Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Eraserhead. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is Eraserhead about?
As anyone who’s seen David Lynch’s debut film can attest: Eraserhead is not easily definable. Everything about the movie, from the narrative jumps to the abrasive score to the idiosyncratic characters, is completely bizarre and unfamiliar. So in many ways, you can determine many finer points of the movie yourself. But on a broad scale, if you purely look at the movie from an emotional standpoint and care for the characters and what they’re struggling with, then there seems to be a discernible way to read this movie and what it’s ultimately saying about realizing the best life for yourself.
So, on the broad scale, Eraserhead is about a dejected young man. The movie starts with Henry Spencer as a heartbroken twenty-something who longs for his ex-girlfriend, Mary. Henry already feels isolated by the world, which is largely lifeless and colorless and seemingly ran by factories and machinery. A simple walk from Henry’s apartment to Mary’s house reeks of emptiness and decay. And soon it’ll get worse, as Henry will be burdened with a monster baby and a loveless marriage. This lack of anything substantial in his life drives him to reprehensible lengths and causes him to lose his ability to empathize, to foster a meaningful relationship, to make sense of the world around him in a healthy way. Every waking aspect of this world is unwelcoming and uninviting, which drives him to lose grasp with humanity and drift further into a fantasy world where he is welcomed with open arms by the Lady in the Radiator. The further he drifts from reality, the closer he gets to her.
On a smaller scale, I see lots of commentary within that larger, familiar story, which involves making some hypotheses on the specific commentaries of certain scenes that feel odd and less familiar. For instance, I view the baby as a symbol of inherited trauma; as a monstrous creature that’s born from generations of anxiety-ridden households that lost their human connections to the world as it became more and more mechanized. From there, we can get into discussion about capitalism and the world that system has created. In this light, the grotesque baby becomes a tragic figure (not unlike John Merrick in Lynch’s next feature, The Elephant Man), and more akin to Henry than he realizes. The baby inherits Henry’s trauma just like he and Mary inherited their own. And that kind of sick chain eventually reaches a breaking point.
A quick note on how this guide works
I think the best way to approach Eraserhead from an analytical standpoint is go to through the movie scene by scene. By using this approach, we can touch on the film’s confusing elements as the movie progresses and the symbolism gains more and more power and meaning. This way, each successive scene is backed by the information necessary to read the commentary, the emotional implications of the current scene. If there’s a specific scene you want to learn more about or a certain question you have, you can refer to the Table of Contents and jump to the section you want. But by doing that you might miss some necessary context.
You can consider this analysis as a sort-of rewatch of the movie (in fact, you could watch the movie scene by scene and read what I’ve written as you go along), as it’ll serve as a guide to a certain way of watching and understanding this David Lynch film. These are all just my personal views on how the movie functions, which purely stem from life’s path and the kind of person I’ve become, and a number of people will read the movie differently. But on a broad scale, I think this guide is definitive in its evaluation of Eraserhead‘s blueprint, and will properly put you in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the film’s more subtle ideas through your own lens.
Movie Guide table of contents
- The opening scene of Eraserhead explained
- Who is the Man in the Planet?
- What are the sperm-like creatures?
- Eraserhead’s distressing sound and set design
- Henry’s wish for a better life
- The symbolism of Mr. and Mrs. X
- The baby in Eraserhead explained
- The Lady in the Radiator explained
- The “In Heaven” song explained
- The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall explained
- Why is the movie called Eraserhead?
- The bed rail as a motif
- The ending of Eraserhead explained
- Jack Nance – Henry Spencer
- Charlotte Stewart – Mary X
- Allen Joseph – Mr. X
- Jeanne Bates – Mrs. X
- Jean Lange – Grandmother Judith
- Anna Roberts – Beautiful Girl Across the Hall
- Laurel Near – Lady in the Radiator
- Jack Fisk – Man in the Planet
- Darwin Joston – Paul
- T. Max Graham – The Boss
- Hal Landon Jr. – Pencil Machine Operator
- David Lynch – Writer and director
The opening scene of Eraserhead explained
This is a truly wild way to introduce the film—but perhaps not so wild if we think of Eraserhead as a horror film. We start with Henry’s head superimposed over a mysterious planet. Then he floats around the screen, all the while looking very uncomfortable, before floating away. We then zoom in on the planet, then zoom further and track its surface, before finally entering a rectangular box with a giant hole in it.
