Essays

Exploring the Unconscious with David Lynch

No one in the film industry has created dream scenes the way David Lynch has. He conveys a visceral reaction through his direction similar to how someone experiences an actual dream. His work has inspired iconic television shows such as The Sopranos, The OA, Veronica Mars, and The Fringe, as well as countless young directors like rising horror director Ari Aster. This is why it is so interesting to trace the origins of the surrealist auteur: even in his first films, he had a confident sense of style and tone in his projects, already wielding a lot of creative control. In his first feature-length film, he wore several hats during the production, including editor, composer, art director, writer, producer, special effects, and, of course, director. 

The director’s first three films, Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), and Dune (1984), will be analyzed to show the connecting thread at the start of Lynch’s film career. 

Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead is an experimental film that launched Lynch’s career. His description of his work as “a dream of dark and troubling things” rings true with the tone of the whole film. Eraserhead centers on the story of Henry, a printer on vacation who deals with his girlfriend and baby. The way I described it may seem mundane, but it is far from. The film depicts meeting the parents in the most horrific way possible, complete with bleeding chickens and spontaneous seizures. The film does not concern itself with realism but focuses more on the emotions felt by Henry; the inner turbulence of Henry’s fear of mundanity is brought to the forefront. The terror and fear lend itself well with the horror and surrealist angle that Lynch uses to depict his characters. Fear of the unknown unleashes the need for people to control their surroundings—Lynch depicts this control in violent ways that churn the stomach of most of his viewers. In this film particularly, it is seen through the relationship between Henry and his baby which increasingly becomes turbulent. 

In Eraserhead, the whole film feels like a nightmare of a man becoming a father and realizing the troubles that come with it. It is, in a way, very Freudian, particularly when it seems Henry’s id urges him to hurt his baby, cheat on his wife, and imagine situations where he hurts fetuses. As said before, the events in the movie are Henry’s nightmares; among other aspects, Freud says that dreams are wish fulfilment. Henry is dealing with the struggles of fatherhood by dreaming of a time where his urges reign. 

Lynch’s attachment to depicting dreams and the unconscious can still be felt in his later work, especially in Twin Peaks: The Return, specifically in the stylistic choices of the set design and the thematic elements surrounding the atomic bomb. This is seen in the Twin Peaks series as well, where a father does not resist his animalistic urges to harm his child. That said, although Freud’s theory is influential in Lynch’s work, Freud’s successors have disproved many of his theoretical findings. 

The Elephant Man (1980)

After the success of Eraserhead, Lynch was attached to direct The Elephant Man. Critics argue that this film is Lynch’s most accessible work and I am inclined to agree. The Elephant Man is about the life of a severely deformed man named John Merrick, based on the real experiences of Joseph Merrick, a man most known for having severe deformities. The plot is possibly the most straightforward film Lynch has ever written; there is not a lot of symbolism that may go over the head of many viewers. The main character has clear intentions and motivations: his severe deformity and the cruel abuse he experienced resulted in him wanting a simple life where he can feel loved and accepted for who he is. 

There are not a lot of obvious influences of The Elephant Man in Lynch’s latter work. He has not worked with the other main actors again in other projects and there are no stylistic elements that he repeats. However, the sensitivity that Lynch expresses through his characters here can be felt, still: In the Twin Peaks series, the main character Laura Palmer goes through severe trauma. In the whole series, Lynch and co-creator Jack Frost have depicted Palmer as a sympathetic figure who was a victim of her circumstances. Each main character in The Elephant Man, specifically Dr. Treeves and John Merrick, have been written with a rich inner life that deals with the complexity of human emotion. These characters can be seen as abiding by—in Freud’s words—their ego, since they respect social standards even if they don’t fit in the ideal social mold. 

Dune (1984)

Dune is known to be a commercial flop, and most critics label it the worst Lynch film. Personally, I have a soft spot for the film with its cheesy effects, sci-fi aesthetic, and adorable pug. Dune deals with the waging wars of three planets, and in its center is Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan). The film is based on the 1965 award-winning book of the same name. 

In terms of Freudian dream theory, Dune is probably the most removed from. However, the dreams still inform the characters of their own lives. In this film, the dreams are treated as prophetic visions.

The commercial failure possibly pushed Lynch away from sci-fi projects, although it did not deter him from exploring similar themes in his works in the future. He has explored sci-fi elements in Twin Peaks: The Return, like time travel and body doubles. Several actors in the film appear in other Lynch projects, especially MacLachlan, who plays Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet and the iconic Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks

Although Lynch depicts the worst of humanity, there is a sense of understanding that carries through his work. Lynch does not strictly adhere to Freudian psychology, but he does explore some of the major concepts: dreams depict the desires of our subconscious, and these desires are not usually logical but rooted in animalistic urges that humans repress in everyday life. To Freud and Lynch, dreams unleash the secrets that our unconscious aims to hide, no matter how terrifying it may be. 

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