Drive’s, “Someone is in trouble…something bad is happening.” It works because Lynch tackles fundamental fears and their immediate sensation. After a fearful encounter leads to a devastating discovery in Mulholland Drive, Betty and Rita run out the door and scream. The sound is drained out and the image vibrates and doubles over itself, the horror so palpable it starts to tear apart the fabric of the film.
The films of David Lynch inspire dread because they tap into rational fears experienced by adults, and the elementary fears that lie beneath. Whether it’s the understandable apprehension that comes with parenthood in Eraserhead, Fred Madison’s fear of the truth in Lost Highway, or the fear of your own self in Fire Walk with Me – it is his unflinching embrace of this darkness that leaves us feeling nervous. His commitment to the absurd allows for greater impact when it lands, leaving us exposed to the belligerence of our own demons.
Featured Image: October Films