We then enter a room where a badly disfigured man, aka the Man in the Planet, sitting in front of several levers. When this man looks out his window into outer space, he sees Henry’s head floating with his mouth agape. Suddenly, a sperm-like creature (Wikipedia describes it as a spermatozoon-like creature emerges) expels from Henry’s mouth. Finally, the man pulls a lever. Then the sperm floats away. He then pulls another lever, then another, and the sperm falls into a puddle of water. Bubbles float up from the water. And then suddenly we cut to shot from beneath the ground through a hole that leads into the daylight of reality, of Henry’s world.
Essentially, this entire scene serves as an introduction into the fantasy realm. The word “fantasy” has positive connotations, as it implies you’re dreaming about something wonderful that you don’t have but would like to have. But as the dictionary says, the word really just means “the faculty or activity of imagining things.” There can be positive fantasies that highlight your greatest desires (“desire” might be the most important word of this analysis, by the way), but there can also be negative fantasies that imagine your worst nightmares as reality. We will see Henry deviate between these two energies throughout Eraserhead.
Note how we enter the planet through Henry, who is superimposed over the planet. Then go through a hole in a box to find the Man in the Planet. Then go through the hole in the ground to find Henry. If you’re familiar with Lynch as a filmmaker, these sorts of “portals” are nothing new. For instance, the blue box in Mulholland Drive that (SPOILERS) serves as the link between fantasy and reality for Diane. It’s important to note what objects serve as portals in Eraserhead and at what moments they choose to transport Henry.
Note: please check out The Spectator podcast’s discussion of Eraserhead, which jumps deeply into the movie’s theme of desire.
Who is the Man in the Planet?
In the fantasy realm, Henry will try to imagine a better life. But the real world constantly creeps in, represented by various entities: sperm, erasers, beheadings, etc. But the first one we meet is the Man in the Planet. We’ll cover this theme more as the movie carries on, but the Man in the Planet comes to represents a larger force that Henry feels dictates his life.
And in many ways, Henry is correct about that. The daunting task of finding love, the rules of living in a capitalist world, the dehumanization of people who increasingly become ruled by machines—these are all realities of life that are hard to deal with. And certain objects become symbols of fear to Henry, like the spermy worm thingy (we’ll explain that creature in a second), that seem to be controlled by the Man in the Planet. When the man pulls a lever, the sperm exits Henry’s mouth. When he pulls another, the sperm falls into a puddle. He is causing the stressors of Henry’s life in a far-away planet that has no life, no personality, only darkness and despondency.
We’ll expand upon the Man in the Planet and explain his bizarre appearance when we talk about the baby. But for now, it’s enough to know that he serves this main function: portraying Henry’s character as somebody who wishes to escape the confines of the real world, but feels compelled and ruled by them nonetheless. Essentially, this relationship represents his inability to deal with reality. So much so that he falls into and floats within this empty, celestial fantasy realm that completely consumes him.
One final note: the Man in the Planet is played by production designer Jack Fisk. So this very well could have been a meta move on Lynch’s part to cast the character who control’s Henry’s surroundings with a man whose job is just that.
What are the sperm-like creatures?
The general consensus on the sperm creatures is that they represent the baby that Henry will birth. And I don’t want to argue with that—I believe that’s an element of what’s happening. But I also think it’s more complicated than that.
As we’ll discuss, Henry and the baby come to have a lot in common, and they become thematically bound to one another. In a purely symbolic sense, which is the layer that Lynch seems most comfortable playing on, I think this sperm creature could represent Henry’s “birth” as well. After all, we go from this scene through a portal into the real world where we find Henry—how do we not know this isn’t the inception of his life? His birth into a world that will then destroy him psychologically? The baby was born into an unfortunate situation as well and had no hope…is that really so different from Henry? When faced with the reality that is his world?
Eraserhead‘s distressing sound and set design
The next scene is one of the few shots during daylight, and it’s just Henry wandering the empty streets on his way home. He walks over dirt mounds, in front of boring buildings, through oil tanks fields and across factories. The world churns with production and emptiness. There’s a deafening amalgamation of man-made ambiance, an important aural motif of this film that highlights how unwelcoming and unhelpful this world is to Henry. No nature, no life—just lots and lots of nothing at all.
