David Lynch is a name that always provokes a reaction. You either love him or you hate him; there is no in-between. And while Lynch is most famous for works such as The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and the cult classic TV series Twin Peaks, he actually had some pretty decent, yet lesser-known works (Dune not included). In 1977, Lynch shot his first feature length movie – Eraserhead. This surreal, experimental movie launched his career and showed the world that Lynch would be shocking audiences for decades to come. Eraserhead is an enigmatic movie in many ways, but in today’s article, we are going to be discussing the horrid alien baby from the movie.
The exact nature of the Eraserhead baby is unknown. Lynch himself was exceptionally vague about it and as of 2021, we still have no idea about that horrifying creation of his. Knowing how personal his characters usually are, with deeply intimate symbolism, we’ll probably never going to find out until Lynch himself decides to explain his infamous creation. If that ever happens.
What is the Eraserhead baby?
The 1977 movie Eraserhead is famous for being a very enigmatic movie. It was, in a way, an embodiment of Lynch’s surreal ideas and in that aspect, the movie was pretty much a very deep and intimate personification of Lynch’s mind, his views and, most of all, his fears. The sheer Angst presented in this movie was visible even to those that understood absolutely nothing of it. Whether you liked it or not – it is interesting, nonetheless – the movie is considered a classic and in 2004, it was preserved in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
To analyze all the themes, topics, ideas and suggestions presented in Eraserhead would require a whole book, but in short, we can summarize, from the confirmed facts and statements made by Lynch and other authors, that the movie is about anxiety, Lynch’s own fears of being a father, his views on sexuality, the common man and some other topics.
But, while the thematic layer of the movie might be a challenge, the biggest enigma of Eraserhead is the alien baby that was introduced as the child of the protagonist Spencer and Mary X. And while the baby is in fact presented as a baby, Spencer always expressed doubts about its very nature, doubting whether it was a child at all.
As you can see in the video above, the Eraserhead baby looks like a monster. Although treated as a child, it never bore absolutely any resemblance to a human being. It looked like either an animal or an alien, yet it exhibited traits of a human child and was cared for like it was a human child. The baby was nicknamed Spike by Jack Nance, the actor playing the protagonist Spencer, who would also appear in Lynch’s other projects, such as Twin Peaks.
No one really knows that that baby was. A later scene revealed that its swaddling was actually what held it together. When Spencer removed the bandages, he discovered that the baby had no skin and saw its internal organs. The organs spilled out when the rag was cut and the child seemed to be in pain. Spencer later cut the organs, after which the wounds gush a thick liquid, covering the child. The power in the room overloads; as the lights flicker on and off, the child grows to huge proportions. When the lights burn out completely, the child’s head is replaced by the planet.
We know that a lot of these scenes aren’t for those readers that have a feeble heart, but really, the only way through which we can depict the horror of the Eraserhead baby is by showing it, as there is absolutely no manner in which words – however good and accurate they are – can describe this creature.
It is a child. It is a monstrosity at the same time. But we still have no clue what it actually represents, as Lynch has been intentionally vague with his answers, while the rest of the cast and crew have supposedly signed a contract forbidding them from revealing anything about the baby.
In the final section of our article, we are going to discuss some potential interpretations, but let us first see how the baby was created.
What is the Eraserhead baby made of?
Ha, you surely thought, based on our last sentence, that you would be getting some answers here, right? Well, you’re wrong! But, it’s not our fault – we really have no clue about any of this because aside from keeping the baby’s symbolism a secret, Lynch also kept the baby’s origins a secret. Even more so, for that matter.
The actual physical effects as well as the nature of Spike, the prop, is a complete mystery. Lynch intentionally hid that fact and he has refused to answer any questions about it ever since; the same goes for the cast and the crew, although, as we found out, some crew members were unaware of the nature of the prop as well.
Namely, the projectionist who worked on the film’s dailies (raw, unedited footage shot during the principal photography) was blindfolded by Lynch to avoid revealing the prop’s nature, and he has refused to discuss the effects in subsequent interviews. Lynch really did everything he could to keep this a secret, didn’t he?
