David Lynch and a Single Sentence from the Bible

People have been trying to puzzle out Lynch films since ‘Lynchian’ first entered the filmic lexicon, making a practice of snooping for clues and signs that may illuminate his often mysterious and even more often confusing work. Though it’s one of his more straightforward nightmares, Eraserhead is among the two or three movies in Lynch’s catalogue the director is the most tightlipped about, typically diverting questions involving interpretation into asides about his life experiences whilst conceptualizing and making the film. Even for him, answers are slippery and hard to define; subconscious rumblings that guide decision-making but do not overtly point to explanations. The following quote, then, is of great interest to Lynch-aficionados:

Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is. Eraserhead was growing in a certain way, and I didn’t know what it meant. I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying. Of course, I understood some of it; but I didn’t know the thing that just pulled it all together. And it was a struggle. So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent. I don’t think I’ll ever say what that sentence was.” Lynch may never reveal the sentence that unlocked Eraserhead in full for him, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a worthwhile experiment to explore a few contenders.

First, there is Job 7:13-15, which reads: “When I say, My bed shall comfort me, my couch shall ease my complaints; Then thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifiest me through visions: So that my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life.” This passage seems to align nicely with Eraserhead’s depiction of reluctant father Henry’s Freudian, nightmarish visions of his deformed child, and a popular interpretation of the meaning behind the Lady in the Radiator. Her promise that “In heaven, everything is fine”, and her blinding embrace at the very end of the film seem to suggest that she offers, and finally delivers the escape of death.

Similarly, Job 15:21 recounts “A dreadful sound is in his ears: in prosperity the destroyer shall come upon him.” There is nothing prosperous in Henry’s life, but the blinding light of the lady in the radiator is accompanied by a deafening ringing. This verse aligns better with interpretations suggesting that rather than escape into suicide, Henry dies as punishment for his infanticide, which directly precedes this final scene.

Beyond any interpretation of the final moment of the film, James 1:15 reads almost as a logline: “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Lust rears its head even after the birth of Henry’s child, through his affair with the woman living in the apartment across from his, and more broadly, the film is overflowing with sexually-charged imagery, all of which is deeply unpleasant, mingling the grotesquely biological between child-rearing and sex. The metaphysical conception at the start of the film leads to scene after scene of neurotic guilt, fear and disgust, culminating in the death explored above.

Some forego these loose connections in favor of a more conspiratorial inkling. Henry’s partner Mary lives in a home numbered 2416, so these detectives point to Deuteronomy 24:16; “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” It certainly resembles the film’s climax, though Lynch isn’t really in the business of leaving cutesy clues for viewers to decode his films. The director lived with his wife and young daughter at 2416 Poplar in a crime-ridden Philadelphia neighborhood, a time and place which he credits with heavily inspiring the film through its pervasive menace and filth.

Nahum 3:1, then, could suffice, though only in the vaguest of connections. “Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not”. We do witness a mugging on the street below Henry’s apartment. It’s certainly nebulous, but that may well be the right way to go; consider that it is David Lynch we’re talking about here. He’s often summarized Eraserhead as “a dream of dark and troubling things”. Could the verse have been Zephaniah 1:15, with its allusions to “a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness”.

Here we run into a dead end. There are plenty more verses that could apply to just about any film, so trying to discern which sparked Lynch’s conviction that day is hopeless. This does, however, help us get to the heart of the matter; there is never a single answer to the mystery of a Lynch film, and more often than not there aren’t any real answers at all. They are irreconcilable by nature. Either you find that frustrating, or arresting and beautiful.