When the ancestors of primitive man first began to distinguish themselves from the lesser animals to ascend towards being the apex predator of the planet, life was still scary. Just because you’re the apex predator doesn’t mean something else can’t still eat you when your guard is down.
There’s a theory or two out there that our tendency to have nightmares gives us an evolutionary advantage. “Nightmares probably evolved to help make us anxious about potential dangers.” Phobias, after all, are functional in a Darwinian sense; being afraid of heights means not risking death by falling off a cliff. Nightmares and imagined fears are rehearsals for real-life threats. Even fear of the dark is chalked up to the fact that primitive humans sleeping outside at night were vulnerable to nocturnal predators.
When this process short-circuits, that’s how we get disorders like anxiety and PTSD. The rest of the time, mentally running through a scary scenario is a way for your survival instincts to test-fire your flight-or-fight reflexes and generally keep you on your toes. This mechanism works so well that a recent psychological study found that horror movie fans are better equipped, mentally speaking, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
So far, we’re talking about non-surreal horror. Even if an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse isn’t a real-life threat, it’s similar enough to a world war or a pandemic that we get some psychological resilience out of it. Primal fears are comprehensible. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today…
Why Surreal Horror is Scarier
The thing that sets surreal horror apart is that it is incomprehensible. Faced with a disturbance in the natural laws of the universe, we all go to pieces. We have no way to build up a psychological defense. Like a virus that attacks the immune system directly, surreal horror messes with our defense mechanisms, pulling the rug out from under us and our safe, logical map of reality.
This is something that film director David Lynch knows. H.P. Lovecraft understood this, too, with his invention of the cosmic horror genre. There’s a surreal undercurrent in horror running from the hellishly mad paintings of Hieronymus Bosch right through to celebrated horror mangaka Junji Ito.
We can deconstruct several common themes in surreal horror. Each of them is a pressure point in our psyche.
- Identity – Screwing with the sense of whom you are, as an entity, is one of the surest ways to blow down your mental house of cards.
- Time – Humans exist in linearity; muddle our sense of time and we go off the track.
- Spiritual matters – We have no scientific fix on the afterlife, so when the dead come back to haunt us, the chips are down.
- Physics – Wouldn’t it be scary if gravity just stopped working one day?
- Deities – Supreme beings of any kind provoke mental awe and shock, no matter how benevolent they may be.
- Social relations – What if everybody you knew switched bodies one day?
- The occult and black magic – Mixing several of the above factors together with human recklessness.
When horror is not surreal, but based on perfectly logical primal fears, we have a script we can follow. Even getting attacked by a werewolf would be something most of us could conceive of surviving, given enough ammunition. But how do you defend yourself against a malevolent cosmic entity? What chance do you have when you can’t count on your frame of reference anymore? How do you fight back against something that’s melting your molecules and stopping time?
How I interpret David Lynch…
We’re coming into the part where I have to spitball an opinion. You can argue with me from here on down, I’m not going to defend this that much. But I do have theories where most of you don’t, so the exercise is worthwhile.
- David Lynch thinks with his gut more than his brain. He’s referenced this much openly in interviews.
- David Lynch’s internal voice might speak in pictures instead of words. Lynch’s first passion was painting, before he ever touched a camera.
- David Lynch has an obvious spiritual streak. He’s big on transcendental meditation.
- David Lynch has said in many ways that he’d prefer us viewers interpret the work for ourselves rather than him spoonfeed what it means to us.
- David Lynch wants you to do most of the work. In the last quote of this article, he even refers to his viewers as “detectives.”
There’s several conclusions you can draw from the above established facts about Lynch. He likes to play with ideas, both within the framework of a filmed story and outside of the film, playing with the concept of a framework itself. Given that he talks about his movies like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, you might even see him as a playful D&D dungeon-master. The guy has a sense of humor, too, and I think it’s subtle enough that sometimes audiences are confused because they can’t quite tell when Lynch is being funny.
Now we’ll focus on the surreal horror of David Lynch. It’s October here. And by the way, if you’re wondering if my earlier-mentioned rule is still in effect where I despise the intellectual dishonesty of dismissing a film as a “dream” or “acid trip”: Yes, 100%! I’m going to boldly assume that every single frame of every David Lynch movie is showing “reality,” at least as far as that movie’s universe is concerned.
No spoilers – as if you could spoil David Lynch!
Motif: Sinners in the hands of an angry God
Interpretation: Henry is Adam, Mary is Eve, and the two are experiencing a parallel parable about original sin.
Framework: Faerie tale
If you know your Old Testament fundie morality (or rather had it beaten into you from an American Christian upbringing), the influence of Biblical moralizing is easy to see. Henry and Mary break the news to her parents, in a tragic early scene, that they have committed sins of the flesh together and are now paying the consequences. Later Henry’s primal sexual urges are explored with lots of sperm metaphors and singing lady in the radiator. Henry is further tempted by his neighbor, which angers God (the man in the planet pushing the levers) even further, and he pays all hell for it. The point is to examine the cruel irony of humanity existing as a partially advanced being while still cursed with animal urges.
Motif: The apple is rotten at the core
Interpretation: Just as Lynch says this time, it’s an examination of the strange and disturbing creatures we all are inside, which we hide so carefully in our daily life.