This stylistic choice, from the barren neighborhood to the sound design, is important for setting Henry up as a lonesome figure in a lonesome world. In order for the fantasy world to take hold, he needs to feel completely detached from the outside world. When nobody will give him companionship or love, when nothing in society will provide guidance towards spiritual enlightenment, his life will continually become emptier and emptier, on both an emotional and philosophical level. Which means he’ll need to mentally create the people and places that will love him.
Henry’s wish for a better life
When Henry gets home, he checks his mailbox and finds nothing (we’ll soon find out he’s hoping for a letter from Mary, a girl who abandoned him). Then there’s a long shot of the elevator in his building, with Henry standing alone. It all just really highlights how sad his life is. Once upstairs, the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall tells him Mary called and invited him to her parents’ house for dinner. Henry doesn’t even know how to react. He’s awkward, shy, confused. Heartbroken that she left him.
He gets inside his apartment and plays a record—a strange old-timey tune that’ll become a motif not just in this film, but in all of Lynch’s work, that will come to represent escape and performance when the Lady in the Radiator sings. Henry looks so lonely as he sits on bed and looks down at his radiator, which will soon come to embody a fantasy world. In this moment, the music floats away—in fact, it disappears for the rest of the scene—and the sound of radiator intensifies. We zoom in on grass clippings resting below the radiator. He looks all around the floor, then up through his apartment window, to find nothing but bricks on other side. Bricks that don’t allow Henry to see anything, that quite literally obstruct his ability to look beyond the sad situation in which he’s stuck. And I love this final moment: a gust of wind shoots by outside the window, combining with the slow burning hum of the radiator for a menacing combination, rattling the window slightly as Henry looks destitute.
Finally, Henry looks through his drawer. He drops coin in bowl of water, almost as if he’s making a wish, just before he pulls Mary’s picture he has clearly already torn in half out of frustrated heartache that he puts back together. It seems fitting that a photo of an atomic bomb mushroom cloud rests in the background, as it appears Henry’s world has been shattered. He’s so lonely that he’s resorted to making wishes. And before long enough when those wishes aren’t being fulfilled, he’ll start to bring those wishes to life with his imagination…
The symbolism of Mr. and Mrs. X
Mary looks out her window—scared, worried, frustrated. The wind is deafening, overbearing. Henry walks through darkness, almost feels at peace with the empty world? Before a dog barks and scares the piss out of him. Back to Mary’s, where smoke billows from grate outside her home and hideously mixes with wind. Mary walks away, and Henry walks up, standing awkward, perhaps thinking of leaving. She sees Henry, and Henry sees her. She opens the door.
“I didn’t know if you wanted me to come or not,” Henry says to her as he keeps his distance from her house. “Where have you been? You never come around anymore.” She nervously looks inside and says, “Dinner’s almost ready.” Henry walks up to her. We know his pain here. Mary tries to feign smile, but frowns before defeatedly mutters, “Come on in.” It’s clear that she doesn’t love Henry, but is being compelled to introduce him to her parents. We’ll soon find out why.
Henry walks in to meet Mary’s mother, Mrs. X. The sound of puppies drinking from their mother’s nipples, which is happening just a few feet away, permeates this awkward space, serving as an old, almost mocking introduction to the theme of family and parenthood in the film. Henry acts impossibly nervous as Mrs. X asks him various nonchalant questions. There are so many silent moments. Mary looks completely distraught. When asked what he does for a living, Henry says he’s on vacation—and Mary tweaks out. No worry though, because before long Mrs. X brushes the crazy out of her in a symbolic gesture that demonstrates the control parents hold over their children (we’ll talk more about that soon). Correction: Henry is a printmaker (yet another important detail to highlight later).
Then Mary’s father, Mr. X, appears (“Plumbing is my business!”) and raves about the man-made chickens he’s prepared for supper. As he puts it: he watched the neighborhood turn from pasture into “the hellhole it is now!” Then he shows off his loose wobbly knees (or whatever’s happening in that moment) as he boasts how he laid the pipe for this entire neighborhood for years. The mother tells him to shut up as they escape to the kitchen to get dinner ready.
