Looked at in this way, the film’s meanings begin to emerge clearly. ERASERHEAD is about corruption – the corruption of the natural world and of man as a part of that world. At the root of this corruption is man: the human mind, or intellect, or consciousness – that part of man which causes him to perceive himself as apart from the rest of nature, a separateness which causes him to believe that he is free to interfere with and alter nature in any way he desires, with impunity. In the film, the consequences of this meddling well up in vivid nightmare terms. The world of ERASERHEAD is a dead one, bleak and sterile. Man’s interference has made it actively hostile to life, and this process has rebounded on him in the form of a perversion of the most basic of life’s forces: sex. The symbolic progress of the film reveals an ever-deepening fear of sex (as the agency by which life perpetuates itself), leading ultimately to a disgust which can only be remedied by a complete escape from it – into death.
The physical world depicted in ERASERHEAD offers virtually no images of life. From the very start, we see only a bleak, grimy urban wasteland; concrete expanses, tenements in a narrow street, relieved only occasionally by open space – treeless waste ground. These open spaces are either mere expanses of mud or wire-enclosed compounds containing a litter of technological debris. There are no bird sounds, just the occasional metallic rattle of some idle device off in the shadows. Just once dogs are heard to bark, an angry offscreen outburst from which Henry ducks away nervously. The only animals actually shown are a bitch and her pups in the X’s house; the sound accompanying the pups’ suckling seems wrong, like the squealing of rats.
The “ornaments” in Henry’s dingy room are themselves dead: a mound of dried grass on top of the dresser, a mat of the same beneath the radiator, and on the bedside table a heap of dirt from which protrudes a dry, leafless twig. Above this hangs a picture of a mushroom cloud – the ultimate symbol of death.
Even when we are shown a garden (in front of the X’s house), it is as bleak as the rest of this world: dark and shadowy, with a high wire fence pressing in at the side through which murky, unwholesome steam drifts from railway yards, it contains only dead, withered flowers and shrubs.