The Horror and the Voyeur: David Lynch’s "The Elephant Man" and "Inland Empire"

Horror, in Lynch's universe, comes as much from a disruption of the uncanny as from our irresistible, voyeuristic urge to look.
Leonardo Goi
David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) and Inland Empire (2006) are showing July and August on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
“I am convinced we are all voyeurs. It’s part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows.”
—David Lynch, interviewed by Newsday, March 9, 1997
Whether or not you feel comfortable attaching the word horror to the universe of David Lynch depends on your receptiveness to the sort of terror that springs from the uncanny, from the moment familiar objects and situations take on the sinister glow of foreign, threatening things. To defend Lynch’s horror credentials is to embark in an act of taxonomical defence. For a genre that’s often seen to meddle with and grow alongside the thriller, Lynch’s version further obfuscates the distinction, conjuring up a hybrid that sits in between the two.
Horror, in Lynchian terms, seldom erupts from the conventional tropes of the genre. A few Halloweens back, it was interesting to read Bilge Elbiri defend Mulholland Dr. (2001) as the greatest horror film since The Shining, in a Vulture piece that started with a preamble that had to concede Lynch’s feature effectively upends “some of the more common elements of modern horror”—meaning, your traditional cocktail of zombies, haunted houses, vampires, and slasher movie’s jump-scares.
You may argue preambles of such kind become somewhat irrelevant after a certain moment in history (the year 2017) and a certain masterwork (Twin Peaks: The Return), an 18-episode, 18-hour epic that sponged up today’s paranoias and linked them back to the nuclear horrors of the Cold War—an opus magnum crammed with more gory violence than the whole of Lynch’s oeuvre combined. What comes closest to horror than the sight of human brains crushed and splattered by the hands of Episode 8’s Woodsman, or Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer, opening her own face like a porthole before ripping out a trucker’s jugular?
And yet Lynch hasn’t been associated with the genre with quite the same ease with which he’s been hailed, ever since Blue Velvet (1986), as a master of neo-noir, or to borrow from Pauline Kael's own labeling, the “first popular surrealist.” To be sure, attempts to square Lynch with the world of horror have already been made, and those who’ve tried to make sense of Lynch’s blend of terror have often traced its roots in Freud’s notion of the uncanny (unheimlich), “that class of the terrifying that leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”  
To be watching a Lynch film is to enter a state of aporia, where even the most intimate objects and places are suddenly weaponized as alien, menacing presences. Lynch’s cultish debut feature Eraserhead (1977) couched a marriage story in a series of images so bizarre as to shatter the plot’s familiarity, while amplifying its frightening strangeness. Blue Velvet demolished the pristine face of America’s suburbia, conjuring up the feeling of an omnipresent, lurking Evil. That same Evil billowed back to life in the red-curtained, coked-up universe behind Twin Peaks’ small-town façade, and popped up again out of a Hollywood dumpster behind Mulholland Dr.’s Winkie's Diner.     
But as much as the uncanny does provide a framework to begin reckoning with Lynch’s horror, I am skeptical as to whether the notion is the best rubric to account for the panic a Lynch film can throw me into—the kind of panic that emanates from the feeling of being invited into a world that brims with incandescent, confounding, disturbing beauty, and being watched as you plunge deeper into it. I am skeptical as to whether the disruption of the familiar can, by itself, serve as a one-size-fits-all explanation. Among many reasons, I remain skeptical because of The Elephant Man and Inland Empire
John Hurt as Joseph "John" Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980)
David Lynch’s 1980 sophomore feature chronicles the real-life story of Joseph (John, in Lynch’s version) Merrick (John Hurt), a young man in Victorian London disfigured by neurofibromatosis and enslaved as sideshow “monster” by his merciless proprietor Bytes (Freddie Jones). It is as much about Merrick as it is about a young man who shall take Merrick under his wing, ostensibly to free the man from Bytes’ yoke, and reintegrate him into society, doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). Whether or not Treves succeeds—and whether or not such reintegration ultimately benefits Merrick—squaring the Freudian uncanny with Lynch’s 1980 black-and-white melodrama feels somewhat far-fetched. Here, the horror does not stem from a violent reconfiguration of the familiar, but from a rupture in the act of staring that problematizes our position vis-à-vis Merrick, and implicates us as much Treves.