We know that the prop had several working parts; its neck, eyes and mouth were capable of independent operation. It also looked quite organic, which raised the question of whether Lynch used an actual animal corpse or even a fetus to create Spike. If this was true, it would certainly explain the crew’s secrecy, but we don’t actually know anything precise, as Lynch is known for intentionally misleading the public, so it could all be just a publicity stunt, with Spike being completely artificial.
Related to this is the fact that Lynch has stated that “it [Spike] was born nearby” or “maybe it was found”, further fueling discussions about Spike’s origins. Film critic John Patterson, who was scarred by Spike during his teenage years, suggested that Spike might have been created from a skinned rabbit or a lamb fetus.
An unsourced piece of IMDb trivia states the following, related to the above-mentioned theory:
The mutant baby was apparently created from the embalmed fetus of a calf, although David Lynch has never confirmed this or described how he articulated it. During filming when he watched rushes, he even had the projectionist cover his eyes when takes with the baby were playing, so that no one would know how it was made. After completing the film, Lynch reportedly buried the “Embalmed Calf” in an undisclosed location. At the wrap party, they had a mock wake for it.– “Eraserhead” trivia (IMDb)
Be that as it may, we have absolutely no clue about Spike’s origins so, with that knowledge (or ignorance), we continue to the last section of our article.
What are the possible interpretations of the Eraserhead baby?
And here we are, the apex of our article – a list of possible interpretations of the Eraserhead baby. They’re probably all wrong, as it’s David Lynch, but if you’re still confused, we advise you to read through them for some brainstorming ideas.
But, before we get there, here are two videos of David Lynch discussing his movie:
And a more recent, but shorter one:
Now, this is what Lynch said about the movie and we do know that it doesn’t really help us much, which is why we’re going to consider some other interpretations.
Writing for The Guardian, this is what John Patterson had to say about this specific element:
The secret of the Eraserhead baby is the Holy Grail of Lynch obsessives, and the one thing missing from Greg Olson’s otherwise admirably comprehensive new biography of Lynch (David Lynch: Beautiful Dark). And yes, it was the first thing I looked for. But one does learn a lot about the circumstances of Eraserhead’s conception and six-year gestation. There was the birth of Lynch’s daughter Jennifer, with two severely malformed feet, which required several unpleasant surgeries and the child’s incarceration in a “massive, waist-high cast.” Another revelation is that Lynch, who had a deep “spiritual crisis” as he made the movie, and who often slept in Henry’s bed on-set, was already a full devotee of Transcendental Meditation. Indeed, according to his ex-wife, more “like a TM fundamentalist.” You might think that this was a means of stilling whatever voice in Lynch’s head propels his visions, but no, it was to give Lynch more direct access to it, a Bunuelian hotline to his subconscious.– John Patterson, “Eraserhead” (2006)
This, of course, is connected to this interpretation, one we have already mentioned, as stated in the same article:
Most of the film, though, deals with the birth of a mutant baby, a theme which Jennifer Lynch, who was born with club feet, now feels may have had its origins in her father’s domestic situation: “There is no doubt in my mind that there is something there that correlates to the baby in the film.”– John Patterson, “Eraserhead” (2006)
Andrew Bemis, writing for the blog Cinevistaramascope, wrote this about the movie:
The meaning of the baby and the movie remain elusive – saying Eraserhead is about the fear of fatherhood is a start, but it doesn’t begin to explain everything. Lynch is famously reluctant to discuss the meaning of his work; with Eraserhead, he has always refused to explain how he created the baby as well, which has helped it retain much of its power. The thing looks like a crude puppet, but it has a sticky organic quality as well that has led people over the years to speculate that it’s made from a cow fetus or other once-living tissue. I Googled “cow fetus” and don’t think that’s what it is (also, blechhh), but that the idea is even worth fact-checking says all you need to know.– Andrew Bemis, “Making Monsters #5: Eraserhead” (2012)
And with this… okay, not with this exactly, but this does conclude our analytical section of this article. This what we know. It is probably completely wrong, as Lynch is oh so beautifully specific that it is really difficult to enter into his mind, but it might help you in your own interpretations. In the end, here’s a video of two legends of film criticism – Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel – discussing the movie. Enjoy!