“I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable.” – David Lynch
It is not enough to state that David Lynch is one of the great masters of the “psychological thriller” genre. The ethos of his filmmaking transcends the reductive taxonomy of cinematic themes and creates a sensibility of its own. The “Lynchian” alludes to much more than the normative definitions of horror. It is, rather, the construction of a surreal universe that is laced with an atmospheric terror.
With cult classics like Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Lynch has established himself as, perhaps, the most unique and strange artistic vision of the last fifty years. His films are not just films, they are complete experiences that allow us to explore his truly absurd world. Most of his filmography is just a collection of brilliant and beautiful nightmares.
Lynch’s pictures have inspired a generation of filmmakers, including the Argentine director Gaspar Noé who is famous for his psychedelic films like Enter the Void and Climax. Notably, Noé cited Eraserhead as one of his major influences, saying that “it had such a strong impact on me that I would say Eraserhead — it made me get into film school two years later.”
He continued: “I don’t know how many times I saw Eraserhead in the movie theatre, but I guess it was maybe 15 times. I had an addiction to this movie, which is the kind of addiction kids can have to their mother telling them a story. You want to listen to the same story over and over, and have a hypnotic feeling and relaxing feeling. It created some kind of relaxing feeling in me. That I would enjoy all these movies — that are nightmarish– as if it were a dream, especially when the girl comes out saying everything is fine in heaven.”
Given his range in the genre, we are taking a look at some of the most disturbing scenes in Lynch’s extensive filmography but these are scattered fragments of the elusive Lynchian ethos. It is highly advisable to watch his films in their entirety to be able to breathe in the surreal fumes of David Lynch’s powerful creations.
The 10 most disturbing scenes in David Lynch films:
10. The Elephant Man (1980) – The Beginning
Winning eight Academy Award nominations, David Lynch’s 1980 historical drama features John Merrick (played by John Hurt) as an individual with serious physical deformities.
The film opens with a sequence which has a dreamlike quality, much like Eraserhead. It shows Merrick’s mother being trampled by a herd of elephants while her screams are muffled. Hinting at bestiality and violent hysteria, only a director like David Lynch can manage to make shots of innocent elephants look so dark and disturbing.
Despite earning eight Academy Award nominations, The Elephant Man failed to win any. Then again, David Lynch never required any ornamental felicitations. His films speak for themselves.
9. Mulholland Drive (2001) – Diane Selwyn’s Suicide
David Lynch’s 2001 Hollywood horror film requires no introduction. In what is one of his most ambitious projects, Lynch masterfully conducts a psychosexual exploration of the fragmentation of his characters’ identities.
Mulholland Drive ends with the suicide of a failed actress, Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts), as everything around her becomes seriously destabilized. Hallucinations attack her fragile psyche as she is tormented by the elderly couple from the beginning of the film. Perhaps more tragic than scary, she pulls the trigger on herself while the memory of her violent screams linger on in the minds of the audience.
When asked about his inspiration for the film, Lynch answered: “If someone said to you, ‘What was it about that girl that really made you fall in love with her?’ you couldn’t say just one thing. It’s so many things. It’s everything. Same with this. You get an idea. A moment before, it wasn’t there. And it comes SO FAST! And when you get the idea, it sometimes comes with an inspiration, an energy, that fires you up.”
8. Eraserhead (1977) – The Lady in the Radiator
“In heaven, everything is fine.”
David Lynch’s most iconic film, Eraserhead, is full of unsettling symbolism and creepy scenes that feel like they are straight out of an unhinged nightmare. The lady in the radiator is one of Lynch’s abstractions who sings on a stage in a pseudo-comforting voice but the physical deformities on her face, like The Elephant Man, constantly remind us of the scary surreal world that Lynch constructed.
Speaking of the lady in the radiator, Lynch explained: “I tried to picture the radiator in Henry’s room—which was twenty feet away—and I couldn’t. So I went running into Henry’s room, and I looked at the radiator, and I almost started weeping for joy. It was perfect. It was unique because it had a place built in it—for her.”
Adding: “Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film”, Lynch once said of his 1977 film. When he was asked to elaborate on that, he simply replied, “No.”
7. Blue Velvet (1986) – Frank Booth Appears
This 1986 film will always be a special part of David Lynch’s exceptional filmography as his amazing attempt at creating a hallucinogenic crime thriller, set in suburban America.
When the character of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, first shows up, his presence disturbs the viewer and also the young Kyle MacLachlan who hides in the closet watches. A weirdly sexual and violent scene, Booth blatantly abuses drugs and sexually assaults Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossellini). The scene deals with a range of disturbing topics, from voyeurism to perverse infantilism.
David Lynch was full of praises for Hopper’s convincing performance as Frank Booth: “Dennis Hopper was born to play that role, hands down… He called me on the phone before and said, ‘I have to play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth’.”
6. Lost Highway (1997) – Mystery Man At A Party
Lynch’s 1997 neo-noir has a lot of horror elements but one that stands out is the creation of one of Lynch’s most memorable characters, the Mystery Man who is played by Robert Blake.
The protagonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is pulled aside at a party by a man with a truly creepy look on his face. However, nobody seems to be startled by him. He hands Fred his cell phone and asks him to call his home number. Even though there isn’t supposed to be anybody at home, the call is answered by a voice that is exactly the same as the Mystery Man’s. His identity remains a secret and the sole purpose of his existence appears to be to distort the familiar into the absurd.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, David Lynch explained why he refuses to shed light on the mysteries of Lost Highway: “You can say that a lot of Lost Highway is internal. It’s Fred’s story. It’s not a dream: It’s realistic, though according to Fred’s logic. But I don’t want to say too much.”