Hopkins’ doctor serves as the beacon of scientific rationality through which Merrick’s monstrosity becomes accessible and visible. But unlike the doctor’s, our relationship with Merrick is paved with a series of frustrated encounters. When Treves first stumbles into Bytes, in the back end of a city fair where the “freaks” are kept, a policeman interrupts the show before Merrick can be revealed to the crowd, fearing the sight of the monster could “degrade” public order. But Treves does not give up. Having locating Bytes’ hide-out, he pays for a private viewing, and the wish is granted.
Except while Treves’ curiosity is satisfied, ours is not. After teasing us with a flickering glimpse of Merrick’s disfigurement, Lynch turns the camera on the doctor, lingering on his dumbfounded, open-mouthed stare, where horror seems to morph into pity, and Hopkins’ eyes become watery. We are now implicated in Treves’ own quest to see Merrick to an uncomfortable extent. The intensity of that mug shot aligns our acquisitive desire to gaze at “the monster” with Treves’ own. But here, deprived from the doctor’s viewpoint, desire teems with frustration. Expectations are thwarted: Merrick remains a shadowy entity whose total display is denied to us; his full disfigurement can only be gauged via Treves’ own reaction to it. But what does the simmering irritation one feels for that denied sight say of our own staring? 
Said frustration only piles up as Treves essentially rents Merrick from Bytes and arranges for the “Elephant Man” to be escorted (hooded, wheezing, hobbling) to the Royal London Hospital, where the doctor’s attempt to examine Merrick’s body fades to black—and later, the Pathological Society, where the surgeon exhibits the neurofibromatosis-riddled body to a crowd of horrified colleagues. Again, it’s a private viewing. All Lynch chooses to reveal of Merrick’s naked, hunched, disfigured shape is the shadow a beam casts of it against a curtained enclosure, and the eyes of Treves’ colleagues, ogling in a trance-like state of fear, curiosity, and disgust. It is The Elephant Man’s second pivotal juncture.
Science and freak show may well have different styles of stripping Merrick of his humanity, but the anatomy lecture Treves gives at the Pathological Society possibly surpasses in tone and scope the humiliating treatment Bytes reserves to his only source of income, his “treasure.” As the lecture unfolds, Treves proceeds to pathologize Merrick’s body, converting the unusual into degradation, and reducing the man to a thing to be ogled—embracing that “clinical gaze” Michel Foucault would dissect in 1963 with The Birth of the Clinic. Crafting each word with a mix of pride and gravitas not unlike the tone Bytes would use to rally his crowds, Hopkins’ doctor warns his colleagues he’s never met with “such a perverted or degraded version of a human being as this man”—where “perverted” and “degraded” portend a moral judgement that connects Merrick to a set of standards his physiognomy evidently contradicts. His body is ab-normal, in the cruelest sense that it vilifies any conceptions of normalcy: in blunt terms, Merrick is less than human. 
Treves (Hopkins) displays Merrick's deformities to his colleagues, but the "Elephant Man" remains hidden from us
But the lecture scene is crucial in another fundamental respect: the way it lays bare the proximity between Treves’ dehumanizing enterprise and our own participation in it. As a way to bookend the lesson, Lynch closes in on the projector used to illuminate Merrick’s body. It’s an allusion to the extent filmmaking may well be interwoven in Treves’ ableist stare, and it further problematizes our desire to be granted access to Merrick’s figure. The equation between Treves’ projector and Lynch’s camera implicate us into the predatory gaze they shoot at Merrick. The moment the “Elephant Man” is revealed to the crowd of doctors is also the moment our position as voyeurs is exposed in all its brutal, predatory force.
