The actions and responses of the characters during Henry’s visit to the X’s exhibit an almost complete incongruity in each character’s behaviour – a breakdown or even a complete absence of communication between one mind and another which is nonetheless accepted by the characters as communication. Mrs X asks Henry, “What do you do?” to which he replies ingenuously, “Oh, I’m on vacation.” Mary has a seizure which her unconcerned mother treats by brushing Mary’s hair. Henry is asked to carve a chicken which is only the size of a fist; when he tries to comply the bird twitches to life and spews out an oily liquid. And so it goes on – nothing seems to fit.
At its most accessible level, the film seems to be a strange domestic comedy in which the little annoyances of daily life are blown up to monstrous proportions, with poor bemused Henry stumbling through it all, trying his damnedest to appear inconspicuously normal in situations where he is not certain just what “normal” is.
But this humour is not funny, because it is wedded to dark, bleak imagery, an almost obsessive interest in biological matters – the textures of internal organs, physical deformity. This biological concern and the bleak, post-industrial landscape in which the film is set, are reminiscent of the paintings of the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger (who, not surprisingly, has called ERASERHEAD “one of the greatest films I have ever seen”). Giger’s paintings depict people trapped in mechanical complexes, often being absorbed into the machinery; creatures half-organic, half-mechanical; landscapes of glistening flesh; decaying biological matter.
This parallel offers a means of deciphering Lynch’s seemingly impenetrable film. Its coherence is not the external one of narrative form, but the internal one of dream images which may represent any number of things simultaneously with no single meaning negating any of the others. It seems that Lynch has managed to capture the processes of dream consciousness with remarkable precision. ERASERHEAD is not simply a fantasy related to us and labeled dream: it is the dream experience itself.
But whose dream? The film itself presents us with no one who stands outside the events of the dream. Henry, at the centre, is not the dreamer but rather the dreamer’s dream identity (it is very much a male dream). Perhaps it is this absence of the dreamer which makes the film so immediate and so disturbing: the viewer becomes the dreamer.