Adding: “The reason is: I love mysteries. To fall into a mystery and its danger.. everything becomes so intense in those moments. When most mysteries are solved, I feel tremendously let down. So I want things to feel solved up to a point, but there’s got to be a certain percentage left over to keep the dream going.”
5. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) – Bob Appears In Laura’s Room
Although David Lynch’s 1992 prequel to the Twin Peaks series was nowhere as masterful as the original, it would be unfair to say that the film did not have any notable terror-inducing moments.
The scariest of them all is the scene where Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee) slowly climbs the stairs to her bedroom and is confronted by the terrifying sight of a freakish home-intruder, Bob (played by Frank Silva), hiding in anticipation. The ceiling fan adds to the atmospheric horror by humming ominously.
Lynch responded to the critical denouncement of his 1992 film, saying: “There were very bad reviews. I was under a bad cloud during that time and it just didn’t go well. But I loved the film and when you do something you believe in and it doesn’t go well, it’s okay.”
4. Eraserhead (1977) – The Baby Is Cut Open
The grotesque figure of the child is undoubtedly the most significant use of symbolism in Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead. It is an object of disgust, anxiety and eventually, violence.
However, the most disturbing scene with the baby in it isn’t the moment of its first appearance but rather the last. Its father, Henry (played by Jack Nance), cuts open the bandages that hold it together to reveal a bloody mess of entrails which look a lot like the moving turkey in the dinner scene at the beginning. Henry indulges in the blasphemous act of infanticide by deconstructing the myth of the child.
Between January 1993 and December 1996, filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley conducted a series of interviews with David Lynch for his book Lynch on Lynch (1997). In one such interview, Rodley asked, “What about the baby? How was it made?” and Lynch declined to talk about it, stating, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He explained: “People don’t realise it, but as soon as they hear or see that, something dies inside them. They’re deader than they were. They’re not, like, happy to know about this stuff. They’re happy not to know about it. And they shouldn’t know about it. It’s nothing to do with the film! And will only ruin the film! Why would they talk about it? It’s horrifying!”
3. Lost Highway (1997) – Fred Watches Himself On Tape
The narrative structure of David Lynch’s 1997 film is a very unique one. Circular in nature, it shows the cyclical fate of the main character, Fred, as he is caught in an endless nightmare of disrupted identities and ambient violence.
In one striking scene, Fred is shown watching the weird videotapes that he delivers to his own house, unaware of the horrors that the near future holds for him. A similar scene is shown before this which lulls the viewer into thinking that it is just another tape of creepy home surveillance. However, Lynch quickly perforates this false sense of security by showing Fred beside the massacred body of his wife (played by Patricia Arquette), unsettling both the viewer and Fred, a sort of multi-layered voyeuristic phenomenon.
Critics praised Lynch’s bold efforts, claiming: “In Lost Highway, Lynch does not pull back. The plot delivers you to no easy place. Order is not restored, and not all the guilty are clearly punished. (After all, who isn’t guilty in this story?) Instead, the movie’s final moments are nothing but chaos and fear.”
2. INLAND EMPIRE (2006) – Hallway Phantom
With many critics claiming that this 2006 film was David Lynch’s most experimental work, INLAND EMPIRE is certainly successful in constructing a surreal, distinctive and nightmarish world. Lynch gets under the skin of the viewer with relative ease and stays there long after the three-hour-long film is over.
The scene where Laura Dern’s character is approached by “the phantom” in a hallway is an exceptionally scary experience. The narrow hallway adds to the rising claustrophobia while the ineffective gun that fails to kill the phantom leaves us feeling impotent and helpless. It has a lot in common with the Mystery Man’s appearance in Lost Highway (1997) but is a lot more direct and terrifying.
Lynch described INLAND EMPIRE as “ a complete story, it’s just that there’s the story and the way the story’s told, and then there are stories that are more surface and there are stories that hold abstractions.”
He added: “Something that’s not so concrete that has something to do with feeling or intuiting a thing. And that’s what I love about cinema. So it’s a story but a story that holds abstractions.”
1. Mulholland Drive (2001) – Behind Winkie’s Diner
Perhaps the most Lynchian of all the sequences in his filmography, the Winkie’s Diner is the perfect mixture of ambiguous surrealism and a sense of ominous foreboding. Lynch destroys the boundaries between dreams and reality with this one memorable scene.
It features two men having breakfast at a diner where one of them talks about a nightmare that he’s been having. In the nightmare, he keeps seeing a monstrosity of a man lurking in an alley that is very close to the diner. To be reassured of the fact that it was just a dream, they decide to go to the place, only to find the same monster in the same place. This is Lynch’s playful way of saying that the surreal is always just around the corner.
Lynch feels that watching Mulholland Drive is a very personal experience and that everyone has the right to their own interpretations, “I think people know what Mulholland Dr. is to them, but they don’t trust it. They want to have someone else tell them. I love people analysing it, but they don’t need me to help them out.
“That’s the beautiful thing, to figure things out as a detective. Telling them robs them of the joy of thinking it through and feeling it through and coming to a conclusion.”