The uneasiness that ensues is not the kind of horror that can be accounted for through the same rubric of other spine-tingling moments in Lynch’s canon. It is not the terror that sprouts from the short-circuiting of worldly and supernatural, like watching a post-nuclear, nightmarish crossbreed between insect and amphibian crawl its way into a sleeping girl’s mouth in that staggering eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, or the sense of unease at the weaponization of a familiar object, like the mask Dennis Hooper inhales from in Blue Velvet before crawling toward Isabella Rossellini’s open legs to half-moan, half-cry: “baby wants to fuck.” It’s the horror that emerges when the tables are turned: the horror of being caught staring, and being stared at in turn.
In Lost Highway, Lynch’s 1997 precursor to the voyeuristic paranoias of Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), a similar feeling bursts most ferociously in that chilling segment where Robert Blake’s Mystery Man wields his camera, gun-like, at Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison, and the latter’s shift from observant to observed comes full circle. In The Elephant Man, the horror emerges when Lynch complicates our relationship with Treves, that is, when the doctor is stripped of the reassuring, enlightened clout of Man of Science and exposed as a far colder, calculating voyeur—an indictment that’s directed at us, too. In a body of work saturated by Angelo Badalamenti’s signature humming—an ominous noise that reverberates all the way from Rossellini’s apartment in Lumberton, North Carolina, to Ben Horne’s Great Northern Hotel in Washington State—John Morris’ score intersperses The Elephant Man with a recurrent thudding noise, as if something kept pulsating from underneath the London Hospital’s floors, the sound of pounding guilt you’d expect to hear coming from the dismembered body buried in Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart.”
In a film that’s essentially concerned with the ways in which our ways of looking may be complicit in the stigmatization of people whose bodies cannot be absorbed into the accepted visual norms, the ultimate subject of scrutiny of The Elephant Man is not Merrick’s disfigured shape, but our own, belittling practices of staring. After Merrick is finally revealed to us, his body features so frequently in the remainder of the film that it relinquishes all powers to disturb. The “Elephant Man” becomes familiar: Merrick is given a room in the hospital’s attic, the accommodation offer becomes permanent (thanks to the intervention of the Royal Family), Treves provides books and company, London’s elite flock to drink tea with the new attraction in town. The "freak" is essentially normalized. But the outside, bourgeois world that teases Merrick with mirages of acceptance, love, and comfort, remains forever shut. “We can take care of you,” Treves tells Merrick in what is very possibly the film’s most heart-wrenching exchange, “but we cannot cure you.”
The perturbing beauty of Lynch’s sophomore feature owes to the push-and-pull dynamic it envelops its audience into. Even as it extends an invitation to look at Merrick, The Elephant Man prompts us to question our desire to do so. It urges to scrutinise the pleasure that such sight entails, and the horror that derives from the realization that our predisposition toward Merrick may not be too distant from the belittling voyeurism exhibited by Treves, or by the crowd of drunkards who will later flock to ogle at Merrick in the dead of night, once a hospital warden finds out about the man’s new abode, turning into a surrogate of Bytes and restituting the bourgeois-to-be to his status as monster. Such horror may well a far cry from the tropes associated with textbook films in the genre. But it remains an epiphany of terrifying proportions, one that can hardly be accounted for through the prism of Freud’s uncanny, and which serves as the collagen that narrows the gap between The Elephant Man and a work released 26 years later—a feature which the black-and-white, 35mm, three-act melodrama ostensibly shares very little with: Inland Empire
Laura Dern as Nikki Grace/Susan Blue in Inland Empire (2006)
Made with no complete shooting script a few years after Mulholland Dr., legend has it Inland Empire (2006) began with a fourteen-page monologue by a victimized woman which Lynch wrote and Laura Dern delivered in a seventy-minute take that was not initially linked to any larger, cogent plot. The monologue was filmed with a Sony PD-150, a small, outdated, low-definition camera was already long past its prime when Lynch began toying with it, and was later used to shot Inland Empire in its entirety—by cinematographer Lynch himself, no less. Inland Empire’s genesis revolved around a Woman in Trouble, and the trope later became the film’s tagline. Adding to the myths behind the film’s conception, in the three years it took to make it, Lynch supposedly never gave Dern an overview of her character, but before she was given a chance to peek at the assembled work, she wrote down her own take, which in a 2007 interview Lynch told Moviemaker was “extremely accurate.” Dern’s interpretation read: “it was about a woman in trouble, a woman who is dismantling, and her emotional and abstract journey back to herself.”