Mrs. X makes salad with grandmother. Mr. X checks the chickens. Mary looks distraught. Henry nervous and awkward. Nobody speaks. Then everyone sits down and Mr. X brings out chickens, then talks about his numb arm and how he fixed it by rubbing it for a really long time (I love this actor so much, by the way). He asks Henry to carve the chicken, to which Henry reluctantly agrees. Then this MAN-MADE CHICKEN squirts out blood, which mirrors the baby’s unfortunate fate at Henry’s hands at the end of the movie (we’ll talk about that towards the end). The Mother starts to hyperventilate, perhaps salivate, as her eyes roll into back of her head. She freaks out out and then runs into other room. Mary follows her.
“Well Henry, what do you know?” asks the dad Henry. “I don’t know much of anything.” An answer which causes Mr. X to smile madly without breaking for several moments. Then Mrs. X asks to speak with Henry in the corner. Mary cries from behind the door, because she knows what’s coming. Perhaps she even feels for him, but she’s so broken that that might not even be possible. A strange humming sets in. Henry looks over at flickering lamp, then it goes out and a deep hum replaces it. Mrs. X then asks Henry if he and Mary had sex. He’s so uncomfortable that he doesn’t know how to answer. Then the mother tries to kiss him. “Answer me!” “I’m too nervous!” She then tells Henry that Mary had a baby and that they must get married. He gets a nosebleed. “You don’t mind Henry, do you? About getting married?” Mary asks in a final moment of embarrassed defeat. “This dinner’s getting mighty cold,” Mr. X says as the Grandmother smokes in silence. We then zoom in on Henry with his nosebleed. He looks over at dogs, past them whining, through the blinds, out into the darkness.
More and more, Eraserhead accentuate the pains of reality. Henry is nervous about going to Mary’s because he wants her back so badly, wants to stop being lonely so badly. Which means there’s a twinge of hope and happiness that he can’t properly express because he’s such a broken, lonely being. But the simple and profound prospect of love and companionship constantly becomes complicated in the film, as it does in this scene. Before he knows it, the desire to become part of Mary’s life once again is obstructed with a baby, with marriage, with lunatic in-laws.
Henry’s desire suddenly becomes grandiose and complicated and commanding, as opposed to simple and intimate and loving. He’s not just going to be with Mary—he’s going to be a father, he’s going to get married, he’s going to start living the kind of life he experienced tonight on a daily basis starting tomorrow. Thus, Mr. and Mrs. X become representations of Henry and Mary’s future—their quirks, their questions, their stereotypical roles, their manic ramblings, their seizures are all part of the package, will all become results of Henry’s crippling fear of fatherhood. They create incredible uneasiness in Henry, and highlight Mary’s inherited trauma as an introduction for her character.
The baby in Eraserhead explained
It’s important to note that in the previous scene, Henry stated that not enough time had passed for a baby to be born—which introduces a mystical, ghoulish, horrific element of the film: this baby isn’t a normal baby. Even in this strange world, babies are just babies, and they spend nine months in the womb. Which means this baby isn’t of nature. On a plain plot level, you could simply chalk this up to a strange reality of Lynch’s dystopian world. This baby is an alien creature that doesn’t follow the rules of biology. But knowing how Lynch operates, there’s certainly a much deeper, much more symbolic reason at play.
I would argue that the baby serves as symbol of Mary and Henry’s trauma, of their inability to cope with the real world and all of its empty rules. The baby is almost born out of punishment, for their sin of having sex before marriage. But the baby’s symbolism is so much bigger than that, and comes to embody the stranglehold the world has over them—from the unhinged parents to the lifeless capitalist system to the societal rules about family and marriage. Because of all this, the baby, indeed, is not human. It is a creature that embodies the worst and emptiest aspects of life, that punishes the poor children who didn’t ask to be born into such a society, ensuring that the trauma their parents experienced will also be passed down onto them, and their children’s children, and their children’s children, and so on, and so forth.
When we finally see the baby, we discover it is not a normal baby. It is a monstrosity. It is tiny and fragile and sick, and it’ll die the second Mary or Henry stop caring for it. It is all bandaged up because it is so feeble, so premature, so metaphorically burdened by the cold-blooded system that produced it. On the most base level, you’re supposed to be disgusted by this creature just like Mary and Henry are. It’s not fair that they get burdened with this sort of sick punishment, this vile and helpless monster that forces them to attend to its every need.
