How David Lynch Turns Our Love For Movies Into a Nightmare
As far as mainstream directors go, none are as enigmatic as David Lynch. His eclectic repertoire spans television and film alike, with each project firmly running countercurrent to the mainstream media landscape. Despite Lynch’s obtuse style, he remains popular. I attribute this popularity to Lynch’s unmatched ability to represent the uncanny. It’s the key to Lynch’s horror, and while the uncanny is a fundamental concept to the horror genre, Lynch does it like nobody else. Lynch’s uncanny comes with a dimension of self reflexivity, one that seems to stare back at the audience. Lynch mobilizes our love of movies against us to create a distinct form of uncanny horror.
To understand how Lynch does this we must first define the uncanny and how it functions in horror. The uncanny is a freudian concept, one that explores the psychological effect of repression. Freud posits that the uncanny are things that seem familiar yet possess an unaccounted for hidden nature. It represents what we as human beings have repressed invading our space. Things such as humanoid robots and ugly motion capture animation seem human, but are distinctly not. These creatures confront us with something human yet corrupted. Freud suggests that this corruption stems from psychological tendencies we have repressed. The true horror is the recursion of these tendencies, the idea that humans and our space are no longer safe from what we once controlled.
In horror films, the uncanny is compulsory. Whether it be a suburban home haunted by a poltergeist or the emergence of evil doppelgangers in red jumpsuits, time and time again horror presents us with corrupted familiarity. The evils of humanity are manifested in a perverted mirror image. When what used to be safe is infected, we must acknowledge how and why we let it happen. This is the core of Lynch’s work. From Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, the uncanny defines Lynch’s stories. However, Lynch doesn’t adhere to a rudimentary representation of the uncanny, rather, his hinges upon its own medium. To explore this most effectively we’ll look at my personal favorite of his, Lost Highway.
As with many Lynch projects, Lost Highway exists within typical genre conventions, in this case that of the noir film. The film is consistent with the genre’s semantic material, blonde femme fatale, murder, shady figures, and complicated plots becoming fatally tangled. The DNA of the film is fundamentally noir, exploring themes within the confines of that genre, however it is no typical noir. The film is made up of two halves. The first follows a jazz musician as nightmarish videotapes of their home torment him and his wife. The second follows a young man who strikes up a romance with the wife of a dangerous criminal. The two halves seem unrelated until eerie similarities fuse the two. It’s this connective tissue that creates Lynch’s meta uncanny. Spoilers ahead for Lost Highway.
The end of the first half sees the vicious murder of protagonist Fred Madison’s wife, Renee. He is arrested for the crime even though he has no recollection of doing it. While he is incarcerated, a young man named Pete miraculously wakes up in his place, with Fred nowhere to be seen. Pete is released and the second half of the film begins. This half seeing Pete’s typical noir story unfold with all the semantic material I mentioned earlier. The story unravels as the two halves converge. Renee repappears as a new character, Alice Wakefield. Pete also has visions of Fred’s old life. The story comes full circle and repeats as Fred returns and is arrested before escaping and beginning another transformation. While this may seem like typical Lynchian nonsense, it functions as a harrowing descent into the evils of humanity.
Fred, when faced with the consequences of his actions, retreats into fantasy. Much like us, his fantasy is informed by the media he consumes. His story becomes that of a standard noir. He reunites with his wife, faces a villain, and is able to become a hero. He seeks comfort in the media. While noirs aren’t always feel-good, their categorization as a genre creates consistency. Fred escapes to this consistency, one where predictability and causality reign supreme. However, the truth infects this fantasy. His noir falls apart as it cannot detach itself from reality. His psychological torment and crimes which he attempted to repress via his own film return.
For Lynch, cinema and television are frequently used an escape from our reality. It’s a medium where we can disregard tangible evils. However, Lynch’s cinema contradicts this. He presents us with genres, then reminds us of the inevitability of our malevolent impulses. Lost Highway sees a character transform lives to escape his reality, yet it returns anyways. Cinema’s escapism is presented as feeble, as it will always fall victim to evil. Noir in Lost Highway, soap operas in Twin Peaks, suburbia in Blue Velvet, and Hollywood in Mulholland Drive are all escapism. A glitzy world of consistency and predictability. Lynch revels in these qualities and adheres to the genre’s semantic material. Yet, each one is corrupted. This familiarity Lynch portrays is tinged by evil. The dark, unexplainable corners of the human psyche infect the escapism. Lynch films invite us to a familiar world then reveal the horror beneath. His carefully constructed worlds deliberately cut holes in a safety net, and by peering into these holes we become privy to horrors we thought had left but never went anywhere at all.