In a plot that unfurls as a rhizomatic scaffolding of films-within-films, boundless topographies and a babel of languages, the woman at its epicenter is actress Nikki Grace (Dern), recently cast by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) opposite co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) in a Hollywood melodrama by the title On High in Blue Tomorrows. It’s the kind of project Nikki hopes will propel her back to success after a dry spell, but no sooner has she turned up on set than Stewart warns her and Devon that Tomorrows is in fact a remake of 47, an unfinished, “cursed” project based on a Polish folktale that was abandoned after the two leads were murdered during the shooting, in circumstances that remain mysterious. Tomorrows sees Nikki play Susan Blue, a Southern belle who enters an extra-marital liaison with Devon’s Billy Side, and the fling becomes a real-life affair once Nikki gives in to Devon’s flirting while the shooting unfolds.
But the minute the two thespians consummate their adulterous relationship, the meta-fictional rupture derails the film into a hallucinating dream of troubled things, a labyrinth of ever-shifting narrative planes, scenes and situations, each shimmering with mysterious, terrifying revelations. Among the characters dotting the nightmarish landscape is Nikki the faded actress, struggling to return to the spotlight via Tomorrows; Nikki as Billy’s lover Susan, first, and abused housewife, later; Billy’s wife Doris (Julia Ormond), caught in a revenge plot she claims has been forced upon her; a posse of L.A. prostitutes acting as a Greek chorus and voice of Nikki/Susan’s angst; the three rabbits, of course, who may or may not have something to do with a few elderly folks stranded in Poland; the Battered Woman, played again by Dern, the character delivering the monologue Inland Empire grew out of; an evil Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak), echo of Twin Peaks’ BOB, the shapeless, protean Evil capable of embodying whomever it pleases; and the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), watching with us as the whole story unfold on a TV screen, until a cathartic finale that echoes the fanfare of Fellini’s 8 1/2’s own.  
Arguably the one Lynch feature that most resolutely rejects attempts at description (and clocking at a whopping three hours, the director’s longest), Inland Empire is at once about Nikki/Susan’s disorienting journey in and out of Stewart’s project and about the impossibility to filter said journey through the kinds of sorting and simplifications that would make cognitive sense. To some extent, much like Mulholland Dr., the horror that permeates Nikki/Susan’s trip does owe in part to a shattering of the familiar: the sort of terror that erupts once Lynch’s atomic furniture, phone-and-ashtray home décor suddenly becomes unrecognizable, and threateningly foreign. But unlike Mulholland Dr., where the de-familiarization of everyday places anchors mystery upon what is still a largely identifiable L.A. topography (down to the city’s streets, diners, theaters), Inland Empire swells into a global cinematic map that spans from Hollywood Boulevard to the snow-covered streets of Łódź, Poland, where Nikki, Susan and their aliases relive the folktale that inspired 47 and its Hollywood remake. The perturbing feeling that transpires from Inland Empire’s geography doesn’t necessarily draw from one’s ability to identify its locales in a “I have been there too” fashion. It erupts from the far more horrifying realization that the world Nikki-Susan traverses is endless, much like the chances to get lost into it. The circular, perturbing journey shared by Betty/Diane in Mulholland Dr. spirals here into a nonlinear, recursive and boundless universe populated by a multitude of characters and aliases. 