But in that sense…you realize it’s nothing more than a baby. This is how all babies are. It’s just that this baby looks gross. So it naturally draws your contempt. The struggle Mary and Henry have to suppress that instinct to care for this creature like they would any other baby is then a direct challenge to us: Why hate on this creature that didn’t choose this life?
Which brings us to back the baby’s inherent meaning: it becomes representative of Henry and Mary’s inability to care, to empathize, all thanks to a system that never truly cared for or empathized with them (this is all very reminiscent of Blue Velvet‘s commentary on the American Dream that burned so many families). They’ve become the lonely, lost souls they are because of their sickly, lowly environment that’s devoid of life from both the people and machinery around them. The baby won’t allow them to live greater lives because they’re doomed to repeat what was, what still is. And the baby will go on to meet the same fate.
The Lady in the Radiator explained
At the end of the scene where Henry cares for his sick baby, he sits solemnly in a chair and looks at the radiator. Then, suddenly, there’s a stage (we got a slight preview of this stage when Henry was laying on his bed and Mary was feeding the baby). Lights slowly flicker on around the stage as move to a mysterious woman’s feet. She slowly dances across stage, and we zoom out to reveal her insane figure. She’s a normal woman…until we get to the face. She has giant swollen cheeks. She goes back and forth across the stage, smiling like a madwoman.
Then, suddenly, sperm falls from sky. She looks at it with nervous giggles. Then another sperm falls. Another off screen. Then another on screen. Then another. The medium shots of smiling face as she dances around them are so unsettling. She avoids stepping on one, faking innocence, just before revealing her true nature as she stomps life out of one. Then another. Then another.
This bizarre sequence that will later gain more clarification. But nearly an hour into this movie and this is the first time we’ve returned to a fantasy-like realm since the Eraserhead‘s opening scene. Initially, the world in outer space was an unwelcome entity, a force that was watching over and dictating Henry. But now it’s a woman, a seemingly welcoming entity that shows a mean streak just at the very end.
The Lady in the Radiator will come to represent ultimate happiness, an escape from the loveless world Henry feels stuck in. But her beauty comes with a freakish blemish, uniting her in a sense with the baby. She feels familiar, in that she represents love and grace and companionship. Just like the baby feels familiar as an extension of yourself, as a dependent being you can mold in your image, that can bring a level of responsibility to your life. But both characters are equipped with these unsettling blotches that signify the terror of each situation as well. Like…that Mary could leave him again. Or that love can be painful. Or that the baby could completely consume your life, could prevent you from reaching greater heights. So as The Lady in the Radiator dances, both her beauty and her horror are continually magnified, signaling that Henry can’t even really conceptualize what this fantasy life would look like because he’s so traumatized by the real world.
The “In Heaven” song explained
Later in the movie, during the eraserhead sequence, the Lady in the Radiator will sing a song where she repeats the line: “In heaven, everything is fine. You got your good things, and you’ve got mine.” Once again, this seemingly highlights her as a welcoming figure, someone who presents an escape from the cruel, selfish world that Henry gives everything but gives nothing back in return. But the song is completely delusional. Instead of singing, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine,” she says “you’ve got mine.” So this is not a two-way relationship. Henry has become so broken that he can no longer envision a full relationship with another complicated human being. Instead, “companionship” has been reduced to this woman who will just smile and dance and sing and give everything she has to Henry.
The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall explained
After the scene where Mary leaves Henry to get some sleep at her parents, we cut to a shot of the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall walking into frame, before fading out. This moment is noteworthy because it introduces her into the fantasy realm. Before this scene, Henry shares a very real interaction with her. But for the next couple scenes, he will be imagining how she can fulfill his desires in ways that the psychologically broken Mary cannot. So the flash of her in this moment serves as a tiny bit of insight into Henry’s mind. Because the fantasy realm hasn’t had much presence thus far in the movie—but it’s about to blow up.
Immediately after the introduction of the Lady in the Radiator, we cut to Mary and Henry in bed together. The scene starts in such a depraved state as Mary fidgets in bed and continually invades Henry’s space. This is a stark contrast to the lovely woman who offers so much more comfort in the radiator—to the point where fantasy creeps into his real life as he imagines the sperm that the Lady in the Radiator destroyed coming from his wife. These zygote versions of his hellish life are reminders of his birth and the depraved system he inherited, of the baby that is currently preventing him from achieving so much more. So he throws the sperm against the wall.