Framework: Police procedural
Not so much a horror movie as Lynch’s first mystery, it begins and ends with sickening discoveries. Jeffery is as good as an innocent Cub Scout, with Sandy as his Nancy Drew sidekick. As they get drawn into Frank and Dorothy’s secret, perverted world, the evil of the situation spreads out to corrupt Jeffery as well. A word on David Lynch villains: They’re kind of all motiveless chaotic evil types. But really, haven’t you ever read a disturbing news story about some sick psychopath and shuddered because you can’t understand their actions either? Anyway, this is one of the few Lynch movies you can call a “happy” ending.
Twin Peaks – Not a movie, not for our list, but still almost a remake of Blue Velvet with lots of extra material added.
Motif: Be careful what you wish for
Interpretation: We have a kind of Prometheus parable this time, where Fred is first suspicious that his wife is cheating on him, and later he gets to live out the fantasy of discovering how the experience of infidelity works for other people, at the price of his sanity.
Framework: Hindu parable
I bet a lot of chips on the theory that some David Lynch movies have some sort of cosmic entity messing with the protagonists. In this case, Fred is suspicious of Renee and wants to know the truth. Call it what you will – genie, Lovecraftian god, the devil (Mr. No-Eyebrows creepy dude at the party) – something angrily grants Fred’s wish by force-feeding him truth until he chokes on it. Fred gets to live out several fantasies of revenge, payback, and even getting away scott free to a new life, only to overstep his bounds in messing with the squeeze of Mr. Eddie, another chaotic neutral villain. Imagine a deity tormenting a human like a cat playing with a half-mauled mouse, only Fred is the mouse.
Motif: Pride goeth before a fall
Interpretation: Betty comes to Hollywood to help herself to a power-dream, but her outrageous ego and greed consumes her until she is rebuked by the universe into an alternate reality where she’s robbed of everything.
Framework: Slapstick comedy
Let’s face it, Betty the character is insufferable from the beginning. She’s vapid, self-absorbed, and even helping “Rita” is just another part of her internal narrative where she’s a goody two-shoes. A responsible person would have called 911. Betty instead makes “Rita” her pet. With stunning luck, she lands an audition and even comes within a hair of firing off a romance with big-shot director Adam. Finally she takes things too far in raping “Rita” (what, do you think accident-concussion-victim “Rita” was in any condition to consent?). The universe (or Pandora’s Blue Box of forbidden secrets) punishes her by stirring reality, reassigning all the good things she had to the people who deserve them, even if it has to rewrite history to do so. Collapsing in petty envy, Betty tries to take revenge and ends up a greasy mess for the maid to clean up.
Motif: Hollywood Babylon
Interpretation: Almost a sequel to Mulholland Drive, this time the very act of making movies is a sin in itself, with this story indicting all who have a hand in fabricating reality for entertainment, as the fictional character of the screenplay emerges to punish the performer.
Framework: Soap opera
Give me a break if this one seems convoluted, but this is David Lynch’s most inaccessible film. There are themes of the objectification of people in here, especially women. Carrying on through David Lynch’s repeated themes of people losing their identity and time continuity, Nikki starts out cheating on her husband with her costar Devon. Subsequently her existence and that of “Sue,” her part in the movie, mingle in reality. The prostitution theme is just a reflection of the Hollywood industry, where you whore out your talent for money. Even though Nikki is getting the usual punishment in the David Lynch universe, this time she’s just one more in a bin of prior condemned lives.
The David Lynch Cheat Sheet
Chances are, none of the above interpretations jived with what any of you readers think. That’s good, Lynch wants you to think for yourself. For what it’s worth, somebody else came close to noticing these same trends in the book Pervert in the Pulpit: Morality in the Works of David Lynch, but then took Lynch at face value to claim that Lynch is a Puritan. Remember, Lynch is also doing humor, even satire! He’s showing us what’s wrong with this situation, that’s why they’re horror movies. Characters are generally punished way out of proportion to their crimes, or at the least left screaming mad on the cold rocks of an uncaring world.
Here’s themes we find in common to all of the above films:
- Sex = sin : Nobody in a David Lynch movie has a healthy normal sex life. It’s all rape, infidelity, prostitution, or perversion.
- Sin is punished : Every character has some kind of agency in their own unhappy fate.
- Evil is incomprehensible : The characters committing sins of the flesh aren’t the true villains. Villains are external, pulling strings in the background, messing up lives for the sheer chaos of it.
- People are messed up : One way to see Lynch is viewing humanity through the eyes of an alien, with all our warts exposed.
- “Man is a god in ruins.” : We try to be noble and attempt a nice society, but we just can’t help ourselves.
- Lots of things we care about aren’t important to nature : Half our troubles are caused by our irrational attachment to cozy concepts like “time” and “justice.”
- David Lynch is Gothic : Here’s his latest interview regarding COVID-19 “For some reason, we were going down the wrong path and Mother Nature just said, ‘Enough already, we’ve got to stop everything.'” That’s like the themes to half his work, a homage to Mary Shelley.
There is, of course, a hell of a lot more going on with Lynch. He’s also playing with the rules of story construction even while he tells some of the most convoluted stories ever filmed. We didn’t have the space to dive into the tenth of him here. Nobody could hope to capture Lynch in a blog post and I’m insane for trying.
But this is what he wants us to do. David Lynch’s will be done.