Laura Dern marveling at the impromptu dance choreographed by a gang of prostitutes in one of Nikki/Susan's hallucinations
The choice of low-fi video - which Lynch had defended to Sight and Sound on account of that “magical (…) room to dream” it seemed to offer, where images were “made less real”1—only amplifies Nikki-Susan’s sense of loss in Inland Empire’s hyper-connected, global digital environment—the kind of scaffolding that exposes us to sudden, violent openings onto unknown space-times and virtual locales. Accounting for the disorienting feeling this conjures (and the terror that comes from it) can hardly be achieved through notion of the uncanny alone. In a maddening tour de force that draws its disquieting beauty from a world of hallucinations, of endless temporal and spatial jumps, the horror sprawling through Inland Empire stems from the impossibility to recognize one’s own self.  
Where the gradual dissection of Treves’ character had revealed our position vis-à-vis Merrick to be just as de-humanising as the doctor’s (and the mob’s), and where the resulting feeling of horror in The Elephant Man was indissolubly tied to a sense of guilt at the shared responsibility for the humiliations suffered by Merrick, the kind of terror sprawling through Inland Empire does not carry ethical implications as much as ontological ones. If entering Lynch’s universe is to witness the blurring of the boundaries between film and reality, between Susan and Nikki (a doubt instilled in us ever since the actress exclaims, halfway through a scene that has her succumb to Billy’s charms, “this sounds like dialogue from our script!”) the same blurring plunges Nikki into a far more terrifying dilemma, the kind of panic summed up in the question that Lost Highway’s Mystery Man shouts at Pullman, camera in hand: “who the fuck are you?”
The fear of de-personalization has been a long-running leitmotiv in Lynch’s canon; in Inland Empire, it reverberates in the multiple instances where characters seem to fail to recognize themselves and others. The more Nikki/Susan proceed along the journey, the less they seem to be able to identify themselves as coherent, individual selves, never mind how hard they fight to keep their identities grounded, much like Nikki frantically begs Devon to look at her (“it’s me, Nikki!”) as the two make love for the first time, and reality starts slipping away from her. Abruptly catapulted into the life of an abused housewife, Nikki begs two members of the hookers’ gang: “look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before,” the same plea the Lost Girl asks, later on, to two other prostitutes in a snow-covered, Polish street.
But as different as the horror permeating The Elephant Man and Inland Empire may be, one erupting from ethical concerns for one’s gaze, the other from a sense of ontological vertigo, much like for Hopkins' Treves, Nikki/Susan’s terrifying journey still begins with an irresistible desire to look. The moment Nikki’s grip on the world starts to crumble is also the moment her character, intrigued by some mysterious markings on a dark doorway, ventures through a murky passageway that leads to a previous moment in Nikki’s life when the actress, Devon, Stewart and his assistant (Harry Dean Stanton) were busy rehearsing the script. Paralysed with fear, Nikki sees herself at the desk, and runs away as Devon walks toward her, but does not see her. For Treves, the horror begins to sink in the moment Lynch's eye moves away from Merrick to zero in on the true nature of the doctor's desire to gaze. For Nikki, horror kicks in when she succumbs to a world which strips her of the primacy of her own perspective, a world in which she can no longer tell whether is she the narrator, or a character trapped in someone else's plot - the observant, or the observed.
Watching Laura Dern venture through that dim-lit, quiet alley, my mind jostled back to the moment Anthony Hopkins walks away from the city fair’s lights and heads for the darker path that leads to the fair’s back end, and Bytes’ show. The inescapable urge that propels Nikki to lose the boundaries of her ego, to watch as her world unravels in a series of interconnected nightmares, is the same impulse that draws Hopkins’ Treves to an obscure object of desire, one extraordinary enough to gratify his gaze. I think this is the force Lynch alluded when he spoke, somewhere along the Lost Highway’s press tour, of a “detective thing”—a spasmodic need to look which his filmography has treated as a fundamental element of the human condition, as terrifying as the horror that emerges when the veil is lifted and the voyeur is caught staring, or gets lost in the act of looking.

1. Mike Figgis, “Into the Abstract,” Sight and Sound, 17, no. 3 (2007), p. 19.

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