Fantasy consumes him further as the worm in the cabinet breaks free and presents a new portal that transports him back to the world he’s in. In this sense, he’s no longer able to differentiate fantasy from reality, desire from lack of. Which makes you believe the Beautiful Girl Across the hall is nothing but fantasy in this scene. She ostensibly presents real companionship, but really she’s no different from Lady in the Radiator. She’s a ruse, and only seemingly feels real because she’s an actual person in his life. But even in this fantasy the baby disrupts and drives her away. The baby will eventually replaced Henry’s head in a fantasy sequence, permanently uniting itself with Henry as he tries to find a semblance of normalcy or intimacy in his life.
Why is the movie called Eraserhead?
This is the moment where the fantasy further places a stranglehold over Henry as his head is replaced by the baby—the surrealistic symbol of his directionless and lonely life free of agency—and helplessly becomes an eraser on a pencil. This removes all agency and insight from him, reducing him to this tool that is mass produced and represents the capitalistic, machine-driven society that built his neighborhood, that burdened the previous generation, that would eventually leave Henry feeling so isolated and unloved, that by its very nature erases anything with a semblance of humanity around it.
Which presents an interesting twist to Henry’s story, about the ultimate message and meaning of the film. Surely it’s not good to have an eraser for a head…but doesn’t it present a welcome diversion from life? Henry prints the same signs and signifiers over and over at his job. But as an “eraserhead,” he suddenly has the ability to avoid the world around him. He can’t overpower society, but he can deny and ignore its rules and obstacles and confinement. When you’ve gone so far from yourself, when the world continually drags you into such muck and misery, it becomes harder and harder to deal with it. The fantasy becomes less and less attainable unless drastic actions are taken. It’s enough to drive someone insane, to such manic lengths you can never come back from.
But you also don’t care to come back. You could find such happiness as an eraserhead, as someone who can simply shut out the world around them, that denies feeling empathy for real people, to only commit yourself to your small perceived impression of what happiness truly entails. You were doomed from the beginning because you had no concept of what happiness feels like even a little bit. You think you know what it looks like, but only because you’ve been fed an image, because you’re so desperate to discover anything beyond what your sad situation is. This is where Henry loses his grip on reality. And there’s no turning back.
The bed rail as a motif
Before we talk about the final moments of the film, I want to take a second to note the bed rail he touches just before committing the atrocious act we’ll be examining. Because there’s a lot of emotion and power behind this motif that has quite a bit of history in this film.
We first notice the bed rail in the scene where Mary’s frustration break out when she shouts at the baby to shut up. Her stress is born from years of captivity, of emotional trauma, which is now represented by her inability to empathize with child, to cope with this monstrous symbol of what her life has become—or, rather, what her life has always been. She says she needs to go home so she can get some sleep. “Why don’t you just stay home?” says Henry. “I’ll do what I want to do!” she responds. “And you better take real good care of it while I’m gone.”
Then—and this is one of my favorite moments from the movie—she bends down to the shake bed in a pathetic display of intimacy. She can’t even have sex unless it’s several feet away behind a set of bars and only mimicking the sound that instigated their unbearable life. It’s a moment that reveals she’s every bit as broken as Henry, to the point where she “fantasizes” about having a loving relationship with the father of her child.
We’ll see the bed rail next in the fantasy sequence where Henry imagines having an affair with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. Just before she decides to seduce Henry, she seductively caresses the bed rail with a softness that starkly contrasts Mary’s manic and vulnerable act of exasperation. In this moment, we see Henry actively using the fantasy world to counteract traumatic moments from his real life in an attempt to redefine them, to push them away forever.
The last time we see the bed rail is when the Lady in the Radiator disappears and Henry stands awkwardly on the stage by himself. A bed rail is rolled in front of him, and he nervously twitches his hands over its as he looks around nervously. It’s almost like he’s trying to hang onto this symbol of his broken relationship with Mary that he’s redefined through the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall—that is until the baby replaces Henry’s head.
Then there’s one final moment we see the bed rail: at the very end of the movie. Just before Henry decides to cut the baby open, he stands in his room in a moment of extreme loneliness. He has traveled away from the luster of the fantasy world and back to his real life, which now owns such a dark, empty dullness. And he touches the bed rail in a final act of desperation, hoping to extract the false, fantastical power he’s bestowed upon it. He knocks on The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall’s door, hoping she will come over and make him feel loved again…but that all goes up in flames. She does come home, but with a different man. She looks at Henry with fear and disgust—a moment that is likely entirely in Henry’s head, as in reality she has no relationship with Henry—as heads into her apartment with a new guy. Henry is truly alone now. The bed rail has truly lost its luster, and has become just another dull fixture in his barren apartment, his frigid life.
The ending of Eraserhead explained
Once Henry loses all grip on reality, he resorts to the ultimate act of cruelty in order to escape it: murder. While the fantasy didn’t become an overwhelming fixture in Henry’s life until two-thirds through the movie, it’s become undeniable and all-consuming by the end. Henry’s life becomes so depleted and maniacal that he’s unable to accept any of it as reality by the end. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall seemingly presented a chance at a greater romance, at a chance to escape, but even that resulted in loneliness as he discovers his relationship with her was nothing more than fantasy.
All he’s left with is this baby—this poor defenseless baby that has become nothing but an unwilling puppet in life’s sick cyclical torture. Generation after generation has traumatized the youth, to the point where you can see a natural progression from an awkward, detached, lonely person like Henry…to the most unlovable, doomed being imaginable. The baby is just a baby, but it’s a baby that’s doomed to inherit the trauma passed down by its predecessors. It laughs at Henry not because it finds any of this funny, but because the past seems to mock us in that manner as it forever imprisons us in the trauma of what came before. I can understand not being able to deal with that truth any longer, to completely cut out what is binding you to the desolate darkness that is the world around you.
So Henry kills the infant by cutting into its bandages. He decides to destroy the thing he perceives as keeping him from the fantasy, of getting away from the unfair rules that have permanently ruined his psyche, that have slowly removed his ability to do the most human thing there is: empathize. To understand the past and why things are the way they are, to envision a better future for both yourself and your children, to form real relationships with those around you that will help you build a better world from which future generations can thrive. To look at this disgusting baby and realize that…hey man, it’s just a baby. That you can do better for this poor child than preceding generations did for you. No matter how unlovable and antagonistic it becomes, you have the power to define the world around you, to refuse to helplessly give up control to the powers that be, especially when those powers make no sense and have no compassion for how fucking hard it is to be a human being.
Perhaps all of this is realized on Henry’s part in a sense, yet it seems the ugliness of what is overpowers him and drives him to do the unthinkable, the unforgivable. He feels he has no options left as nobody around him offers even a semblance of love or care. So he decides to end it all in a sense, to completely remove himself from everything, to truly become an eraserhead. And in that moment, the particles fly all around Henry’s head, reminiscent of the eraserhead sequence when the pencil shavings are brushed after his head produces an eraser, as he becomes nothing more than a casualty of the system.
Here the Man in the Planet has his final moments. He struggles to maintain control of the levers…but can’t overpower Henry’s psychosis. This controlling force that represents what might be unfair but plainly is reality surrenders its governance over Henry as he loses any and all grip with what simply is true in this world. As the Man in the Planet tries with all his might to control the levers, I can’t help but connect him and the baby. Given their abominable appearances, you can see the connection shared between them. They are, essentially, the same person. Or thing, or whatever they are. Maybe not literally the same person, but spiritually representative of the same energy, as both are connected to the theme of desire that haunts Henry’s life. And they are both abandoned by Henry in the end. The Man in the Planet’s struggle here, then, becomes an emotional one, almost like he’s trying as hard as he can to maintain Henry’s sanity, to push him to find empathy for this poor, ill-fated infant that, in some sense, had as little control over its future as Henry did.
Alas, Henry does not make this realization, and instead descends into the ether. In this space, the blackness becomes white—a fog of white fog from which the Lady in the Radiator appears. You can see the blackness through the fog, and the fog even has a menacing atmosphere. That’s only perceived by the viewer, who knows that Henry is a lost cause. That fact is lost on Henry, who is finally, for the first time in this callous movie, embraced by somebody. A hug is all it takes for Henry to look calm for the first time. Even if you could explain the consequences of what he’s done, it would have nothing on this dreamy state where he can live in blissful ignorance for eternity.
Now it’s your turn
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